Depression and me

I wrote this about my experience with depression, specifically related to my post-natal depression, but it touches on how depression impacts my ongoing life now. It’s the first of two posts but it makes sense to break them up.
Also, I want to be honest – I have not edited this. I knew, if I re-read it, I’d chicken out so please accept it – warts and all.
I don’t have comments open on my blog, but you can find me on twitter @RellyAB. If you are feeling suicidal, please contact a help agency such as the Samaritans or the National Suicide Prevention agency immediately.

I have a good life. I have a nice house which I rent. I have a good husband who I have been with for over ten years and 8.5 of them as a married couple. I have two amazing little boys who have both enthralled us and worn us to a nub for the last 6.5 years. I have a good brain that writes cool stuff for people, sometimes even for money.

I also have depression. I’ve had that longer than anything, around 17 years now, like the manky old sweatshirt that ends up in the back of your drawers – even though you’re sure you chucked it out last century.

I tend to get it for around 6-18 months at a time. Stress triggers it – but so does boredom and inactivity, which is difficult because depression loves to feed off all these things. That is what depression is to me. A feeder.

I have seen depression described as a black dog, and a great comic book illustrating it as such, but for me a dog would be a comfort compared to depression. Depression, to me, is a dead weight that you must lug around from room to room, job to job, relationship to relationship. It feeds on you and your inner fears about yourself.

Everyone has insecurities. Everyone feels like they are sometimes winging things, bluffing a bit, coasting a little, not being that ‘110% person’ that they hope to be. Depression tells you that actually someone made a terrible mistake. You can’t do this. It will be hard. It will be too much. Everyone will know the truth about you. You should stay inside. It’s easier. You should just switch off. It’s easier. You should just keep up the bare minimum – and don’t for God’s sake let anyone close, because then they will know.

When my first son was born I had post-natal depression. I went to the doctor, practically dragged by my husband, two weeks after the birth and told him I was upset because our sink wasn’t working properly. The house was a mess after the baby. I was still heavy with milk and the midwife said I could get something to help with my sore skin. He listened to all this, with his head cocked to one side, and let me trail off to silence after I was done telling the carpet under my gaze all about my material concerns.

I looked up briefly. He asked me if I had bonded with my baby. I looked at the 7lb bundle sleeping jerkily in his carseat, fourteen days into our lifelong relationship. I was convinced I was not good for him. I was convinced I wasn’t even adequate. My husband was the most stressed I’d ever seen him. My body was an uncontrollable, lurching, leaking disaster after an emergency caesarean. My baby was uncomfortable drinking my milk, drinking formula, drinking reflux formula.
“No.” I said in a shaky whisper. “I want to give him away. I am not a good mother.”

I had fed my baby, rocked his crib for hours, researched ways to help him with his reflux, dressed him, changed him. But I hated holding him. If I picked him up he puked on me. Every time. So, I stopped. I sat at an arm’s length distance to him for around 72 hours. I tried to imagine telling everyone that I was giving him up for adoption – my husband, my parents, my inlaws. I realised that was not going to work. I started to plan running away but I had nowhere to go, and I was still so, so tired from the birth and everything after.

Then I stared at wall for three hours straight and wondered about suicide. I didn’t really feel suicidal but it did seem like a solution that meant both my husband and my baby were off the hook. These two people that I was not actually worthy of, who were being severely hindered by me. My husband made a doctor’s appointment for me during my three hours of quiet contemplation (I’m sure I was meant to have been napping really). I agreed to go because my husband asked me.

Two weeks later, I got offered a talking therapy session with a local counselor. I was really not into this at all but I went because, well, because the look in my husband’s eyes when he looked at me was breaking my heart. I attended a 35 minute ‘introductory’ session. The
chap was very miffed that I’d brought my 4 week old newborn (who I was still part-breastfeeding), listened to me talk for a bit, asked if I was sleeping well (I remember my husband and I looked at each other for a moment with a look of despair – we had a four-week old baby, who was the only person getting any sleep round here!), and then declared I was not depressed – just ‘a bit of a worrier’ and I’d feel better when the baby slept.

We left the session. I cried a bit in the car park. I then refused to see anyone else for four months. I pretty much holed myself up in my house, bar trips outside to get nappies and milk if we ran out, and started running headlong into getting back into work of some sort. Our baby went to a childminder two afternoons a week so I could do baby-free chores and tasks, which was actually great for him and me, and this kept me buoyant (or at least in denial) for another couple of months. I was taking care of this baby. At some point, everyone would realise I wasn’t a good mother and then I’d be okay.

