Editors note: This is the third in a monthly series of guest posts on the subject of mental health. For December Stef has felt able to share her experience as a woman, wife and mother living with depression. It is a long piece and I wanted to share it all in one post as a thank you to her for being so honest and open. I am sure there are many out there, including myself, who can empathise with the struggles she has had to overcome.
I’ve suffered with periodic bouts of depression since my late teens. I’m now in my early forties so that’s nearly thirty years of feeling like my world is about to cave in at any moment. It hasn’t yet, and now after all this time, I’m starting to believe that it never will.
In 1998 I had just come out of an acrimonious break up with a long-term boyfriend. I’d lost a lot of weight and spent my days pretty much on autopilot. I was living on rice, chickpeas and black coffee and my already stressful job was made worse by the fact that my ex worked in an office just along the corridor to mine. One evening, after going out and getting very drunk, I emptied the bathroom cabinet and took every pill I could find until I passed out. My flatmate found me and rang an ambulance. I woke up in hospital the following day with a very sore throat and a stomach full of charcoal because they hadn’t managed to pump it properly.
All I can really remember of that time is a vision of a deep pit where the blackness is thick and cloying and slowly suffocates you because you can’t get out. I was discharged from hospital with just a prescription for antidepressants. No follow up appointment, no counselling, nothing. But already I was labelled, and consequently judged. I had tried to kill myself. I was mentally unstable. I was mad.
I retrained and changed jobs. The depression was manageable. I’d come off the antidepressants and treated myself with St Johns Wort. I’d started doing yoga to help deal with the stress and I’d stopped trying to fit into an uncomfortable mould and started to be a little more – ME. Most importantly of all I’d stopped drinking. I enjoyed work. I had a social life. I’d got through some extremely stressful episodes – the death of my father, redundancy, moving house, getting married. I made the mistake of thinking I was cured.
All that changed when my daughter was born in 2006. After four miscarriages and an utterly horrendous pregnancy which culminated in gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia, we endured a very difficult birth. Surprisingly, she has proved to be an extremely happy, healthy and stable child.
I, on the other hand, descended rapidly into post-natal depression, sleep deprivation, hallucinations and psychosis. When I finally admitted to my health visitor that I had actually thought about killing myself and my daughter, the mental health team were called in. I was put forward for CBT, but there was no funding available – and besides, by this time, the financial reality was that I had to go back to work. I was put on different antidepressants and sent on my way. So I muddled on, knowing that I was slowly sliding deeper into the pit that I couldn’t get out of and feeling increasingly incapable of coping with a boisterous, growing, intelligent and startlingly NORMAL child.
In May 2010, it fell apart again. I collapsed one Sunday night feeling like the mirror that was my mind had shattered into a million glittering pieces. I couldn’t do anything except cry. I couldn’t talk to my boss, my mother, my husband. My GP put me on a higher dose of citalopram and signed me off for a month. He referred me for counselling but warned me that there was a nine-month waiting list. I tried to glue the pieces together and went back to work.
In August, after a row with my best friend, I told my husband that I was going to take all the paracetamol I could find because I just couldn’t live like that any longer. I was utterly exhausted, mentally in pieces and wishing I was somewhere – anywhere – else. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in an interview room in my local mental health unit being told they had found me a bed. I was being admitted for my own safety.
Being an inpatient was both a terrifying and a revelatory experience. Although the wards were segregated the canteen was not and I suffered severe panic attacks every time I had to go for a meal. Otherwise, during the day I almost never saw anyone apart from the staff when they did their fifteen-minute checks. It took a 48 hours to get used to not being allowed to go anywhere alone, of having to tell a nurse where I was going at all times, of having doors locked behind me, of asking permission to make a phone call. But it taught me that I could take control of my life, and find a way of sorting my illness out so I never EVER have to come back again.
Before I was discharged, my drugs were changed again, to mirtazepine and BOY! Did I notice the difference! I ate everything, slept for hours at a time and felt like I had cotton wool in my head. I also had no control over my temper, throwing things at my husband for no reason, totally misinterpreting everything he said and did. I begged the CPN to change my meds, but they put the dosage up and gave me tranquillizers for the times when the rage or panic got too much. I immediately telephoned a dear friend and homeopath in desperation, and she made up a homeopathic remedy from the mirtazepine which I now take instead. As she is also a counsellor, she is helping me with that too, since the NHS has only just reached my name on the waiting list!
Things are now better. I am no longer working. The job is just soul-destroying and I can do well without the stress at the moment. Financially it was a very poor decision, but perhaps I should have done it years before and saved myself all this trouble. I am retraining again, studying to become a naturopath. I am slowly finding alternative ways of making an income and am evangelising Make Do And Mend. I have finally got counselling through the NHS, although still no CBT. And I’m off my meds.
My mental state, though, is still fragile. I can’t cope with stress very well and large crowds still make me panic. But I can run a house, make decisions and play with my daughter. I know people still judge me because at best people think I’m a skiving whinger (and yes, I have been called that to my face) or at worst deluding myself into thinking that I’m not mad when, of course, I am.
Depression is an illness. Same as diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure. It has the potential to kill you if you don’t do anything about it. It is capable of crippling you, leaving you unable to function at the most basic level. Unlike diabetes, cancer or high blood pressure though, you can’t take a photo of it or check it with basic tests. A photo of my brain wouldn’t show you anything, but believe me, the illness is there. I don’t think I’ll ever be free of it, but I know I can manage it and I know I can live with it.
Depression may not be my best friend but it is no longer my enemy. Of late it has taught me a great deal about myself and what is really, truly, deeply important to me. And the biggest lesson it’s taught is that life, with all its faults and flaws, really IS worth living.
For support and information on mental health issues, go to www.mind.org.uk.