The number of people who are affected by ill mental health is rising. Current figures show that an estimated one in four adults in Britain will experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem each year. Today, I'm going to talk about my experience with depression.
“It’s so difficult to describe depression to someone who’s never been there, because it’s not sadness. I know sadness. Sadness is to cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling — that really hollowed-out feeling.”
What does a depressed person look like? What does someone with suicidal thoughts look like? When we think about it, many of us conjure up the mental image of a crumpled up, crying shell of a person in a dark shadowy place.
The reality, however, is that people struggling with ill mental health often hide it in their everyday lives. They look like you, they look like the person you’ve just passed in the street without a second thought.
They look like me.
I struggled with ill mental health for a number of years.
In March 2001, when I was 19, my GP diagnosed me with post-natal depression and anxiety.
Shortly after my diagnosis, I became a single parent to a young baby when her father felt our relationship no longer worked. Not understanding depression as a mental illness, I simply felt I was a failure, as a mother and a partner.
My depression - which I often refer to as my gremlin - quietly took hold. It wrapped its arms around me and whispered poisonous thoughts to me daily.
Those close to me knew I was suffering with depression, but as long as it wasn’t spoken about, it seemed like it wasn’t really there. So, desperate not to be seen as a failure, I hid how I was feeling from family and friends. Everyone.
Rightly or wrongly the world became my stage. I painted on a face that convinced everyone around me that I was okay – normal.
I created two personas… the face I showed the world (the one that was always calm and in control), and the other was the sad, lonely, empty shell of a person that my gremlin led me to believe was worthless and not worthy of people’s time, respect or affection.
I was raising my daughter alone and I was holding down a full-time job. Composed and in control on the outside, I worked hard. I wanted to be accepted, liked, to feel valued by people. I was still seeing my GP as needed, but I found that my act continued there too. I convinced myself that as long as I acted okay, I ‘was’ okay and no-one would be the wiser.
But I was not okay.
I know now that I was very ill. I was lost and consumed by loneliness, by despondency, and I didn’t know how to make it stop.
At night and over the weekends once my daughter was in bed sound asleep - when it was just me and my gremlin - I would fall apart. I drank and smoked heavily. I was numb, yet in so much pain! I self-harmed to feel something real.
I wasn’t living and enjoying life. I was just existing, day-in day-out. It was exhausting. My depression was consuming me. The years of pushing down feelings and emotions became too much for me. I began thinking that the world, my family, would be better off without me here. I wasn’t bringing anything to the table. I was useless.
I found myself stockpiling painkillers. I remember walking into a chemist one day and asking for 4 boxes of paracetamol. The lady behind the counter asked the pharmacist if it was okay to sell so many boxes, as it’s normally a 2 box limit per person. The pharmacist looked over the counter at me and said “yes, she doesn’t look like the type to do anything silly with them.”
How wrong they were.
I was exactly that type. I was mentally ill and that one comment had just proved that everything my gremlin had led me to believe, all my thoughts and fears, were correct - no-one could see me!
But I still never told anyone. Outwardly, I remained composed and in control.
Until 28th December 2005 – the night I tried to take my life.
I was so tired of being me. I wanted out. I was hurting so much and I just wanted it to stop.
Drunk again, I sat there in my lounge opening packets and packets of painkillers and began taking them by the handful, swallowing them with gulps of wine. I knew what I was doing wasn’t going to be a quick way out, but I wanted to give my family the chance to say goodbye. I wanted the chance to explain that they would be better without me.
My daughter saved my life that night. Thinking about her alone hurt me more than anything. I couldn’t leave her! Who would love her more than I did? Who would look after her and help her grow into a happy healthy woman?
I decided in that moment to be there for her. I called 999, explained what I had done and begged for help.
I was lucky.
The NHS helped me that night and led me to an amazing psychiatric nurse named Heini. She helped me pick myself up. She even gave me permission to self-harm which, as I’m sure she knew, took all the power away from it. I found didn’t need it anymore.
It was not easy. To say it was hard work is an understatement, but I was stubborn and determined and I got better.
I achieved all of this without my employer ever knowing! Fear stopped me from telling them. Why?
But now, I am where I am today and I finally feel able to share my story. And more importantly, I want to share my story. It’s important to talk, and I feel very lucky to have an incredibly supportive employer.
Yet even now I’m sat here thinking F*** this is scary, putting myself out there like this. But ultimately, I feel that by putting all of this out there in the open, I’m helping to remove the power that this illness held over me for years.
Just because you can’t see it or touch it, it doesn’t mean mental ill health is any less real than, say, a back injury or the flu. It’s so important that we start seeing just how real these problems are, and it’s even more important to have the courage to talk about them.
I’ve discovered that it’s helped me enormously - freed me even - to talk about my experiences and share my story. And maybe, just maybe, I can inspire someone else to share their story too?
If I can help just one person by sharing this, then it’s a win.