June was not the beginning, but it makes the most sense to start there.
I should note that the level of detail in this writing will fluctuate. I have found, looking back that I remember some parts in awful or glorious detail, and yet large swathes of my memory are blank, blacked out by the haze.
If you ask anyone you know in England, they’ll tell you that in the summer of 2018 there was a heatwave. The England team reached the quarter finals of the world cup, and between Brexit, and Trump, and global warming, and every modern-day difficulty you can name, the nation united. And threw beer everywhere. Those few months were also the first time I experienced depression in its full and devastating force.
I went to stay with my sister for a week to help look after my niece. I remember scorched earth and grass, tossing my niece into the air and catching her, feeling not exactly whole but not swallowed. I remember lying on my sister’s bed and admitting that I felt very sad sometimes, but we assured each other it was just the adjustment period after coming back home from university. Here is the part where I should say that deep down I knew that wasn’t right, but I don’t remember. I remember taking my niece to the park and playing peek a boo with her across ten metres of yellowing grass, relishing in her giggles and the hot summer that stretched ahead and seemed to promise so much. I remember the drive back home with my mum, feeling happy to be back and not missing her.
The difficulty with mental illness is that it is largely invisible. On the outside, I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, laughing with my brother and arguing over who got the last rocket lolly. An hour later, however, I was curled on my floor crying. It is difficult to communicate to people that your brain is malfunctioning when your physical self is completely uninhibited. Of course, a person may look as if they have been crying, or become very thin, or start wearing conspicuously long sleeves, but these are all symptoms of a larger problem rather than physical instances of the illness itself. I spent those scorching months at war with myself and everyone else. I did not understand what was happening to me, or why when the world was so joyous. I failed to tap into the happy feelings that had previously been my whole self.
While camping in Dorset, I alternated between being stunning happy and devastatingly sad. Doing half cartwheels across the field to make my niece laugh, swimming in a natural pool on Dancing Ledge. I remember sobbing, face down in our tent, unable to tell anyone why. Just before we had left I’d made some very squishy chocolate chip banana bread and Sarah came and gave me a piece, lay down and hugged me and told me I had to get up, not unkindly. An evening later we sat in a pub garden. I remember staring at the wooden picnic bench and being pulled aside by my sister; ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘I don’t know. Everything’. I cried and could not stop. I took my niece to look at the yellow banded frogs they had in a tank inside, she giggled and poked at the glass. I ordered a coke.
August was sultry. My family and I went to Wales, to a house with no signal, no wifi, and lots of mist. There was a very friendly horse about fifty feet down the road that would come when called; I went to this horse a lot when things became too overwhelming, stroking its nose and feeding it grass and ignoring everything else in my head. Stroke, feed, repeat.
That holiday I sat on the side of a cliff in Little Haven with my mother and two brothers and considered throwing myself into the sea. It seemed right, to be carried away, pulled under, at peace. I decided it would be foolish, to attempt killing myself in a scenario where I could so easily be stopped. I could not do that to my mum, to leave her with those memories. It was pouring, and we all sat on a bench and tried to shelter. As we sat there and became progressively soggier, my mum was talking to me urgently, telling me it would pass, the desperation would lessen, and hopelessness would fade. I did not believe her.
I have at times held knives against my skin and pressed down gently, not with enough force to break the skin, but enough to cause my lungs to shrink with panic. I would walk along pavements, watch oncoming buses with a certain longing. Once I walked in front of a car and trusted it to swerve, or not to. There is an undeniable thrill in holding your own mortality so close to the surface. An easy metaphor is to imagine oneself lost at sea. There is occasionally something in the distance that you think could possibly be the shore, but you aren’t certain. So, you tread water and keep on treading. Storms come and go, bringing waves that dunk you under over and over. There are calm periods where it is almost no effort at all to just float. But there is still no definite shore. Is it not easier at this point, kinder to yourself, to just stop floating?
To just let yourself sink.
This is a dangerous question, I think.
The pattern continued. Two days later I cried at breakfast, shaking over boiled eggs and tea, but that afternoon we went body boarding at Marloes Sands with my cousins and some friends, and it felt wild and free, tossing in the rain and laughing as we attempted to change out of wetsuits in the pouring rain. I am certain I walked the mile back up the cliff wearing jeans with no pants, and a fleece with a slightly damp shirt, joking with my family.
