The pain of depression is invisible but still deadly. It kills at least a million people a year, more than any other acts of violence. Yet we are ashamed when things go wrong mentally. We can only help to remedy this by talking, reading and writing about it. When the tightrope on which we walk wobbles and we slip and come face to face with the existential horrors buried deep within our minds nobody can tell unless we talk. As such times you can be looking at the most beautiful view in the world on the sunniest of days but it won’t stop you wanting to die, and it is now you need to talk.
Oddly, depressed people don’t actually want to be happy, they just want an absence of pain. So being moralistic about someone who wants to kill themselves is to misunderstand. To say (or think) ‘pull yourself together’ is like saying ‘Ah you have cancer, come on now, mind over matter’. With a physical illness there is some separation between the pain and the self, whereas depression eats away at the self, you are your thoughts. Depression causes such relentless continuous pain that it is all engulfing. There is a constant self torment together with an exhaustion of never quite grasping mental comfort.
There are some things that help alleviate the mental agony and send weak rays of sunshine through the deadening grey cloud of fuzziness;
– Intense conversation, though paradoxically sometimes to talk about how I feel leads to feeling more of what I am feeling, but acting normal can lead to normal
– Coffee (in bucketloads)
Not all of these help all the time, and there’s no wonder cure that will suddenly unlock your mind and let you see the sunshine but the more we can talk about mental health as a society the less engulfing and terrifying depression will become.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted. Not because I’ve had nothing to say but more because I haven’t known how to say it. Gradually going back to work I have been offered support for which I am grateful but yet I still feel the stigma of suffering from a mental illness. I’ve taken almost a year off work, am still not back to full health, yet at work it’s as if nothing has changed because I can’t even begin to articulate how I feel. In the past year I’ve spent 6 months in a locked ward. From sheer despair I’ve tried to take my own life three times. On one occasion I spent 6 hours in A and E being told that if I went home they would call the police. I think that was the lowest point. It’s a cliché but after that the only way was up. Yet on an every day level I feel that I have to pretend nothing happened to me. I am so grateful for the lack of pressure, the only comments I’ve had are from the receptionist asking when I’ll be back full time but the thought of staying at work over lunch brings me out in a cold sweat. I put the pressure on myself and tell myself I have to man up and face the demons.
Knowing how widespread yet unspoken mental health difficulties are, I am keen to advocate and educate, though I have lacked the mental strength to do so. Luckily I’ve recently had a bit of a breakthrough, as I have very recently been put on Lithium. I was neutral about it since I was sure it was just another medication that may make me gain weight and probably make me drowsy. I was so wrong. Lithium has brought me back to life. For the last year I have been experiencing terrible despairing lows that came along every 3-5 days and which made even putting on shoes and a coat to take the dog for a walk impossible, answering even a text message took on mammoth proportions.
Now I can at least attempt relationships with people, though I still don’t always have the mental strength to initiate a conversation or a meeting. I don’t hate myself so much. It’s like waking up from a grey nightmare or seeing the sun for the first time after being buried.
It’s not to say that I don’t still struggle, I sure do. I have my bad days just like anyone else. The only difference is that the lows are manageable. As Winston Churchill said I’ll keep on buggering on.
Telling someone to be happy is a senseless instruction, happiness arrives when you are looking the other way, though you do have to be open to it, to let it in. Just be patient, it will come to you. It’s possible to be happy yet also at times lost and afraid. That’s ok too.
My mind, when I am able to take a peek, is often a dark lined place, where happiness has run off, taking humour with it and is replaced instead with a marrow-deep despair. I’ve seen some dark things, at times I’ve hung on to life by a spider thread, suspended over an abyss. Reaching out to other people is nigh on impossible at such times and sadly, for some, I know that the pain turns out to be terminally corrosive. Life however, is a multi-coloured thing and glimpses of colour mean I count myself one of the lucky ones; I know that with some nurturing this too will pass. Humour and happiness hasn’t really gone forever, it just needs carefully cultivating back to a fragile green shoot. I can’t rush my recovery, I know the darkness will ebb away slowly with time, it’s part of being human and I’m just grateful to know that while I’m alive, I can still feel.