Except of course, inevitably, I did fall in love with him. He was my baby. We bonded. And then I was terrified. Terrified that people would realise I was inadequate. That I couldn’t face rhyme time at the library or making purees. That I hated NCT groups and mummy dates and baby swimming. My favourite days were the ones I’d pack him in his buggy and we’d take a train ride somewhere, like Brighton or Chichester, and I’d walk round parks and shops having to talk to no-one, save asking to use the baby change facilities. I could soak up human contact and conversation without having to be properly social. No-one would know I was an inadequate mother if I didn’t spend time with any other mothers.

That’s what depression does. It takes something that should be joyous and challenging and full of discoveries, and turns it into a time of loneliness, fear and a desperate feeling of not being good enough. Of shredding every last ounce of self-esteem and self-respect. It turns you into your worst enemy. It feeds off your inner self doubt.

Eventually, I cracked. I was so tired and so withdrawn and so miserable that when baby turned five months old, I cried for a week solid. My husband had to stay off work just to get me to eat, sleep and wash – and, of course, the baby needed the same things. I would be asleep from 3am-3pm, and then on the sofa as a burrito of misery, wrapped in my duvet and eating a single yoghurt, watching cbeebies and hating all the happy mothers and children.

My husband took me back to the doctors. This time they skipped the talking therapy preliminaries and prescribed an anti-depressant. It had some interesting side-effects – like yawning every three minutes, for five days – but it started to work. I began to come back to a more normal timetable, and a more stable mood. When I stopped crying, I realised that I was still as tired as the day after I’d given birth even though my baby was now a pretty good sleeper. I could barely lift my son in his car seat now. I went back to the doctors.

I had some blood work done and was told to call for the results in a week. The next day I had a message from my surgery, asking me to make an appointment urgently. I attended evening surgery. My thyroid had all but given up, probably in pregnancy, and I needed to take a thryoxine replacement immediately. For me, this was the last piece in the puzzle. The thryoxine and the anti-depressants worked together and I finally felt human again. Still vulnerable, still full of self-doubt – once you begin the self-sabotage of the depressive mindset it does not shake off easily – but getting better. I had good days and bad days, until I decided I was ready for another baby – which is part two of my story, and I’ll try and post very soon.

In the meantime, I guess my conclusion is this. This story doesn’t have a ‘happy’ ending because, well, depression is a condition that has a habit of turning up and wrecking the kitchen at a party. But I made it through that time. Most people I met, not that I actively sought many out, would not have thought ‘that is a depressed person’ because if I was out of the door, I was able to wear my happy face that day.

And that’s still how it is today. Even if I’m feeling terrible, I personally can usually wear my happy face for a day or two – for important events, like my own wedding day(the year before my wedding I was heaving around the dead weight of undiagnosed depression) . The thing is, I pay for it later on. I usually get physically sick with an infection or virus, that forces me to stay inside and take up the duvet burrito position again. Sometimes I tumble down a metaphorical deep dark stairwell head first into misery.

Mostly I end up self-sabotaging – which is a bit like self-harming but instead involves somehow contriving to bring down your standard of work/output/creativity etc to somewhere around the murky mire depression would have you believe it exists. When I have days like this I am very conscientious not to charge my clients for work, which means I am both poorer than I should be and also sometimes miss deadlines. When I finally worked this out, therapy suddenly seemed both encouraging and financially cheaper than the alternatives.

I have recently started psychoanlaytical and cognitive behaviourial combined therapies to tackle the issues I have hanging over me from depression and its aspects as a mental illness. I describe myself as a broken doll to my boys, and they understand – at least a little – that Mummy is sometimes sick and that can make her not very happy.
My husband should be made a Doctor of the Cathlolic Church, or a Lama, or head Wiccan, or whatever the highest position for patience you can think of because living with me must be a trial, to put it mildly.

Anyway, I wrote this because despite my concern that it seems horribly self-obsessed, and also might mean people might think twice about working with me in the future, I realised that I needed to be able to draw a line in the sand so that I can work with my therapist. Maybe reading it might help someone else too.

If you are/ or think you might be depressed, or know someone that is, it does get better, mostly, for at least a while – and then you might slip and you have to haul yourself up again. You think you’re alone but so many of us are struggling and existing and improving and slipping and improving again. Screw up all your courage and put out your hand for help. Let someone catch hold of you.

Conference organisers: a point for your consideration.

