I didn’t know whether I should write this post, but earlier this week, I did something I’ve not done before. After suffering one anxiety attack after the other for almost a week, on Monday I decided to put my question to Twitter.
One anxiety attack after the other since last Wednesday. Your tips for riding them out welcome, getting fed up #anxiety #mentalhealthmatters
— Omaira Gill (@OmairaGill) April 18, 2016
I asked people what to do about the anxiety attacks because I felt like my body was disintegrating under the weight of them. Nothing that usually helped was working. And people were surprisingly forthcoming in sharing their experiences. A perfect stranger sent me this song in a message, which helped so much.
Before I go further, I want to make a few things clear. I’m not an attention seeker, I’m not doing this for anyone to feel sorry for me. I know depression carries a stigma, and I know that certain people will look at me differently after reading this, and not necessarily in a good way. I’m writing this because there is something so shameful about having mental health problems, that I am wary and embarrassed to be writing this post at all. Should it really be that way?
In writing it and talking about the fact that I get depression and anxiety attacks, and that lately the latter of the two has floored me and I don’t know how to deal with it, I feel like a failure. How did we get to the point where a legitimate, organic health problem is seen as a failure? Maybe we never left that point. I don’t know of any diabetics who check their blood sugar and grimly think “I’m a failure.” Or a cancer patient who walks out of hospital after receiving medication and thinks “Well, I had to turn to the drugs in the end. I failed. If I had a quieter mind the meditation would have worked. I’m not dedicated enough.”
It’s depression awareness week this week, and it coincided with a really bad time for me. I had been free of anxiety attacks for nearly four months, and then something insignificant set me off again. I just want to share a little of what it feels like, and that it could happen to you.
I have a friend, Angela. She is lovely, charming and beautiful. She’s fiercely intelligent and very driven. I first met her through my belly dance teacher in Athens. Angela is her niece and when I met her, she was spending a few months in Greece for work, and hating it. Her job involved negotiating about business with powerful Greek politicians and business figures, who almost invariably made blatant passes at her.
Once, she invited me and my husband over for dinner. It was all perfect, but I noticed Angela fretting in the kitchen, looking worried. “I forgot to take my anxiety medication.” she said, frantically mixing pesto into some pasta. Anxiety medication? I remember thinking. Why would anyone need medication for being a bit nervous? Didn’t we all feel that way sometimes?
I didn’t understand then, because “A bit nervous” is all I’d ever felt until that point. I hadn’t experienced the whole hog, the heart palpitations, the agoraphobia, the pins and needles in your hands, the shallow breathing, dizziness, difficulty swallowing and chest pains that come with an actual anxiety attack. I didn’t know it could happen to me.
Here’s the thing about having depression. I hate it. I don’t often say phrases like “My depression” because I don’t consider it mine.I can write it, but I can’t say it. I don’t want it to be in any part of my life, and by saying “my” I imply that the depression belongs in my life. It doesn’t. I say “I get depressive episodes” or “I have depression”. But I don’t like to say “My depression”.
Saying that, the depression in my life does have a name. I call it Gary. Don’t ask me why, I chose the name at random. This was after my last severe depressive episode which was over a year ago now. That time, it hit me out of nowhere. I didn’t see it coming. I felt like I had been rugby tackled to the floor by an unseen force that was now sitting on top of me and not letting me be normal. It felt like another entity, a being that was out to ruin my life and who I had little control over. So I gave it a name.
Since then, I’ve been wanting for a long time to turn my experience of depression into a comic or something, some way to convey how awful it makes me feel, but also the dark humour that comes with it. Life with Gary. But I just don’t have the time.
Two nights ago I was lying in bed after listening to a This American Life podcast, called Faustian Bargains. It’s about people who made deals with the devil, and how they turned out. Whether you have depression or not, you should listen to it. It’s really interesting.
As I lay there, I began to wonder to myself: what kind of bargain would I make if it meant I could never suffer another episode of depression or anxiety? Let’s say a devilish little imp turns up, surgical tools in hand, and says “I can cure your sick mind but I’ll demand payment in body parts.”
I really thought about this, running through all sorts of options and scenarios. It gives you some idea of what depression and anxiety do to you – you’re lying in bed thinking of deals with the devil if it meant you’d be free of them.
So my bargaining went something like this: being the mother of two small children, I couldn’t sacrifice something that would seriously impact my parenting. That ruled out giving up an arm or a leg. I could give up a kidney, I reasoned. But what if the devilish imp was a bad surgeon? I couldn’t do an operation requiring recovery time, my children still need too much of me to care for them.