It’s a good thing I didn’t know a year ago that I’d feel this way or I would have been tempted to stay where I was, well behind the starting block. At least then I had a sort of control; now I’m adrift, the pain is mostly beyond language and unable to be articulated. Being ‘better’ does not always feel good at all, in fact it can feel a whole heap worse as I can no longer slip into the security of self destructive behaviour and it’s leaving a gaping hole of despair.
Happiness, I once saw you reflected in the splash of rain, in a beam of pale winter light in a winter forest, in the gentle face of a kind stranger. If you allow it to be so, such small things can change the world.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve updated my blog. I’m now back at work for two half days a week and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s been like starting a new job and returning from a long holiday all rolled into one and I found I’ve forgotten the most basic of things. So difficult it’s been that in fact that it’s been very hard to articulate. Ordinarily things turn out better than the the apprehension but actually it’s been much much harder. This time a year ago, I felt vital, fun, able to achieve and oddly (given my state of health) in control. Now I feel dumbed down, a lesser version than myself and unable to offer any value. This feeling is almost intolerable, so much so that on my latest and third session in work I almost got up and walked out; what stopped me is the knowledge that I can’t actually escape the intolerable, it follows me around like a slimy creature. I am a quieter, less interesting, dimmer version of myself. So yes, I’m sort of ‘back to work’ but at the moment it’s pretty hard to tolerate.
What they don’t tell you in an eating disorder clinic, and for good reason, is that once you actually regain weight things inevitably get more difficult; if I’d known that then I’m not sure I would have even started limping down the road to recovery and I ask myself daily whether it’s actually worth it. Whilst before I gained a sense of control and a ‘high’ from restricting calories, I’ve now lost that crutch and feel a dullness which is hard to shake. I have lost sight of what I am and confidence that I will ever regain any self respect. It is so tempting to return to the emotional crutch provided by skipping meals and every morsel of food I eat takes a huge amount of self discipline. I’ve chosen not to go to a work Christmas meal because of what people must think of me. Eating a snack at my desk is excruciating, I feel the need to hide what I’m doing in case someone comments, so I’m having to eat it in the toilet. I guess lunch will have to be the same, unless I eat out every day.
I hate having to expose the harsh truth about recovery when part of the purpose of this blog is to help others who may be feeling the same way. Let me just say that don’t wish myself back where I was; though I am feeling far worse mentally than I did then, I do at least have my physical health back and that does mean a lot. Hopefully the happiness, whatever that means, will follow soon.
In my latest appointment with the consultant I mentioned my trepidation in going back to work because of the stigma attached to mental health issues and he asked ‘whose stigma? Theirs or yours?’ I have to admit that he had a point, most people won’t ignore the issue because they are condemning of me and my illness but simply because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. The problem is thus my interpretation of the silence; which unfortunately for me is abject shame. I am both ashamed of myself and embarrassed and even though there was nothing I could do to stop the crushing bulldozer of this illness I still feel that it has defined me as weak.
That said, there is a lot that still needs to be done to de-mystify mental health problems and bring them out into the open. There is much in the press and on TV right now on the subject of mental heath awareness and some high profile supporters. I watched (with not a little apprehension) Louis Theroux’s visit to an eating disorder clinic aired on BBC 2 last Sunday. It was sensitively done on the whole but I felt it didn’t even scratch the surface of what anorexia means for those who suffer, (though admittedly I am possibly not the best critic right now). The portrayal of the woman who kept 4 boiled sweets in her cupboard which would last her many weeks as she allowed herself to take them out in turn for the occasional suck was heart wrenching and oh so true. The truth of the matter is that anorexics really really do want to eat but a force much more powerful than simple hunger is there constantly telling you that you do not deserve to. There is a bizarre comfort in hunger. Interestingly, what it highlighted was what I have also experienced, that anorexia is very often absolutely nothing to do with body image.