I had the great fortune to attend XOXO last week (which is another post I’ll try and get done before the same event next year or something) and people were chatting about how nice it was to be at a conference with a good range of female speakers. I was having a conversation of this ilk with Tom Coates and he mentioned how he had tried to help other conferences pull in female speakers, but the ones they asked often said no – leading to unfair criticism when there was an all-male line-up. It wasn’t that these organisers hadn’t gone looking but that these ladies just didn’t say yes when asked. I said casually that this was probably because something about the offer didn’t seem right, that not enough information was offered upfront. Tom asked me what I meant and I told him, and then he asked me to write it down and show people as it was something that had never crossed his mind and so, perhaps, hadn’t crossed others either. So here we go:

When you ask me to come speak and I don’t really know you and/or your event, I want to know the usual stuff like type of event/what you want from me/date/ fee BUT I also want to know:

1) Location of event AND location of where you are putting me up.

The questions in my head are: Are they near public transport lines and how safe is it for me to travel with stuff between airport/station and hotel? Are they close together? Will I need to walk with heavy stuff in between them(especially if I’m doing a workshop)? Is the after party in a different part of town and will I be able to get cab? Is there a small shopping/eating area within walkable distance?

2) What are your policies if I have to pull out?

Women are statistically more likely to be primary carers for dependents – either children or elderly parents, often one and then the other. If my kid gets a cold my husband can take care of him but if he should get taken to hospital I will want to be with him. This shouldn’t put you off asking me (I’ve never had to pull out of an event yet) but you should consider what your backup plan might be. If you don’t have one, or you seem at all skeezy about this, it puts me off because I don’t want to piss you off if something does happen.

3) What have you organised for speakers?

Knowing you have arranged for me to meet some people and get to see a little of your town makes me feel like you want me there, and that you are looking out for me. A speakers’ dinner so I can meet some folks (doesn’t need to be fancy) and some suggestion of places to go means I won’t feel like the only safe and sensible thing for me to do is to eat at the hotel and stay in my room. I don’t know that your city is fine to walk round apart from any area with East in the name, so I really appreciate guidance.

4)Who else is going?

Even if I’m the only woman speaking, do you have others involved with organising and volunteering? Is there someone I can chat to at a speakers dinner if stuff gets a bit Sports! or Linux! or Snazzy Ties!, or if someone a bit creepy comes and bothers me at the after party (it happens, sadly). My experience is the more balanced the attendance of social events, the less likely the conversation skews one way or anyone gets creepy too. And, regardless of gender, who else is speaking or attending that I know? I’m much more likely to say yes, if I know there will be a couple of friendly faces.

Basically, I’m working out if I’m going to be sat in a small poky hotel near a conference centre two miles outside the nearest town for three nights, or trapped in a swanky hotel in a financial district of a city that shuts down at weekends having flown in Saturday morning for something starting Monday, or if I’ll end up wandering alone round a town centre at chucking out time, carrying my heels, trying to get a cab to get back from an after party that all the young, hip things are still enjoying while I have to leave at 7am to get back to my family – all of which have happened to me before.

It’s a sad but true fact, as a woman I am more vulnerable and have to weigh up the risks and rewards of exploring new areas when traveling alone. I don’t believe there is a rapist hanging around every street corner of every town but I do believe there is one around some corners, and sadly you don’t know which ones. Knowing that organisers have considered the location of their accommodation, planned some things for me to do and spent the time finding the number for a reliable cab firm for me to use, means I am much more likely to say yes if you ask me to speak.


Bermuda shorts: an analogy about data and context

Terrible terrible shorts.

This is a cautionary tale about interpreting people by data alone. I have sometimes told it to clients and they have found it helpful so I’m going to share it here too. It’s also about Bermuda shorts. I’m aware as I get older that some of you whippersnappers born in the 90s (is that legal?) may not be aware of the fashion tragedy that were these hideous neon clashing geometric print garments, so I’m going to make a huge sacrifice of dignity here:

Terrible terrible shorts.

Yup, this is yours truly. In my Bermuda shorts. And in the 80s they were everywhere.

Actually this is me on holiday, in a Caravan park, probably about 1988. Every photo in my album from that year, bar a Christmas day shot and a school play, has me in Bermuda shorts. So, clearly, despite their obvious hideousness I loved them. I mean, they probably had to peel them off me to get me in my costume for school. I bet I had them on underneath. Out of 18 photos of me in this year, only 2 were with no visible Bermuda-ing. Relly x Bermuda 4 EVA.