I couldn’t give up something minor like an ear or a pinky, Yazuka-style. It would have to be a reasonably valuable part of the body. In the end I settled on an eye. One eye, in exchange for never having a depressive episode or anxiety attack ever again. Now the question was how much pain should be involved. Does the devilish imp have some voodoo he does, and your eye is gone? Or does he beckon you menacingly, crooked fork in one hand?
I got as far as contemplating how long that would take to recover from, and theorising that I could still work and parent pretty much uninhibited, before I realised what a ridiculous exercise it was. There is no magic imp waiting to make a devil’s bargain with me. If only it were that easy.
You can’t understand depression until you’ve been through it. This is something that even the very closest people in my life don’t understand. I’ll be told that it’s mind over matter, it’s a choice, I could choose not to feel this way, to pull myself together, don’t feel like that, you have so much to be happy about (this one in particular makes me feel 100 times worse). I’ve never taken medication for depression or anxiety, but this week when I began mentioning it, exhausted from the constant racing adrenaline, nine out of 10 people pursed their lips and said something like “I really don’t think you should go down that route.”
I hear this all the time. When I meet friends who have been through or are going through depression who mention medication, I always ask them how it went for them. They’ll always tell me it was a big help. I say “was” because in Greece, the doctors that at least I’ve encountered are not as trigger happy as their British or American counterparts. They will give you the lowest dose you need, and keep you on it for the shortest time possible. Talking to these friends, anti depressants are used as a crutch until you are well enough to walk without one.
So why this hostility to medication? You can’t imagine the feelings of failure it creates, and when you’re stuck in a spiral of anxiety, you’ve tried everything that normally works like exercise and meditation, and you just want a little bit of relief, to be told “I don’t think you should take medication” is as destructive a piece of feedback as it is infuriating, because I only ever get told this from people who’ve never experienced depression or have never taken medication for it. I’d sooner listen to someone with depression who had a bad experience. I can relate to that. But I’d never turn to a friend about to get a broken leg plastered and say “I don’t think you should do that. Have you tried acupuncture?”
People with depression are hidden. We’re perceived as weak. We’re infantalised because we couldn’t possibly have considered the consequences of seeking medical help in the form of a course of anti depressants. We’re perceived as having made a choice: we could choose to be happy but we don’t. If the people who thought that only knew what it felt like, and that it’s not something we choose, they too would be lying in bed contemplating a deal with a fork-wielding imp.
We’re stigmatised and it works: we’re so embarrassed at our perceived failure that we don’t tell anyone about it. It always amazes me when I reach the end of my tether and confess I’ve been suffering for a while, the number of friends or colleagues who will quietly lean in and share their own experience of a period of depression in whispered tones. “But don’t tell anyone.” Don’t tell anyone I am literally a head case, a nutter.
I’ve often been told I’m too honest. When I finally appealed for help on Twitter, I got one or two messages from well-meaning fellow anxiety attack sufferers who advised me not to be too open with this information. You’re probably thinking the same thing while reading this. It’s TMI, Omaira, no one wants to know or cares about how you can’t get your life together. But I don’t sit here writing regular updates about it. I don’t indulge it, because I don’t want my mental health to define who I am. My life is just fine, thank you, but my mind blue-screens from time to time, just like your perfectly fine gallbladder might malfunction from time to time.
I am writing this because I don’t think mental health should be such a taboo (and even as I type that, I don’t believe it myself, and I’d love a world where it would be as okay to say you have depression as it is to say you suffer from migraines). I don’t parade my mental health on a T shirt, I don’t walk around with a banner reading “I’ve got depression, deal with it! (because I’m not!)”. There is nothing glamorous or fashionable about how bad it makes you feel and how dysfunctional you become, and how much energy gets consumed in those periods, forcing yourself to come across as normal so that you don’t scare your friends and loved ones, or pushing your already fractured brain to meet deadlines and perform at work when you can’t string two thoughts together.
It’s basically like a sinking ship, in the engine room, all the red lights are flashing and all the alarms are going off. It’s chaos, noise, fear, a mess. From the outside, you still see a ship apparently sailing along serenely in the sea.
I hope reading this helped you if you’re suffering from a depressive period. We’re not alone. And if you’re someone who still doesn’t get it, that’s okay. You’re free to not understand, but all I ask is that when people like me need people like you to lean on, just let us lean on you for a little while. Don’t prop us against a wall. You don’t need to understand or even to agree. You might disagree with anti depressants, but sit with us and read the literature to help us choose the best one. We need you, so badly. You just need to be there and ask “What do you need me to do?”
(This is a pretty good BBC documentary that might help you understand more)