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…

Things I learned in Atlanta

A couple of weeks ago I travelled to America in the company of some friends of mine to attend Filmapalooza, the annual gathering of the winners of the 48 Hour Film Project (which we won last year in Edinburgh and Glasgow). It was held in Atlanta, Georgia, not a place I knew much about, but I was excited, particularly as I’d never been to America before.

The experience was a bit overwhelming and hard to summarise, so I’ve written a bunch of fairly unconnected paragraphs in the hope that together they’ll convey the whole chaotic experience better than a linear blog post could. Here goes!

airport3

I kinda hate airports. For a person with social anxiety, an airport is an obstacle course of awkwardness. There are even forfeits: if you fail to understand the instructions being barked at you at the security checkpoint, your punishment is to be felt up by some guy you don’t know. And if I didn’t have two well-travelled friends with me, the whole thing would have been much worse, as nothing about the process of checking in / checking bags / passport control / boarding is at all self-explanatory, and there is the constant sense that if you do something wrong you’ll find yourself in a lot more trouble than if you, say, knock a Fruit Corner off a shelf at Sainsbury’s.

The actual flying part is okay, except when it’s not, but most of the time it is. I don’t understand how anyone ever has the nerve to put their seat back though. I think there should be some sort of prize — maybe a cash reimbursement — for getting through the whole flight without putting your seat back, especially if the person in front of you has. Also, sometimes the plane is way too hot and they only bring round tiny cups of water every hour or so, probably to stop everyone needing to use the toilet. And whenever there’s any turbulence I quickly think back over the last day or so of my life and convince myself that this would be a dramatically appropriate point for the plane to crash and kill me. And one time I noticed this bit of the wing that was flapping up and down as if it was about to come loose. Actually, maybe flying isn’t okay.

Atlanta is pretty. Just the right amount of sleek modern city centre surrounded by picturesque suburbs sprawling off into the forest. It feels nice and, considering the high crime rate, unexpectedly not scary. I didn’t think much about the fact that anyone passing me on the street could be carrying a gun, or that there’s no universal healthcare, or that they still execute people, or that they’re considering electing a billionaire cartoon villain who frequently makes misogynistic comments and has suggested banning an entire religion from entering the country on the basis that he thinks they’re up to something. I suppose the niceness is what allows the people living there to forget these things most of the time too.

atlanta1

American people are also nice. Nice enough that I am now baffled as to where the stereotype of British politeness came from. The people I encountered in America were infinitely more polite than the grumps you meet in Britain – with the notable exception of the border control guy to whom I had to justify my existence at Atlanta airport, and who managed to make me feel like I shouldn’t be there as soon as I arrived. But border control guys aren’t technically people, so I won’t count him.

America may be nice, but here’s one thing it is not: it is NOT an enchanted land that causes me to shed all my social inhibitions the minute I set foot on its soil. As is my habit, I’d sort of fooled myself into thinking it might be, but the disappointing truth is that I am the same person even when I’m on a different continent. This meant a certain amount of standing around awkwardly at the social events I attended, particularly during the ice-breaker. And after that, a certain amount of staring out the window of a revolving restaurant rather than talking to the people I was with, and then a certain amount of staying in my room while my friends were off partying, talking to myself and trying to come to terms with the fact that this trip might not be quite the personality transplant I’d been hoping for. (That all sounds bad, but if you know me it’s actually pretty normal.)

Staying in a reasonably fancy hotel is a cool experience. If you ever get the chance to stand in front of a floor-to-ceiling window high above a nocturnal cityscape of twinkling lights, holding a drink and wearing an actual shirt with buttons and everything, you may experience the strong sense that you have finally “made it”. However, this sensation is fleeting and untrustworthy, and when you retire to the nice room you are only staying in thanks to a hefty discount, you may find yourself terrified to touch anything in case it costs you hundreds of dollars you don’t have. Seriously, they had a bottle of water with a cardboard thing around it saying “enjoy”, and it was only if you looked closely you could see it also said “$5”. After that I started looking for prices on everything. It took us several days of tentative experimentation before we discovered the Wi-Fi was actually free after all. Awkward unemployed Scots are not made for such surroundings.

Despite all that, the film festival was fun. The screenings — of ours and other people’s films — were very enjoyable, and the people I did talk to were nice and often quite complimentary about our films, which was double nice. If you’re lucky, I might do another blog post soon about my favourites of the other teams’ films, because there were too many good ones to cram in here.

cocacola1Coca-Cola World is a little pocket of brightly-coloured dystopia where any staff member who doesn’t show appropriate enthusiasm for the ubiquitous fizzy concoction is presumably taken to a back room and dissolved in a vat of it like an unfortunate tooth in a school science project. But it’s quite fun, and all the propaganda did help me remember how much I love Coke.

