It’s Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK. I think it’s a great initiative because I believe that the more stories we share about our inner lives and the struggles of our minds, the stronger we will become.
Today I want to write about my experience as a capable and competent individual, a mother, and a wife who suffers from depression, and it would seem, a side of anxiety.
So this is my story. I hope you like it. And I hope it makes it just a little bit easier for you to hold yours.
I always thought of myself as a straightforward and uncomplicated individual. I was happy about the things that one should be happy about, and sad about the sad things. My life had many of the ups and downs that are to be expected. I wasn’t a worrier. There was plenty to be anxious about, growing up through ‘the Troubles’ in Belfast, but apart from a few short periods in my teens, I took life in my stride.
I left home at 18 to study and didn’t look back. A move to a big city followed and a bright new shiny career and marriage. Two babies with a nicely spaced two year gap, looked like the perfect family. It was sitting on a beach whilst we were on holiday, when number 2 was 4 months old, that my husband tentatively asked the question. ‘Do you think you might be depressed’. I wondered what might have made him ask that question? Was it the fact we were in one of the most beautiful places in the world and I couldn’t raise a smile? Was it that when he’d told me friends were coming to visit for 24 hours, camping in the back yard of the house we were staying in, I sobbed uncontrollably in the car before walking around the supermarket with the family, crying continuously?
I had no idea what the answer to his question might be.
Was this what depression looked like? I didn’t know. I just knew that something wasn’t quite right. I didn’t feel like myself. I didn’t seem to be able to cope with things any more. But maybe it was just 4 months of a constantly crying baby that had left me tired? Maybe life with a 2 year old and a newborn was always going to feel this bad? Maybe it was the cane toad in the toilet cistern in the holiday house?
We returned home with a self help plan in place. Step 1 – I bought myself some new jeans with a massive boot flare, a skinny black rib polo neck and a pair of 3 inch heeled boots. Step 2 – I found a job for one day each week. Gradually I felt a little better and life seemed to be back on an even keel. Whether it was depression or something else, I’d got on top of it.
And then 18 months later, as I cried in the council offices when they told me that I’d brought the wrong form to renew my parking permit I realised it was back. The whatever it was. This overwhelming inability to do life. The knowledge that I was never more than a moment away from tears and a desire to sit down right there and never get up again. Maybe it was the two children under four and the pressures of life and my husband’s perpetual absence due to work? All I knew was that I’d fallen through a trapdoor into a dark cellar; I had no idea how I got there, and I had no idea how to get out. I went to see our family doctor who knew me well and I cried in his office. ‘You’re suffering from depression’ he said. He suggested counselling and medication. I left his surgery and sat in the park and cried. How could this be my life? How could I have depression? I was strong and capable and a coper. This was all wrong.
I couldn’t bring myself to bring the prescription for anti-depressants to the pharmacy. It felt like I’d be walking in and handing over a note to them saying ‘I’m a failure’.
I spoke to my parents. They suggested I try counselling and not the medication. But then my father, hearing my voice go absolutely dead on the phone as I told him how I felt said, ‘do whatever you need to. We are on our way.’
I took the tablets. They made me so sick I could do nothing but sleep and cry. My parents moved in and took care of the children. After a few weeks I began to feel as though I could breathe again. I began the counselling and told the counsellor I didn’t see what good it would do because it was my life that was all wrong, and without changing that I wouldn’t feel any better. 6 sessions later I realised that the medication and the counselling allowed me to get my head above the water and made me realize that I had more choices than whether to keep breathing or not.
I was very ashamed of my depression. We moved to a new area and I stayed away from people because I didn’t want anyone to know about it; I was worried that if they spent any time with me they would see it. They’d catch a whiff of my uneasiness around socializing. They’d see me release my breath when I returned to the safety of my home.
Over months the depression lifted and one day I found that I felt like me again. The lead weight I’d been dragging around had gone. I didn’t have to tell my mouth to smile at my children when they smiled at me. Emotions occurred spontaneously. I ate and slept again.
Eight years later life took a few massive swipes at me. It’s not that the intervening years had been trouble free. They hadn’t at all, but somehow through it all I’d maintained my mental health. But not this time.
A few days after the children returned to school after the summer break I thought about myself for long enough to realize that the exhaustion I was feeling wasn’t normal. I went to my doctor. Once again I rationalized the feelings and she agreed to refer me to counselling at the same time as accepting my choice not to take anti-depressants. A week later, having experienced suicidal thoughts every day, a member of my family told me I needed to go back and ask for medication. Why I thought I could fix this deep problem with daily dog walking and some multi vitamins, I’m really not sure. The anti depressants gave me the emotional capacity of a block of cheese. It was such a relief after the suicidal ideas. I didn’t want to feel anything. I couldn’t feel anything. It was as if I lost all empathy and the ability to read emotional cues and I had to ask for advice on navigating social situations.
A few weeks on the block of cheese feelings disappeared and I found myself flung back into the darkest places where voices told me I was worthless and should die. I planned out my end. I knew everyone would be better without me. The doctor increased my dosage of anti-depressants.
Then one day as I was working out the exact plan of my death I got to the part where I’d have done what would kill me, and it would be too late to change my mind. In that moment I realised that I didn’t want to die. Yes, I believed death would be easier than living, but I wasn’t ready to leave just yet. Some sort of life force rushed back into me that day and I knew that no matter how black the blackness became, I wasn’t going to take the quick exit option.
That was four years ago, and I’m still taking the anti depressants. I got up to a pretty high dose for a time, but it’s been reduced again. Every now and then I want to stop taking them, but I’m not really sure why I’d do that. I feel ok. Most of the time. When I reduced them in the past I felt as though I was walking just a little bit closer to the cliff edge. I’d rather stay in the safe zone.
I’ve reframed my identity in the past ten years. Yes, I’m still capable and a coper. I am more resilient than most people I know. I’ve got a demanding job and I take care of a family with some complex needs. I’ve friends and a social life. I’m a brilliant party host. But I’ve also got depression. When things are bad I get low level constant anxiety too. I’ve accepted that there is no shame in those things. I wouldn’t be embarrassed if I had something that affected my body and made me a little more aware of my capacity to do things. So why should I be embarrassed about my depression.
I’m not ashamed of it, but are you?
I’ve recently begun to mention, in a light hearted way, that as a family we’ve road tested every type of counseling and psychological therapy. Individual, couples, family we’ve done it all. It has benefitted us more than I can explain. We are all healthier because of it. We know how we function and what we need to keep us from going under.
Some people don’t know what to do with that information. I can see them mentally reassigning us to a space in their social chart for the ‘not quite together’ people. We are moved from our ‘people who manage life’ slot and downgraded.
I don’t mind that.
I hope that by talking about it openly and without embarrassment those people will know that when they feel the world is dark, and they don’t know what to do, they can talk to me.
Because I’ve been there.
And I know it’s not the end.