We all have things we wish we were better at. Maybe it’s as simple as eating healthier or exercising more, or something deeper like being more assertive or learning when to say ‘no’. What one person finds easy, another might see as a practical or emotional mountain.
As the days grow shorter and colder and another year draws to a close, our personal hangups become a marketing tool as we’re bombarded with stories of successful New Year’s resolutions. Like clockwork, tales appear in magazines of people who lost staggering amounts of weight, found The One, or quit their job to pursue their dream of sloth-cuddling in Costa Rica. The story goes: They began as normal people like you and I, and with a bit of dedication, became the champions of their own lives.
It’s aspirational, it’s heartwarming, but it’s also a flawed narrative. In order to even choose a New Year’s resolution, you need to already be in possession of a few things: self-belief, motivation and a positive outlook. What if you haven’t got any of that?
At 13, I was diagnosed with clinical depression after years of struggling socially and in school. Even as a pre-teen, I remember feeling a deeply embedded sense of dissatisfaction; a feeling that at my very core, I wasn’t good enough. For who, or what, I’m still not sure, but over the 15 years since my diagnosis I’ve drifted between wanting to jump in front of a train to feeling an occasional, shaky glimmer of hope – but it’s never enough to extinguish that deep sense of futility.
Some days, the weight of even simple responsibilities like doing laundry, brushing my teeth or throwing a ready-meal in the microwave feels so terrifying that all I can do is hide under the duvet and wonder how the hell other people manage that thing you call ‘existing’.
What does all this have to do with New Year’s resolutions? The way they’re commonly marketed is, I believe, exclusionary to those of us with mental health issues. How can someone who feels disappointed that they’ve woken to see another day effect positive changes in a life they’re barely living?
Don’t get me wrong; the longer I hide myself away from everyday life, the more depressed I become. The more depressed I become, the less able I feel to peel myself away from my safe place of Primark blankets and attempt to exist in a more efficient way. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle but being aware of how damaging my behaviour is, isn’t the same as having the power to break the loop.
I’d certainly benefit from making some of the popular New Year’s resolutions. Let’s start with eating healthily. You lucky neurotypical folk might be aiming to increase your fruit and veg intake or take the plunge and go vegan in 2018. I wish you all the best. I’d also benefit from a healthier diet, because three takeaways, a bowl of cereal and a couple of cheese sandwiches per week isn’t good for my digestive system or bank balance. Maybe I’m one of those people who could apparently save for a house deposit if I only stopped eating takeaways. So you see my problem here. I’m not in a position to make a resolution to improve my diet when, on some days, I’m so apathetic to the fact I even exist that I don’t feed myself at all.
I’ve even bought into the incorrect stereotype in the past that these behaviours are pure laziness rather than depression. In fact, clinical research has shown a link between depression and the function of the brain’s frontal lobes, which control “executive functioning” – the ability to plan and make decisions for yourself. So something as simple as getting out of bed when your alarm goes off becomes a confusing mass of emotion and effort rather than a basic, linear task. Making a New Year’s resolution to stop being so lazy, then, would spectacularly miss the point.
Current data shows that 9% of adults registered with a GP in the UK had depression on their records, but the real number of sufferers could be much higher as not everyone seeks medical help. Between 2014-15, it was estimated that 15% of all people aged between 16-74 in England suffered from a mental health condition. Studies have shown a higher prevalence in women than men.
I can’t speak for other sufferers but for me, the yearly message that we should be bettering ourselves is a reminder of how hard I find day-to-day life as it is. So how can people like me survive the New Year’s resolution period, and more to the point, are there any healthy, achievable resolutions for depression sufferers to make?
“When someone is emotionally and mentally fit, making plans and goals can feel simple and the effort required to think positively is easily made,” explains counsellor Katerina Georgiou. “When we’re depressed or suffering emotionally, having someone suggest we make plans or pressuring us to think positively can be distressing. The thing about setting goals or making plans is that it requires energy, and the issue with depression is that there is a lack of energy in the first place.”
New Year’s resolutions, she says, are a greatly amplified form of placing unachievable expectations on a sufferer. “We are living in a society where the trend towards motivation and positive thinking is becoming part of our discourse and those who don’t have the energy to enact something can end up feeling left behind,” she says.
But there are ways of making it easier. “Firstly, don’t compare yourself to somebody who is emotionally fit and well,” advises Katerina. “Think about your mountain. Is it getting out of bed, leaving the house, or socialising? Get a sense of what it is and work within that. Rather than picking out resolutions as such, paint a picture in your mind of where you’d like to be this time next year.”
No behavioural change is too small, either. “If you can, immerse yourself in the things that bring you joy – this could be music, art, or going for a walk. They’re things that don’t require you to ‘do’ anything except absorb yourself in something positive. It will impact how you feel, which will give you more of a footing and energy to do something when you’re ready.
“Ignore the things that require ‘doing’ and focus on the things that require ‘feeling’. Forget subscribing to a gym – go for a walk around the block and notice the air on your face. If going outside feels too much, open a window.”
And if you don’t manage to completely overhaul your behaviour, that’s alright. “It’s the commitment to getting there that counts,” says Katerina. So no, 2018 won’t be the year I go vegan or move abroad. But it might just be the year I manage to shower, get dressed and eat every day, and that, for me, would be life-changing.