Category Archives: depression

Dancing With the Demon In My Mind

depression

Illustration By Ted Ed/Helen M. Farrell

There is something magical about the Greek sea. The first time I ever saw it I couldn’t get over how blue it was. I’d only ever seen the murky green waters of the river that used to run a short drive away from my house when I was a child – on precarious internal flights from Bahawalpur to a larger city, you could see the patchwork of green fields growing from any space its banks offered. Apart from that, the cloudy, freezing waters of the Atlantic, and briefly on a holiday, the turquoise waters off a Malaysian coast.

But I had never seen a sea like this. It was so blue I wanted to drink it. It was intensely beautiful, but frightening at the same time. I only learnt how to swim at 23, and whenever I go into the sea, it scares me a little. The moment I can’t feel the bottom any more I always feel a shard of panic before reality replaces my fear – there are people around, the shore is just a few short meters away, the sun is shining. I’m safe.

Living in Greece, I learnt to make the sea a part of my life. And a few summers ago the sea was also my chosen method for wanting to end it.

This is one of the hardest blog posts I have ever written, because it makes me so uncomfortable. It’s a post I never intended to write. The things it contains only recently became known to the very closest people in my life. This story was never a story to be told, because it makes me feel ashamed. But the fact that I reached the point of deciding that killing myself was the best option came about because of silence. It came about because of the stigma attached to mental health. I was so horrified at the hideous the journey my mind had taken that I chose to stay silent rather than get help.

So what changed? Why now? It’s down to one man, a kind and gently man with a sweet smile, curly hair and hazel eyes. His name was Bernard Thomson, and he was my great uncle. One week ago, he killed himself.

My mother’s side of the family suffers from a lot of mental health issues. I lost two cousins from the same family to suicide. My maternal grandfather had such severe depression that nothing seemed to help, not even electroconvulsive therapy. I have another cousin who I am pretty sure is bipolar because of certain thoughts and patterns of behaviour he has mentioned, but who has not sought help for himself, and a great aunt who thankfully tackled her depression after she started having suicidal thoughts.

That’s a lot of depression in one family. While the link between inheriting depression isn’t yet proven, there is some evidence to suggest it can run in families, and I do think that one day we’ll isolate a gene responsible for messing with our brain chemistry. This is because the type of depression in our family seems to me to be so specific, right down to the thoughts people have.

Uncle Bernie as we knew him, had been in hospital at the start of the year after going missing. After thinking that he wasn’t going to come to any harm, despite his suicidal thoughts, the hospital discharged him.

We all went back to our lives, until a week ago when my Facebook timeline began filling up with messages from family members asking if anyone had seen him. Several hours later, a runner reported finding discarded clothes by the river. He’d drowned himself in the freezing winter river, just as he had said he was going to do.

When I heard this, my heart sank. I thought about him in his last moments, as he made his way to the river, the demon in his mind whispering in his ear “This is a good plan, this is a great plan. Let’s die, that will make it better for you. It will make it better for everyone.” That same demon which had whispered those same thoughts to me a few years ago, thoughts which I almost listened to.

The fact that I was so depressed didn’t spring from being the mother of a baby and a toddler. It didn’t spring from my older son’s diagnosis. It was a combination of things, most importantly that the first time I remember feeling depressed, I was 11. It’s always been there, hiding somewhere in my head. The bombshell dropped into my life certainly made it worse, but I do feel that if it wasn’t this, it would have been something else that set it off. Sometimes it’s near the front, sometimes it’s near the back. Sometimes it breaks free and goes on a mission to destroy my life, and very nearly destroy me.

I should have got help when I began to sink, but I didn’t because I didn’t want it to seem like I couldn’t cope. Everyone else coped, why couldn’t I. So I continued to swallow what I was feeling, until it flooded every part of me.

I was in agony. Imagine being stuck in a room with a person who is insulting you, telling you you are a failure, useless, hopeless, you’ll never be happy, you’ll never be anything. In this situation, you’d get up, walk out of the room and slam the door behind you. Now imagine that the other person is your brain. I got so exhausted by the constant self-flagellating dialogue running in my head like a broken tape, that when one day another little voice said “You should probably kill yourself” it seemed like a brilliant plan to escape how much mental pain I was in.

If you have dealt with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, let me issue a warning now that what follows might be a trigger for you. If you don’t want to read the details, but want to know how I came through it, stop here at the first line of asterisks and continue after the next line.

****

It’s shocking when I think back to it now how clear-minded I was when I laid out the pros and cons of each method of taking my life. It was if I were planning a birthday party, not my own death. But I know now that this is a common experience of those who go through what I did. Your brain latches onto a solution to escape all the pain, albeit the wrong one, and methodically sets about setting the plan in motion.

I had already got past how upset my family and small children would be. By this point I had perfectly justified my thoughts by convincing myself that I was so useless that everyone would be better off without me. Sure, there would be some sadness. But my parents had three other daughters. And my kids could get a much better functioning stepmother instead of the broken version of a parent they had. What was not to like about this fantastic plan??

