Emptying the mind

It’s been a while since my last blog. Who would have thought that being self-employed would mean being so busy? I have been trying to focus on what’s important: my goals in taking early “retirement” from the full-time job have always been to increase my reading, thinking, and writing time.

But we live in a world of distraction. Distraction makes procrastination very easy. I even know of academics who have been encouraged by their “line managers” (what a repellent phrase) to “multi-task” their administration and research. I’m not sure at what level they’re supposed to multi-task – reading a paper while giving a lecture perhaps? – but we know that multi-tasking reduces efficiency: it just doesn’t work. Doing two things at once has a cost (which is why even speaking on the phone while driving increases the chance of an accident, let alone texting and driving). It also increases stress. And we know that doing important, creative work requires focus – you can’t carry out great research while students back their essays. I even have my doubts about one of those great sacrosanct beliefs in academic life that great teaching and research must go together: good teaching requires time, and research requires time, and you can’t be doing two things at once (see above).

I have tried to simplify my life, for peace of mind both for being mentally ill, and in order to be able to think more clearly. I have just been reading Timothy Ferriss’s excellent (if lengthy) Tools for Titans, and it is obvious that I am not alone in pursuing this strategy. Physical clutter is distracting – some of us even find it distressing. Mental clutter is just as bad, perhaps worse.

And how much mental clutter we all must have! How can you live in the moment when you are worrying about what you did wrong this morning and what you have to do this evening? How can you write well when your mind is on the telephone bill?

So here are some of the things that I’ve done to reduce mental clutter.

  1. Write down as much as possible. First I carried out a brain dump of everything I had to do, everything I was worried about, and everything on my mind. This task took a while, and I kept adding to the dump over a few days.
  2. Make structured lists. Over the years I have experimented with several types of list and time management systems. Now someone with an obsessional personality has to be careful of lists – they can easily take over and become an obsession and a distraction in themselves. I recently tried a complex system of email folders with tasks for doing today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, this week, waiting for, and so on … (I am familiar with Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done system and implement a simplified version of it. I have tried dedicated software but am aiming for a simple solution.)
  3. To do. Currently I am using Apple’s Reminders, with several types of list organised by location and time. I am trying to keep it simple. I have tried complicated systems and apps and remain to be convinced that a to do list can be bettered. The important thing is that nothing gets lost, and that I know everything will be dealt with by the deadline. I don’t want to have to think about peripheral things.
  4. Removing distractions. Social media distracts us and increases mental clutter. I can’t go as far as some and remove myself completely from Facebook and Twitter, and I don’t want to delete all my email accounts (and I don’t think it would be a good idea for future employment possibilities). But I don’t need to check my email every hour. Emails generate emails. I have reached the fabled “Inbox zero”, partly by moving things I can’t do now to an appropriate folder. (Actually as I write it is Inbox 1.) There are some emails I can’t do anything about just now, either because they refer to future events or because I need to do something to be able to answer them – they are moved to a “Waiting” folder. I do feel bad about several emails in my “Weather” folder that I plan to get round to when I have time. These are questions about or suggestions for or things to add to my British weather pages (http://www.trevorharley.com/trevorharley/weather_web_pages/britweather.htm). I do feel a bit bad that people have gone to the trouble of writing to me, and I always thank them, but it’s not my day job, and my time is very limited, so I can’t process them all at once. Recognising that we have limited time is a big part of the fight. WE CAN’T DO EVERYTHING. And that means MAKING CHOICES. (Apologies for shouting these statements.)
  5. Meditation. Everyone says meditation is good for clearing the mind and improving mental focus and clarity. I though with my monkey mind find the process very difficult, and probably as a result find the benefits – so far – limited. I will persevere though. I am using Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace site; I like the structure it provides and the implicit coercion. My jury is still out on meditation.
  6. Mindfulness. At all other times I am trying to be mindful of what I am doing now. If a distracting thought arises I try to push it away or if it is something I need to pay attention to add it to my list. It is easy though for obsessive people to get obsessed with clearing our minds, so we are for ever writing down minor thoughts. We all also occasionally at least need to plan what we’re going to do: living in the present doesn’t imply drifting.

Interestingly, as I was half way through writing this blog, the following landed in my inbox and caught my eye (I know, I know):

http://calnewport.com/blog/2016/12/18/on-digital-minimalism/

Finally, we should think about whether it’s even a good idea to strive for an empty mind. Life isn’t that simple. Things are always cropping up, and surprises are always happening. Rather than avoiding shit we must learn to respond to shit in the right way. The more I think about it, the more important I think this point is: we will never achieve a perfectly empty mind. It’s our responses we need to change.

