All posts by LittleLightRoom

Planting seeds

Hey lovely! How’s summer treating you so far?

If you follow me over on Facebook, you might have seen that I decided to keep Little Light Room going (hurrah!). This blog and the social channels are about my personal journey. Lightopia CIC is the light nutrition hub I’m creating with my directors’ support. So, I wanted to give you insight into what I’ve been up to and the new things I’m discovering. I’m excited to share it with you! 😀

Making lots of new connections

I’ve been blown away by people’s generosity in sharing their experience, advice and connection recommendations with me. I’ve held over a dozen stakeholder ‘interviews’ ranging from 30 mins to two hours. From a standing start as someone who experiences Seasonal Affective Disorder and just knows a bit, they’ve challenged my perceptions and helped me begin to form a great picture of the light nutrition industry and its challenges.

I’m incredibly grateful to contacts at Lumie, Signify, Mind UK, Tyneside and Northumberland Mind, Society of Light and Lighting, Bright Design Carbon Solutions Ltd, Lifelight Studio, The Light Review, Jordans, Robus, LightAware, Roecklein Psychology Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, NBS, Work in Mind and Slow Shopping.

I’ve got a huge list of people I’d love to speak to, which gets longer with each conversation!

In May, I attended a training session for four Belgian doctors. I was used as a case study for them to learn from. I also got so much value from this session, where I was assessed by Ian Jordan for sensory processing issues. As a family, we’re heading to see Ian at his practice in Ayr next week. I plan to do a post on our experience of Ian’s work and its outcomes on Lightopia in the future. For now, here’s the Facebook Live I did after my first session:

In addition, I’ve attended a few events including Newcastle Startup Week, the NCVS Funding Fair and ILP Professional Lighting Summit. I’ve also become a trustee and director for Involve North East. This is a fantastic charity giving a voice to the people of the North East about their healthcare.

Getting out of my comfort zone

Screenshot of Little Light Room Instagram story showing Neina.
Instagram stories experimenting

I’ve been doing some work to push myself out of my current comfort zone with visual media. I’ve been doing some Facebook Lives and recently started experimenting with Instagram and Facebook stories.

For me, this is quite a big step because I used to shy away from even having a photo taken on my own. I couldn’t bear the thought of appearing on video. I don’t really like ‘being seen’ – I much prefer to be behind the scenes.

I’ve got a lot more I want to learn about how to shoot and edit videos, which is in my year plan. But the important thing, for now, is to get used to being on camera!

Introducing Lightopia

Talking about getting out of my comfort zone, in June I delivered my first public presentation on light nutrition for the RSA in Newcastle.

It was a fantastic opportunity to take stock of all I’ve learned so far and share it with an engaged audience. I used the time to speak about the topic, get some feedback and held a brief discussion.

This was great for building on the one-to-one informal conversations I’ve been having with people. It’s so important for me to engage with people to understand the real problem we’re dealing with, the barriers to tackling it and what might be useful. Only then can we develop solutions that have impact.

Re-embedding habits

Eee I’m really made up about this! I’m running again! After being told ten years ago I should never run again – and with many frustrating attempts to prove the surgeon wrong -I’m now able to run two miles non-stop to the bottom of our village and back up! I can’t tell you how good that feels! 😀

I don’t know why now is the time I’ve really taken affirmations on board after many times of hearing about it. I credit this to Lisa Bean and one of her fantastic Facebook Live training sessions that form part of her DARETOGROW – The Online Course. Lisa challenged us to think about what we are telling ourselves. I chose running to work on and voila – after changing ‘I can’t run’ to ‘I frickin’ can run!’ (thanks Lisa!) I now am!

Otherwise, I’ve been trying to get enough sleep, eat well and ensure I get out for light walks.

Educating myself and removing blocks

Sometimes working towards your vision is about the enablers and removing barriers. Two of the areas I’ve been focusing on for the last few months are driving and finance.

I passed my driving test in February 2008 and never drove once since. Now I’m living in a semi-rural village I have more reason to get a car. I’ve had a course of refresher lessons and am slowly building up my confidence with getting out on my own!

Financially, I’m aware I have blocks. I caught myself telling my mentor that the level of funding she wants me to secure for covering my salary was too high and I can get by on much less. That was interesting information and gave me an indication that I need to do some work in this area, which is ongoing.

Remember in my last post I said I wanted to explore whether there could be something unconscious triggering in autumn? I occasionally work with an amazing NLP Master Practitioner/hypnotherapist and I went to see her in June. We uncovered a possible trigger, that I’d lost someone at Christmas when I was 16 and did some work around that. It remains to be seen whether it helps, but I certainly felt lighter after our session – I’ll keep you updated!

So… lots of planting seeds, working on the foundations of Lightopia and as ever, on myself!

Let me know in the comments if you’ve any questions or any topics you’d like me to cover in future posts?

Feeling out of sorts?

Do you ever get those mornings when you wake up feeling out of sorts and you can’t figure out why?

Well, that was me this morning. I have days like this from time to time and there won’t seem like a logical explanation for it until I give myself a little gentle questioning and quiet time to let the answer surface.

I’ve invested lots of time, money and energy in all sorts of self-development work over the last 15-ish years and so I tend to combine bits and pieces that work for me. What I was doing this morning draws on breathing techniques I’ve learned from a therapist I see occasionally, some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques, questioning and listening from reading Dr Darlene Minnini’s Emotional Toolkit book, and self-compassion practices from Professor Paul Gilbert.

I thought I’d share this with you so you could give it a try the next time you find yourself feeling out of sorts too:

  1. Find some quiet time on your own where you won’t be disturbed – allow around 20-30 mins if you can.
  2. Close your eyes, breathe in for a count of five and let it out as slowly as you can (around a count of seven is ideal). As you breathe out, consciously drop your shoulders and say ‘relaaaaaax’ in your mind.
  3. Call to mind when you’ve been compassionate and kind to someone else and see the expression and hear the tone of voice and type of words you used.
  4. With that same tone of voice ask yourself questions like ‘How am I feeling in my body? What is my mind focusing on? Is there a tone of voice to my thoughts?’ Try not to judge anything that comes up – keep your compassionate tone and think how you’d treat your best friend or a small child.
  5. Now you have a couple of clues from the questions, ask yourself if you are feeling e.g. angry, sad, disappointed, overwhelmed, worried, lonely, etc. Again, just pay attention to any signals from your body or mind and don’t judge – you might feel tears prick, or a clench of your fists or jaw, or another word or insight may float up to you.
  6. Tell yourself ‘it’s okay to feel that way, it’s safe, I accept it’ or whatever compassionate words you need to hear. Then ask yourself ‘what do I need to do for myself to feel better?’ Listen to what comes up. You might be surprised at how simple the answer is.
  7. Take three slow deep breaths, open your eyes and go do the thing you need to feel better, or if it’s something longer-term, take the first step towards it.

Let me share how this worked for me this morning.