After running through the various options, I ruled out whatever seemed too messy, too traumatic for whoever would find me, and would leave too many bad memories in my house, and I settled on the perfect plan. Like I said, the sea scares me, because I’m scared of drowning. Drowning to me seems like a terrible way to die.

So that’s what I chose. My self-loathing was so extreme by this point that I picked the method I knew scared me the most and would make me most miserable. I planned to drive out to the coast in the middle of the night, swallow as many sleeping pills as I could and walk into the sea. I even picked out what I would wear.

Bizarrely, having settled on how I was going to kill myself made me feel a bit better, and more purposeful. It didn’t matter how much I was suffering and making everyone around me suffer. It would be over soon.

****

In the end, I never came close. I’d love to tell you that this happened because of some beautiful epiphany about how wonderful life is, but by that point my self loathing was so extreme that I thought “You’re so useless, you’ll botch your own suicide, end up paralysed or with locked-in syndrome and then be an even bigger burden on everyone around you.”

I was too tired of living, but too scared to die. And so, not being able to guarantee that my suicide attempt would actually kill me, I backed down and decided to suffer through living. I sat at the bottom of the well I had fallen into, looked up at the pinprick of light, sighed heavily and started a half-hearted attempt to climb back out.

It took a lot of work. There is no easy way back when you have fallen so far down. But, bit by bit, day by day, I got closer to the light. I went back into therapy. I tried medication for a while, and it was great. I felt the sharp edges of my mind dull slightly so I couldn’t slash myself to pieces on them any more. I learnt that I could and in fact deserved to function without letting the demon of depression take over my life.

I know better now. I know when I wake up and think “What should I do today?” and my brain answers “Why don’t you kill yourself?” it’s brain chemistry. I know it’s how my thoughts are wired, and I am getting better at ignoring that voice. I’ve identified my triggers, which I try to avoid, and made time in my life to do things that make me happy. I try to be more open about my own journey with mental health, purely because I wish more people talked about it. When I hear other people describe symptoms, thoughts and behaviours I’ve experienced, it’s reassuring. I know I’m not alone.

People tell me all the time that I’m the last person they think could ever have been so depressed and I don’t really know how to answer them. There is no right or wrong way to have depression, no right or long problems to bring it on. It just happens.

When things are good, I feel like my heart will burst with joy at how beautiful life is. I love my family, I’m living my dream and making my living from writing and even with all its problems, I adore the city I live in. No one knew about the fact that I had been suicidal to the point of making an actual plan to take my life, not even my husband. Being that good at hiding what I was going through is not a good thing. It’s a sign that something was not right. When you are working so hard at seeming normal even though you are falling apart that it’s consuming practically all of your energy, something’s wrong.

Writing this post that makes me feel very exposed right now. People I know will read it, and I don’t know what they’ll think once they do. But I wanted to take another step towards opening the dialogue that’s so badly needed when it comes to mental health. Step by step, the demon can be silenced. Having stood at the edge of where my great uncle’s mind took him, I feel so sad that the toxic, black demon of depression got him. It convinced him he was better off dead.

If that demon torments you too, I want you to know that you are not alone. It happens to a lot of us. The demon will tell you that no one cares about you, you are useless and you should jump onto the tracks as the metro approaches. It will tell you that people would be happy if you died, because you are dragging everyone down with your problems. It will tell you you are selfish and crazy – normal people don’t think like this. Why does everything have to be about you all the time and the things going on in your head?

Don’t listen to the demon. Get help. For now, no one has found a way to extract the demon from our brains but there are plenty of ways to keep the demon in check, including therapy, medication, exercise and more. You are not alone, and you are not crazy. The chemicals in your brain aren’t working properly. I’m not going to tell you that when you step back from the edge, you will instantly feel better. You won’t. You might not be better for a long time. But I promise you that a day will come when you will feel at peace again and you will think “I’m glad I’m still here.” You can overcome this. Most importantly, don’t let the demon convince you that you are not loved and you are not precious. You are.

I suppose I won’t ever know if sharing this post was the right thing to do, but I hope it helps towards de-stigmatising mental illness. If you’d like to help that effort, there are many ways. Listen to The Hilarious World of Depression. It’s a podcast where the presenter (a fellow depression sufferer) interviews comedians about their fight with depression, and to me, it’s a great comfort to hear other people describe their own battles. Visit Make It Ok. Here you will find lots of information and advice on talking about your own mental illness, and how to constructively talk to loved ones about their battles with it. It’s one more step towards us all being better. You deserve to be well, and you can get there. 

10 Comments

Filed under depression, duchenne, motherhood

Depression and the devilish imp

mental-disorders-depression-anxiety-sarah-flanigan-nick-seluk-7

From the comic by Nick Seluk and Sarah Flanigan

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.

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)

Leave a comment

Filed under depression, Uncategorized