Have a good Christmas and New Year everyone. It’s a difficult time of year for people with mental health problems – if nothing else it’s so dark in the northern northern hemisphere. So just hang on in there.

How to cure yourself of depression

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That’s a big claim to catch your eyes and score highly on the search engines. I hope.
To be honest I don’t think you can cure yourself without help from others or drugs or both. I didn’t. And in fact I don’t think you can be cured of depression: I’m not. In fact this blog has been delayed because I’ve had a relapse, and have been feeling extremely depressed this past few days. At the moment (who knows in the future?) depression is a life sentence without a cure; the best we can do is keep it in abeyance for as long as we can, and if we’re very fortunate, that might be for the rest of our lives.
But there are many things we can do to help to help ourselves, and I’m going to talk about some of the things that have helped me. I think everyone might find them helpful; if you’re not suffering from depression, then maybe these will help you to live just a little better life.
And apologies if they seem blindingly obvious to you; they weren’t to me. I’ve learned them the hard way.

Drugs.
If you are really depressed, and if it has been going on for any period of time, you almost certainly need them, and you have to see a medical practitioner to get them. In the UK that means your GP or a psychiatrist, who then writes to your GP. They will almost certainly start you off with an SSRI. Do some research: there are many anti-depressants out there, and they work in slightly different (and mysterious) ways. They take time – weeks, months – to take effect though, so don’t be too dismayed if nothing has happened the next day. You should hopefully start to see an improvement within a few weeks. If the first one doesn’t work, then you will need to try another. It’s preferable that you have someone to monitor your mental state and behaviour, because you are often not the best person to judge if you are getting any better. Different drugs have different side-effects on different people, and if you find yours unbearable, again you should discuss changing drugs with your medical advisor. There are alternatives you can get without prescriptions (e.g. St John’s Wort, SAM-e), but these had no discernible effect on me. If you’re interested, after many years and changes of medication I have settled on Duloxetine (Cymbalta) for depression and Quetiapine for anxiety.

Other people.
You cannot fight severe depression alone. You hopefully have already seen your doctor, but probably should be seeing a psychiatrist as well. I have tried different sorts of clinical psychology and therapy, and have eventually found a cognitive-based therapy system that looks at your childhood, attitudes, and relationships to be a revelation. Different things though seem to work for different people. You will need your friends too, and need to be open with them that you are depressed. Fight that stigma!

Changes.
There are many changes I have made that I think have contributed to my shift towards wellness.

Work.
For want a better name – that thing that someone else pays you to spend your time doing. In the first instance you might need a period of time off work – look into your sick leave entitlement. Contact your HR department.
I took a long hard look at my academic job and decided I had had enough. There are many things I liked about it, but an increasing number of things I no longer enjoyed and that seemed to me to be pointless. On the other hand I love writing and journalism, so I decided to “retire” and become a full-time writer. It’s a financial risk. It might not work out. I might be poor for the rest of my life. But at least I feel that I am in control, and doing only what I think is worthwhile.
You might say I’m lucky being in the position to retire and become self-employed, and you’re probably right. But what is your health worth? What big changes can you afford to make? Is the big house and fast car really worth what you’re having to endure? And big changes don’t apply just to work either: is that toxic relationship really worth staying in?

Exercise.
I think you have to be starting to get well to make some of these changes, or at least not in the pits, but I decided I had to lose weight and get fit. I, like many depressed people, am pretty useless at self-discipline. So I joined a gym and signed up with a personal trainer. It’s one of the best calls I’ve ever made. I’ve lost over 25 pounds so far and my weight is still going down. I feel so much better; I have more energy and after each exercise session my mood is lifted. There’s plenty of evidence for the positive effects of exercise so get to it. And no, I still don’t really enjoy doing exercise, particularly cardio, which I find painful and boring.

Fresh air and light.
Many of us who are depressed really benefit from more light. I try and maximise my exposure to sunshine, even sitting outside when it’s sunny but in the cold depths of winter. I have a light box that I use even in summer when it’s dull. I try and get as much fresh air and to get outside as much as I can even when I’m busy working at home.

Diet.
I have tried many diets (in the sense of modes of eating) and as I have blogged before find the science complicated, confusing, and contradictory. One certainty is that you have to cut sugar and refined and processed food right out of your diet. I have also greatly decreased the amount of carbohydrates I consume. My breakfast will be something like prawns, berries, another piece of fruit, and nuts; my lunch fish, sweet potato, and home-made baked beans; dinner lean white meat or fish, lots of vegetable, and nuts. It’s a bit boring and expensive, as I don’t like spending large amounts of time cooking for myself, but I see no alternative. I also take good quality fish oil supplements. I have cut back on the amount of wine I drink but still find some each evening calms me down; fairly harmless self-medication in moderation.