When I got to 4. I realised I’m feeling tense and agitated in my body. My thoughts were whirling all over the place and had an urgency to them and a tone of – it’s hard to describe – but kind of an impatient parent/teacher. My thoughts were focused on my Lightopia work and how Little Light Room fits in or doesn’t – whether they should be combined. Where I should put my main focus in the talk I’m doing later this month. How I’ll achieve the public research and engagement I want to do – what questions I need to ask. The people I need to follow up with from conversations I’ve had this last few weeks. And generally my brain was buzzing with the information I’ve learned, the complexities of this field and how can I help people best?

With these clues, I asked myself am I anxious? Excited? Resentful? Overwhelmed? Bingo. Tears pricked with overwhelmed and a little voice floated up saying ‘what if I can’t wrangle all this into something useful and I’m wasting everyone’s time and making sacrifices I don’t need to make?’

There was something else too. I gave myself this week off from my freelance work because I wanted a break. I promptly filled my diary with meetings, calls, an event, and wrote myself a big to-do list! I have been aware of and joking with others about this all week as being typical of me!

I’ve been enjoying the work I’ve been doing and I’ve been seeing/speaking with friends and my fiance too – I’ve had a grand week! But what floated up when I asked what I needed to feel better was ‘a cup of tea, don’t schedule today and just do something that gives me pleasure this morning before I go to my meeting’.

So here I am, lovely, sharing some thoughts with you, because I decided that what would give me pleasure is to just write in my own voice and see if I could share something that might come in handy for you one day – and I really hope it does!

Out of the other side… again

I have started writing so many times over this autumn and winter to share my experiences with you and stopped myself. Because I haven’t posted since August, I’ve been giving myself a hard time.

I tell myself and other people that the reason I didn’t post is that I felt I needed to come out of the other side before I have any useful lessons to share.

While that is true, it’s only part of it. The other part is that I became very symptomatic this year and I felt ashamed of myself. I beat myself up asking myself, “how can you possibly hope to help others when you can’t even manage this condition yourself, Neina?”

I was so annoyed with myself! I’ve invested so much time, money and energy in learning how to manage the condition; not just with light, but also tackling general wellbeing and mindset aspects and building helpful habits. I felt like I’d taken five steps backwards!

Now I’m feeling more my usual self, I can reflect and realise that it’s not that I ‘can’t’ manage the condition. It’s that this year, I didn’t do it well! As a result, it was like going right back to before I was diagnosed and started learning how to stave off the symptoms.

Here we go again…

You might have read my previous post where I talk about the sudden arrival of these anxiety symptoms. Each year for four years now, it’s been the same – sometime in October – bam! It’s like a switch flicks and these symptoms just arrive! I was on antidepressants the last two years which definitely took the edge off, so it was a shock to experience the full effects of this again after coming off them!

I wake up feeling nauseous. My heart races as if I’ve just sprinted, even though I’ve been resting. I tremble uncontrollably as if I’m freezing cold. My hair falls out. I have unexplained dry skin patches that appear suddenly. I lose my appetite, so feel like I’m forcing food down and it makes me gag. I’m really thirsty. I have dizzy spells. My stomach is bad. Arggghhhhh!

I’m sure you can imagine how challenging it was to get on with normal day-to-day life when I was feeling this way physically – the racing heart and shaking, in particular, were so distracting and really upset me. I got worried that people could tell and fretted about what they’d think of me. Clearly, those thoughts are bound to feed the anxiety!

This year it lasted for five weeks, but it felt like so much longer! It disappeared as suddenly as it arrived, in early December.

I suspect this is a Seasonal Affective Disorder thing. My theory is that it’s possibly being triggered by sudden changes in light levels and sending the brain chemicals haywire. It seems to coincide with the clocks going back. Also, November up here in Greenside, Tyne & Wear, was a month of almost unbroken heavy grey cloud and rain – it didn’t seem to get light all month! By contrast, December onwards has felt more balanced.

After this, I had what I would recognise as more typical SAD symptoms, for me – being ‘up and down’, with brain fog, irritability, tiredness, lack of motivation to do things I normally enjoy, feeling less sociable, losing confidence and being hard on myself. Some days I felt great; others I felt a mess. And then in early February, I felt like I suddenly got ‘me’ back again.

Learning points

Talking it over with a couple of friends, they’ve helped me to realise that while it was tough to go through, I can choose to be grateful for this reminder of just how awful SAD can be when I’m not managing it proactively. I wasn’t grateful at the time though – I’m not that virtuous yet! 😉

But coming out of the other side and looking back over autumn and winter, it galvanises me to think about how many other people are going through this each and every year. I realise I got complacent and that’s why I didn’t manage it so well this year.

It also leads me to analyse what might have made the difference this year, which as ever, isn’t clear-cut:

  • The weather – November was very grey
  • Getting less natural light and exercise – I used to walk briskly for 20 minutes to work each morning in the daylight even in the depths of winter, but this year I was starting my working day inside before it got light and wasn’t doing much else exercise-wise
  • Poor lighting – I moved in late September and the ceiling light is poor where I work at home. I wasn’t using my SAD light consistently either
  • Changed routine – since moving in with my fiance I’ve been inconsistent with practising a morning routine – I had previously been doing exercise, meditation, gratitude practice, affirmations, using my light while I ate breakfast, etc., but I fell off the wagon again!
  • Life changes – once again, I’ve been through a period of change on the career, home and relationship fronts. In this last year, I was made redundant, went self-employed, got engaged, moved in with my fiance and his dog to a semi-rural village, and we’re adapting to life as a new family with his fantastic kids staying every other weekend – phew!

I do feel frustrated looking back on this now. It’s not that I was unaware of any of it the last few months – just that I was symptomatic and so I felt lacking in motivation and was beating myself up about it!

Going forward?

As spring’s coming in, I’ve naturally begun to feel more energised and motivated, so I’m now taking walks in the morning light in addition to the lunchtime walks I take, and I’ve reintroduced some other elements of my morning routine. It’s easier once I’m not symptomatic, of course!

I’m also in the very early stages of developing Lightopia CIC, so I’m doing a lot of research and mapping around the light and wellbeing arena. I hope that I learn some new information that could help and will keep you posted.

Some people have suggested that it’s possible that I’ve developed an unconscious anxiety about autumn coming in, so I might explore that some more. Other friends have pointed out that I fight with this a lot; I don’t accept it. I had been flowing with it more in previous years and showing myself more compassion, but I definitely got angry at it all and myself a lot more this year! So that’s another area to work on!

Really, though, I think that proactive management via healthy habits are the key. I need to find some way of keeping myself on track to prevent the symptoms from taking over.

I’d be interested in hearing if you have any experience or tips to share! Feel free to comment on this post, or send me an email.

Antidepressant withdrawal effects – my experience

Antidepressant medication is undoubtedly a life-saver for some people. My number one piece of advice where the decision to take antidepressant medication is concerned is to educate yourself, make an informed decision that’s right for you and don’t be too hard on yourself if you make some mistakes in managing this – I certainly have made a few that I want to share with you with the hope you’ll find it helpful and maybe even avoid making the same ones as me!