Overall, it’s positive to see that we are now beginning to openly discuss the once shunned illnesses that do affect so many of us and yet are so poorly understood. The challenge now is to channel this awareness into action so that people are able to access the services and treatment that they need.
My recovery is still fragile, I am holding onto rigid plans which mean I eat enough but I cannot yet let go and allow myself to actually enjoy food. I know that the day I instinctively reach for a biscuit without a second thought may never come but I know that I can keep healthy at least by following a regime. One positive is that I have been given the go ahead to take up exercise again; to begin with 30 minutes of swimming once a week, so am looking forward to getting going with that as soon as I can. Mentally, too I feel stronger and more able to think of other things. And not just food. I just need to hold on to the fact that recovery is so worthwhile, and the further I walk down that road the better.
It’s now over a week since my discharge from CH and I’m just about coming to terms with trying to live normally again after a good long stretch of having no motivation at all. It’s so easy to slip back into old ways and my general busyness has returned in full force. I don’t agree with those who think they know best that this is necessarily a bad thing though unfortunately, my latest visit to my dietician showed that I have managed to accidentally lose a little more weight despite a good intake of cake.
Changing from one state to another is never easy physically or mentally and I am still experimenting with intake and output but I think I need to accept that my body just doesn’t want to be (and actually never has been) the size that the medics see as acceptable. At present I’m still holding onto weight in annoying places; I have a little pot belly and big thighs and the rest of me is like a stick. That’ll teach me I suppose. With my increase in exercise my muscles are complaining like mad ; I think I need a few gym sessions to get things working properly. I never feel hungry or full, which I believe that is quite common in recovery, but it does mean that I am having to rely on being weighed regularly as having no integral fuel gauge I have absolutely no idea whether I’m losing or gaining weight. It’s a case of trial and error which can be exhausting. I’m always having to think ahead to the next meal.
Simple input and output aside, of course there’s always the psychological element too. Eating foods labelled ‘low calorie’ or ‘healthy option’ is always, always a bad thing for a recovering anorexic as it just feeds the part of my brain which wants me not to eat. Leaving food on my plate has the same effect. It makes eating out with normal people who may choose not to finish a meal, or who choose the salad a minefield.
I have no expectations that this will ever change, the connections between food and reward and restriction and punishment have been with me from a very young age. I have always been afraid of cake and puddings and a fear of being fat, it represents a loss of control. However, I have, and can exercise the need for control in a positive way, and, given the distraction of normal life, this the aim.
Food obsessive ramblings aside, I did meet with people from work at the end of last week which was a massive positive step forward and we have devised a plan for a phased return back to work. I am both humbled and so grateful at the understanding and humanity they have shown and willingness to be flexible, it just makes me feel so lucky and much more able to keep on going forwards. I am so looking forward to being slightly useful again.
I should have anticipated the fall after the initial euphoria of leaving the unit but I didn’t and so I’ve fallen cushion-less onto rocky ground. I’m struggling to find meaning in the things I’m finding to do and the sudden lack of support (2 weeks between appointments) has let the old thoughts come crowding back in. The fact that I’m almost at an optimal weight means I am worried about everything I eat in case it’s just too much and so I fear I’m under achieving on that front too. My dietician was actually so right, it only takes one missed snack to fall off the tightrope. Black coffee and lots of walks are my best friends at the moment. I suppose having been pretty much institutionalised since the beginning of May there’s bound to be some adjustment, I just stupidly didn’t see it coming.
I have been attempting to meet up with people but fear I’m poor company at the moment as I have no anecdotes to share except those gained from an eating disorder hospital and they are not that easy to talk about. It makes me into a very dull person indeed. Other people’s lives seem so happy and far removed from mine at the moment that I struggle to find a middle ground.
I’m hoping that I have the strength to readjust and keep on carrying on. I have a meeting with work on Friday and want to make a plan for a phased return which I’m looking forward to and dreading with equal measure. Meanwhile, it’s jobs around the house and craft activities which at the moment just don’t fill the gap.
Tomorrow is another day…
Random, but funny: