SSRI-ously: my first 100 days on fluoxetine

Extreme honesty alert! If you don’t like reading unfiltered accounts of mental health stuff, don’t read this blog post. It even contains the words “my sex drive”, in that order. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

I know, I know. Mental Health Awareness Week was last week. I really meant to write this post then, but I was distracted by other things. Alternatively, by posting it today I’m making a statement on how we need to be aware of mental health all year round, not just for one week. Take your pick.

I mentioned in my last serious post that I’d just been prescribed fluoxetine. I’ve now been taking it for over 100 days. Fluoxetine is probably more widely known by the trade name Prozac, and it’s an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), a kind of antidepressant which, in the lamest of layman’s terms, makes the happy chemicals in your brain stick around longer than they normally would. At least in the UK you can’t buy it over the counter; it has to be prescribed by a doctor. That’s the main reason I feel okay about writing what I’m about to write. Let’s be clear: I am about the furthest thing from a doctor that the human race has yet produced. Everything I say from here on is based purely on my own personal experience, and should be overridden by anything you hear in a consultation with an actual medical professional.

That said: based on the 100 or so days I’ve been taking it, fluoxetine is a goddamn miracle.

No, it hasn’t fixed all my problems. I never expected it to. To be honest, part of me never thought it would do anything at all. But it has. My life situation hasn’t changed much (yet; I’m working on it), but I feel much more stable and happy than I did at the beginning of the year. Back then, I was getting to a point where I would often avoid social gatherings even with my closest friends because I felt like I was being antisocial and because I couldn’t stop myself falling into a pit of hopelessness immediately afterwards. Today I still have plenty of insecurities, but they don’t overwhelm me; little things don’t snowball into massive avalanches in my head, petty jealousies are easier to let go of, and I think I’m a nicer person to be around.

To clear a few things up, I’m going to respond to some of my own doubts which I had before I started taking antidepressants.

Maybe I’m not actually depressed? Maybe this is how everyone feels, and they’re all just better at dealing with it than I am? I mean, how could anyone NOT feel this way when there are so many things in life to worry about?

There is no objective way to measure feelings, of course, but any doubts I may have had that I was actually depressed have been completely dispelled by the change in my moods since taking fluoxetine. I don’t exactly wake up singing every morning, but I also haven’t had any more of those why-should-I-keep-breathing days recently. I look back on those days now and I recognise them for what they were: signs that I was badly in need of help. I can’t say for certain that I’ll never have one of those days again, but I haven’t yet. Everything has been lifted up a bit. Bad days are now okay days, okay days are now good days.

I’m also finding it easier to relate to other people, in a way that suggests what I’m feeling now is closer to what they feel most of the time. Suddenly I can understand other people’s seemingly superhuman ability to brush off the sorts of little things that used to burrow into my brain and eat me from the inside out. I can understand why other people don’t feel the urge to message their friends after every single social gathering to apologise and ask if they’re still friends. It’s not that they secretly feel just as sad and insecure as I did and are better at keeping it bottled up. It’s that mentally healthy people just DON’T go spiralling into despair at the tiniest provocation, the way I used to. If they did, the world would not function even to the dubious extent that it’s functioning at the moment. So, if you feel crushingly sad on a regular basis and wonder how on earth other people can cope, I would posit that this is probably depression and that you should seek help.

Okay, if I take antidepressants I might not feel as downright miserable as I do now, but I’ll be forever wandering about in an artificial chemical haze, unable to feel much of anything at all. Isn’t being sad better than that?

This was my biggest concern before I actually tried taking fluoxetine. That the medication would make my brain fuzzy and slow. That all the vivid colours of emotion would blur together into a grey sludge. That the depression would still be there – covered up, perhaps, like furniture under a sheet – unseen but always THERE, an invisible, silent, unsettling presence.

That is not remotely how it feels to be on fluoxetine. It feels, to me, as though I finally have things in perspective – not that fluoxetine has tricked me into thinking the world is great when it isn’t, but that it has corrected an error in my brain that made me see everything as awful when it wasn’t. Things are actually clearer now; if anything made the world seem fuzzy and grey and unsettling, it was the depression that gripped me before.