One of the things that I feel isn’t discussed enough is what happens when you’re ready to come off antidepressants. I hope that this post outlining my own recent experience will be helpful for you if you’re considering going on or coming off antidepressant medication yourself, or if you’re supporting a loved one with this. If you’re feeling vulnerable at the moment, please come back and read this article when you’re feeling stronger in case you find it triggering. 

If you read my story last year about burning out and how I felt about being on antidepressants, you’ll know it was a difficult one for me to write and made me feel very vulnerable, as these personal posts continue to do. The good news is I’m improving and squirm a little less when talking about it now! 🙂 I was really resistant to accepting medication and felt the stigma when I was put on Citalopram by my doctor. After coming off six months later and going through awful and unexpected withdrawal effects, I was put back on them again – this time for over two years.

Coming off antidepressant medication

It’s now a month since I took my last antidepressant and you know what? I’d say it’s bloody tough – maybe more than you’d imagine – but it’s doable. You can do it. Even when it’s scary. Even when you’re not sure you’ll manage it. Even when life’s throwing curveballs. Obviously, it’s better to do it when life’s more settled if possible, but we can’t always predict these things!

I felt much better prepared this time. I consulted my GP and followed his advice to the letter, tapering since April so I would reduce through spring and come off in summer when my Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) symptoms are usually at bay. Things were feeling pretty stable in my life. I was ready!

Now, I’m pretty bloody-minded, I’m afraid. Some would say stubborn! I made my decision when I was coming off the medication and I wasn’t letting anything stand in my way! So of course… cue lots of unplanned big life changes to test my mettle! 😉 I was made redundant at the end of April. I got engaged in June. Then I went self-employed and am working to build two businesses. I’ve just been on a family holiday for the first time with my fiancĂ©’s children and parents and I’m preparing to move house… all while tapering and suffering withdrawal effects – eeek! What did I say last year about lessons learned?!

I saw my GP again around two weeks before I was due to take my last tablet. I was managing the tapering pretty well at this point. His advice was mixed. One moment, on hearing about my life changes, “well should you be coming off them, then?” A resounding ‘yes’ from me as I was excited by my progress! To then, “well since you’re only taking 5mg every other day it’s nothing… just come off now.”

Hmm. This is the problem. I had a plan, and I stuck to it. I naively believed I’d have a much easier ride this time as I’d tapered over four months. I’d read up about it in advance this time and knew where I’d gone wrong last time. I knew to expect a bumpier ride as I got down to the lower dose. But I was only on what my doctor had called ‘a mini dose’ of 10mg to start with… so I would be fine, right?

Well, not entirely – but at least I had some previous experience with this! With hindsight, I can see that it wouldn’t really matter how much you’re on to start with as you’d have tapered down over longer, reducing your dose. As it turns out, coming off 5mg doses of a short half-life antidepressant can still give some people a rough ride!

I had all the same physical stuff as the last time I stopped – nausea, dizziness/vertigo, feeling disconnected from my body, sweating, pins and needles from shoulder to fingertips, brain fog and insomnia – delightful! I didn’t have the ‘brain zaps’ some people get, though – small mercies! These are pretty much the same symptoms I experience when starting them, too.

Did I mention that being the genius I am, I’d also very helpfully timed my last tablet to be a few days before a bout of PMS kicked in? Joys! Emotionally, the numbness I’d been experiencing lately while on antidepressants gave way to a flood of emotions – literally! I felt very tearful and fearful for a couple of weeks. This can be really scary if we’re not prepared for it because it can make us feel like we’re ‘re-lapsing’ into depression or anxiety.

We need better education about antidepressant withdrawal effects

I’m a bit of a ‘seeker’, so naturally, when I was feeling really awful I researched further to find out more about what was going on. What I read made me feel a bit better, seeing that what I was experiencing was ‘normal’. But in the thick of it, I also felt angry, to be honest – with myself mostly – and with my prescribing doctors. I’m not saying I was right to be annoyed – I just was!

I thought that while my doctors had been very insistent that I should take antidepressants, they hadn’t discussed with me just how difficult it can be for some people to come off them again. But then I reflected that maybe they didn’t understand it themselves. And I hadn’t educated myself fully before going on them, either. I’d put a drug in my body for a prolonged time without completely understanding the consequences and how tough it would be to stop. I felt really stupid. Worse still, I’d never been fully convinced that I needed them, especially as the weird autumn stuff happened regardless!

In a New York Times article I read, a couple of psychiatrists admitted that they only fully appreciated how tough it was to come off the medication when they did it themselves. Maybe this is the difficulty – just as you can never fully understand how depression or anxiety feels until you’ve gone through it yourself.

So, I think that while it’s brilliant that as a society, we’re starting to discuss mental health more, I’d love to see more education for everyone about antidepressants, their side and withdrawal effects. Mind is a good starting point – I’m really grateful for their website!

So, what have I learned, that I’d like to share with you?

I gave an overview of my personal advice based on my experience at the top of this article. I’m sure you can see the mistakes and lessons sprinkled throughout, too! Everyone’s different and ultimately you need to decide in consultation with your doctor what’s right for you individually.

However, here are some pointers I would give myself if I had a time machine and could go back in time:

Make an informed choice:

  • It’s really important to educate yourself about antidepressants and their withdrawal effects. This allows you to make an informed choice about whether you want to take them or not. You’ll know what to expect when going on and coming off them, so be less worried about any side or withdrawal effects
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor for some time to think about it before being prescribed antidepressant medication. Know that you ultimately have the choice and it isn’t one to be rushed unless it’s a medical emergency
  • Discuss with your GP whether you’ve tried all the alternatives – have you tried lifestyle improvements like exercise, eating a healthier diet and getting more or better quality sleep? How about talking therapy/self-help like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)? Light therapy if it’s Winter Blues/SAD?

Prepare for coming off antidepressants:

  • Plan carefully for stopping your medication when life feels stable, you’ve got a good support system and you’re feeling strong
  • Prepare to taper for longer than your GP might first advise. You can cross-check with Mind’s helpline advisors if you’d like a second opinion, as they say this is common
  • If you’re on a drug with a short half-life (I was on Citalopram; Sertraline’s even shorter) open a discussion with your GP about switching onto an antidepressant with a longer half-life (e.g. Fluoxetine). You could also ask about a liquid medication so you can reduce your dose by tiny amounts. Again, Mind can advise you about this
  • Learn about and practice self-compassion and self-care so that you can show yourself kindness as you reduce and come off
  • If you’ve already been open with family, friends and colleagues about your depression/anxiety and medication, you could let them know your plans so they can provide support and understand what’s going on

And now?

We all love a happy ending to a story, don’t we? While it’s still early days and I’m not counting my chickens just yet, I’m feeling loads better. 🙂 I still have a touch of insomnia, but everything else seems to have settled down.

What I hadn’t prepared for was the lovely upsides; things feeling more vibrant! I feel like I’ve had a big woollen muffler taken off my senses. I’ve found that colours seem brighter, music richer-sounding and I have a keener sense of smell and taste again. And yes, this does mean I’ve been going around smelling the roses!