Zaxby’s is not a great restaurant for vegetarians. And by not great, I mean not only does it offer no substantial vegetarian options, but it also has slogans on the walls making fun of us for being sissies. The rebellious side of me felt that they’d initiated hostilities towards us, and that it would be quite within the rules for me to perform some minor act of vandalism in their restaurant that they wouldn’t discover until after I’d left. But then I found their drinks machine had raspberry Coke, so I decided they were okay. Coke is great.

Zaxby’s aside, finding vegetarian food in America wasn’t as hard as I expected – most burger places have a veggie option, and even the fried chicken place we ended up at on the last day offered the welcome option of ordering four sides in place of a main course. I won’t claim to have gained any real insight into American cuisine, since my diet both there and here consists almost entirely of bread, cheese, meat substitutes and sugar in various configurations, but I did discover that working out how much to tip is not quite the ordeal I’d been dreading. Oh, and non-alcoholic drinks aren’t an issue either, because literally everywhere has Coke. And why not? Everyone loves Coke.

muppets1

The museum at the Center for Puppetry Arts will make you happy if you like the Muppets. If you don’t like the Muppets you don’t deserve to be happy, so you should go there either way.

Six Flags Over Georgia, which we had planned as a treat for our last full day in America, turned out to still be closed for the winter. This was a bit of a downer, but on the plus side, we went to the Amazing Escape Room instead! I knew I’d like escape rooms, as they appeal to my unfulfilled childhood ambition to be a contestant on The Crystal Maze or Knightmare. And now I’ve done one (and we did escape, with over ten minutes to go, which is basically like getting over 100 gold credits after deductions in the Crystal Dome – shut up, it is!) I kinda want to do all of them. In the world. While swigging from a hip flask of Coke. I heard somewhere that Coke increases your brain power. Now where did I hear that?

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.

Diiiieeee…t

I’ve been overweight for as long as I can remember. Like most traits that are with you from early childhood, it felt inherent to me and I didn’t think about it. I didn’t really think much about myself as a person at all, but that’s a story for a much longer and stranger blog post. So I was into my 20s before I even thought about trying to change.

In early 2010, after some highly unscientific and often medically inadvisable attempts at losing weight, I finally decided to try a more sensible route and signed up to the online version of Weight Watchers. I followed their plan to the letter, adding up the points information for everything I ate and refusing to go over my daily allowance. Over the course of the year I lost 6 stone, also known as 38 kg or 84 lb. I still wasn’t quite at my target weight, but I was tantalisingly close. I felt healthier than I think I’d ever felt before, and I even started to feel a bit more confident in myself.

Not like my life

Not like my life

Then Weight Watchers made the switch to the new ProPoints system. This was enough to upset the rhythm I had fallen into. Enough, at least, that I got lazy and didn’t bother counting points for a few days.

If this had been an episode of a heartwarming teen sitcom I would have been too scared to look at the scales at my next weigh-in, so I would have made one of my witty and attractive friends look at them instead, and they would have gasped “I can’t believe it” and I would have said “Oh god, how much have I gained” and they would have said “You’ve LOST 2 pounds” and we would have hugged and I would have learned that it was never Weight Watchers that was making me lose weight – it was me all along.

Like my life

Like my life

But if my life is any sort of sitcom it’s one of those modern, slightly depressing ones with Ricky Gervais and without a laugh track, so that didn’t happen. In real life, I (ironically) didn’t have the guts to weigh myself that week, or for several weeks after. And the only lesson I learned was that the system I had been forcing myself to live by for the better part of the year was in fact optional! The need to point everything I ate was just a lie I had been telling myself! If I felt like eating a teensy bit more than my points allowance, er, allowed, I could do so, and the world would not explode!

This dangerous knowledge sent my weight spiralling back upwards like a confused young muggle-born wizard on a helter skelter. In classic pre-2010 Alex style I persisted in eating way too much on a regular basis, each time clinging to some Zeno’s paradox-esque notion that no one mouthful of food can ever be the one that sends you over the edge into morbid obesity. I rediscovered over-eating with all its highs (yay, I get to eat this whole massive bag of sour Skittles!) and lows (aw no, I just ate that whole massive bag of sour Skittles).

Since then I’ve been trying absolutely everything I can think of to get back on the diet and stay on it, but the longest this has lasted is a couple of months. This puts me in the uniquely annoying position of envying the Alex I was in late 2010, an Alex who felt relatively happy about himself, who could go outside in summer without immediately sweating from every conceivable corner of his body, who received the occasional compliment, who actually had days of feeling slightly like a real person.

