The Guilt Spiral

The guilt spiral is a mystifying thing that occurs when bad things happen to people around me. I start to feel guilty that the bad things are happening to other people instead of me. And then I start to feel guilty about feeling guilty because bad things aren’t happening to me. At this moment there are quite a lot of bad things happening to people around me.

I think I feel this way because on some level I cannot let go of the idea of fairness and that people should get what they deserve. It’s part of the appeal of television; in most cases the bad guys get their comeuppance and the good guys live happily ever after (well, maybe not so much in modern television – I’m looking at you Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin). Occasionally the good guys will die young and blameless and their equally young and blameless peers will bear the exquisite suffering on their noble faces like the True Heroes that they are. But real life is not a carefully crafted drama where good and evil are balanced, and where some karmic justice is at work. It’s just a bunch of people, muddling along, doing the best we can, and stuff happens that’s mostly outside our control. And then we deal with it. But as someone who grew up with books and fairy tales, a strong sense of justice and a vivid imagination, I on some level refuse to accept this.

And on some level – sadly – I seem to think that I deserve bad things more than others do. Hence the guilt. I haven’t yet in my 35 years been able to exactly determine why I carry this guilt around. It’s not from being unusually lucky, so I feel as if it’s “my turn”. Compared to most of the people I know, I end up somewhere around or above average on the “bad things have happened” scale (don’t worry, I won’t detail my grievances). For the record I would say I’m around or above average on the “good things have happened” scale too.

Of course I was born in Western Europe and always had a roof over my head and food on the table so I also habitually feel guilty for not having been born in say a poor African country. But the long and the short of it is that this cosmic burden of guilt is not doing me or anybody else any good – so I’d like it to go away please.

Because I veer towards being overly analytical, I wrote myself a letter to try to convince myself to stop with this nonsense:

Dear Sarah,

Sometimes bad things happen to people around you. It doesn’t mean you caused it or that you should feel guilty because right now bad things aren’t happening to you.

Most of these bad things you cannot fix. Sure, you can be there and offer what support is possible, but you cannot make friends, family, or colleagues physically or mentally well. You are not a doctor or a psychiatrist. You are not omnipotent. You do not have magical powers. There’s no misplaced Hogwarts letter with your name on it.

My advice to you is this: be there when you can, in the way that you can, for the people you care about. Try to appreciate that you have your health, a happy relationship and that your life is not generally falling to pieces. This is a good thing. It is not something to feel guilty about. It doesn’t mean there’s some glitch in the matrix and actually these things should be happening to you, and because they’re not, it in some way becomes your fault that it’s happening to others. Good and bad things do not happen because you deserve them. They just happen. Your friends deserve to be happy, but so do you. Go. Be happy.


Fuck you depression, step 2: exercise

So I’m sure we’re all well aware of the both mental and physical health benefits of exercise. And to quote the inimitable Elle Woods:  “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands, they just don’t.” (Legally Blonde is my guilty pleasure movie, don’t judge!)

And I understand it’s very hard to get started with, particularly if you’re already feeling depressed, but I have to say I believe it works very well as a pre-emptive measure, and even during periods of depression can help make things less dire if you can just manage to get going. And it doesn’t have to be a major change. Just going for a short walk now and then when the weather is nice can already help a great deal. The human body thrives on being active, and a happy body leads to a happy(er) mind.

And this is coming from someone who does not naturally love exercise or sports. Especially team sports… In school I dreaded team sports even more than maths, and that’s saying something. Not only was I extremely uncoordinated, I also didn’t really take to the concept of people throwing round objects of various sizes at me, at which point I was expected to catch them, rather than  – you know, dodge them,  run away, or hold my arms over my face and scream (Volleyball was the worst. It’s always really obvious when it’s your fault in volleyball.)

I came to exercise in my early thirties, by way of necessity. I was really, really overweight, and I needed to do something about it. As anyone who has tried to lose weight knows,  even though what you eat is the most important part, you need to exercise to try to prevent muscle loss.

After several years of regular exercise (these days normally 5 workouts a week), I must admit I still do not actually enjoy it. BUT, I do enjoy the after effects. In the short term (post-workout) it makes me feel happier, in the long term it makes me feel better about myself – I feel healthier and fitter – indeed I am healthier and fitter. I feel stronger and more confident.

I will probably never be completely happy with myself, but there’s a satisfaction in knowing that I’ve done the things I can do to be happier and healthier.