I’ve also started to feel more connected to my feelings and intuition again in the last few weeks. Even when I’ve been tearful and anxious I’ve felt grateful in some measure. I really missed the sense of living that comes with experiencing feelings fully. That’s a difficult one to explain, but I hope you get some sense of what I mean!

As ever, the patience and loving support of my fiancĂ©, friends and family have been instrumental in helping me navigate this transition – so much love coming your way! <3 I’m so grateful for you as readers, too – you continue to inspire me to keep showing up and sharing my lessons with you all.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions below in the comments, or if you prefer to email privately you can reach me on

Sophie Gradon: In Memoriam

Sophie Gradon has been in the news a lot this last week since her tragic death, leaving her family, friends and a legion of fans shocked and devastated. Me included.

Like many, I laughed and cried along with Sophie when she was on Love Island in 2016. I never imagined I’d be shedding tears of grief for her just two short years later. Her death has hit hard because the world has been deprived of a truly wonderful woman whose soul was as warm and beautiful as her smile.

Sophie Gradon

Remembering Sophie Gradon

Despite swearing off any reality TV after becoming transfixed by an early Big Brother series(!), I couldn’t resist watching Sophie’s season on Love Island. I loved watching her on the show because she just hadn’t changed from when I studied with her a few years before. She was as funny, feisty and mischievous as ever!

I keep closing my eyes and seeing her grinning her welcome as we came into class. Waving that flipping teaspoon of peanut butter she was sucking around as she was talking animatedly and nearly making Shan sick! Her face a picture of compassion when I was going through a rough time and struggling to concentrate in class. How she looked so embarrassed when someone quizzed her about her modelling and how humble she was about it. Her sadness and the gritty determination that flashed across her features when she talked about some of the knocks she’d taken early in her modelling career. Her anxiety when she was getting so stressed and overwhelmed by too many communications and social media notifications coming her way, and her guilt that she was struggling to keep up with people.

I just can’t get my head around that light going out.

The importance of maintaining healthy boundaries for mental wellbeing

However much I’d have loved to keep up with Sophs, I didn’t because it was clear even back then how her popularity exerted a pressure. She had such a big heart that like many of us, she struggled with guilt about not keeping in touch with everyone as much as she wanted to. For me, being a friend to Sophie was keeping at arms length; only there when she wanted me to be.

I deliberately took this approach because I understood a little of the feeling. When I was seriously ill and burning out I had zero energy and wanted the world to go away because I just had nothing more to give. I had intrusive thoughts about harming myself so that I could escape the treadmill of responsibility and stress, take a rest from everything for a while.

It can be so difficult to set and maintain healthy boundaries around your time and energy, and to whom you give it. Who you let in and who you don’t. Whose opinions matter to you and what to do when people abuse you. We’re often not taught this stuff effectively.

For many of us, our mobile phones have become like another limb. Constantly to hand, we’re constantly interrupted. Our attention is pulled around and it can make you feel out of control and overwhelmed, especially when you’re struggling with anxiety or depression. We can derive support and solace from using social media and connecting with friends and family, but the flip-side is that sometimes it can make us feel worse.

Anne Katherine’s Where to Draw The Line is a book I’ve found very helpful this last year or so, to start understanding this stuff more. A more recently-published book on this topic is by Jennie Miller and Victoria Lambert.

Make depression and anxiety the enemy – not each other

Nobody will ever know what went through Sophie’s mind in the moments leading up to her death. I can’t even begin to contemplate it to be honest – it’s just too upsetting.

In the aftermath this week, I’ve read a few truths, but mostly untruths and assumptions. At times very ignorant opinions posted by people who didn’t know Sophie at all and yet feel it is appropriate for them to pass judgement on her. I’ve been angry as I’ve seen her boyfriend receive vicious remarks on Instagram for sharing his grief. I’ve seen everything including Love Island, social media, fame, lack of NHS funding and even (sickeningly by a troll) her boyfriend blamed for her death. I’ve seen people state that the world let Sophie down.

Please – for the love of all that’s good in this world – can we treat those who cared for her and are now grieving and heartbroken with kindness and respect?

While the shock and anger that come with grief is totally understandable, there’s no point blaming anybody for Sophie’s death. Blame is toxic. Hatred is toxic. They are entirely worthless wastes of energy and they will not bring Sophie back.

If you need to blame something, then the enemy we must all fight is mental ill-health.

Sophie’s legacy

Sophie Gradon's tweet 6 June 2018

Sophie was very open lately about her battles with mental ill-health. She spoke of the guilt she felt when she found it necessary to withdraw for a while. She let people know when she was feeling stronger. She was publicly sharing her grief over the death of her close friend Paul Burns when she posted the above tweet.  And I’d agree – ain’t that heart-breakingly the truth, Sophs.

The tragedy of losing someone so young and seemingly with the world at their feet throws everything into sharp relief.

Mental ill-health doesn’t always look like you think it does. It affects males and females, young, old, rich, poor. Everyone in-between. With 1 in 4 UK people experiencing a mental health problem each year we must continue to drive awareness. So-called ‘smiling depression’ is particularly hard to spot, explained well by Rachael’s case study. People can be highly functional and some might not even realise the depth of their illness themselves.

Sophie’s star has gone out far too early and it’s tragic that she’s no longer with us. All we can do is try to honour her life by working to prevent this awful, insidious illness from claiming more lives. Sophie was supportive of raising awareness of mental health issues and I’m as determined as ever to continue my work over here in my little corner of the world.

Sending love and sympathies to her family, boyfriend and other friends. I can only imagine your pain.

Rest In Peace beautiful Sophie. 

Please, be aware of these organisations if you’re ever concerned for someone or for yourself:

Light. What’s the big deal?

We humans are amazing, aren’t we? Ever since the invention of artificial light sources we have been able to control our body clocks. Our circadian rhythm is regulated by light and affects so many different functions within our body. It’s why Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and its milder form, Winter Blues can be so difficult to pin down a diagnosis on.

Fatigue, apathy, brain fog, carb cravings, lack of libido; feeling depressed, anxious, demotivated and unsociable. In the UK we can spend half of our year or more experiencing these symptoms. The severity ranges from barely registering and ‘just a bit meh’ to being unable to function physically and mentally. And this is affecting nearly a third of us in the UK. I just don’t think that’s okay.

We talk a lot about more now about quality of life and being happy. We have huge Government campaigns for diet and exercise to reduce obesity. In turn, they hope to reduce life-threatening and NHS draining conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart failure.

Shining a light on an important subject

Notebook page showing handwritten notes on plans for Little Light Room, by Neina Sheldon

What few people have been talking about is our basic human need for optimal levels of light. I’ve been banging on about this for well over a decade now and at times people have looked at me like I have two heads. I haven’t been able to understand why we’re not talking about it. Once you start doing so, it seems so obvious, doesn’t it? Since I first started blogging about this in 2012, my vision has grown and grown. This picture shows a mind map of my vision I drew up in 2016.

