It’s very easy to look back retrospectively and wonder why you didn’t do things differently. When I think about the great mental crash of 2009, I can’t believe it took me so long to admit I was struggling and ask for help. That’s the thing about depression, its sly and insidious tentacles creep around you so subtley that it is often hard to know it’s there, let alone trace back how it managed to sneak up and strangle you.
I thought I had it all worked out. I had reached my late thirties in fairly good mental shape. After spending years on medication and in therapy to deal with depression and anxiety, I had reached a plateau of feeling able to cope with life. I felt I understood how my brain worked and I had made big changes in an attempt to become more fulfilled. I’d also managed to get on top of a rare blood disorder I contracted in 1998. To cut a long story short, it arrived out of the blue, caused mayhem and illness for a couple of years and I’m now stuck with it as a chronic condition for life. Working with the doctors, I managed to arrive at a treatment plan that enabled me to live a semi-normal life, although the injections I have to take for it cause debilitating side effects. Having said that, I felt stable enough to come off sickness benefits and get a job. After a year in post, I came off anti-depressants.
I was doing so well I decided to push it. I went from working part-time to full time. I ended a relationship of almost 7 years and moved into a house on my own. It was tough coping with my illness and the increase in hours, but I was determined to stick it out.
Then one evening I got a call saying my Dad was dead. He had suffered a pulmonary embolism which killed him instantly. He was 60.
It wasn’t even that things started to fall apart right away. Although completely shocked to the core, I managed to hold it together quite well throughout the trauma of the post mortem and funeral. It was unbelievably awful, but I coped.
It was a year and a half later when I started feeling that I wasn’t ok. Rather than going back on anti-depressants, I decided to try St.Johns Wort for the first time. It wasn’t for me and I wouldn’t recommend it unless you enjoy unpredicatable and violent stomach upsets. I decided to try other things such as attending writing classes to keep my mind off the encroaching doom. I signed up for 4 Saturdays on a script course and 7 on a film course. On top of working all week and managing the gruelling injection regime for my illness, the courses were a step too far. Would I stop? No, of course not. I had decided I must keep going no matter what. The less time to think about things, the better. If I filled my time as fully as possible, there would be no room for overwhelming feelings of despair. Plus, if I managed to get one of my scripts made into a film, this would knock the socks off any depression that may be coming my way.
Being able to keep going no matter what is a trait I’ve always had. I don’t know if it is a strength of character or a glaring flaw. It has served its purpose in propelling me through my degree, keeping jobs etc in the face of adversity, but also it has stopped me from listening to my body and knowing when I’ve gone too far.
In this case, I was pretty sure I was capable of keeping going indefinitely, but my subconscious or survival instinct had other ideas. The full reality and finality of my Dad’s death was dawning on me.
I began to get panicky and worried about people. If my boyfriend took too long at the shops, I became neurotic and worried he was dead. I started imagining what I would do if someone else close to me passed away. I thought about death a lot. I wasn’t particularly concerned about my own death, but that of other people. I found it hard to get my head around the fact you could be here one minute and gone the next. I kept imagining myself back in the evening I got the phone call. I relived every detail of the funeral. For some reason it had passed in a haze at the time. Now it was real and visceral and brutal. I felt like I couldn’t say this to anyone as it had been a year and a half since Dad had gone. I thought I was abnormal for having such a dramatic reaction so far after the event. The more time that passed, the worse it got, until I realised I felt completely and utterly traumatised. I felt that life was too unpredictable to be trusted and I also felt I would never be able to change that belief.
I was also exhausted and skint. I was working too many hours to be able to keep my health on track, but despite this, I still couldn’t afford to pay my bills. I wasn’t enjoying living alone either but didn’t want to admit that. At this time I was getting a lot of positive feedback from people that I seemed to be doing well. Working full time and managing a house on your own seems to tick a lot of boxes. The reality was I felt a total mess, but I liked appearing in control and on top of things.
It wasn’t even a massive thing that tipped me over the edge. I’d come to the end of my courses and learned that my script hadn’t been chosen to be made into a film. Under normal circumstances I would have dismissed this as just another rejection, something I had been used to facing as a novice writer. It really was no big deal when I look at it now, but as I was in such a precarious state, it set off a veritable avalanche of events.
Three days after the end of the film course, I could feel that something bad was brewing. I asked my boyfriend if he would stay over a few nights on the run as I didn’t want to be alone. One night, I started to tell him I was very down, that I didn’t know how to deal with it and couldn’t accept the fact my Dad was gone. He sat up in bed, alarmed as my crying turned into hysterics and then into uncontrollable shaking and vomiting. That night seemed to go on forever as a nuclear storm of anxiety exploded in my head.
When morning came he called the doctor and made me an emergency appointment. I managed to sweep up my dignity off the floor and allow myself to be bundled off to the surgery. I felt destroyed inside, as though I had sunk into a black lagoon and got stuck in the mud at the bottom.
I realised then that I could never again take my ability to cope for granted.
I also realised that you can’t choose whether you are depressed or not.