I have been contemplating this post for a long time – for the best part of a year, in fact. Only ‘contemplating’ because the thought of writing it has been too daunting. And, supposing I were to get to the end of what I am now going to attempt to write, it might well prove impossible to share. I am only now, finally trying to write this because I have a feeling that what I want to say needs to be said – not for me, because I know it (and have been living it) but for anyone else who might identify with it and, as a result, might feel a little less alone and, more able to share their own story, possibly even see a glimmer of hope in an oppressive gloom…
I am very conscious that holding up the mental health card can, in itself, be additionally dangerous to one’s health of mind. This for a very simple reason: the Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone and, whilst I think most of us realise and accept that we’ve all been through difficult times, it is all too tempting to be competitive about our troubles and measure the woes in our lives against what we suppose to be trouble-free lives of others. You-Think-You’ve-Got-Problems Syndrome can so easily be our default position in stressful times. Nobody has actually said that to me, but I’ve imagined, again and again, that if I once started talking about what was going on in my head, that they might – if not actually say it – at least, think it.
So, what has been going on in my head?
I could offer that catchall word ‘depression’, but – despite being an acknowledged clinical definition – it feels too grey, too indistinct and inadequate a word to apply to what I am talking about…
Instead, I’ll need to resort to random word association here: deep sadness – not just a ‘sad’ sadness, but a full-on, ocean-deep sorrow; an unfathomable emptiness; a void of hopelessness.
Then there’s the devastating sense of worthlessness; the constant and restless anxiety accelerating, suddenly, to rabid fear; the smouldering anger that flares into volcanic, plate-smashing, book-tearing rage; and the terrifying moments of blind panic reaching a point of no return where you feel as if your heart will disconnect from your chest and leap out of your mouth.
Resulting from a combination of these ‘symptoms’ comes a crippling tiredness. There is nothing that needs to be done that doesn’t sap you of all energy. The effort required for even simple tasks is wearisome. Tiredness is, in truth, too meagre a word to describe the daily sense of exhaustion. Sleep is constantly pulling at you, begging you to close your eyes and relinquish your mind to the overpowering feeling of fatigue; and yet, again and again, insomnia robs you of even that solace.
Underlying some or all of these experiences is, I have found, a deep-set, despairing, loneliness – a claim that I realise will be read as a brutally savage statement by my close friends and, especially, by the man who is my husband, lover and friend.
These feelings, in some form or other, are more or less always present: from the very first moment of waking through to the last moment of awareness. Sometimes it is nothing more than a mildly unsettling butterflies-in-the-stomach fluttering; at other times it is like a gnawing, insatiable hunger. On a good day, it may feel like little more than a dull headache and can even be numbed by a Novocaine moment of laughter or loving or, most effectively in my experience, by retreating into a reassuring imaginary room where the walls are metaphorically papered with rose-tinted photographs of treasured memories and mementos from long-ago. At other times the headache spirals into a incapacitating migraine and those fearful demons – sorrow, hopelessness, self-loathing and anger – return in packs, circling ever nearer and nearer until they attack…
And when, after they have mauled you, torn and ripped and gnawed at the uncertain essence of what you think you are, they depart into the darkness and leave you – with no tears left to shed – in a deep, dark place to contemplate your misery and shame.
I doubt if it’s worth trying to chronicle how, during the Covid-19 pandemic, this oppressive state of mind began first to stalk me and then cornered and ensnared me, because, as I have already said, Covid has affected no two people in the quite the same way. Those who were mobile could not understand those who had to cope with serious mobility issues; nor could those who lived in a house with a garden understand what it was like for a family of four or more in a cramped high-rise flat; the situation of those furloughed from work was quite different from that of the thousands of self-employed who had no support. And those with a significant other couldn’t hope to fully empathise with the single or bereaved person or a couple parted by many miles.
What I want to try to convey is the corrosive damage of the mental health obstacles Covid has placed in the path of so many of us, as much as to articulate the voice of an illness that so often leaves its suffers inarticulate. In fact, Covid is only an incidental factor, as anyone who has battled depression will know, since it is no respecter of time, place or circumstance.
In my personal experience, it began – as it always begins – innocently and insidiously, like the distant murmur of an approaching train or some vague shape glimpsed on the periphery of your vision. It’s not quite here yet – but it’s coming: like the brooding clouds and sudden stillness that precedes the storm and then, before can take shelter, it is upon you: a deluge of despair swamping your mind and body.
For me the process of succumbing to this disease was a slow, but insistent, daily decent into an increasingly dark abyss. So gradual was the process that I think, at first, I mistook the process as one of trying to ensure that I was in a place of safety – create for myself a dugout on the Covid-ravaged battlefield of our time. It was only as I found myself being drawn deeper and deeper that I realised that I was not only finding it difficult to think with any clarity but that, physically, I was battling to see and hear and even breath.
My mind curled itself into a foetal position; I retreated into interminable, sorrowful contemplation of the past, raking over the ashes of long-cold fires: relationships – parents, friends, lovers – irreconcilable breaches, missed or bungled opportunities, unfulfilled ambitions… Drained of positivity, yet drowning in regret and remorse, I was adrift on a dead sea where everything for as far as I could see to the infinitely distant horizon was littered with the wreckage of misconnections, disconnections, painful memories and failed achievements.
Although I was still consciously aware of 2020’s endless summer of sunny, blue, aircraft-free skies, I had been seduced by the comforting safety-snare of my emotional fall-out shelter that felt secure even though it was, at the very same time, shutting the windows, locking the doors, switching off the lights and closing down the systems of everything that made my life worth living. The inner loneliness of this time reduced me, again and again, to a place where I felt I was losing my sanity.