The tide is turning. I can see and feel it. I talk to people about this now and they get it. The conversation about mental health is growing. People are starting to understand their need for healthy diet, hydration and exercise and I genuinely believe that the missing piece of this jigsaw is light. After all – when all you want to do is bury yourself under your duvet and eat ALL the carbs, it’s hard to maintain your diet and exercise regimens, isn’t it?! 😉

I spent last week at Newcastle Startup Week and talked to people about all this – my passion project, as I’ve come to call it. I want to impact on individuals, organisations and Government policy. I want future generations to be free of SAD and Winter Blues. I want natural and top-up artificial light therapy to be a basic right for everyone. I’ve got the why in spades. I have tons of ideas for the what and the how, but I know I can’t do it all alone.

What is a healthy light right?

No more working and studying in windowless workspaces. No more tints on the windows that block much-needed natural light. No more shaming people if they want to take a breather outdoors. No more. No more. No more.

Instead, I want EVERYONE to have an awareness and take responsibility for their own light needs for their wellbeing. I want employers and building engineers to think about lighting workspaces with wellbeing in mind and not just health and safety. I want employees to be able to take breaks during their work day to get some fresh air and natural light with no judgement or questions asked. I want Government to legislate this because I suspect many employers and building engineers would only take responsibility for this if they’re forced. I want getting enough light to be so easy and natural that we no longer have symptoms caused by lack of light. I want us to design solutions for our changing climate with our light needs in mind.

I finished Startup Week full of hope, but as overwhelmed by my huge vision as ever. “There’s so little valid and reliable research or conversation happening out there on light for wellbeing; how will I convince people we need to make these things happen?”, I thought.

Answers from the Universe?

I don’t know if you believe in fate, the Universe, God, Source or any of these things. I am beginning to, more and more.

I cried with joy earlier this week when my boyfriend called me late at night to tell me to look at VELUX’s brand new ‘The Indoor Generation’ campaign, launched on 15 May. And I couldn’t sleep for hours afterwards, I was so excited!

Why? Because the fact that a huge company like them are now talking about the problems that result from us not having enough natural light and fresh air is huge validation. More than that, they’ve used their resources to conduct up-to-date research with a huge sample of 16,000 people across 14 countries.

That same morning, my boyfriend had told me he’d ordered me a light meter so I can measure the light intensity of areas (he’s adorable!). At the weekend, following a conversation with a contact the previous week about his office light levels, he told me he’d talked to his staff about it and discovered they feel down when it’s dull.

So what now?

Let’s get talking about this more. Let’s start letting more light in to our homes and workspaces. Let’s get out into the fresh air and natural daylight as much as we can. Let’s support the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association. Let’s lobby our Government to enhance their campaigns with light as an enabler of healthy diets and exercise. Let’s introduce bright lights in autumn and winter, like these from Lumie to top-up the natural light we get. Let’s put ourselves in the best position possible to live healthy lives.

I’m super excited to see where this goes and to be part of it. If you’re working in this space, I’d love to hear from you. Please connect with me on LinkedIn so we can start a conversation.

Embracing hibernation this autumn and winter

Hey there! How are you getting on with autumn? Are you going into hibernation mode yet? If not, what’s stopping you?

At this time of year, we can feel a real pressure on us. There’s different festive events to plan and prepare for, and it can all feel a bit much when our body is crying out for nourishment and quiet. So here’s a few thoughts to ponder and see if we can move through autumn and winter this year in a different way.

Joining in nature’s rhythm

Autumn treeWhat would it be like if we followed nature’s example? If we saw autumn as being that wonderfully fruitful time of year when the leaves have done their job and begin to shed.  The energy they’ve collected producing beautiful fruits and seeds that will create new growth or nourish our bodies… What if we treated ourselves the same? What if we’d already been blossoming and blooming throughout spring and summer, and now were harvesting the fruits of our labour with satisfaction?

And winter. What if we embraced the colder, darker months as nature does, using the time to quietly and consciously plan for the coming spring? Nourishing ourselves. Restoring ourselves. Gathering strength and energy ready for us to grow afresh and blossom in spring?

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Is it possible for us, with our busy lives? Well, not completely, perhaps. I mean, most of us do have to get up and go to work or get on with looking after children, parents, or whatever other commitments we have. How we choose to spend the remainder of our time is our choice – whether it feels like it or not! 😉

Embracing cosiness

What is hygge?Our Danish cousins have got this one all figured out, haven’t they? They use the term ‘hygge‘ to describe a feeling that doesn’t really have an English equivalent, but broadly is about feeling cosy, content and appreciating a moment.

There’s been a lot of interest in this term over the last year or so, and it’s created a broader curiosity about other cultural practices. So other books about finding your Swedish Lagom (balance) and Japanese Ikigai (life purpose) have followed.

What they all have in common is awareness. Slowing down and noticing what’s in front of us and what we need to be well.

Why do we resist slowing down?

This isn’t an easy one to answer, but perhaps for many of us it is a fear of missing out, or of being perceived as being boring, or lazy?

So what’s the answer? Well – it’s about finding out what’s holding us back individually and challenging those beliefs gently. When we uncover them, we can treat ourselves with compassion – they were probably there to protect us in the past. But if they’re outdated and we no longer want them, we can replace them with beliefs about what we do want.

When we go through a period of illness that debilitates us it often teaches us a life lesson; that the world won’t come to a stop when we do. People will rally, stuff will drop off the to-do list as it really isn’t that important, and life goes on.

The challenge

We all face a challenge when it comes to managing our time. We receive more information in one day than our grandparents did in their lifetime, so it’s no wonder we’re overwhelmed!

Would we find it easier to consider transforming our time, rather than changing it? For example, if we’d normally go out with friends, to invite them for a cosy evening in instead? Rather than forcing ourselves to the gym when we really don’t want to go, does a brisk walk out in the crispy leaves feel better? When we must do the housework, can we do it in our PJs with big cosy socks on, and a steaming mug of tea/coffee after each bit?

Happy autumn! 😀

Please excuse me while I’m being human…

You know what? Having Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) really sucks sometimes! But I’m only human and sometimes I fall down.

I know, I know; that isn’t the usual positive message I give about managing SAD. But it is the truth. There are times when I really struggle with it and I feel sorry for myself. Times like this week. I get annoyed that not only do I have to spend half my year – every year – managing my symptoms just to try and lead a ‘normal life’ during autumn and winter, but I also have times in spring and summer when it catches me out.

Being only too human…

High Force WaterfallI’ve been struggling for the last three weeks. Here in the north east of England we’ve had almost solid rain on weekdays, with nice weekends. I’m really grateful we had sunshine on the weekends of course; I’ve made the most of it in our beautiful countryside and I’ve felt good on those days. There’s nothing like sitting on a high rock with your feet dangling over the edge of a huge waterfall to make you feel care-free! 😀

In summer, I don’t use artificial light therapy because there’s normally enough natural light for me to be feeling great! The thing I struggle with is that I don’t know how long a rainy spell will last, so it doesn’t always occur to me to use my light. Then the symptoms sneak up and bite me on the ass, which is what happened this week!