I can certainly still SEE the bad stuff, and even feel bad about it. But I can see the good stuff now too. The distinction between bad and good is sharper, and I seem to have lost my joy-stifling tendency to think of good stuff as bad stuff in disguise because it will some day betray me by coming to an end. I’m still capable of feeling happy and sad and angry and shocked. But my default mood has shifted. Whereas before, left to its own devices, it tended to drift back towards lonely, angry, hopeless self-hatred, it is now anchored in a much calmer, more rational place. Sometimes this takes me by surprise; I’ll catch myself feeling happy, or at least contented, and I’ll think “wait, what are you feeling like that for?”. And then I think “oh yeah, I do have quite a few reasons to be happy, don’t I?” Which is pretty much the opposite of the spiral I’ve been getting trapped in for the last few years.

But if you get rid of depression, aren’t you getting rid of a useful motivator to make your life better?

ABSOLUTELY NOT. This is a question that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of depression. Depression is the opposite of a motivator. It’s the sense that there isn’t any hope of making things better, and that you wouldn’t deserve it even if there was.

As proof that fluoxetine isn’t just a pill to make you accept whatever crappy situation you find yourself living in, I will say this: there are many aspects of my life that I’m not happy with. The main difference now is that they don’t prevent me from enjoying the aspects I am happy with. I can be upset that I don’t have a job, and still love hanging out with my friends. I can wish I had a cute human or pangolin to cuddle up to at night, and still enjoy curling up with a good book. I am able to feel good about the ways in which I am lucky, and still aspire to do more with my life. You know, like people are supposed to.

Surely there must be better ways of achieving the same thing, without using medication?

For some people I’m sure there are, and they’re certainly worth trying too. But the hardline anti-antidepressant stance that some people take strikes me as sort of a weird holdover from a (mostly) bygone era when mental illnesses weren’t considered as “real” as physical illnesses. If I had an infection I wouldn’t try to “think” myself better – that idea would have more than a whiff of new age absurdity about it. No, I’d go to the doctor for some antibiotics. Obviously this is an oversimplification, as many mental illnesses can and have been successfully treated using non-pharmaceutical techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy. But to outright reject the use of a drug that has been clinically proven to work, at least for some people, seems misguided.

Does fluoxetine have any side effects?

For me: nothing that is anywhere near as bad as the depression was. I am sleeping quite a lot. Often I’ll get tired in the middle of the day and have to take a nap, which I didn’t used to like doing. But this may just be my body catching up on all the sleep I’ve lost to depression, anxiety and panic attacks over the last few years. I’ve also had some strange and elaborate dreams, but nothing too nightmarish.

Aside from that, my stomach felt a bit odd for my first few days on fluoxetine, but after a week it was fine. Also, this may be a little TMI, but my sex drive has been reduced quite a bit. Not the sort of thing I’d normally bring up, but as I actually want this post to be informative I thought I’d better mention all the side effects rather than getting squeamish about them.

Also, I know I said I’m not a doctor, but I have been told BY a doctor that for most people there are no serious long-term risks to taking fluoxetine, so, prescriptions permitting, you can pretty much keep taking it for as long as you need to.

Hey, um, I know I’m supposed to be your pre-fluoxetine past self, but you’re being so effusive that I just have to break character and ask: are you being paid by Big Pharma to write this?

No. And I have no idea who produces fluoxetine or how ethical they are. All I’m saying is that for me, it works. (And I’m not trying to convince you to spend money on anything, because where I live this kind of healthcare is free, as it should be everywhere.)

For you, it works. Okay. But what if this is just some weird you thing?

It could well be. But the reason I wanted to write this is because I haven’t read much stuff about antidepressants that’s as unambiguously positive as my experience so far has been. Understandably, self-help books, NHS websites etc. tend to be quite cautious when talking about them, emphasising that they’re not for everyone, and stopping short of fully endorsing them. And yeah, I’m sure they’re not appropriate to every situation, they won’t work for everyone, and some people will suffer side effects. But, purely based on my own experience, and to avoid adding to the pile of frustratingly tentative prose about antidepressants, I will say this: if you think you are depressed and you just don’t know how to go about feeling better, you SHOULD at least ask your doctor about fluoxetine. It might not work for you, or it might give you bad side effects, in which case you should of course stop taking it. Even if it works, it won’t solve all your problems in one fell swoop.

But in my case it’s made a world of difference. I can’t promise it will for you too, but I promise it’s worth trying.

Footnote: just in case anyone reading this has social anxiety issues similar to mine, I feel I should also mention that it is perfectly fine to take a friend or family member to the doctor with you. Lots of people do it, and it can be very reassuring to have someone else there to back you up.