Except, here’s the thing. I bloody hated Bermuda shorts. Not in retrospect, I mean that I hated them at the time I wore them. I especially hated the pair above. I think my ‘arms pulled down in front of me’ stance was probably in some vain attempt to hide their hideousness. Even the dorky cardigan knitted by my mother seemed a better bet. So, if I hated them so much why am I wearing them so often in my photo album? This is a question of choices and context.

1) I was 8. And 8 year olds in the 80s didn’t choose their own clothes. They got what their mothers bought them, like it or not, and at this time if you wanted shorts you got Bermudas because that’s what there was to buy. And when my mother came to pack  the suitcase for our annual holiday I needed shorts.

2) All my pictures were shot on film. My parents were not photographers. They bought around 3 rolls of 24 exposures a year. One for Christmas, one for holiday and one for their kids’ achievements – plays, assemblies, choir trips etc. It should also be noted that my dad was exceptionally gifted at getting his thumb part way in front of the lens and never remembered to turn the flash on when it was dark. This meant that a disproportionate number of shots of me that made it into my book are taken outside, on a sunny day, on holiday. The conditions were optimal for my dad getting a picture of me and optimal for me to be wearing the aforementioned loathed clothing. The reason for taking various photos, ‘I should get some photos of my daughter to remember her when we were 8 and on holiday’ or ‘I should take some photos of my daughter while she is 8 and singing in a choir inside on a wet day’, were essentially that same but the context dictated whether my dad would be successful in getting a photo that you could put in my book.

Why do I bring this up? I have talked about my Bermuda short problem when clients are looking at analytics and data they have taken and are using that to try to work out what their users are doing the most/least/longest/fastest etc. It is easy to see the data form a beautiful line and get excited. I try and encourage people to look at their content and its related data and ask

What choices do your users have? Are they truly engaged or are they doing this because they have to – you have offered them no alternative? Have you packed their suitcase with ten pairs of horrible shorts?

What is the best context for success? How could you create content that works in other contexts? Is one context blurring your requisites for success by being naturally easier to work with? Can they take a picture on a wet indoors day as well as a sunny outdoors day?

Is the way you are capturing your data introducing bias? Is self-selection an issue (ie, with surveys)? Is one topic wildly more popular than another but measured on equal terms? Are you only taking photos three times but measuring a whole year’s outfits by it?

None of this is revolutionary thinking but I have found the Bermuda shorts analogy has helped people understand what I mean by different interpretations of the same data – data without context, and data with. To measure successful content, you need data and context. Otherwise, you are assuming that doing something a lot means that your user likes it.


Why I like International Women’s Day.

International Women's Day logo

International Women's Day logo


I’ve seen a range of grumbling on Twitter today from chaps who think International Women’s Day is inherently unfair and not doing anything for equality. So, I thought I’d post some interesting titbits.

1) There is an International Men’s Day on the 19th November. As there should be. Men have plenty of gender-based issues that should be given more public awareness – things like childcare inequality, value within a family unit and men’s health issues to name just a few.

2) International means just that. While you may see your female co-worker doing exactly the same job as you and wonder what the fuss is about, Plan UK highlights the inequality for girls the world over, with their campaign Because I Am A Girl. Forced marriage, no access to education, childbirth while still a child and female genital mutilation is a reality for millions of young girls. Feel free to sponsor a kid to help them out of that situation. Plan will help you select an area of the world and the gender and age of your sponsor child if you like. This isn’t to say bad things don’t happen to boys, of course they do. But girls are traditionally less-valued than boys and are more likely to die before they reach their fifth birthday in many communities. They are often seen as a commodity to be traded, rather than people. And helping girls in this situation is actually the key to helping boys too. By educating young girls, they are more likely to remain healthy, will marry at a later age and for every year they are in education they are likely to increase their earning capabilities to pull themselves and their families (including their sons) out of poverty. Those sons will come to respect women, and will break the chain for their own wives and daughters. According to Plan UK, 75 million girls worldwide are missing out on this opportunity.

3) Of course, it isn’t all roses in the garden back home either. This Sunday, Celibate men will use their pulpit to decree gynecological health care cover for women to be a sin. This reinforces the message that sex is only for within marriage, and marriage is only for making babies, and that none of this ever requires any sort of medical assistance. (For those of you still wondering if there is a gender neutral campaign to support, you could do worse than to examine the Catholic Church’s stance on the abuse of children within its care. Systematic and Industrial Scale are two phrases that spring to mind. But women wanting to opt out of babies. That’s the worst.) Access to advice on reproductive issues, abortion and contraception is increasingly under fire for reasons of religious dogma and cost-cutting.

