My mum called last night. I was not in a good state of mind to speak to her. She could tell by my tone I wasn’t well – asked why I hadn’t gone to work. I never know what to say. We’ve had the discussion a hundred times before. Sometimes she seems to understand. At least now she kind of takes my word for how bad it feels. And at least she understands the benefits of the medication when I’m on it.
I’m not on it at the moment. Came off completely and it was going ok – but I was never so naive as to think I would get back to zero and find that, hurrah, the depression has gone. So there are bad days. And this last couple have been bad days. She said – do you think you need to go back to the doctors. It means a lot that she says that. There was a time when she had the usual knee jerk reaction to anti-depressants common of so many that seem to think of them as “uppers”, or addictive. My anti-depressants, perhaps with the exception of the first period when I go on an increased dose and need to get used to it, do absolutely nothing fun for me. They strip the fun out of life to a great extent, and give me a big fat bunch of side effects which cause as much trouble as my depression does. Part of the reason I came off them was that they were causing me to miss work too much, or be late too much. But lo, here I am un medicated, still not able to get there.
Why? It’s a curious thing – trying to explain how debilitating depression can be to someone who looks at you and sees someone who looks fit and well. If I can type this, why can’t I be in work typing? Perhaps if typing was all I did I might be ok. Yesterday, I couldn’t have typed. That I am stringing a sentence together in a reasonably coherent manner is a sign that I’m feeling better today than I did then.
These shades, degrees of darkness. It’s not black and white. Nor even black and white with shades of grey. There are several colours in my spectrum of mental ill-health. All of these affecting my ability to live a normal life (whatever that is) to some extent or another.
The worst times. The deepest, darkest, coldest blue. Usually at night. Maybe between midnight and the time I should be waking. But I am already awake. More awake than any other time. Eyes wide and staring, usually gripping the blanket between my arms, hugging it to me tightly. My body taut. Every muscle tensed. I couldn’t talk if I tried. My mouth feels wired shut, it is difficult to breathe. In my mind, an abject fear of death, and more than that, of life. I am paralysed. Sometimes, waves of awareness will wash over me. I need to sleep – I have to go to work in the morning, if I don’t sleep I won’t be any good at work. Or I’ll be in no state to go – oh god oh god I can’t miss more work I’m going to get in bother what happens if they put me on a warning and then I am ill again what then? Or I have to go to work in the morning – oh god I can’t face it it’s driving me out of my mind they hate me they hate us they want rid of us they don’t understand what we do they don’t want to understand they don’t care they see us as an expensive joke. No matter all that promise all that effort – I passed my masters top of the class a distinction – won a prize don’t you know. So much enthusiasm so much to offer and yet here I am in a place that won’t even let me make a decision to pay a fucking bill, let alone choose how we wish to market our services or help our customers. But the money pays the bills the bills – the stupid debt that climbs ever higher it seems no matter what they do. Thanks for that tories. I can’t blame you for it all but I can blame you for it starting. And then my lovely brain that switches off its common sense mode every so often and when I wake I find myself with a thousand more pounds worth of things I don’t need, or even want anymore. Do you think it’s all part of the plan? Get the students in so much debt that they have to cling on to any job they get no matter what the circumstances – no striking for better pay or pensions just bow and scrape and grovel, thank you ever so kindly sir for deigning to let me spend my every waking moment toiling for your profit, what’s that? You’d like to kick me, why of course sir as is your right you are my lord and master after all. I digress. But that’s what my brain will do in those moments, jump from dark place to dark place, faster than a squirrel, never stopping one moment. Only as time goes on you know you will not sleep and you will not feel better in the morning and you will not be able to do anything much for quite a while.