Ripcords (and other flawed metaphors for understanding mental health)

Oh, January. Traditionally, my most garbagey month of the year. I’m not 100% sure why that is. Maybe it’s the fading afterglow of Christmas, with all its festive distractions and myriad excuses to mess about with friends. Maybe it’s seasonal affective disorder caused by the short days. In this case, I suppose it could be because one of the worst people in the world just became the president of America, or because my best friend just left to live in said dystopian nightmare land and I probably won’t see him again until next Christmas, assuming any human is left alive by then.

But largely, I think, I’m just freaked out by that new, unfamiliar digit in the year. It reminds me that time is still moving, and I’m … well, I’m not.

I’ve felt stuck for a long time now. Stuck in the same place I’ve been for much of my life, plagued by sometimes overwhelming anxiety and gradually growing depression, unable to do many of the things adults are supposed to be able to do, and worse than that, often unable to appreciate the ways in which I am actually very lucky.

One thing I’ve been struggling with a lot lately is how to deal with depressive episodes. Not the times when I feel a bit grumpy, but the times when I feel like I’m being buried alive (though the former can often turn into the latter if I can’t find a way to hold back the avalanches in my head). In my most recent books blog, I talked about buying Matt Haig’s book Reasons to Stay Alive as an emergency ripcord in case I ever needed one. This is something, I realise now, that I do a lot: I store up ideas for things I could do to try to feel better, or try to change my life, and only rarely do I act on them. I suppose it’s the same impulse that leads me to buy loads of cheap Kindle books when I already have hundreds I haven’t read. My fear of running out of options sometimes stops me from using the options I have.

In late 2015 I pulled one of these ripcords and went to see my GP for advice about my problems, which led on to a short course of cognitive behavioural therapy. This seemed to be helping a little bit for a while, but not as much as I wanted, and when it ended I felt lost again. And worse, I felt as though I’d used up a ripcord, shut off a potential escape route from future attacks of despair.

I suppose that’s the problem with using metaphors to try to understand life. If you choose one that doesn’t quite fit, you can end up playing by the rules of the metaphor rather than the reality.

Today, after a bit of nudging from family and friends, I was finally convinced to go back to the doctor. A different doctor this time, who referred me for a different kind of therapy, and prescribed me an antidepressant in the meantime. I have no idea yet if either of these things will work, but I’m glad I went. It reminded me that, when it comes to mental health, there are many many different options, and I’m sure every one of them has worked for somebody. If I’m serious about wanting myself to be better – for the sake of the people around me, if not for myself – then shouldn’t I keep trying until I find one that works for me?

It’s a classic one of those things I know perfectly well intellectually but cannot seem to accept emotionally: getting help isn’t a sign of weakness, and it doesn’t have to be a last resort. In a lot of cases, you’re not pulling ripcords; you’re opening doors. If you feel sad and want to talk to a friend – rather than worrying that you’ll use up some imaginary allowance of goodwill, maybe you should just do it. If you feel like you might need professional help – rather than waiting until things get worse, maybe you should go to the doctor. If you think of anything you could try that might help you – rather than squirreling it away for some hypothetical winter of the soul when you’ll have no other hope left, maybe you should just try it. It’s not worth waiting to see how bad things get. To return to the ripcord metaphor: when you’re plummeting downwards, it’s not always obvious how long it’ll be before you hit the ground.

Maybe, instead of putting all your faith in a ripcord you’ve never tested, you should go ahead and pull a whole bunch of them so you know which ones – oh, forget this metaphor, I told you it doesn’t really fit! Maybe, instead of putting all your faith in a single solution at a time, or hoping things never get bad enough that you need a solution, you should branch out, try different approaches, and experiment until you find something, or a combination of things, that make you feel better, even a little bit better – and from that slightly better place, you can continue your search.

And this doesn’t mean “growing a pair” or “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” (that sort of tough love might appeal to some people but I’ll always see it as corrosive, macho posturing garbage) but it means being willing to try a wide range of options, accept help when it is offered, and go looking for help when it’s not immediately visible. Hopefully you won’t have to look too far. Despite recent events, I truly believe there are a lot of wonderful human beings out there in the wild. And, as much as our increasingly hateful political culture might try, historically, wonderful human beings have proven themselves rather difficult to weed out.

