I have recently watched a clip of the brilliantly eloquent Matt Haig on BBC2’s ‘Front Row Late’ entitled “Reasons to Stay Alive”. Before those that I know and love panic, I am not suicidal – I know from experience what suicide does to families and friends and I think I would have to be suffering extremely deeply to even contemplate that. The reason I mentioned Matt’s clip is that he talks about the historical ways that people use to describe depression such as “Fighting your demons”. I am depressed. I am at last owning that. I am currently battling hard inside my head, and this bout is against depression.
I am not sure where I learned that to be depressed was weakness, but even when my words and heart comforted others who were suffering deeply because of their mental health, my head was whispering different thoughts. My head could apply the fact that depression is an illness and cannot be helped by the sufferer when my arms were supporting others, and not see it as a weakness in them. However it reasoned that I was not one of those people that needed such support myself. I was strong. I was resilient. I did the holding, the comforting and the supporting. I could beat the negative thoughts and heavy heart – this wasn’t depression I was feeling, this was just a difficult time in my journey. I held the mantra through most of my life, “This will pass. There are people that are much worse off than you. You just have to keep going or you will be letting [insert many names here] and yourself down”.
A few years ago after many years of ill (physical) health and unplanned and frightening surgery I was persuaded to attend counselling. My GP had prescribed anti-depressants which I left untouched at the back of the cupboard. On my return to work Occupational Health suggested and arranged counselling and I reluctantly agreed. In the first session I remember sitting in the green chair, with the sun shining through the glass of the shop-fronted room which doubled up as a physiotherapy clinic. I held a glass of water in my shaking hand, and a box of tissues sat on the table next to me. One tissue sat pointedly in my lap – its sogginess shouting futility in its attempt to capture the emotions leaking unrelentingly from my eyes. I explained to the therapist that, through all my life, mentally I had placed the things I could not cope with in a box, and closed the lid. Each box was pushed to the corners of my mind and the boxes were many. It wasn’t that I was ignoring them, it was just that I was waiting a better day and more strength to deal with them. She asked what would happen if I lifted the lid to confront the contents of those boxes and I remember the fear as I said simply through my snot-gurgling tears “I will fall...”
We did open some of those boxes in the sessions that followed. I am sure anyone that has had counselling will have heard a similar analogy when she described me like a bucket under a dripping tap. The drips were the people I constantly wanted to save and support in my work and my personal life, as well as the difficulties I encountered. Drip, drip, drip. Each drip filled my bucket until one drip caused my bucket to overflow. We addressed some of those drips, and unpacked and emptied some of the boxes. In our last session we talked strategies to avoid re-filling my bucket. I am not sure I really got over my habit of putting things into boxes when I did not have time or energy to confront them in my busy life. Those boxes are where the demons live.
For the last few years the boxes have been stacking – ill health and more surgery with the threat of further surgery to come; family traumas; societal traumas such as Brexit and the associated right wing ideology which have impacted on me and people like me so personally; and a changing work climate. I have tried to find ways to protect myself.
I have tried not to work such long unrelenting hours, even applying for a reduction in my working week deciding that the negative impact of a loss in earnings wasn’t as important as maintaining my health and well-being. It sounded like a good sensible move in my head, but actually this decision resulted in a nasty demon in one box which keeps jumping out to bite me.
I have tried to find interests which have a positive impact on my mental state. I spend time every week with my wonderful family and grandchildren who provide a balm to any ills. This year too I found the joy of writing again. I found writing unpacked some of my boxes. I am now aware of the little girl with pigtails, standing in a puddle of her own making and her whisper in my head “You are not worthy”. Awareness has helped me give her a cuddle of acknowledgement when I am in challenging situations, before apologising that I will ignore her words…at least most of the time. My writing has made me aware that my patchwork identity of black and white and the ways that I have been treated because of it have had an impact on my sense of worth, my confidence and my self-esteem. This is the biggest box that I have opened and explored. Along with this has blossomed a realisation that living in a mostly white place, and bowing to the white privilege that has surrounded me has resulted in me blaming myself for those experiences which I had thought had a racist overtone, and to put away the micro- and overt- aggressions lumping them into a box marked “Do not open”. My writing has forced me to open the box, and raise my voice against injustices for me and people like me.
I have wondered over the last week whether writing has been like opening ‘Pandora’s box’. Perhaps these ideas would have been better left inside and unopened – certainly it would have been far less uncomfortable to keep the lid shut. Has exploring these difficult thoughts, which have been buried deep and denied for so many years been the cause of my current state? Was that the catalyst for my growing depression? Was this the drip that caused my bucket to overflow?
In my squiggling thoughts however I have pinpointed the catalyst, the last drip, and it was never my writing. I cannot share my real-life conclusions based on a recent experience, so as always I give myself to my writing to tell my story in a different way…
I stand at the top of the cliff, on the edge, the opened box at my feet. The wind and rain are buffeting me but I stand strong – I can do this. I look along the cliff at the others who look like me, or feel like me, all standing strong – I am one of many. We can do this together. And then the white-face demon climbs out of the box “It’s you or me, and I am happy to sacrifice you as you are not worth as much as me. You are an annoyance with your constant cry for justice. Be gone.” And with that the demon pushes me – two hands hard in my chest, painful and heavy. Shocked, I lose my footing and begin to fall. I can see the faces of those who also stand at the cliff edge looking down, their hands reaching towards me in horror. The face of the demon looks down at me as I fall, the smirk of triumph writ large. Turning to those on the cliff edge the demon shrugs “I tried to help her, and warned her of the danger, but she tripped and fell. Now listen, mind yourselves on the cliff edge…”
This is not a doom-laden tale and not mad ramblings of a depressed woman – those that know the truth will understand. As I fall, and I know that this is my current state, I am reassured that there are arms that reach to slow my descent…and like some interpretations of Pandora’s tale I know that left in that opened box remains “hope” and I promise myself once I am strong I will open my wings again to fly upwards back to the cliff’s edge.