Other nights (still, usually nights) – blackish red. This is when I sob and I scream and I cannot feel anything but as though my brain were trying to escape by squeezing itself out of my body through every pore. I am tense again, but in a different way – jagged, cannot keep still. These times he tries to calm me by holding me – I fight against but eventually collapse, and cry for hours – or so it seems. Until my eyes are swollen like tennis balls and my body aches from the racking of the sobs. Sometimes, if he is not there, I break the tension with pain. I don’t self-harm much any more – and when I do it is nothing much. The razor scratch equivalent of slapping a hysteric across the face. It lets me focus on the physical sensation, instead of the mess in my head.
A more common malaise is the simple black. It is sadness, a deep despair. Melancholia – by whatever name, it sits on me like a low lying cloud and removes all motivation. I have no desire – not to eat, move, breath. I am not sad “about” anything. I have no opinion on anything. I simply am – but cannot do anything much. Left alone I will sit and stare. If I manage to make myself a cup of tea, I will stare at the steam until it goes cold – barely remembering that I was meant to drink it. This is the state of mind I was in at university (about 14 years ago) when my friends got worried and made me go to the doctors for the first time. I’d picked up the exam paper in the morning, thrown in on the bed, then sat on the floor – back against the wall. My neighbour came in later to find me in the same place – I had no concept that seven or eight hours had passed in between. If someone is there – they can guide me to do things like a child. Take me places, set me going. But like a stupid robot, if you didn’t tell me to turn, I’d keep going straight, right infront of a truck. My mind is elsewhere. Nothing to do with me somehow. Not even observing.
From there it lifts. Or gets more strange.
Today I would say is a dark grey day. Similar to the above, but I am more aware, and my mind is back in action – getting stronger all the while. But today my biggest issue is my body. To say this is a “mental illness” – so much physical pain, or distress. Imagine. You have an interview in a short while. You are sitting outside in the waiting room, sick with nerves. That’s all mental, but does it feel it? Your palms sweaty or deathly cold, your stomach churning, your abdomen tense, your shoulders aching. Later – your head will probably ache when the stress is released. Add to this a feeling of fear and grief and dread – as though a loved one were in hospital and you are strangely convinced you will hear bad news. And then – feel stupid about it all. Because you don’t have an interview. Your loved ones are fit and well and happy. Your life is good. But you can’t seem to enjoy it. You feel a failure and a fool. And guilty that you can’t be your best (whatever that is) in any capacity. You let down your partner, your friends, your family, your employer, your colleagues, yourself.
If you come up against people, you think your failure or stupidity is writ large across your face, and they will all stare and laugh. Mental reasoning – is it there? My mind is full of itself. It’s an arrogant illness. It makes you think that there is nothing else in the world but the mess in your head. (though when you start to come out of it and see what is going on in the world, it sometimes pushes you back to blackish red…) Try and do anything practical or positive, it throws all manner of excuses why that’s not a good idea and why it won’t work and it’s best not to even bother. Working where I do, to be honest it sometimes seem to have a point. I’d acheive as much lying in bed as at my desk.
But there’s nothing wrong with you – my imaginary observer might say.
Ok – lets try to go to work. How many obstacles in my way. Some days – it’s not the work I can’t do – it’s the getting there. Helpfully, I can work from home on those days. Otherwise. Firstly, I have to get out of bed.
Some mornings, this is no easy thing to do. This was the problem which my anti-depressants made worse. Maybe I haven’t slept. Or maybe I have slept so deeply that waking feels beyond my capability. My eyes will not open. In severe cases, it’s like sleep paralysis. I can feel myself, my mind, awake, and trying to get my body to move, my eyelids to lift – but they won’t respond. Like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. When I finally manage – hours can have passed. Then I am made of lead. Every movement hurts. Then we find out what mood my head has woken up in. It might be that isn’t too bad. Then I will slowly get up, and do the necessary. Ideally I’d get up at six or before, get the early bus and be at work for half eight. That doesn’t happen much. Generally, I aim for the 7.50 bus and get to work at 9.30 ish, making use of the flexitime I am fortunate to have. I tend to make up a lot of time at home.
