True grit

Cheviots from Carter BarIt is easy to get out of the habit of writing. In spite of my blog a few weeks ago (Nulla dies sine linea – not a day without a line, first said by the painter Apelles of Kos, but which applies just as much to writing as painting), quite a few of my recent days have sadly passed without a line.

I can attribute this failure in part to what remains of the day job (especially marking, a task that I particularly detest but which is one of the most important things that academics do, and which requires time and concentration), but I know thats a feeble excuse. I should have had plenty of time. I have just found it difficult to find an independent working routine that suits me.
All the data shows that we work best when we follow a routine. Depressed people function better when they follow a routine that imposes some structure on our lives. Finding a good routine is good. In fact to be creative you might need one. If you look at the lives of highly creative people they all have very highly structured periods when they’re working – routines bordering on rituals (hence the title of one my favourite books on the subject, Mason Currey’s Daily rituals, a book I’ve talked about before in this blog). One of the most popular rituals is to get up early and start writing, stopping around lunchtime, and then taking the rest of the day “easy” (including do those low-value, distracting tasks such as email). I can see the advantages of such a schedule: you get your words under your belt first thing. I always feel better about the day after I’ve written at least a thousand words. But life is not so simple for a depressed writer: my medication (even though I’ve really cut back) really interferes with my morning. I feel tired on waking around 7.30, and it takes me a few hours to get going properly. Maybe one day I’ll be able to cut out that final Quetiapine, but I still can’t really imagine waking at 5 am, because I can’t imagine going to bed at 9 pm. I love midnight too much. And in any case I’ve talked to a few depressed people who say they can’t really get going until 10.30 or 11.00 am.
Let me take yesterday as an example. I woke at 7.15, and rushed to get out before my preferred two hours easing in time, leaving before 9 for gym at 9.30. At least exercise makes me feel better overall, and has the advantage of waking me up. Then I had a few errands to run, and back for coffee at 10.45. I did some useful reading while drinking coffee. Then as rain was forecast for later in the day, I did a few garden jobs I’d been putting off. Then I had my Primal living lunch (yet another type of diet, or rather lifestyle, I’m trying out). After that there were some “real work”-related things I had to do, and particularly several pressing emails to answer. That left me pretty tired, so I had a short nap. Then it was 4.45. I had a few work things to do again, and some washing to sort out, which took me to 6. That left me two hours of creative time, by which time I felt horribly guilty about not doing enough earlier.
Sound familiar? That’s how my life often goes. I can’t point to anything and say I shouldn’t have done it, so what else could I have done? Now you unlucky souls in a 9-5 job are probably thinking “lazy f*cker, he should have my job to see what can be done in a day”. But I “work” after 5, and all weekend, and most holidays too. And as I’ve talked about before in this blog, if you look at how much real work can be done in an hour, it’s surprisingly little. My own measurements suggest I cant do more than 35 minutes an hour over 8 hours without hitting the wall. This figure of 3-5 hours of real work – deep work – a day is consistent with what Cal Newport says in Deep work, with how highly creative people schedule their time in Daily Rituals, and how much deep practice can be sustained in one day (a discussion of which can be found in Duckworth’s superb book Grit, which I’ve just finished reading). Passion and perseverance are tiring.
So I am still searching for the perfect routine, the perfect ritual, the perfect day. And of course every day is different: some days I don’t go to the gym, some days there are other things to deal with, and some days it’s Christmas. Nulla dies sine linea says nothing about stopping writing just because it’s Christmas (but I have).
So one reason why we don’t we stick at what we want to do is finding the time to do real work. It’s difficult enough for the best of people with the best of intentions. Those of us with mental health problems suffer additional burdens that eat into our time in addition to the time-killing side-effects of medication.
Being mad really does steal your life.

Mens sana in corpore sano

chives

 