Sour Skittles

My 19 ProPoint nemesis

The problem now, and it’s a rather clichéd one I’m afraid, is that I feel as if I’m not the same person from one day to the next. One of me can be as determined as he likes that he’s not going to exceed his points allowance, but that does nothing to stop another, less disciplined me from coming along a few days later and ruining it. And once one day is ruined, my motivation drains away and it takes a while to find that determined side again.

Of course, this is all just a poor excuse for my lack of discipline. Here’s another one: judging from my family history I probably have a tendency towards addiction encoded into my genes. I’ve mostly dealt with this by never trying anything I might end up addicted to. But sadly that isn’t really an option with food. I’m sure dealing with a drug addiction is much more serious and harrowing than what I’m talking about, but it has one simplifying factor: in most cases there is the option, however hard, of cutting yourself off entirely from your drug of choice.

But if you have an eating problem (I won’t say disorder, as I don’t want to trivialise other people’s more life-threatening problems), guess what? No matter where you go, you’re going to be constantly surrounded by food. And – double guess what? You need to have some of it in order to survive. And generally, no one’s going to tell you when to stop eating. You have to decide on your own, based on numerous factors such as: 1) mmm, this is delicious, 2) eating it feels so great, 3) I have nothing much else to feel great about right now, 4) just a few more mouthfuls aren’t going to make any noticeable difference to my weight, and anyway, 5) I already screwed up yesterday, so I’m going to gain weight this week whatever I do, and 6) it’s not as if people are even going to like me any more if I drop this extra little bit of weight – yeah, they might be more willing to give me a chance, but when they do they’ll find I’m still horribly dysfunctional in all these other socially unacceptable ways, and they’ll be just as disgusted by me, and in some ways that’s even worse than just being rejected straight away for being fat, and finally, 7) mmm, that was delicious.

(Whew, this post has taken a turn for the self-pitying, hasn’t it? Yeah, I know being overweight isn’t the worst problem in the world. But how many problems are?)

If I have any advice to give – though perhaps my story suggests that I do not – it’s that losing weight requires you to know yourself. I, for example, know that I can never trust myself to “forget about” the points system for just one day – that day turns into a week, then a month, then three months – so now I no longer take days off from my diet. I also know that objectively insignificant milestones like the first day of a week or month are for some reason psychologically important to me, and that if I want to feel like I’m making a fresh start, they are the best times to do so. And finally there’s this:

100 Days Without Messing Up My Diet

I actually stole this idea from myself: the detective character in Project Bubble, my probably defunct webseries, uses a similar cardboard contraption to keep track of how many cases he’s solved. The idea taps into my determination to progress in some measurable way – the longer I go without messing up my diet, the more determined I am not to break the streak.

My current 100 day streak makes me pretty determined. The question is: will the version of me who wakes up tomorrow be just as determined?

I hope so.

Graduation

When I was 13 I dropped out of school, due to what I’ve come to interpret as a vicious circle of being bullied and being a weird child. I was home educated for a while, then did some Highers through college (though almost entirely from home). The vicious circle became less about bullying and more about finding it very hard to make friends or even meet people.

The vicious circle was already beginning to break by the time I started university, thanks to a very accepting and gradually expanding group of friends. I think acceptance may be the only thing that could have broken it. I wasn’t going to get any less weird just sitting on my own all day every day trying to write fantasy novels.

But in terms of structure and sense of forward progression through life, going to university was an important and scary step for me. I hadn’t attended an educational institution regularly since my two sporadic years at high school, which had been a horrible depressing nightmare. I honestly had no idea if I would make it through the first week of uni without having one of my old panic attacks and fleeing out the door never to return.

I graduated on Wednesday. (Thanks to my mum and brother for the following photos.)

Me standing with some people.

Me shaking hands with a man.

Me in front of a castle with a bit of paper.

The whole experience was incredibly challenging and yet reassuring. Not only did I somehow manage to fool some more nice people into being friends with me, I was able to function well enough to write essays on time, attend almost all my classes, pass exams and eventually graduate with a First Class Honours Degree. Not exactly walking on the moon, but just a few years back I would never have thought this possible.

Forgive me for building such a simplistic narrative around these cherry-picked events from my life. Not everything has changed. I’m still not exactly confident. I’m still jobless and living with my parents. I’m not much fun at parties. But progress seems possible now.

It’d be nice to think that some other insecure person might read this blog post and take some sort of lesson from it. But that’s assuming a lot, and I’m suspicious of those who dish out advice indiscriminately as if people are all the same. In truth I’m not sure there’s any broader lesson here than, if you’re me and it’s 2008, you should go to Napier and study English. Well, I guess that’s something.

If you’re me and it’s 2008, you should go to Napier and study English. Trust me on this.