The unpredictability of my depression has been significant to me. It feels impossible sometimes to live life day to day when at any moment my head has the potential to collapse in on itself like a skyscraper being demolished from the foundations upwards. There is not always a way to judge when depression will cripple you, and when you will be able to bear it. This is made more complicated again by the invisibility of depression and any other mental illness. This is impossible to reconcile sometimes – I walk into a room and I don’t understand how people do not immediately jump up screaming, start begging me to go to a hospital, or see a doctor. I walk into a room and I am aware that my world is covered in a thick grey haze, and yet no one else can see it.
Still in Wales, I remember lying on my rented bed trying to sleep and only managing to cry. My mother came up and lay next to me, stroking my hair, telling me that if anything happened to me (she had guessed, I think, the direction in which I seemed to be headed) it would break her heart. She tried to tell me that she loved me, as did many others, and that I would not be sad forever. I wish now that I had been able to comfort her in some way, but I shook my head and told her she was wrong. That week in Wales is sorted into extremes of every kind in my head. The weather fluctuated between freezing and boiling and I fluctuated between wanting to die and being desperate to live.
Looking back, this holiday contained some of my very worst moments: the clifftop, the mist, the silent shouts. The shaking. The desperation and the certainty that the world would be better if I was not a part of it. My mother, with whom I share my life and almost everything in it, cannot know about these moments in my head. The things I thought about myself and my life are too awful, too painful. I can barely hold them myself, in my own hands. I will not put them into hers.
In a more lucid moment, I remember realising one of the more interesting things about depression and the reality of it compared to the idea of it. Let me explain; before I started to feel this way, I was well aware of the complexities of mental health. I was aware of the symptoms of depression – hopelessness, a lack of motivation, disinterest in things you once enjoyed, losing weight, increased irritability, a feeling of worthlessness. I knew about these feelings and had naively believed that I understood the intensity of them, yet I was entirely unprepared for the reality of this. To describe them as feelings is perhaps inaccurate – I was as certain of the fact that I was worthless as I am about my eyes being brown. I was sure that I would never be passionate about anything again as it took too much energy, and I needed all of mine to keep on breathing. I knew these things, these terrible truths about myself as well as I know my sister, my brothers or my childhood home. This certainty makes depression so much harder to overcome. It is impossible to believe people who tell you that it will get better when you have already accepted an unacceptable quality of life.
Late in August I travelled back to Sheffield for a friend’s birthday. A few days later than I had planned, on account of being unable to breathe. The summer’s pattern followed me. Drunk and dizzy on the street, I gushed to the birthday girl. “I’m happy Rebecca, I’m happy I’msohappyIneverthoughtIwouldbeagain”. But the next day, I laid in my bed and cried and slept and cried. Alcohol is a depressant and it leeched the happiness out of me as it left my bloodstream. I learned this summer how to make myself as small as possible. How to curl in on myself, chin touching knees and arms wrapped around my legs. How to fit into the corner of a room and stay there. There is a knack to participating just enough that you are not noticed but also not missed. I remember one moment when things became too much, too loud, too bright, and I went outside and cried. I texted my friend “I think I’m having a panic attack. Don’t worry”. She held me as I gasped into her shoulder “It’s just been so hard”.
Autumn started quicker than I thought it could and with the darker evenings and yellowing leaves brought the promise, or the threat of leaving home, going back to university, to be alone. I got the train with my suitcase and a week later, my mother and brother drove up with the rest of my stuff. My housemates could tell something was wrong, they had known something was off for a while. I am not usually a quiet person. I vaguely remember silent dinners, grey, silent walks to lectures with friends with whom conversation had once flowed easily. I was just so tired all the time.