It’s under a hundred days to go now before my official “retirement” date and when my life as a full-time writer begins. I’ve made the big change – or at least the decision to make the big change – that I hope will lead to a more satisfying and mentally healthier life, and now it’s time to look at smaller changes I can make. I’ve already taken up exercise in a big way and been going to the gym regularly for some months now; I’m pleased – and surprised by myself – that I’ve stuck to it. I’ve reduced my medication gradually without too many ill effects. I have now sorted out my life, to some extent, and my depression is in abeyance, at least for now. I have identified a purpose – writing, in the first instance on consciousness. I now need to go further and tweak my mental and physical well-being. I also face many years (I hope) “post-work”, and I want them to be healthy, happy years. I can already feel a bit of arthritis in the fingers of my left hand, and I still feel more tired than I would like. I am at last doing enough exercise, so what else can I change for a better life?The obvious answer is diet.
Now I don’t think my diet is too bad – as I have coeliac (celiac) disease (I don’t like the phrase “I am celiac”, identifying myself with the disease), I already avoid gluten and wheat and too much dairy. I am fortunate in not particularly liking the taste of sugar, and avoid processed food. What else can be done for a better diet and hence better life? We are after all what we eat Note that I am using the word “diet” in a loose sense to refer to everything we eat, not specifically a means of calorie restriction.
Unfortunately the world of improving your health through diet is a nightmare. It used to be so straightforward: eat with the pyramid of a little fat, lots of complex starches, fruits, and vegetables, and avoid saturated fat, while doing moderate or more exercise three to five times a week.We can say with some certainty what is bad: smoking, too much alcohol, no exercise at all, processed food, sugar, modified sugars, trans and hydrogenated fats, and too many calories. But then things get very confusing. It’s pretty much agreed that leafy green vegetables are good for us (although opinion is divided on whether they are better lightly cooked or raw). But here is the list of some of the disputed foods:

– carbohydrates: much loved by “official” dieticians, treated with great suspicion by many food movements (e.g. Paleo, Primal, to a lesser extent South Beach). I’m assuming we’re talking about good carbs (no crisps, no cakes) that you get directly from vegetables. Sweet potato seems to be the healthiest.
– grains: many are a no-no already when you cut out gluten, but things like rice are disputed. I don’t like them much anyway.
– fruit: you thought you were on safe ground, but many are very high in sugars, particularly fructose, and Paleo and Primal limit their intake. Best fruit: berries.
– nuts: high in calories and oils and many have the wrong Omega 3:6 ratio.
– oily fish: generally agreed to be good, but some worry that they’re a source of contaminants, heavy metals, and colourings: wild or organic are best (if you can get them!).
– meat: disliked by many diets, but preferred in Paleo and Primal, particularly grass-fed and organic (again if you can get it).- saturated fat: despised in the traditional diet, but desired as a major source of calories in Paleo and Primal.
-mushrooms: full of fibre and vitamins – but argued by some to aggravate intestinal yeast infections. Is this anything more than superstitious thinking?
– garlic: how can garlic be evil? The Bulletproof diet says avoid because of its mind-altering properties.
– omega 3 oils (fish oil): as long as they’re heavy metal free, although the extent to which they are beneficial to adults remains disputed by some scientists.
– organic or not: surely it’s got to be better to eat stuff that’s free from pesticides and herbicides? Some scientists have argued it makes no difference.
– alcohol: preferably as red wine, a little is generally thought to be good by many.

What is most problematic is whether most of our calories should be coming from carbohydrates, or from fat, oils, and protein. Will fat kill us, or stave off the heart attack? It’s a high-stakes game.
But in the end, as my finger hurts and my back hurts and I decide to skip that glass of wine and measure out a nice, I sometimes just despair at the confusion. It’s difficult being an anti-ageing biohacker.

Nulla dies sine linea

 

sun rays

 

I have to finish the first draft of my book on consciousness by the start of November. I want to leave about two months for rewriting, clarifying, and improving the style. That means. 1339 words a day every day before 1 September to reach my target 160,000 words. (My writing software of choice, Scrivener, will automatically calculate the daily target based on your deadline and target length, and keep track of your daily writing total against the daily target.) There are probably going to be some days when something goes wrong and I can’t write, so I should be aiming for about 1500 words a day. I don’t know whether that sounds a lot or little to you; most days I have to read and think to be able to write those words, and I have to keep track of citations (not included in the total) as I go.

It would be easier if I didn’t have a day job too. Fitting writing in spare moments is difficult and stressful. Whoever thought that a writer has an easy life? At the very least it requires great discipline and great dedication.

When writing like this it is difficult to fit much else in to life. The mundane tasks are piling up. I really should wash the car, clear the vegetable patch, and change my energy suppliers, but such things always come last.

But the end is in sight. I finish the day job on 31 July. As of today that’s exactly 100 days.

Hopefully then things will be easier. But then there are these things called “holidays”. No wonder holidays can be among the most stressful of life events! Holidays for the writer and depressed person are interesting things. Words don’t get written unless you’re at the computer (or typewriter, or even with a notepad and pencil), and totals don’t wait for holidays. I suppose all self-employed people have the same problem – can we afford to take a break? It is though I think more challenging for writers facing a deadline. My current plan is never to stop writing, and write even in holidays and on Christmas day.

I suppose there is with every task a point at which it sometime becomes a chore, no matter how important the job and no matter how enjoyable it usually is. We just have to push on through.

A long time ago, Apelles the painter said:

Nulla dies sine linea.

Not a day without a line. The same applies to writers too. Even depressed writers. And setting some task for the day ahead, however small, and if possible doing it is of great help to depressed people in general.

