Illumination 08 – Dane Cobain

Writer Dane Cobain talks to me about anxiety and depression, and how self-employment helps him stay well.

‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Dane Cobain, as told to Harriet Williamson.

My name’s Dane Cobain and I’m a published author and freelance writer. I spend every waking moment either writing or thinking about writing, and it’s awesome to be able to make a living from it as my own boss.

I write a little bit of everything, and I have fiction, non-fiction and poetry out – as well as a horror screenplay. I don’t think I work in a particular genre, although I’ve been labelled as a horror writer before, and I quite often write about technology and the effect it has on us as a society. I’ve been writing since I was about sixteen – so at least ten years and maybe a little longer.

I suffer from anxiety and depression. The depression kicked in during my teens and the anxiety started in my early twenties. I tend to be quite open about it and try to provide comments like this where possible in the hope that they might help other people.

I take Citalopram at the moment and took it for quite a while in the past. I tried Amitriptyline once but it didn’t work so well for me.

Anxiety/depression have less of an effect now than they used to, but part of the reason for that is that I’m now self-employed. I found that full-time employment tended to exacerbate them both, and it was often difficult to talk to bosses etc. about what I was feeling. For some reason, it’s not as accepted to take days off for mental health issues as it is to for physical health.

I think that anxiety and depression still have an impact on my life, particularly in how I go about my day to day business. I don’t like leaving the house much, for example. And I tend to feel safer/better when I’m able to follow my productivity routine and to get some writing done.

To stay well, I tend to use a whole range of little tricks. For example, if I start to feel stressed then I play guitar and sing to vent some steam. If I feel a panic attack coming on, I do some colouring in as it takes my mind off things. I usually tend to feel better if I keep myself as busy as possible.

I think my mental health does inspire creativity, in a way. The two are definitely closely linked. If I’m feeling down about my writing skills then it can lead me to feel depressed, and a big deadline can make me anxious. But it also gives me fuel that I can write about – for example, I’ve written poems about anxiety and given characters a little bit of anxiety here and there.

I think you have to remember that your mental health doesn’t define you. You should never be ashamed of it. Ultimately, you have to put your mental wellbeing first, and it’s more important than your career. But that’s not always easy to remember.

I actually find that my mental health conditions often either inspire my writing or at the very least writing can take my mind off things. I usually find that if I keep as busy as I can, the anxiety doesn’t settle in as much because my mind is too busy.

When that doesn’t work, I’ve found that colouring in works pretty well – and so does sticking a comedy on, especially when it’s something that you’ve seen plenty of times before. The depression is a little harder to deal with – you just have to sort of do your best to overcome it, and I often go to sleep if it’s particularly bad.

The good thing about writing and being creative is that it’s often not something that you turn on and off – you can usually force yourself to keep writing. It just might not be particularly good.

@danecobain // amazon // goodreads // danecobain.com

Illumination 03 – Michael Finn

Poet Michael Finn shares his experiences of depression and how he confronts his demons head on.

‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Michael Finn, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m 26 and I work full time for HMCTS as your regular office drone. Although my career lacks creative opportunities, it’s dull and boring enough to afford hours of time thinking about concepts and new ideas that manifest in my spare time. I have a poetry blog read by 100,000 people, and I intend to publish several novels I’m currently working on too (once I hone my writing skills and develop my techniques further).

I currently suffer mentally, and I have from around the age of 16. I am severely depressed, but high-functioning enough to go about my days unstricken for the most part. Periodically, however, that highly functional part of my condition disappears completely, and down the spiral I go. I become reckless and carefree. I simply don’t give heed to anything anymore.

This results in the everyday suicidal thoughts pushing all else aside, taking centre stage in my mind, and have led to multiple attempts of taking my own life, the worst of which was August 2016, when two attempts failed in a 48 hour period thanks to drunken dumb-luck and embarrassing eye-contact with a colleague.