P.S. Don’t mistake this for advice from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about. I have a long way to go before I can claim that title. I’m just stating things as I see them right now, because this is the first time in a while that I’ve felt even a little bit optimistic. Got to capture that lightning in a bottle.

P.P.S. Damn. Ripcords… bootstraps… lightning… I can’t seem to stop using metaphors today! Excuse me while I double-check the side effects of fluoxetine…

Reading: dancing, darkness, daemons & depression

Hey there! I’d like you all to meet my new symbol!

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This little guy tells you that I’ve already read a book some time ago before reading it again more recently – just so you don’t think I’ve got thirty-one years into life without having experienced the magic of His Dark Materials.

On that overly defensive note, let the book rambles commence!

150-DanceDanceDance Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami

I’d nearly finished this book when I discovered it’s the sequel to another book (A Wild Sheep Chase) which I haven’t read, but the unexplained elements didn’t strike me as out of place, rather feeling right at home within Murakami’s usual dream logic. Talking to a sheep man on a spooky secret floor of a weird hotel? I’d expect nothing less. As ever, I had no idea where the plot was going, or which strands would turn out to be important. At one point I thought it was turning into a murder mystery, but Murakami seems to shoot down anything resembling a recognisable formula before it gets off the ground. This freewheeling style is enjoyable, but also means I never really know what to say after finishing one of his books. At some point I should probably make an effort to read up on interpretations of his work rather than cheerfully bumbling through it like someone admiring the pretty pictures in an art gallery without stopping to look too closely or read the plaques for context. But hey, there’s nothing wrong with pretty pictures for pretty pictures’ sake.

150-TheLeftHandOfDarkness The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

As indicated by the otherworldly spires on the cover, this is a proper juicy old-school science fiction novel, of the sort you feel you should read a musty second-hand paperback of – but I bought the Kindle version because that’s the boring future we’ve ended up in. The Left Hand of Darkness follows an envoy from the Ekumen, a loose interplanetary union, responsible for making first contact with the inhabitants of the icy planet of Gethen. The most unique feature of this strange new world is its genderless society, in which people are neither male nor female, but temporarily take on the biological characteristics of one sex or the other for mating purposes. The oddest feature about the book, meanwhile, is that this feels almost irrelevant to the actual events that transpire. The story functions more as a guided tour of Gethen than as a particularly thorough exploration of the themes it touches upon. I suspect that, at the time of writing, even touching upon these themes was pretty radical, and I have to respect Le Guin for that – as well as for her elegant writing style and, of course, the sheer breadth of her imagination.

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Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

From the very first page of Northern Lights we are wrapped in the rich, darkly intoxicating atmosphere of a world a lot like our own, but different in a few key ways. Most notably, people’s souls are embodied by daemons, animal companions which can shape-shift until their humans reach a certain age, at which point they settle into a permanent form. It’s a brilliant idea, sure to induce envy in any wannabe fantasy author (cough), but Pullman uses it in so many clever ways that you can’t stay mad at him. As plucky young heroine Lyra (along with her daemon Pantalaimon) leaves behind a cushy life in her version of Oxford and sets out to find her missing friend Roger – well, we go with her, in that magical but indefinable way that so few books achieve, and by the time we get to the north we are so embroiled in the ways of her world that what we find there strikes us as genuinely horrifying. Whatever you think of the later books in the trilogy – and they certainly get more divisive as they go – this opening volume is a spectacular masterpiece, and I don’t see how anyone with an interest in fantasy could disagree.

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The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Whereas Northern Lights is a fairly linear story set in one world and told mostly from one point of view, The Subtle Knife pulls back to reveal much bigger and more complicated things going on, the mere nature of which would probably constitute a major spoiler. This is where the scope of Pullman’s ambition – alongside his hatred for certain real-world institutions – becomes clear. We are also introduced to the second major protagonist of the series, a troubled but good-hearted boy named Will, who is from our world but has that uncanny children’s fiction ability to very quickly accept that he’s just stepped into a realm of daemons, witches, soul-eating spectres and knives that can cut through the fabric of reality. If I have one criticism of this book, it’s that it is very much a middle chapter: up to and including the cliffhanger ending, a lot of what transpires feels like stage setting for book three. But that criticism rings a little hollow when it is almost impossible, at any point, to tear your eyes from the stage.