Removing the stigma of mental illness

 

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My planned post can wait: last week was UK Depression Awareness Week.

I used to be sceptical about these special days and weeks, but now I think there is a great deal of benefit to having a concerted surge of activity because at the very least it generates publicity.

There used to be a great deal of stigma and shame associated with any kind of mental illness. People felt forced to hide their suffering. They were discriminated against, made fun of, and even bullied – things that of course just made people even worse. At our school, many years ago, boys who were slightly odd were given nicknames based on the local mental hospital. People found it more difficult to get and keep jobs. I remember an employee, a long time ago and in a place far away from here, feeling forced to tell me that he had been off work for some weeks with a “very bad cold in the head” – whereas there were rumours that he had had a “nervous breakdown”. There was very little advice available in the NHS, and there was a much more restricted choice of drugs. Prozac only became widely available in 1988.

Things are by no means perfect even now, but every time a celebrity “comes out” as mad, there’s another step forward. Every time someone is honest at work or with their friends all of us are a little more liberated. Those of us who can owe it to the others to stand up and say we’re GLAD TO BE MAD. Well, maybe not glad, but we are, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Stop the stigma now.

 

The daily schedule of a depressed writer

 

wood pigeon

It’s not easy being depressed, and it’s not easy being a writer. Being a depressed writer is worse than the sum of the parts. I often wonder why I bother; why not just go for the easy life of staying in bed all day long, which is often what I most often most want to do? Instead I struggle to make time for my writing.
It does mean that for depressed writers there is the question of how can we best arrange our time to facilitate writing? Of course it’s a problem all writers and creative people share. One of the best books I have read recently is Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work by Mason Currey (2013). Unusual creativity comes from unusual people living unusual lives. It is quite difficult to discern a pattern in the most creative lives. Have a look at this nice graphical representation of the daily routines of a sample of creative people (including creative scientists):

https://podio.com/site/creative-routines

With all sorts of caveats, and with many exceptions, the pattern seems to be get started early, exercise, relax. I’m not being prescriptive: until I cut down my quetiapine medication I was incapable of getting started early. And when I was Dean I had countless 8.30 and 9.00 am meetings, which really got in the way of getting deep work done (see my earlier blog on “Deep work”). There is robust evidence that some people are morning types and some evening, and if I were going to be prescriptive about anything, it would be to work out when you have most energy and feel best, and do your most creative work then. So of course there are many exceptions to this general pattern of writing first thing: some writers can only really get going at night after a few martinis. (Amazingly though Ernest Hemingway always started writing at six in the morning, even if he had been up late the night before with hard drinking, and worked until about noon.)
For me it ‘s good though to get the writing out of the way. I can never relax until I’ve completed my writing goal for the day. Another problem with starting late is that I never know how a writing task is going to take until I’ve done it. I’m writing a book on consciousness at the moment and I’ve set myself the target of a thousand words a day. It preys on my mind until the target bar in Scrivener (my currently preferred book writing software) reaches 100% for the day.
It is worth spending time on working out what is the perfect day for living the perfect life, in the sense of maximising quality time to get what we want to get done, done. It’s obvious that routine is important; routine crystallised to the point of ritual in many cases, as the title of Currey’s book suggests. Routine does bring its own problems for living – routine is the enemy of spontaneity, unless we schedule some hours in which to be spontaneous, which almost defies the purpose. But when on a creative burst, writing a book with a deadline, I need routine. A rigid routine or else I will not get it done. This routine means being tough on myself as well as other people. No exceptions.
I do wonder how some people manage to get so much more than me. I struggle at the moment with work, let alone writing. I try and free up as much quality time (for reading, writing, and thinking) as possible by outsourcing things like cleaning and mowing the lawn. I’m lucky that I can. How do people with children manage? But there are some days when I am so depressed that I just want to sit and cry and stare into space. Fortunately these days are much rarer when I’m writing; perhaps the sense of purpose writing provides helps us lift my mood. But one of the most depressing things about being depressed is how much time is lost to being ill. It is tragic.