Having tried multiple techniques of managing my illness, I find a few things help me the most: being completely open about it with people I meet online, anonymous or otherwise; embracing it wholly, running with it, and laughing at myself and the depression to make it seem less overbearing and omnipotent. I call depression ‘my lover’ to make it human, for instance, because that’s exactly what it is.

ugh

Finally I often sit and think about it—why I feel low, what has possibly brought this about, how did it start—in an attempt to navigate through this maze-like state of mind to the core of the bad thoughts and break the particularly bleak spells. Though this can be bruising, the hard-faced confrontation ultimately works. Listening to gloomy music paradoxically helps me too, as the music and I seem to understand and communicate better when it matches my mood; happy, upbeat music tends to deepen the slumps and makes the m harder to escape.

Depression definitely impacts my creative process. I lose all interest as my mood worsens and I physically can’t write anything when I’m at my lowest, due to blockages and non-existent energy. It’s only when I’m over the worst of it that I can write, and the writings thereafter are about that episode’s sensations, which is cathartic no-end.

The main piece of advice I would give to people is to not run away from your illnesses, tackle them head on. Running only encourages them to chase you, and when you beat your ills face to face, you’ll feel a butt-load lighter and like you’re carved out of wood. Secondly, I fully encourage people to talk about how they feel; talk about your state of mind in all its raw, warts and all detail to whomever you feel can help you most.

Healthful Chat worked wonders for me as my anonymity remained intact and I spoke with people going through the same shit I dealt with. There’s a whole range of chatrooms to go on, and you never get people making a pass on you or dick pics or creeps sidling up to you. If these suggestions don’t work, just experiment until you find something that does. There are cures out there, it’s just a matter of having the resolve to go out and find them.

hellopoetry.com/mouthpiece // @_MickeyFinn

I’m pleased Lady Gaga has spoken out about depression, but it won’t help to cure anyone else

In Britain, we are facing an unprecedented crisis in mental health, particularly among young people.

First published by Independent Voices, 12th September 2016

In Britain, we are facing an unprecedented crisis in mental health, particularly among young people. The charity Mind estimates that one in four people will suffer from a mental health condition each year.

Lady Gaga is the latest celebrity to speak openly about her struggle with anxiety and depression, issues she says are exacerbated by her huge fame and the pressures of living life in the public eye. Her publicist has confirmed that she takes medication to manage these conditions.

It has given the tabloids yet another chance to gleefully publish spreads of pictures of the pop star – captioned with mentions of her “revealing outfits”, because there’s nothing we like more than to see the vulnerability of successful women coupled with their casual sexualisation.

It’s so easy to feel strange or freakish if you suffer from mental illness. There’s still a great deal of stigma associated with many conditions, particularly the more ‘unacceptable’ illnesses such as borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. It can often be helpful to see that even the most successful, wealthy, famous and beautiful among us face mental illness too, because it removes a certain shame from being a sufferer.

However, the importance of celebrities opening up about their mental wellbeing should not be overstated. It is equally important that those we know and love in our daily lives are open and transparent about mental health. Friends and family are much closer and more involved in our lives than any celebrity, their efforts to be encouraging or offer support are far more tangible. Knowing that celebrities like Lady Gaga share their conditions does not necessarily help sufferers to heal or manage their own illness; the love, support and honesty of those in our daily lives can help to do so.

Lady Gaga is also quoted as saying that she wouldn’t “encourage young people to take anti-depressants or mood stabilizers” – a problematic statement that places prescribed medication in the same category of recreational drugs. Obviously it’s irresponsible to encourage young fans to indulge in casual cocaine or heroin abuse, but anti-depressants, if prescribed by a GP, can be helpful.

The most useful thing for Lady Gaga to do would be to encourage her young fans to seek professional help if they’re suffering from mental health problems, not apologise for or distance herself from psychoactive medication, or express any view on whether another person could benefit from it. If you need it and you’re prescribed it, take it – and take it without shame.