4) Contraception issues leads me in a round about way to the thorny issue of child care. Did you know, in the UK a chauffeured car is a business expense but child care is not (outside of the fundamentally flawed voucher scheme)? I can tell you from experience this makes running any kind of business hideously expensive. Most of my money goes on childcare. Without access to contraception, I’d have several more children by now (assuming my fertility holds up) and I’d be at home, unable to work because the cost of childcare would be too great – and frankly, I’d be too knackered. Sex is the glue that holds relationships together (sorry if that’s, er, too visceral an image). Those relationships are often what support a happy family life. If a family choose to have lots of kids and one, or other, parents wants to stay at home that is *fabulous* – but that’s a choice. Not because of a dictat from men who have forgotten about women.

5) The recent round of cuts in the UK impacts on women disproportionately, often because women are more likely to work part-time, contract or on lower-wage jobs around childcare, so much so the Fawcett Society launched a legal contest in the High Court. (If you don’t have children, ask yourself – do you know what to do with a 5 year old for six weeks in the summer if you’re needed at the office everyday? Nurseries are for up to 5. Summer schools are usually for only a week or two and not all kids are suited to them. People live further away from families now to be close to their jobs. The only option is to drop out of the career circuit and take a job with some flexibility – McDonalds is meant to be excellent for its flexible working policies. Yup, I wrinkled my nose too but those kids aren’t going to disappear.) I’m lucky to have work that means I can be flexible. And by flexible, I mean I can piss off a certain number of clients by saying ‘sorry, I’m not available for six weeks’ and hope they come back to me in the future, oh and also out of pocket for a month and a half.

6) And let’s just go back to your female co-worker, doing the same role as you chaps, there is an excellent chance she is on up to 20% less than you. There is some hope: in the UK, women in their 20’s are earning around 3.6% more than their male counterparts but if you account for money lost to maternity leave (women are likely to be the primary caregivers) or to being someone’s carer (ditto), she will likely earn significantly less across the course of her working life. Not least because a spot in the boardroom is still pretty unlikely for her, so much so the EU is planning to intervene to much ire from the business community. Interestingly, this was introduced in Norway and found to make for better business, as found by Agnes Bolsø’s independent research.

These are not exclusively women’s issues but they are all issues that impact on women, often disproportionately. Even if we only have one day a year in which the media, social networks, and you and I discuss them the impact of that is not to be undervalued. That’s why I like International Women’s Day.

The 3 ingredient biscuit for entertaining small people.

a baked biscuit

I have moved this over to my recipe/parenting blog. The 3 ingredient biscuit

Look ma! My book is announced!

Creating Web Content cover

Creating Web Content cover

It’s true, in a shade of fashionable honeysuckle pink and splash of Caslon , comes the announcement (and the initial cover design) for Five Simple Steps, A Practical Guide to Creating Web Content. by me, lovable furry Relly Annett-Baker. Visit the page on the FSS site for more details and expect it out soonish. Couple of months. Six tops. Nine max. Okay, before the end of 2011, promise.

I’ll get back to the draft right after I’ve finished this tea. Honest.

Some things wot I did write and a workshop wot I will do.

Hey, hey. I’ve written a couple of  articles and I have a workshop coming up:

One here for the glorious a content strategy for personal sites which does what it says on the tine.

And another for Words are the Soul of UX all about making time to make the littlest interactions count.

Also, I have a fun workshop coming up courtesy of Five Simple Steps – which handily ties together the above two topics! Come experience my rants in the flesh, in London, in January 2011:

I’d love to see you there. Places are limited, as is the early bird price, so book yourself a pre-Christmas treat and have something to look forward to in January.

True Stories: a journalling class

A few weeks back I sent Shimelle an email that kind of went along the lines of “Hey, so you know your classes are really cool. I wonder if some of my writing methods might help out some of your scrapbookers and bloggers?” She very graciously said that yes, maybe they might just and would I like to be the guest expert writer for her new journalling class? Some email went back and forth, we called each other panda a lot and the class came to be. In fact, it is in a state of being right now and you can sign up through Shimelle’s site to get daily prompts to help you tell your personal stories, for the new three weeks.

If you want to know a little bit more about it, watch this fabulous video by the gorgeous Shimelle herself:

Why you need a content strategist? Well …