After a week or two, I made an appointment with the university doctor. I had promised my mother in the summer that I would get help once I was back in Sheffield. I had housemates shooting glances at each other when they thought I wasn’t looking. I was barely eating. I needed change, desperately. I brought a post it-note with me, listing the things I had felt over summer and the past six months in small, smudged biro. Being prescribed antidepressants felt like a victory call ‘See, see! I really am sick! I swear I’m not making it up’. They always warn you when prescribing antidepressants, that it will get worse before it gets better. When I began taking the tiny pills I had a panic attack so severe I had to have an emergency doctor’s appointment. Standing with two friends (I am not alone) outside the pharmacist holding a freshly prescribed handful of beta blockers, feeling I must look like a drug addict, desperately gulping small pink pills with shaking hands and legs, hair unwashed and unbrushed, not wearing any underwear. It felt cruelly ironic, the thing that was supposed to be my salvation felt like it was going to kill me.
Two days later, I went back to the doctors. ‘I won’t take those pills. You can’t make me. I’m so terrified of what they’ll do’. He fast tracked my referral to the counselling service under the label ‘Crisis Patient’, and a few weeks later I was on my way to an early morning assessment meeting at my university’s counselling centre.
I am interrupting the story slightly here to say that sometimes, in the myriad that is the mental health service, you will come across people who are unhelpful. And hurtful. Who may make you feel worse. Friends who blame you for not being the same. I urge you, anyone who may find themselves in this position, to push them to get what you need. I sat in a small room with a lady called Mary. I knew I would have to tell her everything if I was going to get the help I needed. I told her about the haze, the uncontrollable sadness, the hysteria. I told her I wanted to walk in front of a truck and she told me there was nothing she could do. I sat in a small, dark room and begged for my life. It is a terrible thing, to tell someone you are at the end of your rope and to have them tell you to somehow build yourself another lifeline. Eventually I was referred to an emergency waitlist.
I only partly remember getting home. It wasn’t raining but I had my hood up, and I remember crying so violently that people stared. I remember getting to my house and waking up my flatmate (who was very hungover) and in my head I cried silently to her and tried to explain. She told me a few weeks later that I was shouting, that she had never seen me that angry.
November was bitterly cold. I had counselling appointments every Friday, with a lady called Laura, and I slowly started to explain the inside of my head. I stopped treading water and started to swim a few strokes. I explained to my counsellor that I felt I had accepted a different standard of living, that I was so terrified that this was simply the rest of my life, that this grey mist would never lift. ‘I’ve lost myself completely, and I don’t know how to get back to where I was’.
‘I’m going to tell you something. Look outside. What colour is the sky?’
‘Grey, and cloudy’
‘But the sky is always blue underneath. There are clouds right now, and they might come back, but it’s always blue. You’re still you, and no one can go back. You’ll go forward a little different, but maybe better’.
I don’t think I believed her at the time, it was still too hard (I believe her now).
Part of the reason depression and other mental illnesses are so difficult to deal with is because one of their most common symptoms is disbelief. The feeling that it is in your head, which it is. But so is a brain tumour, as Laura told me one bright afternoon. My counsellor told me I was ill, seriously ill, and I started to cry. Not out of sadness of grief, but gratitude. It is incredibly moving, to have someone else accept that you are sick. To tell you they believe you, they know you aren’t lying, know you aren’t exaggerating.
And depression can become somewhat comfortable. I had started living on new rules of logic. It was like having my own secret game in my head. Rules about what I could and couldn’t do. Just get out of bed. Just make some toast. Just put on your shoes. Just say hello, but then keep walking, quickly. Kanye West calls it his superpower. By the end of my counselling course, Laura and I had figured out three things that I had to do each day to feel better: connection, achievement, enjoyment. That particular post-it note is pinned to the whiteboard in front of my desk. There is something significant about seeing the world through eyes nobody else in your life has, even if it is terrible.
Slowly, things began to change. Around the fourth counselling appointment I went to, I had a good week. Nothing extraordinary, I gave in an essay I think, did some reading, bought food for the week. But each night for around eight days I went to bed and woke up feeling happy, rested, and calm. I was so confused, and I remember saying to Laura that I didn’t trust it. Day to day happiness felt like a cruel joke, something that would be snatched away at any moment. I felt like the rug was going to be pulled out from under my feet suddenly, and I would be dropped off the edge again. And more than this, I despised the fact that I didn’t trust myself to happy anymore.