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Slade House by David Mitchell

I often wish that authors would invent new types of supernatural being rather than plucking them wholesale – vampires! werewolves! zombies! – from the collective culture. In his last couple of books, David Mitchell has done an exceptional job of establishing his own unique mythology. Viewed from certain angles, Slade House seems like a classic haunted house story, albeit structured in Mitchell’s signature time- and viewpoint-hopping style, but his horrors possess an underlying logic that satisfies the rational side of my brain more than the vague, indistinct metaphysics of your average ghostie. In embracing the horror genre it feels a little like this author of astonishing power has decided to begin using that power for evil. Well, if it means more creepy delights like this, that’s okay by me. (Note: if you’ve read The Bone Clocks, you might have a little bit more of a clue what’s going on here, but I think picking up Slade House first would make for an equally enjoyable, if different, reading experience.)

150-TheFirstFifteenLivesOfHarryAugust The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Lately, in the world of not overly literary literary fiction (book club fiction, if that’s not a pejorative term) there seems to be a glut of books with titles like this: “The Intriguing Noun Phrase of Name Quirkyname”. I tried not to let this put me off what sounded like a cool premise: people who live their lives over and over again, always carrying forward the memories of their previous lives. And I was pleasantly surprised by how convincing and well thought through it all is – how these people have developed systems to take care of each other, to deal with members of their own kind who cause trouble, and to carry messages back and forth through time. My one criticism is mostly a matter of personal taste: in chronicling multiple lifetimes, the book encompasses such a broad sweep of time that it often doesn’t bother to zoom in and give us a close-up view, a sense of place and character, a gut connection to what Harry is living through. This perhaps reflects how the fleeting details of individual lives might come to mean less in such a drawn-out existence, but it also makes it hard for a mere mortal like me to fully relate. Still, the tangled game of cat and mouse that brings the book to a close is both tense and ingenious.

150-ReasonsToStayAlive Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

I bought this book a while ago and was saving it as a sort of emergency ripcord in case I ever needed one. When that time came (damn you January), I read it in less than a day. In it, the author describes his experience with intense depression, how it affected his life, and how he got better, at least better enough to come to the conclusion that life is worth living. Interspersed with the memoir style chapters are assorted interludes such as lists of the lies depression tells you and, of course, things worth staying alive for, but even these are extremely personal, and Haig is careful to emphasise that his own experiences may not apply to everyone. On that note I’m not sure this book actually made me feel much better – while I found a lot of it relatable, in places it prodded (unintentionally I’m sure) at some of my feelings of inadequacy – but it gave me a few ideas for other ripcords to try, and my depression wouldn’t really be doing its job if just reading a book could fix it.

You can find over a hundred more of my rambly book paragraphs over on the Books I’ve Read page!

Inside Out: subtlety, sadness and empathy

It’s been a few weeks since I saw Inside Out, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. This is generally a sign that it’s time to arrange my thoughts into something resembling a coherent blog post.

First off I should confess that I don’t really get films. I mean: I watch them, I (usually) understand their storylines, I recognise the hard work that goes into making them, but I just don’t have the reverence some people seem to have for the medium. As a rule I don’t sit in the cinema as the credits roll and think “now that was a great film”. But in the past, Pixar has been responsible for at least two notable exceptions to this rule (namely Finding Nemo and Wall-E – though I also liked Brave enough to write a blog about it), so I was very interested to see what they would do with the idea of personified emotions, a premise so far up my street that I practically live in it.

There will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film, see it as soon as possible (assuming it’s still playing) and then come back and read this. Or just see it and don’t bother reading this, since it is a perfectly self-contained work of art, to which my blabbering will probably add very little.

Major Spoilers barks: “MAJOR SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!”

At the core of Inside Out is a question not many stories tend to ask, despite the fact that it seems fairly central to the experience of being human: what is the point of sadness? The question is posed very early on, but it’s phrased as a joke so like an idiot I didn’t notice it was actually the set-up to some of the more profound and emotional moments in the latter half of the film, where we finally realise that Joy and Sadness do not have to be enemies.

I don't know much about fair use law, but I think I'm more likely to be allowed to use this image if I say something about it. So … um, I like it. It's a good image.

I don’t know much about fair use law, but I think I’m more likely to be allowed to use this image if I say something about it. So … um, I like it. It’s a good image. Like how the film is good, only the film is even better.