Changing my life

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In my last blog I described how I had decided to take the leap from being employed to self-employed, and become a full-time writer. I’ve done this in part because of course I want to spend more time writing, and in part because I think being wholly responsible for my life will help my battle with depression and anxiety. So far – and I’m aware that it’s very early days – I’m optimistic; mostly, at the moment, I feel remarkably happy and anxiety free. Taking complete control of my life has almost been an instant cure. I still have some bad days when I feel a bit depressed, but the bad is now nowhere near as bad as it has been. Of course the days are getting longer as well, and the perpetual gloom of the Scottish winter has started to lift; I’m sure that helps, but I don’t think the weather is the main reason for my improvement. Being free is I think the major factor. I’m sure the feeling won’t last for ever – people soon adapt to changes in their circumstances – but I think it’s a good and important change.
So I have decided to reduce my medication. I have gone down to only two quetiapine a day. Quetiapine is an atypical anti-anxiety drug that is very effective against anxiety. It worked great for me, but made me extremely sleepy. I was worried that this reduction in dosage might interfere with my ability to sleep: I love the instant unconsciousness quetiapine gives you at night; I like the way I put my head on the pillow and I am asleep. In the morning I don’t even remember switching the light out the night before. I was afraid that I would lose this instantaneity of falling asleep, but I haven’t (so far). I don’t sleep quite as deeply later in the night, but I do find it easier to wake up in the morning. I hate the way quetiapine makes it so difficult for me to wake, and leaves me feeling like I just need to go back to sleep for the first couple of hours of the day. Reducing the dose has greatly reduced this zoned out feeling. So far, so good. And I’ve had no rebound in anxiety levels, which I also feared might happen.
I’ve decided I need to make other changes too. Now the general advice when changing your medication and life when mentally ill is only to change one thing at a time. So I’ll give the reduction in quetiapine some time to bed down. My previous “big change” was to try to get fit and go to the gym. This change has more or less worked out, and I’m now fitter than I have ever been. I still can’t say I particularly enjoy the gym or exercise though; I find cardio painful – literally and metaphorically. I hope to reduce the dose of quetiapine to one a day soon.
But it is also time to rethink my daily schedule to see how I can maximise writing time. The research shows that many great writers start early in the morning and get going with those words. I would need at least a cup of tea before I could do anything, but I could make writing the number one priority of the morning. No checking of email or Facebook until those thousand or whatever the target number of words are out. At the moment I go to the gym some mornings, and as the anxiety builds up, take quetiapine. Although it calms me down I feel a bit sedated as well, and I don’t like that feeling. Often (and of course it’s not always possible to do so) I fall asleep. I then feel good and perky for the later afternoon, evening, and early night. Of course at the moment the writing time is naturally heavily constrained by the day job; I won’t be able to change my life fully until I actually finish. At this time of the academic year student project work and marking more than fills the day. For now though, work comes first. The writer’s life is not an easy one. And being depressed is not easy. Being an employed depressed writer is very difficult indeed.

 

Taking the leap

Morning cirrus

Last week I took the plunge and decided to “retire” from my full-time job as an academic and go free-lance as a writer from 1 August.

Some call me brave, some lucky, and I worry I’m being stupid. I’ve been fortunate in life so far in being able to do the two things I wanted to do when I was young: be a professor and to write. After spending most of my time doing the first and only a little of the second, I now want to devote my life to writing, reading, and thinking. (And going to the gym building the perfect male body.) I realise I’m lucky to be able to pursue my dreams, but it is something I have been working towards; it’s just a bit earlier than I originally planned.
I’ve had twenty wonderful years at the University of Dundee. I love the place, and I’m proud of the Psychology group I managed and built up there. I love teaching, particularly those huge first-year lectures with an appreciative audience. But the times they are a-changing, and I’m starting to feel just a bit out of touch with academic life and the young of today. So it’s time for a change and a new challenge. Mainly I want to be free and I want to write. It remains to see what sort of living I can make.
I’ve never taken well to following orders – I remember I particularly hated PE at school not because I disliked sport or exercise, but because I hated the regimentation that went with it. And the cadet force at school was also most unpleasant: what was the point of shiny buckles and marching up and down just for the sake of it? In any job, however good, where you’re not the boss, you have to do what others tell you, to some extent at least – it’s hardly unreasonable if you’re getting paid, and particularly if you’re getting paid by the tax payer. But I have found that having to do things seems to make me anxious. My psychopathology again. So, non serviam.
I have several projects on the go that aren’t too far away from being completed. There’s the second edition of my beginner’s guide to the psychology of language, Talking the talk. I’m proud of that because I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. There’s a student guide to the philosophy of science and psychology on the way. And then there’s a book on consciousness. That should take me to the end of this year. And there’s my book on depression, anxiety, and me, for which my agent is currently trying to find an editor. Publishers and editors interested in the definitive book on the experience and science of depression, contact us (trevor.harley@mac.com).
And the effect of making the decision and signing the deal has been enormously beneficial to my mood and anxiety levels. I feel HAPPY (I do want to shout here) and my anxiety has virtually disappeared. So I’ve decided to reduce my medication.
So I am taking big steps to taking control of my life and trying to cure myself of depression and anxiety: in the last few months I’ve started working out with a personal trainer, and changed the job. And so far it seems to be working. But I know many battles lie ahead.