I’ve been feeling tired, frustrated, irritable and a bit paranoid into the bargain. I’ve been giving myself a hard time over just about everything. My work is challenging (in a good way – it’s why I took my job!) and there are naturally times when I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere with my objectives, despite working hard. Change isn’t linear and there will always be times you feel like you’re going backwards! Usually I accept this, but with my symptoms getting the better of me, things built up.

It came to a head; I had my first panic attack when I got to my desk on Wednesday. It came out of the blue and was pretty mild compared to what I know some people experience, but nevertheless I hope I don’t have any more!

Being vulnerable…

I’ve been more open at work about how my SAD is affecting me than I have ever been. I worry about seeming unprofessional, and sometimes maybe I am. But I’m also human and I am so grateful for how my colleagues have responded this week.

My boss told me it’s okay to take the day off sick if I need to recharge when I told him I needed to use my day differently – to take stock, make a new plan, look after myself and find some energy. I really appreciated this; I knew I didn’t need to be ‘off’ – but just to let myself get things in focus and plan a way forward.

Tyneside and Northumberland Mind logoOur company partners with Tyneside and Northumberland Mind, who piloted their Sally Allen Fund employer mental health awareness presentation with us. It is allowing different conversations to take place. It gave me the confidence to email our MD and let him know what was going on and what steps I was going to take to make myself feel better. He was as concerned and supportive as I expected him to be.

A colleague took me for a cuppa while we discussed if there were any adaptations we could make in the office. Another was there for me when I was having the panic attack. She took me outside, gave me a hug and helped me recover. Still others were kind and accepting that I was having a tough week.

Standing still a moment…

As ever, when I’ve taken some time to reflect on what’s going on, it isn’t just one thing. It’s back to the same old story; SAD is never in isolation.

Work challenges. Life changes (lovely ones, but still change!). Everyday irritations like starting my day mopping up because my conservatory bedroom leaks! Not looking after myself properly. You know – same old, same old! 😉

Everything interconnects. My hormones and brain chemicals will be imbalanced if I’m feeling stressed, not eating and sleeping well, not taking time out for myself and exercising. This impacts everything else, as well as the SAD.

Of course, it’s a double-edged sword because SAD causes me to feel tired and struggle with energy and motivation, so I’m less likely to look after myself well when I’m symptomatic. I end up turning to quick ‘fixes’ like carbs, sugar and caffeine, which of course don’t fix anything!

I was annoyed with myself. I felt I was being a crap friend, crap employee, crap girlfriend. I was telling myself off because I have no real reason to feel so bad; things are actually really good in my life right now! I screwed up on an important presentation because I wasn’t on good form, and that’s how I finished the working week. Come Friday night I was so exhausted and fed up.

Dusting myself off…

My friends, family and boyfriend (yep – I’m newly in a relationship!) are absolutely wonderful and I make no apologies for the amount of times I say that! 🙂 They are always there cheer-leading or soothing. They get and support me no matter what – and there’s nothing more loving than that.

As I climbed into bed on Friday, I told myself, “You know what, Neens? You’re only human. Everyone falls sometimes. What’s done is done. So pick yourself up and dust yourself off, now.”

Balcony gardening and readingSo, I’ve made sure I’ve eaten properly, exercised and slept well. I also thought about what helps me feel better in spirit. I bought myself flowers on my way home from work on Friday. I spent yesterday planting flowers on my balcony, cooking, reading, listening to music, dancing, catching up on messages from friends and family. And I spent lots of time in the sunshine, which made a reappearance!

I’m feeling lots more ‘myself’ today as a result. I am really not perfect – nobody is – and I think I need to learn to be more accepting of that. I have a real stubborn perfectionist streak; at times I hold myself to impossible standards I would never expect of others. I’ve done a lot of work over the last couple of years on the inner critic and developing self-compassion. Sometimes though, the old patterns of thinking take over and I find I’m beating myself up as of old. But life’s about putting one foot in front of the other and doing your best. That’s all I can be and do. I’m only human, after all.

Stigma and sitting with fear

Last month, I published and shared a post on my social media channels about using antidepressants to manage SAD and touched on the stigma I felt about them. It really seemed to resonate. So much so, that it had over 900 views. I received around 100 comments and private messages from friends, family, colleagues and even people I didn’t know. This response was completely unexpected – so humbling and overwhelming.

I felt such a wall of love and acceptance around me and over a month later I’m still feeling bowled over by it. Thank you so much if you’re reading this and you were one of the people who reached out to me. I’m not able to do justice to describing how much it meant to me.

So, what did we learn about stigma from this experience?

The first thing that became clear to me and hopefully to everyone else, is that the world doesn’t come crashing down around you if you share your experience of depression, anxiety, SAD, burnout, adrenal fatigue, mental/nervous breakdown… or any other common type of mental ill health.

I hope that if you saw the Facebook post you took strength and inspiration from the wonderful people who commented. You should be able to click on the comments icon after the post to read them:

I had a huge ‘vulnerability hangover’ after sharing this post and I wanted to delete it. How glad am I that I sat with that uncertainty and fear now though?! 🙂 If I hadn’t, we wouldn’t have seen the level of support that people can show when we allow ourselves to be known.

Is stigma a misunderstood term?

Interestingly, some of the conversations highlighted people’s different understandings of what stigma is. It made me wonder whether we have different interpretations of how much of a problem stigma is because of these discrepancies.

In its dictionary definition, it sounds very severe: “A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” (Oxford Dictionary)

For me, it isn’t just about an obvious ‘mark’ that would indicate something about a person, that you could perceive from the outside. And it might not always feel like full-blown ‘disgrace’; it can also be disapproval or contempt. I believe that is still stigma.

Anything that incites shame around a condition, circumstance, character or behaviour, I would call stigmatising.

I’m really interested in hearing in the comments what you consider stigma to mean, if you feel able to share?

Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes…

This commonly-quoted Indian-American proverb of unknown origin is as wise and relevant today as it has ever been. When we look at what is happening in the world, we see so much suffering that stems from judging others.

Most mental health stigma seems to come from lack of knowledge. It’s okay for us not to know what we don’t know! But the distinction is that it’s not okay to negatively judge and criticise what we don’t know – that’s what makes it stigma.

Often, we can hold opinions about something that are not our own. We can soak up the general feeling and opinions about a topic like a sponge. Children in particular are primed to learn from others in this way. We can teach them well or poorly.

If you hear enough people criticising antidepressant users, for example, you can shame someone for taking them, without knowing anything about them.

The majority of people we know would consider themselves to be non-judgemental, I’m sure. If they say something out of lack of understanding we forgive them, when they respond in an open way as we have a conversation with them about the topic.

The need for empathy

Sadly, as is so often the case in life, our memories are coloured disproportionately by the minority. Those individuals and experiences that leave you feeling raw and vulnerable. Our primitive brain makes us protect ourselves from further harm by magnifying and making us feel fear.

I have an example to share with you from my own personal experience from a few years back. Talking about my experience of SAD one day to my team, my colleague interrupted me and said, “don’t be ridiculous; you can’t get depression because of the weather!” At first, I thought maybe what sounded like contempt was meant to be a joke. Her first language wasn’t English, so I understood that sometimes this can happen.