Up and dressed and out of the house, the next problem is people. I’m not very good with people at the best of times. I like them, but i’m quite shy. I have no conviction of having any right to exist, or be of interest to anyone. So I don’t often know what to say. But on bad days – I hate people. Every one is a threat. I am terrified of them, of speaking. And they are noisy.
At first, I thought it was just me imagining things, or being a freak – but I did read somewhere, that in certain cases of depression, bipolar illness or similar – perceptions become enhanced. Colours can seem more vibrant, your sense of smell improves, and noises seem louder. Crowds can be unbearable. Perversely at exactly the same point of mood that sometimes makes me want to go out to gigs or parties, I become almost incapable of coping with them. I think it’s the proper definition of agoraphobia. Fear of the marketplace. A crowded train can be torture. I hear everything, it wheedles into my brain and amplifies. I have been known, when in the company and protection of my partner, to sit with my hands over my ears, rocking, to cope with a train journey. I am the mad lady on the bus.
Each step like this has the potential to knock my state of mind back a stage or two. I have had to go to the toilet and cry, on escaping from a train. But – then what. The walk across Leeds. More people, more noise. And the smell – ugh. You don’t notice it so much when you live in a city, but the air tastes foul. The streets are dirty, people sometimes rude and frightening. (Worse when coming home from work actually – walking past crowds of drunks standing smoking outside pubs. God forbid you look scared or upset, it’s like an invitation for them to talk to you) Piles of vomit from last nights revels. (My stomach, since taking prozac years ago is very weak. I often vomit at the sight or smell of something disgusting.) The smell of rotting veg around the market. It’s like those scenes of someone on drugs in a neon lit city, everything looming at you, terrifying and distorting. But sometimes you run the gauntlet, and you get to the home strait.
My workplace is the equivalent of a big boss at the end of a level on a computer game. It sits at the other side of town, huge, monolithic atop a hill. An enormous building with a spire on the top. You have to walk up hill in its shadow, and feed yourself into it’s mouth. If you are in anyway unhappy about going there, it conspires to make it more difficult for you. There are many days when there’s someone else sat outside, composing themselves, before they go in. I think it’s cruel – to build edifices like that. It’s like a temple – sacrifice yourself to the modern gods, work and money.
And yet – when you beat that boss, it’s just another level inside. Another set of challenges and fights. And you never quite know what is to come. Get into the office and there is the gauntlet of shame. Walking past colleagues, feeling guilty at your sick leave, your “lateness” (though you know you are allowed, and make up the time, you still feel a fraud somehow). You feel ashamed and annoyed at yourself for not being the best that you could be – and you project the disappointment and hatred onto your collegues. If I hate myself they must hate me too.
Sit down. The desk is a mess. You’re such a waste of space Sarah you can’t even tidy your desk, and your house is a shit tip too why do you even bother….
Switch on the computer. It takes forever. Impatience rises. Some days you are wound tight as a spring and can’t operate well. You jump at every stimulus, over react, take everything personally. Finally you are in. You try and get on with your day. A good day, will leave you feeling better. You will have done something, helped someone, made something better. There will be a small point to your existance. And if you can capitalise upon that and do other good things, enjoy yourself, be good to yourself – you may have a good week. A bad day, will feel like the seventh circle of hell – where you can do nothing you need to do, you feel insulted and hurt at every turn, you are reminded of your wasted efforts and abilities, and you don’t even feel like anyone is grateful that you even try. You have to deal with petty rivalries and jealousies, help other people who are feeling just as bad as you, and yet there is nothing you can say or do to make it right.
That will be me tomorrow I guess. That’s by no means the whole story. There’s a whole nother spectrum when I start to go the other way. And the above readily mix and match. I wish I weren’t like this. I wish I were well. But so far I haven’t found a way out. I try to make up for my bad days when I have good days. So far, it seems to work. But I live in fear. My brain isn’t very suited to the environment I find myself in. I have got steadily worse since I started working there. Maybe I would have anyway – but I can’t afford to get much worse than I am.