If we’re serious about tackling mental health in Britain, we cannot rely on celebrities to speak about the issue to our young people. Parents must be provided with resources to help their children understand depression and anxiety, an approach championed by Young Minds, a charity that specialises in helping parents and young people. Information on mental wellbeing should be widely available in schools and made part of the curriculum.

Though public spending is being cut back, it is absolutely essential that oversubscribed and inadequate mental health services are overhauled and improved. Young people can spend six to 12 months on waiting lists for treatment, when their mental health is incredibly fragile and their lives feel worthless. Many people are regulars in A&E just because they know that, by turning up, they will be seen and heard by someone in the medical profession. Others are held in police cells due to lack of available beds.

There are good economic reasons for acting: if the crisis in mental health is not addressed, the economy will continue to lose millions of working days every year, pressure on the NHS will increase (including due to drug addiction, excessive eating and alcohol dependency as manifestations of untreated mental illness), and we will become an increasingly unhappy nation.

I’m pleased that Lady Gaga feels comfortable enough to speak out about her illness, and it’s essential that the stigma around mental health is eradicated through openness and honestly. However, we must not imbue these celebrity admissions with more power than they really possess. Speaking out does not, by itself, solve the mental health crisis.

There’s so much work to be done around mental wellbeing in Britain. We must all roll up our sleeves and work for the acceptance and recovery of those around us, not sit back and wait for another famous face to tell their story.

If British girls’ mental health is at crisis point, why are we still refusing to change our schools?

Britain’s girls are at crisis point. In terms of their mental wellbeing and self-esteem, this is no exaggeration – and their parents are ill-equipped to realise the signs.

First published by The Independent, 24th August 2015

Britain’s girls are at crisis point. In terms of their mental wellbeing and self-esteem, this is no exaggeration – and their parents are ill-equipped to realise the signs. Research released today by Girlguiding UK has found that girls as young as seven are experiencing mental health problems, and these issues only grow more common throughout secondary school and into early adulthood.

The findings show that for girls aged 11 to 21, self-harming is one of the biggest health concerns, followed by cyber-bullying and mental illness. Out of the 1,574 girls surveyed, nearly half (46 per cent) reported having mental health issues, while even more (62 per cent) said they knew someone who’d suffered from a mental health problem. These figures should be shocking, but they aren’t, because the pressures facing young women are more pronounced and numerous than ever.

It’s not enough to get a string of perfect GCSEs or A Levels nowadays, you see. You need the Instagram-worthy group of friends, the attentive and good-looking boyfriend, the lips of Kylie Jenner, the curves of Jennifer Lawrence, the doe eyes of Zoella, and the reputation of being sexy and desirable without being a ‘slut’.

If your life isn’t perfectly cultivated online and offline, then woe betide you in a group of your peers. My sixteen year old fears about my MySpace profile not being customized adequately seem positively antique next to current worries about cyber-bullying and the phenomenon of ask.fm, where participants can be deluged in some of the most vile and disturbing anonymous abuse available online. Some of the abuse that teenage girls pile on each other in the virtual world make 4chan look like a unicorn’s rainbow playground.

And it doesn’t stop with aggressive ‘thinspiration’, either. There’s a strong sexual dimension to the online concerns of young women, particularly as many girls are pressured into sending explicit pictures and videos to boyfriends or would-be boyfriends, only to have them widely disseminated online or shared round school. Some girls are forced to disrupt their education and move schools after being publically shamed in this way. According to the same Girlguiding report, in the last week, 75 per cent of girls agree that anxiety about sexual harassment has a negative impact on their lives. It’s a perfect storm of aggression, isolation, harassment and misery.

So where do young girls turn when mired in this high-pressure environment? It seems that our medical services are ill-equipped to cope with the culture we’ve created. Deep cuts (8 per cent in real terms) have affected existing mental health services, despite a 20 per cent increase in demand. Meanwhile, only 13 per cent of NHS funding is allocated to mental health treatment, even though mental illness accounts for more than a fifth of the disease burden. Lack of information in schools, social stigma, long waiting lists, and GPs ill-equipped to spot early warning signs of mental illness are all barriers to young people getting the treatment they need.

