‘I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain. Cos you’re not alone. Give me your hands, cos you’re wonderful.’
– David Bowie (Rock n Roll Suicide)
You’re basking on a pedalo, it’s a glorious day in the Greek islands. From nowhere a 50 ft wave sneaks up on you, lashes the pedalo onto your skull, forcing you underwater. Your survival instinct goes from 0 to 60 in three seconds and you start to swim up. It’s going to be OK, you’ve reached the surface, you can breathe, the wave’s gone, you can see the beach nearby.
But then you REALLY freak out because when you look down – you’re not you anymore. There is no you – only a husk that looks and sounds like you. When the body you’ve been left to operate, in the absence of its true owner, swims back to your friends on the beach – there’s no eye contact then they make their excuses and leave.
So, in my ill-construed metaphor, the 50ft wave represents my inaugural mental health crisis. But the sea was always proper choppy and rough and I’d pedalled out WAY too far, the waves were huge as it was – I don’t know how I never noticed them before?
The pedalo landing on my head represents my first panic attack. I had recently smoked weed for the first time (SO dangerous for some of us) and I was in Rome, in The Vatican. I was climbing up the highest, narrowest, curving stone stairs. There was so many people around and a thought popped up that I’d never experienced before: ‘I can’t do it’. My body took over and raced back down, while my mind asked: ‘What the hell are you doing? Go back.’ That was weird but manageable, however a few hours later, happily sat at a cafe, the worst thing in the world happened. I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs, even though I was gasping it in I was suffocating, my heart was pounding, my legs shook and I knew I was going to die there and then. It lasted half an hour then I threw up and it went.
I was just 23. From then on I tried to live in a way that avoided panic attacks, I kept swimming up, up, trying to reach that surface. I had years when I was essentially agoraphobic, although I managed to hide it from work, family, friends, everyone. Panic attacks are the thing behind the door of my Room 101, every couple of years they would get very frequent, sometimes every 30 minutes for days at a time. When this happened I, naturally, wanted to kill myself and had severe depression. On the worst occasion my kids were just babies, I was a newly-single mum. I didn’t tell a soul how ill I was in case they were taken from me. I’m very proud that I managed to get through that time, functioned as a parent and never took it out on my two poppets.
The friends on the beach who won’t look at you and disappear are a clever metaphor for those friends (and family members) who won’t look at you and disappear when you get ill. My God that stings doesn’t it? They just want you to be fun and entertaining. They don’t want withdrawn, quiet, odd ‘you’ they find it SCARY. It reminds them of emotions which they AVOID and, anyway, what’s in it for them hanging round with a drip?
Depression is really, really odd. It’s like watching yourself go mad. You’ve suffered, struggled for years – you keep surfacing for air and one day you realise with a shock you have literally ceased to exist. Where once was a personality and a person is now a nothingness. It made no sense to me and it felt like there was nothing I could do to fix it – I worried about how to every minute of every day. It wouldn’t matter if I was gone, not to the kids, not to anyone as I was nothing.
The physical world altered for me, too, things looked kind of too close and suffocating – sounds were kind of echoey and distant. Roads looked like tunnels. Everything FELT like a narrowing tunnel and it all seemed so pointless – Christmas, society, people… all pointless. I was trapped in a body, in a period of time and 3D space and there was no way out. It was like seeing things as they really are: essentiality watching a bunch of upright monkeys playing pretend in their brick boxes all perched on a dark, cold, wet terrain.
I don’t know where the ‘me’ that I know and love went – she just disappeared and there really was no trace of her. Horrible. Terrifying. Depression is unbearable. I’ve given birth, had best friends die, seen my Dad die, had ear infections, tooth abscesses and the pain is nothing in comparison. Nothing. Depression sucks cocks for baccy.
But I got over it. Completely. I haven’t been ill in five years, I’ve started my own business and every day is a JOY. Happiness and enthusiasm is pouring out of me. I found my way out YAY! Here’s what worked for me:
1. Talking therapy. Spoke to loads of different counsellors, psychotherapists and eventually, after a few years, realised I’d been abused as a kid. I thought the reason I was neglected and beaten was cos I was a really annoying person. Turns out, however, it wasn’t my fault at all.
2. Drug therapy. Twenty years ago I was on some kind of valium, which just made the hollowness and fear feel trippy. Then, fifteen years ago, my GP prescribed first gen. SSRIs which, though making me sleepy and giving me tons of side effects stopped me feeling suicidal within a couple of months. After two days on them I found myself laughing at something for the first time I could remember. I was finally coming up for air. Last five years I’ve been on Sertraline and I feel utterly and totally normal. Back to the ‘me’ I left behind at 23, ever-present again but this time wiser, kinder and more stable. No I’m never coming off the drugs again because, well, why would I? I have tried before and the depression comes straight back in a couple of weeks. It’s simply like a diabetic taking insulin. Like a dog taking Bob Martin’s worming tablets. Deal with it.
3. Exorcising toxic people from my life. Oh this was tough! This broke my heart. I had to say goodbye to people I loved very much because they put me down and that got me down. My mum, both my sisters and my husband are all GONE. I have fucked them all off, permanently because there was someone I loved more. It had to be done. If somebody doesn’t love you back and just uses you for a power trip or for company they have to be cut loose. They don’t get to chill out with you on the beach anymore. Yes, I still miss and cry over them now and then but fuck ’em anyway. 🙂
4. Breathing exercises and NLP. I learned these on a Virgin Fear of Flying course. The breathing one is the BEST. When I feel a little panic coming on, I control my breathing. Breathe in slowly counting to four, hold for two, out slowly for six. It’s impossible to panic while controlling your breathing. The NLP is kind of recognizing that you can challenge the negative ‘you can’t do it’ voice. Take classes.
5. Diazepam – I keep a couple of tablets in my bag. Have a half one if I’m starting to feel stressy. Use these rarely – once a month.
6. Boundaries – learning what yours are and recognizing when other people are crossing them. This is something you don’t pick up if you were abused as a kid so they are kind of woolly and get stomped all over by TWATS.
7. My kids, my lovely friends. The builder I work with. Twitter! I have been delivered from evil by your collective awesomeness.
8. Education – I read about abuse, boundaries, social structures, politics… there’s some fab books and websites out there. When I was cheated on I used chumplady.com and read ‘Why does he do that’ by Lundy Bancroft. Opened my eyes to the culture of male entitlement, to the tawdry commanalities of abuse.
9. My GP. If I had any candles at home I would light one for him EVERY DAY. Smart, knowledgeable, funny and firmly on my side and by my side if I need him.
10. When you recover from your mental illness (which really means accepting it and learning to manage it) go back into the fray. Steel your nerve then reach a hand in and grab on to those who are still trembling in the corners of that cave. They’re blinded, lost and angry and you can help them find the way out. This helps you too.
I watch the sea carefully now… but these days I can see the waves coming for miles. Sometimes I still paddle out when it’s really choppy – I assess the risk with my intellect then leave the decision to my instinct. Trusting your gut is a skill like any other and can be learned. God, yes, of course I get it wrong, it frequently all goes wrong REAL quick. That gets filed away in the: ‘Shit Happens’ drawer.
PS. Suicide? No. Don’t do it. You simply want a way out, of course you do (who wouldn’t), but there are other, better ways out – and life on the other side is a breeze and a pleasure. Also if you do that you’ll never find out what happened to you. You CAN do it. I love ya – come on. We got this. xxx