It’s still a bit of a slog at times, and there are many (most) mornings where I do not want to get out of bed and jump around or go for a run, but I am so convinced of both the long and short term benefits of exercise that I mostly manage to get myself to do it anyway.

If you’re struggling, my tips are:

Find a routine that works for you and stick to it. For me, exercising in the morning works best, as I know from experience that if I leave it till I get home from work it’s too easy to find an excuse (I’m tired, I’m just going to finish this chapter, I’m just going to watch one episode etc. etc.) But in the morning, as long as I manage to flop myself out of bed, I might as well exercise as it’s not like I’m going to sit down and watch Netlfix at 6 AM.

Find the path of least resistance. Building on my previous statement – try to find a form of exercise you find enjoyable, or that you at least hate less than others. Just walking at a brisk pace is already good for you. Plus there’s that fresh air and sunlight that’s rumoured to do some good as well (vitamin D, people!)

Fake it till you make it. They say it takes 21 days to form a habit. So however arduous it is, try to stick with your routine for let’s say a month, and you should start to find that it comes easier, and becomes more automatic.

Set specific goals. It definitely helped me to have a specific goal to work towards. I lost the weight, I’m stronger and fitter than ever, and my next goal is to run the Dam-tot-Dam race (16,2 km) in September. As well as of course keeping the weight from piling back on. Constant vigilance!

So, to recap: more exercise = less depression and less shooting your husband. 😉

But do take care of yourself, listen to your body and don’t push your limits more than is healthy. This week I’ve taken it a little more easy than I’d normally do but I’ve still gotten some workouts in and they do still make me feel better afterwards.

Fuck you depression, step 1: openness

I met an old friend today,
But I turned and walked the other way.

Depression is not so much a friend as an enemy, I suppose. But sometimes when you know your enemies this well, they almost seem like old friends.

Yesterday’s post was part acknowledging to myself that I’m here again now, I’ve come to the fork in the road and I recognise the signs. I have to actively choose to walk the other way while I still can, or I’ll be dragged down. And partly it was a promise to be open to those around me – the great void of the internet, and the people closest to me.

If you open up you’ll find that a surprising amount of people have been through something very similar. And surely there’s some consolation in the fact that you are not alone, even in your darkest hour? Even when you really feel like nobody understands – somebody does. Trust me. You’ll find that there are many around you who’ll find it easier to share their story because you shared yours, and will be grateful for it. This is something I’ve discovered again and again. I mean, choose your moment and your audience by all means. Maybe don’t tell your butcher. But do tell your mum, your partner and/or your best friend – or even find a support group – they’re not just for addicts!

But, sometimes sharing is hard. Sometimes you feel like you don’t have the words or you don’t want to burden those around you – because it is a burden. It’s a burden to know that someone you love is suffering, and you can do very little to help. A very dear friend of mine is currently undergoing treatment for cancer. I can’t fix it, I can’t make it go away, but would I rather not know? Not in a million years. I still have the opportunity of telling her I love her and that I’m here for her and she can talk to me if she wants to, to offer what little support I can. And so I believe it is with depression or any mental illness as well.

I know it’s difficult for poor Boyfriend to deal with all this. He  – luckily – has no experience with or understanding of what it’s like to be depressed. Which is one reason I am drawn to him. He’s pretty much always happy and easy-going, he is a stabilizing factor in my life, my safe harbour. Another thing he is is selfless.

This selflessness is not unproblematic though. My failure to be happy becomes his failure to make me so. I talked to my mum earlier today who had read yesterday’s post and was all prepared with a battle plan. Boyfriend asked jokingly (I hope and assume) if one of her strategies was for me to find a new boyfriend who’d make me happy.

But my darling, we are all very much the masters of our own happiness, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Do I expect and anticipate that you will contribute to my happiness? Absolutely. And I’ve many years of evidence to support it. Do I expect you to be the maker or destroyer of my happiness? Frankly that’s a scary thought so let’s not even go there.

So let it not be your failure, or indeed anyone’s failure. Let it just be what it is. Let us find a way through it together and come out stronger on the other side.

And to you lot out there, sitting in your dark corners thinking you have no one and no one will understand: Please reach out to someone. Reach out to me, if you want, I’d welcome it. I’m never as happy as when my misfortunes, experience, mistakes, trials and tribulations can be of help and comfort to someone else. I feel redeemed; like some small part of it is worth it all.

Be kind to yourselves, people.