The first thought that came into my head as I awoke was that I would need to put the cat in another room. It seemed my unconscious brain had been beavering away in my sleep so when I opened my eyes and my conscious thoughts came to, I was joining in half way through a conversation. When I caught up with myself, I was able to fully participate in my own inner dialogue. I needed to put the cat in another room so that he wouldn’t be harmed by the gas from the cooker. My housemate was at work so I knew I wouldn’t be interrupted until it was done. I would block the vent with plastic bags so that the gas couldn’t escape, close the door and windows and sit with all four gas hob rings on full until I passed out and didn’t wake up. Everyone would be better off if I didn’t exist anymore.
All pretty morbid, I know, but this was the reality of how I felt on that dark morning in November. You might be wondering why I am sharing this, after all, Mental Health Awareness Week was in May, so I’m several months too late to jump on that particular bandwagon. But that is sort of the point. Whilst I laud the efforts of having an entire week dedicated to raising awareness about the insidious nature of mental health, it doesn’t always fit neatly into a dedicated space. It is therefore important to keep that conversation going and to that end, I am going to share my story.
The first thing to note is that I didn’t get to the stage where I wanted to end my own life overnight. Looking back, I can see that I had been on a downward spiral for over a year at that point. But everyone looks like a genius in the rear-view mirror and I hadn’t been able to see just how unwell I was becoming. Like many people who suffer with depression, I have thought patterns and behaviours that are rooted in maladaptive coping mechanisms that I developed at a young age, but my recent slide started by being overworked.
A low-level, grumbling amount of stress seems so normal in our modern lives, especially in a busy city like London, that it can be difficult to establish what is normal and what is out of control. For me, it took several years of being a “yes” person in an environment that didn’t encourage a healthy work/life balance to get to breaking point. But it wasn’t until I quit my job that things really took hold.
The first clue was that I stopped sleeping. At the worst stage, I was only getting about 3 or 4 hours a night and this pattern lasted for months. My mind refused to shut down and I found myself waking up with thoughts racing and my heart pounding. The thoughts got worse and worse and eventually my own mind was mocking me. I would hear myself telling me that I wasn’t good enough at anything, that I had failed at life because I wasn’t able to manage the stress of city life and that my partner would leave out of disgust for who I really was if he ever found out. The thoughts were so real to me that even during the day I felt anxious and clingy around my friends and family, especially my partner.
The lack of sleep and constant anxiety left me feeling snappy and irritable. I found myself getting annoyed by things that wouldn’t normally register on my radar and I argued with my partner constantly. This exacerbated my anxiety that he would leave and I found myself in a tortuous spiral of irritability and extreme anxiety that ended with me waking in the middle of the night, most nights, with my heart pounding and mind racing.
Amazingly, at this point I still didn’t know I was unwell. I attributed my symptoms to burn-out from my old job and assumed I would get better with time. I tried to balance my life by doing regular exercise, eating healthily and spending time with friends doing things that helped me to relax. But relaxing didn’t come easily and eventually even my hobbies didn’t bring me joy. I stopped being able to read and couldn’t write anything at all due to an almost total absence of concentration. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you can probably tell how much joy I get from writing, so being unable to do it felt like the gravest injustice of all.
Amongst all of this, my partner tried his best to help me manage my stress and burn-out by organising nice things for us to do, but I didn’t feel joy doing them and he would get understandably frustrated when it didn’t cheer me up. I did my best to appear happy, but it was exhausting and I could only keep it up for short spells before bursting into tears and being unable to do anything at all. My insomnia and middle-of the night panic attacks impacted on him too and soon enough we were both tired and irritable. You can see how the spiral gets so easily out of control.
Eventually, I decided that I needed to get a part time job in order to give me a degree of financial security in the belief that this would alleviate some of my stress, so I started my new job 3 days a week. Almost instantly, I stepped into my new office and had a sort of post-traumatic stress reaction to the work environment that reminded me of my previous job and how difficult it had been. I battled for a couple of weeks, but in the end, I couldn’t carry on. I called the staff welfare service who made me an appointment with James, my counsellor, and I was seen the same week. After about half an hour of telling James the most recent bit of my story, he asked me what I thought the underlying issue was. I had no idea, so he told me that he thought I was suffering with depression. Suddenly it all made sense. I cried for the next half an hour as I realised that I had been battling depression all that time and James encouraged me to let go of the pretence and the “happy face” that I had so carefully cultivated.
The upshot of this was that I initially sunk even further into my depressive state and that’s when I woke up wanting to end my life. I had well and truly hit rock bottom. My relationship with my partner was in ruins, I had stopped seeing my friends, I hadn’t slept in months and I couldn’t concentrate long enough to get any productive work done. But amongst the dark thoughts a tiny, faint voice was fighting to make itself heard. It was just audible enough that I was briefly distracted from my own self destruction and as I lay there in bed, I realised that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary situation. In that moment I was scared by my own thoughts and the darkness that I was capable of, and I knew I needed help. So I called my Mum.
What followed was six months of regular counselling and medication to help me get through the worst of it. It wasn’t pretty. I had left it so long to get help that I had a lot of damage to repair, especially with my partner who had become so frustrated with my mood changes, my negativity and my insomnia that he had begun to feel powerless and had come to the conclusion that it must be because of him that I felt so unwell. When I initially started taking the medication, I felt like I was in a dream and could barely hold a conversation. One of the hardest parts for me was knowing that my illness was having such a huge impact on the people I cared about the most, but feeling totally out of control to do anything about it. And then slowly, day by day, things started to get better.
James helped me to identify my triggers and isolate where my negative thought patterns came from. Through talking and CBT, I felt like I actually understood myself for the first time ever. I realised that I have been unwell for a very long time and have carried a huge amount of emotional baggage with me for most of my life. James equipped me with the tools I needed to challenge my own thoughts and behaviours until one evening, sometime around February, I turned on my laptop and I started to write. I wrote for half an hour solid with tears of joy in my eyes that my mind was healing enough to allow my creativity to come through.
Over the following months, I flourished at work and my line manager supported me to ensure that my work life never got on top of me. Creative ideas poured from me and I began to sleep through the night. My partner and I began to mend our relationship and gain a deeper understanding of each other. I started seeing my friends again and felt able to address the 10kg of extra weight that I had gained during my lowest months. By addressing the source of my negative thought patterns, I have started to not only understand myself, but to embrace everything that I am from my newly acquired muffin tops to my curly hair that I have spent my whole life fighting against. I now have the confidence to speak out and to challenge people where I had always avoided conflict and confrontation. And most importantly, life feels like a blessing to be enjoyed and cherished.
I hope that if you are reading this and you are someone who collapses into the darkness when people aren’t looking, or if you know someone who is, then this will help to give you the nudge you need to get help and start to heal. It isn’t easy. The journey hasn’t been linear and there are still days where I feel as though I am being pulled back into the dark. I have had to confront the most uncomfortable truths about myself and the process of healing has definitely not been a passive one. It is hard work. But it is so worth it.
And finally to my friends, family and especially my partner, I don’t think there are enough words to tell you just how much I love you.