This is where I think Pixar did things differently from other filmmakers who might have tried to make a film with this basic premise. Because the most obvious route, if you want to put the main character in a bad psychological place, would be to remove Joy from the control room and leave Sadness there to take the reins. But instead, Joy tries too hard to retain control and as a result both she and Sadness are exiled. In many ways this is a much better representation of what actually happens when a person is emotionally damaged, when they shut out other people, when they get depressed — whatever you want to call it. And it allows for a resolution much more complex and meaningful than in the parallel universe version of the film, where the evil Queen Sadness is finally defeated by wise and incorruptible Joy.

Another ingenious element of the film — and I’ll admit this is something that films, especially Pixar films, can do very well — is the way it creates a vocabulary, a visual language all of its own, around the concept of the memory sphere thingies. From the beginning we are taught what these look like, how they are created and stored, and what the different colours mean. Not only does this provide a lot of intelligent laughs along the way, but by the end we are primed to understand exactly and implicitly what the new, multicoloured core memory means, without the characters needing to say a word. The visual vocabulary that has been established over the course of the film is subverted in a way that conveys a new meaning, a meaning that never has to be explained in conventional terms. It’s all there in the imagery, so it bypasses the linguistic circuits of your brain and just grasps you by the heart.

But on reflection, I think the best and cleverest thing about Inside Out is how mundane the Out part is. Again, Pixar did not take the obvious route: it would have been so easy to cook up a melodramatic real world story to trigger all the fireworks in Riley’s head. But no, they keep it subtle and restrained — just a few little nudges which begin the process of her inner world absolutely falling apart.

To me, this only adds to the story’s power, because it demonstrates how seemingly trivial things can have a serious impact on a person’s psychology. Especially in fiction, people are often expected to display superhuman emotional strength, or be criticised as weak. If we didn’t see Riley’s inner world, I have no doubt that a portion of the audience would go: “oh for god’s sake, the spoilt little brat’s sulking and running away and crying just because she had to move to San Francisco?” But because of the metaphorical world so lovingly crafted by Pixar, we understand. We feel what she is feeling. The everyday trials of growing up, so easy for cynical adults to scoff at, are portrayed as heartbreaking, world-destroying — which is great, because that’s exactly how they feel to the person going through them.

So not only is Inside Out a beautiful, funny, inspiring experience from beginning to end, it has caused me to think long and hard about the purpose and potential of storytelling. I certainly can’t think of another film that creates empathy in such a unique, vivid and powerful way. And in an age that sometimes feels characterised by a horrifying lack of empathy for other human beings (see pretty much every newspaper currently being printed in the UK, the comments section of every online article and video, etc.), perhaps that’s something art should aspire to more often.

A bit about grief

Note: I have lost family members (and pets) in the past, but the freshest grief in my mind as I write this is over the death of my cat George. If that makes what follows mean less to you, feel free to stop reading now. Obviously there are many aspects of grief over a pet which are different to grief over a human, but in this case the intensity of feeling is very much there. I hope that, even if you can’t relate to that, you can at least respect it.

I was going to write a blog post specifically about George, and I got most of the way there before deciding it felt too personal to share right now. It will most likely be a document I return to and add memories when they come to me. So, in this post, I’m mostly going to talk about grief in general – my experience of it and some of the conclusions I’ve come to about it. I’m posting this on the offchance that my thoughts could help somebody, or at least be interesting. I’m sure other people’s thoughts on grief may be very different, and that’s okay.

It’s also okay if you want to stop reading now, because I can’t talk about grief without talking about death a bit, and sometimes you just want to have a nice day and eat some chocolate pudding and not think about death at all. I understand. You may leave and perhaps even listen to my fun new podcast, Rainy Day Adventure Club, instead!!! … Did that feel inappropriate? Sorry, I’m trying to keep this light where I can.

First off, it is definitely true that a lot of the emotion you feel when grieving is natural and valid sadness. The feeling of missing someone, of empathising with what they went through towards the end, and of getting used to life without them – these are understandable things that it is healthy and positive to work through, even if it doesn’t always feel like it at the time.

I have come to the conclusion, however, that SOME of the awfulness you feel is purely destructive, illogical and self-pitying. I’ve caught myself several times getting very upset in ways which I don’t think are justifiable. Grief can start a chain reaction in your head, and not all of the emotional fireworks it sets off are constructive, or even all that relevant to the person (or animal) you’ve lost.

Six fun horrendous ways to grieve:

1. Think about what YOU went through – all the worrying you did, all the ways you tried to help, all the things you never got to do or say. Replay choice scenes over and over in your head, with an emphasis on the most minute but upsetting details. (This one is particularly sneaky because it can disguise itself as empathy for the person you’ve lost. You think you’re thinking about what THEY went through, but then you realise “Hey, wait a minute. That detail was something I fixated on, it was probably irrelevant to their experience.” And hopefully you can start separating out some of the things you’re feeling into little piles of sadness – actual grief over here, self-pity over there. It’s hard to stop feeling self-pity entirely, but I’ve found it helpful to recognise it for what it is.)

2. Bargain with higher powers you don’t believe in. (Yep, I have discovered I’m a fairweather atheist at best. Still, I usually snap out of this fairly quickly, reasoning that any higher powers worthy of the title would not need me to grovel before them in order to save an innocent life.)

3. Blame yourself, even though the intellectual side of you knows perfectly well it’s not your fault. (I’ve mentioned this before, but if anyone knows how to get the intellectual and emotional sides of your brain talking to each other, please do let me know.)

4. Snuff out any moments of joy that try to sneak into your life, worried in case the person you’ve lost is watching you from somewhere and would feel hurt that you are momentarily happy. (This one is especially insane, since if they loved you they would obviously, OBVIOUSLY want you to be happy. Also, if they ARE watching you from somewhere, guess what? That means there’s an afterlife of some sort, which is probably good enough news to make up for any temporarily hurt feelings. Seriously, worrying about this is like worrying in case you win the lottery and then stub your toe on one of your massive wads of cash.)

5. Brood about how everything ends in death. (May be true, but there is no logical reason to dwell on the endings of things – endings do not invalidate what came before. In the case of George’s life, there is so much more happy stuff to choose from than there is of the sad stuff that came along in the last few weeks. If I remember the sad stuff, which is now just as firmly and definitively in the past as the happy stuff, the mass of happy stuff ought, by rights, to pile on top of it, dwarfing it into near insignificance. He got to live a happy life. I got to know him. Those should be the headlines.)

6. Start crying, cry for a while, keep crying, cry for a bit longer, then eventually realise this has turned into a self-perpetuating cry, where you’re crying about how much you’re crying and how sad it is that you’re this sad. (And we’re back to self-pity again. That has been an unwelcome theme for me lately, but I think I’m edging slowly closer to realising that sobbing into the bathroom sink isn’t necessarily the best way to honour the memory of someone I love.)

But what IS the best way to honour the memory of someone you love? That’s a big question. At the moment I’m leaning towards two ways:

1. Be happy. If they loved you, they would want you to be happy. That’s more or less the definition of love.

2. Think about what you learned from them, the ways in which they made you a better person, and inscribe those lessons on your soul. George, for example, was an antidote to cynicism – any time I was down, and felt tempted to care a little less about the world, five minutes of cuddling him would stop those thoughts in their tracks, and convince me that love is about the only thing that matters, and that it is worth any amount of pain to experience it. It’s a lesson I think he will teach me again and again as I look back on the years we had together. His death does not erase or diminish one second of those years, years for which I will always be inexpressibly grateful.

I am sure I will continue to have good days and bad days, but writing this has definitely made me feel better. So, I guess if I have one piece of advice for anyone grieving, it is that you should find a way to process what you are feeling – whether it’s by writing it down, talking to someone, listening to music – whatever works for you. And as hard as it is, try to only feel sad about the things that are worth feeling sad about, and let all the miscellaneous crappy feelings and self-pity fall by the wayside. They have nothing to do with who you’ve lost, and you don’t need them.

New year’s blues

Warning: self-pity ahead! But also a lovely flower. So … it balances out, right?

January is definitely in the running for my least favourite month of the twelve. This is odd, since it comes after the always-stressful December, and many people treat it as a welcome chance to finally relax a bit and/or make a fresh start, pretending all the mistakes they made last year don’t count because the last digit of the year has ticked around. But I’ve found it rarely works that way for me. Instead I end up unable to shake off December’s exhaustion, while at the same time yearning for the sense of purpose and excitement I had in the lead-up to Christmas. So I slump around for a while, unable to muster up the motivation to do anything useful, until shame gets all up in my face and forces me to make a set of late resolutions and get myself semi-organised for a while.

This year (well, last year, I suppose) I thought up a way to transform this post-new-year slump into a more exciting and invigorating time: I promised all the people closest to me that I would give them my novel on the 1st of January. For context, this is the novel I’ve written about here before under the codename Project Snails, the massive fantasy novel I’ve been working on for – yep, I think it’s officially been more than half my life now.