Mindfulness and meditation.
I find meditation difficult – sometimes it hurts my mind too much to sit still with nothing but my thoughts, even for as little as ten minutes – but I try. And I do gain a great deal from being mindful – trying to live in the moment and be present. The evidence suggests that mindfulness training might be as effective as medication. There are many good books and resources on mindfulness training, so give it a try.

Thoughts.
I have tried to change my cognitive structure – saying “I am not my illness”, working out what the really important things are in my life and changing those things, trying to be honest with myself, and trying to be kind. I accept responsibility for things I do wrong and acknowledge the role of others when things go well. Or rather at least I am trying to do these things!

Routine.
I have written about my search for a perfect routine so many times before (blogs ad nauseam). How can the writer find a perfect day when they can write something good every day and yet fit everything else in? But a routine of some sorts is essential if you are or have been depressed. It’s boring and others might mock you for it, but you’re the one that’s ill or have been ill.

Sleep.
My problem, particularly under medication, is staying awake at night and waking up in the morning. However I used to have terrible trouble getting to sleep. The most important thing is to choose regular times and stick to them, come what may. I have a particular problem with waking in the morning, so I set my alarm for 7.20 and get up at 7.30. Occasionally I really struggle, but I will always be out of bed by 7.55.

Gratitude diary.
My friend Ian Jay swears by a gratitude diary – somewhere towards the end of each day you list three things that day for which you’re grateful.
It’s important to do the things you have decided help you, particularly if you feel yourself becoming ill again. If you’re getting a bit down and start skipping your exercise you’re going to be in trouble. So write out a list and tick the things off every day.
I hope you find some of these ideas useful. Good luck with the fight regardless.

The war against sleep

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I worry I sleep too much, particularly being depressed and having been so ill. I would like to get up cheerful and alert at 7.15 every day, but rarely manage to do so. If at all possible, I nap in the afternoon. I need at least eight and a half hours a day, and preferably nine, or even more. That’s a lot of my life asleep. And as I struggle out of bed, my first thoughts are wondering when I can next get back to it again.

When I was much younger, with two scientifically minded friends I tried a sleep deprivation experiment. We went for 40 hours without sleep – missing one night. The going is hardest in the few hours before the time you would naturally wake up. So come 5 am we felt pretty rotten. The worst symptom I remember was nausea, which fortunately seemed to be cured by a good old-fashioned fry-up at the normal time for breakfast. I don’t think I could get past 1 am now, I need my sleep so much.

A few years ago I came across the obituary of the British writer Colin Wilson in the Daily Telegraph. I was both slightly surprised, as though I had expected a greater fuss to be made of his death than a short obituary a few days after the event, and sad, because in spite of some of his strange musings on Atlantis and the paranormal, I thought he was an inspirational thinker and writer. He called himself a “new existentialist”, and wrote about how humans routinely underachieved in failing to fulfil their potential.

Wilson introduced me to the ideas of the Russian mystic and philosopher George Gurdjieff (d. 1949, birth date uncertain). Gurdjieff sported a Dali-esque moustache and had apparently perfected the useful technique of being able to give a woman an orgasm just by looking at her in the right way. He also argued that we spent much of our time “asleep” . By this he meant not just that we were in bed dozing away much of our lives, like me, but that we we living automatically, reacting to life without being fully aware (also like me). Colin Wilson talks of “the robot taking over” our lives.

These words strike a chord, and I know exactly what they mean by living automatically and the robot taking over. I am in this automatic, non-reflective state much of the time. I wake up, have breakfast, start work, have lunch, a rest, do yet more work, have a bath, have a glass of champagne, watch a movie, listen to music, read, go to bed, and then invariably have vivid violent dreams. And I repeat the next day. The robot lives my day; I am in a sense asleep even when I am awake. I am less clear what the alternative to being asleep is though. Of course it’s being awake, but what does being awake feel like? I do have moments of what are called in the literature “epiphany”, when I feel a surge of happiness and almost mystical oneness with the world. Being awake is I think being aware, and being aware of being aware. You’re aware of being alive and aware of being awake. You can place yourself in a context. Living properly is a war against sleep.

I remember a story told by Gurdjieff’s follower John G. Bennett. I have tried to find the exact quote, but have failed, so if you know where it came from (and perhaps can tell it more accurately), please let me know. Bennett describes how he had spoken to Gurdjieff, and then carried on with his life. The robot took over. Then a few weeks later something prompts him, and he comes to his senses again. He says something like “I realised that I had been asleep for two weeks, and then I woke up”. I know exactly what he means.