However, as the conversation progressed it quickly became obvious that the contempt and attempt to shame me was deliberate. She couldn’t empathise and refused to listen to my explanation, believing she was right and she knew more about depression than I did. The real kicker was that some time later she started to complain that she felt that the weather was making her tired and getting her down, while asking for my advice about a dawn simulator. Had she been able to empathise earlier she might have been able to recognise and head off her symptoms before they started to affect her.

Little Light Room - less stigma more love

Opening up…

The memory of this experience and others like it is what bubbled up in me as I was sharing my post last month. The irrational thoughts of ‘what if people think I’m weak or just being self-indulgent?’ and ‘will this damage my professional profile – what will my colleagues and clients think of me?’ were very loud and insistent!

So why did I not only publish the post, but share it publicly on my social media channels? Well, I feel passionately about the topic of improving mental health and our need to overcome stigma as a major barrier to this. But I felt like a fraud because I was still hiding the extent of my experience myself. I genuinely want to help people understand and feel understood, but fear was holding me back.

The reality is that most people are able to empathise, if we are brave enough to face down our fear of being judged and share. Only by more people being more open will we be able to overcome stigma. This isn’t easy for any of us and we must do it only when it’s right for us.

The reward has been that I felt more love and acceptance than I could ever have imagined when I shared. I hope one day we’ll talk as openly about our mental health as we do about having a common cold.

Coping with SAD, ill health and antidepressants… my real story

It’s taken me ages to write and share this post because it makes me feel very vulnerable. However, I think it’s an important thing, to share my experience with you. It’s the point of this blog for you to have a personal perspective on managing SAD and know you’re not alone. I think it’s really important to realise that SAD is never in isolation, which is what I hope to show you. And if you’ve been through similar experiences, I hope this will help you and show you that you will recover.

This post is loosely based around my experience of medication to manage the condition, particularly antidepressants. Around it, I’ll tell you the real story of my last five years of managing SAD, acute and chronic stress, and my tentative recovery from burnout. It’s a long one, and might not be the most engaging thing you’ve ever read! But thank you for being here, for taking time out of your day to visit my blog. 🙂 If you’re feeling in a vulnerable state, please come back and read it when you’re feeling stronger, since some of it may be triggering for you.

Once upon a time..

Up until a few years ago, I successfully managed my symptoms using light therapy. You know what? I was kind of proud of this. I felt like despite life’s many ups and downs, I had this condition nailed. Silly me, right?

Then I went through an intensely stressful couple of years. After some difficult years I ended my nine-year relationship in 2012, losing my home and racking up thousands in additional debt in the process. This wasn’t a clean break; the emotional and practical ramifications went on for well over a year afterwards. A few close friends had moved away, so I felt the loss of my trusted support network and my family live in other cities. At the same time, I had a lot of job-related stress and was going through a long and painful restructure that ultimately resulted in me being demoted. Neither was that straight-forward; the after-effects of that restructure were felt by everyone for two years afterwards at least.

Through all of this, I didn’t take time off sick. I was proud of that, too, you know? Feeling like I’d thrown my entire life up in the air, “but hey, I’m still getting on with life,  still smiling, still working hard, still being there for others when they need me…” Wearing my stress like a bloody medal. Well, I discovered the hard way that there really is a limit to how long I can do that.

Stop the world, I want to get off!

Because I kept pushing myself through, my body eventually got sick of me and ground to a halt. I’d been getting progressively more exhausted, to the extent that I was dragging my body around and every movement felt like an effort. Keeping my eyes open was a battle. I was having dizzy spells and feeling like I was going to feint. My colleague later told me she’d never seen anyone look so tired as I had in that period. I just hadn’t realised I’d got so bad.

Mentally, I now realise I was shouting at myself and not listening to that, either. I was having thoughts of harming myself or just disappearing for a while. It wasn’t a desire to die – I just wanted to rest and for everything to be on pause… If I could have some time without stress for a bit I might recover my energy. Be me again.

Well-meaning people were telling me it was an exciting time; I had no real ties and could do anything. They’d love that opportunity. I felt like this was the worst feeling in the world for me, actually. I’m a person that likes stability and belonging. It felt like I was a huge failure.

And then one day in October 2014, I just couldn’t get out of bed. I mean this literally – I wasn’t able to move. The day before, I’d been sent home from work at lunchtime. I was feeling leaden, having dizzy spells, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I’d crawled into bed assuming I had a bug and some sleep would sort it.

So, I wasn’t expecting to wake up and not be able to move my body that next morning… It was very scary. Sleeping for another few hours, I had enough energy to get to the loo and call my boss. That exhausted me, so back to bed I went for another ten hours. And another ten after that… Putting my head on the pillow and closing my eyes felt like the most blissful thing ever!

A mental breakdown, burnout, depression, Adrenal Fatigue, Seasonal Affective Disorder at its extreme?…

After 36 hours’ almost-constant sleep, I managed to get to the doctor’s by taxi. I was diagnosed with depression and my doctor insisted I take antidepressants. As I challenged it, he told me, “well you’ve been doing everything else right, taking exercise, eating well, resting… what else is there?” I hated being put on them. I couldn’t figure out why I was giving myself such a hard time over taking them, when I fully support other people in taking them and being open about it. It felt like I was somehow letting myself and others down; admitting defeat. Such is the power of the stigma over antidepressants.

Meanwhile, I’d been seeing a nutritionist. My digestive health had been awful, I was losing my hair at an alarming rate, having skin flare-ups and I was exhausted. I’d had an intolerance test, which revealed a couple of foods I should cut out. While I’d cut them down, I was wary about eliminating such major food groups as dairy and wheat without guidance. So, off I went to a nutritionist. She warned that I was rapidly heading towards ‘adrenal fatigue‘ and needed to make changes.

I tried to reduce my stress levels and followed her diet recommendations. Things improved, but it was too little too late. She believes it was this, and not depression, that was the problem. GPs in the UK don’t recognise adrenal fatigue or adrenal exhaustion as a valid condition, though. My understanding is that only endocrinologists and alternative practitioners give it any credence. Some people would call my experience a nervous or mental breakdown. As I suffer from SAD it could have been something to do with that too, especially with the pattern that’s repeated each October since.

To be honest, it really doesn’t matter what label we put on it. What all of these have in common and what it did teach me is that I needed to make some serious changes to how I live my life and how I look after myself.

Coming off antidepressants…

Because I wasn’t sure what had caused this episode and wasn’t entirely convinced it was depression, I felt I only wanted the medication for the six months of autumn and winter, and came off them in spring. Going on and coming off the medication wasn’t great to be honest. I had expected the initial side effects when I went on them and knew they’d pass in a couple of weeks as the medication got into my system. What I wasn’t prepared for was very similar side effects when I was coming off them.