We can help our young women. We can do so by opposing further butchering of mental health services by the current government. We can teach girls to mistrust images of perfection, in advertising, pop culture, and on social media, and let them know that from an academic perspective, their best is always good enough. Simple efforts like media lessons that point out how to spot Photoshopping, or expanding extracurricular activities alongside academia, can help to deconstruct poisonous beliefs about inadequacy.

Alongside this, we can campaign for comprehensive sex and relationship education that focuses on consent, respect, and healthy relationships between young men and women to tackle the culture of harassment and sexual abuse that often starts in schools. And above all, we can do what’s truly radical: listen to girls, and believe them when they tell us about their experiences.

How Borderline Personality Disorder Put an End to My Party Days

In the summer of 2010, just before I turned 19 and in my first year of university, I attempted suicide with a month’s supply of my antidepressants and ended up in intensive care, breathing on a machine.

First published by Vice, 10th August 2015

In the summer of 2010, just before I turned 19 and in my first year of university, I attempted suicide with a month’s supply of my antidepressants and ended up in intensive care, breathing on a machine. By my second year, my good-time friends had had enough of me. I was no longer invited out, and became very isolated and increasingly unhappy. I got into an abusive relationship and attempted suicide another two times. I was also bulimic – vomiting everything that touched my lips.

During the first year of my undergraduate degree I reduced my calorie intake to 250 a day – about two and a half slices of bread or five medium apples – and started to go slowly insane. I drank, took drugs and went to clubs with a religious fervour. My body started to cave in. I was starving and my hair started to fall out. My nails went blue. My skin turned to flaking scales. I once ate a burger after a night out and forced myself to run up and down the stairs until I actually passed out to “make up for it”. I went to my campus GP and told him I needed help. At five and a half stone, he said I wasn’t sick enough to warrant eating disorders treatment, and Borderline Personality Disorder was never even mentioned.

People couldn’t keep up with my impulsive behaviour, the manic phases and the fits of crying. The labels of “drama queen”, “attention seeker” and “total fucking mess” followed me around like a bad smell. I tried to conceal it, but being called those things hurt. I didn’t know how to explain that all the stuff I was doing was an attempt to manage my out-of-control emotions, because when I’m going through a bad patch it feels like being on a sickening rollercoaster – only, I can’t get off.

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Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at the mental health charity Mind, describes BPD as “a very broad diagnosis that can include lots of different people with very different experiences”. He told me that BPD can involve experiencing a number of symptoms for extended periods of time, including “feeling worried that people might abandon you; feeling very intense emotions that are also very changeable; feeling like you don’t have a strong sense of who you are; finding it hard to make and maintain relationships; acting impulsively; having suicidal thoughts or self-harming; feeling angry; feeling paranoid, having psychotic experiences; feeling numb; or feeling empty or alone a lot of the time”.

To me, it was more like going from feeling suicidal and totally despairing, to reasonably positive within an hour. The intense mood swings were terrifying because they were – and still are – coupled with impulsive urges to harm myself or do things I know I’ll later regret. The negative emotions I have are immobilising. They crash over me like huge waves, knocking the wind out of me and forcing me underwater. It means living with a devious voice in my mind that whispers ugly thoughts and orders. It tells me that I’m a shitty person, don’t deserve to exist and that my life is meaningless.

Author, pictured right.

According to the NHS, personality disorders often become apparent during a person’s teenage years and are commonly associated with childhood trauma, with eight out of ten people with BPD experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse during childhood, or parental neglect.

I wasn’t neglected by my parents. I had a very happy childhood up until I started secondary school. It was the kind of school that concerned middle-class parents tend not to send their kids to. Discipline in classrooms was practically nil and I was bullied badly, branded a “lezzer” and a “dyke”, greeted with laughter whenever I entered the room, pelted with chewing gum, dismissed by boys as a “rat” and a “dog” that “no man would ever want to touch”. Girls would pretend to be scared of me in the swimming pool changing rooms because I hadn’t realised, age 11, that I was meant to shave my legs.

This continued for about two years, and by the time I was 14, I’d become completely disconnected from myself and overwhelmed by feelings of worthlessness and anger. This was when my impulsive behaviour kicked in, and I started self-harming, drinking, taking drugs like cocaine, mephedrone and speed, and looking for attention from dubious men. I didn’t know what Borderline Personality Disorder was. I began limiting myself to 1,000 calories a day and visiting pro-anorexia websites. I told myself that I’d feel calmer and people would like me and the raging hurt would leave me if I just became thin enough.

It wasn’t until the end of my second year of university – when I was finally accepted on to an eating disorders treatment programme – that I was finally diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. I did a course of Compassion Focused Therapy, which is designed for people with high levels of shame and self-criticism. I learned more about how to navigate my overwhelming emotions, and not listen to the hateful voice that pushed me to starve myself and hurt my body. The therapy was coupled with medication to help me sleep and negate some of the crushing depression that so often accompanies BPD.

Some BPD sufferers hear voices outside their heads, usually with instructions to harm themselves or others, and at the more extreme end of the spectrum, some sufferers also experience prolonged delusions or beliefs that they cannot be talked out of. Others – like Rachel Rowan Olive, a girl I talked to who also suffers from BPD – tend to disassociate or shut down when their emotions become too difficult to deal with. “BPD is hard to describe to someone who doesn’t have it. I never liked the label ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’. It’s the kind of term that makes people back away slowly. I used to think that a lot of the criteria for BPD didn’t apply to me, but as time has gone on, I can connect things that have always been part of me to the diagnosis.

“My main problem is self-harm and that’s the most outward and obvious symptom of my BPD. I experience a lot of anxiety, so I feel like if I’m going to be frightened anyway for absolutely no reason, I might as well make myself frightened of something that’s real and within my control. I experience a level of emotional dysregulation, where I end up feeling really empty a lot of the time. I think a big part of it for me is finding it hard to tell the difference between my emotions and other people’s. I notice it even with fiction – if I’m reading or watching TV I can end up getting panicky because it’s like I’m feeling what all the different characters are feeling at once and I don’t know which emotions are mine any more.”

Nowadays, I try to keep my environment as calm as possible, and use distracting and soothing techniques to mitigate the effects of bad episodes. Most of the time I keep my emotions under control, but there are still times when I swing between crying and not being able to get out of bed, hyper productivity and manic states where I’m tempted to be super-impulsive.

I still have a hard time forming long-lasting friendships. The majority of my friends from school and university are no longer in my life. Part of BPD is forming intense relationships that don’t last very long, and the illness ends up being very isolating. My emotions are so overwhelming that other people find it hard to understand why I’m laughing and bouncing around for no reason, and then suddenly in floods of tears. I don’t usually tell people that I have BPD because I’m afraid they’ll judge me.

Managing Borderline Personality Disorder usually involves a combination of medication and talking therapy. There’s no drug specifically licensed to treat BPD but mood stabilisers, antidepressants and antipsychotics (all of which I take) are commonly used. Rachel uses Dialectical Behavioural Therapy to manage her BPD, coupled with art therapy at a studio in Hackney. She will also plan her week out in advance to give herself a sense of structure and control.

The stigma that surrounds all mental illness is vastly unhelpful, does much to damage sufferers and can prevent them from getting help. As a “personality disorder”, BPD gets more than its fair share of social stigma. People with BPD aren’t cold and emotionless, as Rachel felt others perceived her to be, or attention-seeking and deserving of social isolation, as I was dubbed at university. They are merely trying to manage an illness that’s every bit as real as a physical condition, with the tools they have at their disposal.

It’s very easy to succumb to feelings of frustration and hopelessness when you’re stuck on a waiting list and it might be six months to a year before you even get an assessment appointment for any kind of therapy. Despite this, it’s essential that anyone experiencing BPD-like symptoms informs their GP. No one should have to get to such a breaking point with their mental health that they try to end their life. It’s five years since I was unconscious in intensive care, unable to breathe, with a nurse washing my hair because of all the sweat that had run into it. I owe it to my partner, my parents, my sister and myself not to end up back there.

Depression at University

I was depressed at university. I have friends who were depressed at university. Depression is the most common mental health problem in the UK, occurring in a fifth of adults, according to research by the Office of National Statistics.

First published in The Huffington Post 13th August 2013

I was depressed at university. I have friends who were depressed at university. Depression is the most common mental health problem in the UK, occurring in a fifth of adults, according to research by the Office of National Statistics. So why still is this admission accompanied by a sense of shame? I’m almost curling my toes in embarrassment as I write this, wanting to add some amusing disclaimer, like ‘I’m not nuts really’, as though I need to make up for the fact that I’ve suffered from a mental illness. Ideally however, shame and silence should have no place in a discussion about depression.Starting university can be a stressful time for everyone, regardless of whether or not your serotonin receptors are doing what they’re supposed to. Between high academic expectations, a daunting workload, living away from home for the first time and various financial worries exacerbated by the hike in tuition fees, it’s easy to feel adrift and unprepared. Worse still though, is the nagging sensation that it is weak or stupid to feel depressed during a time of freedom, fun and new friends. However, belittling the illness does nothing to improve the situation and can actually discourage people from seeking treatment. You wouldn’t expect someone with a broken bone or a viral infection to ‘just cheer up’ or ‘pull themselves together’, and depression shouldn’t be taken any less seriously.I’ve detailed a couple of ways to feel better while studying that were relevant to my own experiences, and perhaps the most important of these involves refusing to isolate yourself. Making connections with others and getting involved in social activities, even if you just feel like hibernating beneath your duvet for the next year, is a good way to combat chronic low mood. Sometimes it’s a real struggle, and you might feel like you’re trapped behind a wall of glass, watching the people around you have an amazing time, but don’t get disheartened. The prevalence of depression means that more of your university peers will have experience of the illness than you might expect. Give your friends the benefit of the doubt when wondering whether or not to share your feelings.

During my first year, I experienced a lot of academic doubt when I realised that I was on a course with lots and lots of other people who were much better at my subject than I was. I was used to consistently gaining top marks, but in the more expansive world of higher education, this was not always the case. Initially, I felt hopeless and wanted to give up, but by reaching out to course mates and vocalizing my worries I quickly found out that I was by no means the only one having this difficulty. I began to see university not as a tooth-and-nail struggle to be the best, but more as an opportunity to learn from others around me. Feelings of inadequacy are common, particularly when there is a great deal of pressure to succeed. Your personal tutor is responsible for your pastoral care and is a good first port of call here. They genuinely don’t want you to feel academically insecure!

I found that the student lifestyle itself was actually pretty good for creating conditions in which depression can flourish, particularly in terms of alcohol. Students are notorious for their high levels of alcohol consumption and lots of society activities revolve around drinking, particularly in sports clubs. Alcohol is a well-known depressant and can have a significant impact on your mood. My point here is not that you shouldn’t drink at university or that going teetotal cures depression, but that a more balanced lifestyle is helpful in terms of regulating mood. When I reduced my drinking, I definitely noticed a change. A balanced approach to food and sleep, factors that can become pretty disrupted as a student, is also helpful. A friend on my MA course candidly describes his poor diet, vitamin D deficiency and ‘numbing routine’ involving alcohol as contributing to his depression in an obvious way.

All universities have support services that cater for a variety of different needs, including Nightlines and campus counselling services. Utilize them! It can be helpful to try several mediums of support before you choose the one that is the ‘best fit’ for you. Services do vary between universities, as one of my course mates describes his experience as ‘farcial’ due to very long waiting lists and others are very positive about their interactions with campus counsellors and GPs at university practices. It may seem like the biggest and most obvious cliché out there, but don’t feel like you’re alone. Depression is an illness that feeds on loneliness and silence. Don’t give it the satisfaction of either.