So that happened. I half expected it not to. I’d been pushing back the deadline for the handover for a long time, and until recently I couldn’t imagine living in a world where people other than me had access to the stories and places and characters in my head. But now a select few other people have seen that stuff – they’ve experienced the stories, met the characters, frolicked through the places I created. Some have even finished the novel and given me feedback. None of this process turned out to be as scary as I’d expected. I’d expected to be so terrified at the prospect of people reading my precious words that I would run away screaming the moment any of them tried to bring it up in conversation. But in the end it all felt a bit low-key. Pleasant, but low-key – as I should have expected from my pleasant, low-key family and friends.

I don’t know what massive changes I was expecting in my life upon showing the novel to other people. I suppose the most delusional part of me thought that maybe my family and friends would be so hypnotised by mere contact with such a masterpiece that they’d take it upon themselves to break down the doors of every major publisher in the land, demanding that it be read, and after the first page the publishers’ eyes would light up and they would say “Wow, this is amazing – totally fresh and unique! Not even remotely a rip-off of Terry Pratchett or Philip Pullman or George R. R. Martin! This must be read by the world! We’ll publish in every known language, from Klingon to Welsh! And by the way, I also own HBO, do you mind if we make a series out of this?”

But really it’s not a sense of anticlimax that’s got to me. It’s the fact that the thing I’ve been pouring myself into for years is – well, not quite finished, since I still have to do some rewrites based on feedback, but – it’s out there. It’s no longer in my head. It’s no longer my big secret, the thing that made me different from other people, the double life that made me feel somewhat special, special enough not to mind that my actual, single life, measured against other people’s, is something of a disaster. What I’ve been doing throughout most of my adult years (with the possible exception of my time at university) is the equivalent of carrying armfuls of chips (the casino kind – I haven’t quite lost my mind that much yet) to a roulette table and stacking them all on red, awaiting a single spin that will take place at some ill-defined point in the future. Thanks to this singular and risky focus, I have no real employable skills. Or any other kind of skills, really – social skills being a key example.

This is all getting a bit depressing, isn't it? Here's a picture of a flower to make up for it.

Is this getting too self-pitying now? Okay, here’s that lovely flower I promised.


All I have is this novel. And I’ve been quite openly fooling myself into believing that that’s all I need, that all the other ingredients for a full and happy life will spring forth from it some day. “Hmm, I feel crushingly lonely today. Should I take some risks and go out and try to meet new people? Nooo, that’s scary and I’m rubbish at it, and besides, when I get my book published I’ll get to meet lots of new people, and they’ll be so impressed by my writing skill that they’ll want to be friends with me straight away, and I won’t end up getting rejected.” I’m aware that this isn’t how relationships work, but if I’m honest with myself, it’s the sort of twisted logic that’s been behind a lot of my decision-making over the past ten years.

Since new year’s day, my mind has had little to do other than reflect on all this. (Can you tell?) And that has led me into one of the deepest depressions of my life. I’m questioning everything, primarily my writing skill, upon which a large chunk of “everything” directly depends. I don’t know if my first proper novel is any good, and if it is I don’t know if I’m capable of writing anything that good ever again. I’ve been trying to come up with an idea for a short novel to churn out in the next few months to reassure myself, but rather than reassuring me this process has only deepened my depression, as I run up against various walls – mostly an alarming lack of life experience which prevents me from having anything meaningful to say about the majority of potential subjects. I’m still trying to come up with something that really sparks my interest, but trying to spark your interest when you’re depressed is like trying to light a campfire built with damp wood.

It’s February now, and it’s dispiriting that the gloom has lasted so far into the new year. Today was particularly bad, in a crying on the bathroom floor sort of way. I’m grateful to say my depression very rarely gets as extreme as that, and I’m already feeling significantly better (partly for having written this post). Hopefully today was just an odd anomaly rather than a harbinger of my mind’s future trajectory as all the dreams are stripped away and I see the reality of where I am. If reality always feels like today, I’d rather find a way to sustain the dreams. It can’t be that hard – after all, I’ve been doing it for most of my life.

Despite the fact that this post was mostly written for my own benefit, I will say to anyone else who may have made it this far … I hope, if you have the new year’s blues, or any other kind of blues, that they clear up soon. Everyone deserves to be happy, so if you have any choice in the matter, let yourself. Thanks for reading.