For me, these side effects were things like headaches, trembling, pins and needles in my limbs, sweating, dizziness/vertigo and nausea. They were very distracting and didn’t make work and getting on with life generally very easy, as you can probably imagine! That was okay when I was going on them because I was still so exhausted I was sleeping most of the time and my doctor had signed me off work for a week, so the worst was over by the time I returned to work. But because I’d been unprepared for the withdrawal symptoms when coming off antidepressants, I was at work and had interviews, events, and an assignment to finish that week! Eek, lesson learned! 😉

My doctor had recommended tapering down over several months. But I’d preferred to taper over one month so that I’d be off them for spring and know ‘where I’m at’. I should’ve realised there was a good reason he suggested the longer time frame, but he didn’t warn me when he’d agreed it was fine for me to taper for the month. Anyway, I got through it and the improved nutrition and the lighter days were enough for me to feel like I was doing really well and getting ‘me’ back again.

What the heck is going on with my body??…

In October 2014 when I had this ‘burnout’, I’d experienced some really odd symptoms earlier in the month. I’d woken up and couldn’t stop trembling. You know when you get out of the shower on a winter’s day and you’re freezing and can’t stop shivering? Like that constantly. It was completely uncontrollable!

I was preparing for a job interview which involved a presentation, test and panel discussion at the time. So I thought it was that and it would pass. Nope – it lasted for over a week. It was horrible! So distracting and scary, because I didn’t know what was going on with me. I knew I felt a bit nervous, but I’ve had plenty of nerves in the past (driving tests, anyone?), and had never experienced anything like this!

The trembling eventually calmed down, but what took over was that my heart was racing like I’d just sprinted, or thudding so heavily as if I was placing great strain on it and it was too tired to do its work. Eventually it eased.

Recognising a pattern…

The next year, the same thing happened around the same time of year. Come early October, these symptoms just arrived again one day, out of the blue! It was worse this time, lasting for a month. I couldn’t understand it. Sure, I’d just gone through another life change. I’d taken voluntary severance from my job in the summer and had six months to find myself something new. I was having a high old time, doing freelance work, volunteering, taking trips and enjoying myself! Was knowing I needed a new job enough to trigger it? Why was it occurring at exactly the same time of year? Surely this was SAD-related?

Back to the doctor’s I went, but it didn’t make any sense to her either. I was this time given beta blockers, for anxiety. It was odd – I couldn’t understand it! I’d wake up with my heart racing. It would be happening even when I was quietly reading a book and had nothing particular on my mind. One day it was there, the next gone, and the next it would be back again. The beta blockers didn’t make much difference, and I was scared of taking them anyway, so that won’t have helped! My doctor wanted to do an ECG to check my heart; that showed it was fine, thankfully.

Feeling the stigma of antidepressants…

Confused herself, eventually my doctor told me I should go back on anti-depressants, to see if balancing out the seasons would help. That maybe I just needed a ‘mini dose’ to be myself and maybe when my serotonin dipped, I wasn’t actually myself. The particular type I’m taking (Citalopram) is apparently good for anxiety too. That’s what confused me though; I’ve never been a particularly anxious person. And I didn’t feel like I was down or worrying about things. Certainly not enough to cause these extreme symptoms!

I had a real fight with myself about taking antidepressants for the two years the doctor wants me to take them. This seems to be a fairly standard thing, talking to others. You go on for six months to start, and then if you need to take them again, you’re advised to take them for two years. I’ll be on mine for another six months at least.

So what was the problem? Well, it’s complicated, but mostly I was feeling the stigma. Things have improved a lot around mental health in recent years, but I still feel antidepressants are frowned upon, casually called ‘happy pills’. They’re seen by some as being for people who ‘can’t cope with life’. Some people express the view that they’re not needed and we all need to just pull ourselves together. I’ve heard all these opinions directly in the past and it can really worry you about taking antidepressants. I know it’s the minority of people with these opinions, but isn’t that the way? That we over-focus on these?

When I had previously been taking the medication, my parents had unwittingly given me messages that they disapproved of me taking it. Just little things like ‘well you need to get off them as quickly as possible’. We talked about this since and I know it came from a place of love and they just didn’t realise the messages they were giving about it. I also felt like if I’m taking them, then am I really ‘me’? And how will I know if the other things I’m doing to improve my lifestyle and self-development work are making a difference if my brain’s being chemically altered?

Is it SAD-related?

Three years, this has happened now, including the initial ‘crash’. Always in October. Last year (2016) was a bit later in the month as we had an ‘Indian summer’ and I thought I’d escaped from it. However, it wasn’t so bad this time. Still distracting, but I think because I now know it will eventually pass, it didn’t bother me so much. I was a lot more compassionate with myself too. That’s not to say it isn’t frustrating though, as I still don’t know what’s going on. I’m thinking it might have something to do with the equinox and a sharp change in light levels for it to be occurring around the same time each year. Very strange!

I bumped into my friend a while ago. He’s fantastic for me to bounce ideas with as he’s got a hugely inquisitive mind too and takes a very scientific approach in exploring how to help his SAD. He suggested it might be a drop in Vitamin D. This might make sense actually. I was found to be slightly deficient in the second year of this happening. That seemed odd to me because I’d had a career break and spent loads of time out in the sunshine, ensuring I had times without having sunscreen on.

So anyway – there’s another avenue for me to explore. I’m already supplementing Vitamin D, taking 400% RDA all year round at the moment, but my friend suggested I need a much higher dose for optimal levels. I want to cover Vitamin D in another post and I’m going off-topic, so I’ll not go too far into it here. Watch this space!

Learning to look after myself…

If I’m completely honest, I’m feeling impatient to come off the antidepressants again. Not because it’s bothering me to be on them anymore. I’m comfortable with taking them if I need to, but I’m not convinced that I do. The fact that the same thing happened last year despite being on them for a year makes me think there’s something else going on.

I have an inquisitive mind. I want to see if the personal development work I’ve done over the last few years, and continue to do, has really improved how I feel. It’s hard to know that when I’m still on medication. Maybe it doesn’t matter what’s helped. But I’d like to understand if the genuine well-being I feel now is a result of my own efforts, or a chemical alteration through the antidepressants. I’m sure it’s a bit of both, but I’d be interested to know for sure!

Feeling so grateful…

I’m very well aware, having had SAD since I was a teenager, that it’s a journey to understand how to manage it best for yourself. I felt I had it pretty well managed with just light therapy and then these weird autumn episodes hit. And life hit too, I guess!

I’m so grateful now that they did, though. I’ve learned a really important lesson from that morning when I couldn’t get out of bed.

I’ve done so much in the last few years to change my physical and particularly my mental landscape. We are all a product of our experiences. I might not have been able to control some of mine, but I can take responsibility for doing something about how they affect me today. Some really ingrained unhelpful thinking habits have taken a lot of work to unravel and improve. I’ve learned to be more compassionate with and to treat myself better.

SAD isn’t a condition that we manage in isolation. It impacts on – and is impacted by – every area of our lives. It touches every relationship we have. I can’t express enough how grateful I am for the support I’ve received through the years from my family, friends, colleagues and health professionals.

If you are one of these people and you’ve made it through this long post, then please accept a heart-felt thank you. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without your love and support. <3