Let me make one thing clear: I have had a happy life. Undeniably, some terrible things have happened to me, but on the whole, I have nineteen years of happiness under my belt. But after only a few months of the worst pain I have ever experienced I had forgotten what it was to be happy. And not only had I forgotten, but when I remembered again, I did not trust it. I no longer believed that happiness was something I could experience. Writing this now, I am reminded of reading ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath when I was eighteen. She wrote in various words that she felt she had lost the capacity to feel joy. This was how I felt (this is no longer how I feel). I had lost for a little while the skill that people learn as babies – to laugh, to enjoy things, to be happy without feeling like you are on borrowed time. Trying to explain this felt futile – I was happy, even if it was fleeting, so why was I so focused on reminding everyone that I was still ill?
This is part of what depression does to a person. It makes you think that it is all you are. It breaks you down, tells you at every moment that there is nothing actually wrong, that you do not deserve treatment, or love, or any particular or special treatment.
You are supposed to arrive fifteen minutes before your appointment, so you can fill out a set of forms in the waiting room (I got these down to eight minutes). They have a system where you rate your mood out of four for the past two weeks (Do you feel you are at risk of hurting yourself? At any point have you felt violent towards others? Are you uncomfortable around people you don’t know? Do you feel overwhelmingly sad? Are you confident you can succeed academically? Do you have any suicidal urges?). My counsellor showed me the breakdown of these scores, noting that my scores had dropped considerably since I’d begun counselling. In early November, I had scored a 4/4 for suicidal tendencies. Full marks. I was in the red. High risk of harm. Depression, 98/100. I started to cry. The reality of these numbers is staggering. It is an incredible thing, to associate memory and feelings with statistics that prove you have been awfully, devastatingly ill. I tried to explain that it was so difficult to look at those numbers and remember the person I was when I was filling out those forms. The girl that became so desperate.
That girl that is me, and also not. She sat on a cliff with her mother and her two brothers and thought about ending it. She cried in car parks, in cars, in restaurants, on streets, in quick, grabbed moments in toilets (public and private). She excused herself from rooms and cafes and family gatherings and ran, hand over mouth, shaking with the effort of not crying out. She was so desperate for help, for some end to the pain. I want to make it extremely clear, the level of desperation depression brings a person to. I would have done anything to be free. If someone had handed me crystal meth, or heroine and said it would make it go away, I would have done it without hesitation. If someone told me I had to walk a thousand miles, I would have done it. If someone had told me I had to jump in front of a car, I would have done it. Remembering these things now feels shameful.
I cried in my last counselling appointment, from a strange mix of sadness and joy. I explained that I had never envisioned myself making it to Christmas. I would not see my twentieth birthday. It had been inevitable, in September, that I would kill myself before these things could happen. But I had made it. Summer is supposed to be happy. Sunshine and flowers, people go on holiday to the seaside and eat ice cream and forget about their jobs and their troubles. But the summer of 2018 was my crucifixion. I did not flower in the heatwave, I burned. I rebuilt myself in the cold, in the mist and the rain, in the winter. I forced myself out of bed on as many days as I could, and I ate as much as I needed to keep myself upright, even in the weeks when it tasted like cardboard. I stretched out, desperately, to anyone who could help. I kept myself upright, I kept myself alive.
Sometimes happiness is something you can harvest, like cherries, from a tree. I will pick every tiny or juicy or glossy thing that I can until I am sick from the sweetness and my hands are stained with it. I have earned that right for myself.
Endnote: I am here attaching a bit of script from a show called The West Wing, which has helped me so much, so many times.
CUT TO: INT. THE WHITE HOUSE LOBBY – NIGHT
Leo is sitting in a chair reading. Josh enters and doesn’t notice Leo.
How’d it go?
[turns] Did you wait around for me?
Leo takes off his glasses.
He thinks I may have an eating disorder.
[gets up] Josh.
And a fear of rectangles. That’s not weird, is it? [pause] I didn’t cut my hand on a glass. I broke a window in my apartment.
This guy’s walking down a street, when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep. He can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up “Hey you! Can you help me out?” The doctor writes him a prescription, throws it down the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole! Our guy says “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here!” and the friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
Josh looks at him.
As long as I got a job, you got a job, you understand?
Image credit: rompalli harish