Gradually I ceased to function beyond the rudimentary daily routine: I had work that I could do – a commission to complete and several creative projects that could have occupied me – but I couldn’t work; didn't want to work… My Facebook friends and acquaintances daily announced that they were now learning their third language in lock-down, or were taking up needlepoint, or were tracing their ancestry back to the days of Noah, or had installed a home kiln and were making pots and mugs to sell on-line.
My Facebook page (when I could be bothered to post) comprised wistful photos of earlier summers and pictures of long-lost childhood treasures recently reclaimed via eBay…
I found it increasingly difficult to engage: emails went unanswered, texts ignored, phone calls declined and not returned; despite a growing fear at my debilitating – yet deliberate – inner self-isolation, I could not see a way back from the encircling hedges of the maze I had allowed to grow up around what I now believed was my total insignificance.
I knew the world – even our locked-down prison garden – was still full of the light, colour and sounds of continuing life, but I was now beginning to see only in a drab monochrome or a faded sepia like old photographs; I knew that thrushes and blackbirds were singing, but I heard only the inane chatter of magpies and raucous cries of the crows, the shadow of whose black wings fell constantly across the sun.
It would be foolish to claim that what I experienced was solely the result of the pandemic. Covid-19 was merely a catalyst, a lens through which over seventy years of life-problems – sorrows, angers and heartaches – were now being focused and projected in an all-enveloping, IMAX-screen format that blinded me to everything else.
And so a night came – at three o’clock in the morning, with the flood level of anguish lapping at my chin – when I sat at the dining-room table with an array of medicine bottles and packets and asked myself how many I would need to take to put an end to this overwhelming despondency. I didn’t so much as want to kill myself as to just stop living. I wanted the show to be over, to bring down the curtain and vacate the theatre.
I realise this sounds melodramatic, but there was nothing theatrical about the moment. It felt, instead, completely natural as if what I was contemplating was the only rational and unavoidable option open to me. It felt like having come to end of a long, long, darkened corridor and being faced by a single open door leading to a space where there was nothing but calm, rest, stillness and an absence of all those burdensome thoughts and emotions that were weighing me down. Standing on the threshold of that doorway, I was powerfully aware of my ‘aloneness’ and of being pulled towards a release from loneliness.
Of course, I was not truly ‘alone’ – my husband, whom I love – was asleep in our bedroom, and yet I felt remote, isolated and solitary, cut-off from everyone and everything. One or two of the few who have recently heard me speak of this night, have asked how I could conceivably have contemplated ending my life without thinking what impact – if I had succeeded – it would have upon my partner of many years. The question shames me, but I have to truthfully reply that my reasoning was twofold: it felt simply impossible to carry on and, I argued, since I had already used up my three-score-years-and-ten, had health issues that would only continue to deteriorate and might inevitable render me a burden, it would – in the long term – be a release and a relief…
Driven by this admittedly selfish aim, I woke up the computer typed into a search engine the question I needed answering: ‘How can I kill myself?’ The much-maligned Internet instantly threw up a page of links offering help to those contemplating suicide. It is perhaps bizarre but true that poised on a cliff edge, I was pulled back from the brink by the anonymity of Google. I didn’t ring the Samaritans, whose number was at the top of the search results; for me, it was enough of a moment to think again, to take a step back – though, at the time, unconditional – to a place where I could reflect, draw breath, take a second or third look at things and put self-destruction on hold.
I told no one, at the time, what had happened that night but, shortly afterwards, I was thrown a lifeline. I hadn’t called for help and this unsought professional offer to keep me afloat came about solely because of a professor of rheumatology at London’s Guy’s hospital decided to reach out to his patients to ask after their mental health.
This was seven or eight months ago now and, as a result, I’m still – more or less – in the swim. My help came through a combination of therapy and mindfulness, through the support of a handful of friends and the patience and steadfastness of my partner, but not everybody’s path back from the cliff-edge will be the same. Whatever form it takes, it is slow: a series of often infinitesimally small increments of progress.
The story of someone climbing and conquering a mountain is so much more compelling than the anticlimactic account of coming down afterwards. With depression it’s easier to find words to describe the descent into the darkness than the crawl back into the light. Milton’s Paradise Lost is a much better read than his Paradise Regained.
My way out has been – and still is – painfully slow and there are times when one uncertain step forward is followed by several blundering steps back. The water remains choppy at times – quite a bit of the time, actually – and, all too easily, I can become overwhelmed and find myself wallowing again.
I am still finding it difficult to engage with others; I let quite a few phone calls go to message and make feeble excuses to myself for failing to contact friends. Anyone who has experienced these symptoms will know it is hard to talk about them.
Basically, no two days are ever alike. Invariably, a good day is followed by a less good one where clouds begin to gather and I find myself being drawn towards those crumbling stairs that lead down into that nihilistic place where everything is darkness and despair.
But the lulls between the storms are getting longer, the panics are more quickly recovered from, the bleak moments more easily dispelled, I am a work in progress – but then all of us are and life always is.
I realise that I run the risk of sounding incredibly self-indulgent, but, having decided to write this, it is important that I tell it how it is – or has been – for me: so that, if you are now or have ever been in a similar place, you will know that – however alone, empty and fearful you feel – I am, right now, very close to you.
For too long I was too shy, too scared, too proud or too selfish to give a cry for help; more concerned that everyone should think I was waving not drowning. Then – whether by chance, luck or providence a lifebelt floated within my grasp and I fumblingly grabbed hold.
If you, or someone you know, is floundering in the treacherous currents of this emotional Sargasso Sea, please don’t let those waters swirl around your head and wait for chance, luck or providence to throw you a lifeline. It is never too soon – and absolutely never too late – to call for help.
And look! I’ve actually managed to put into words at least some of what I wanted to say…
(added on 27 July 2021)