Imagine eating nothing but plain wholemeal tortillas for days. No fillings no flavour. Heavy and dry. It’s the best analogy I can use for my experience of daily life whilst in the grips of this illness. Everything is heavy, joyless, dry and exhausting. Your capacity for enjoyment simply doesn’t exist anymore. My mind tumbles thoughts over and over like a washing machine. I visualise and prepare for the worst possible futures. The notion that God is real and I’m in hell, going blind and deaf, developing locked in syndrome, growing old alone and neglected, becoming a serial killer and other assorted terrors. These ideas seem completely plausible even though I’m an atheist in good health with a strong alignment with pacifism. My fear eclipses all reason. I don’t remember being well. I don’t remember life being bearable. I perceive my whole life as an unbroken timeline of despair, panic and failure. I simply can’t see the other ninety five percent anymore.
Appetite and numbness are dragged along with evening. The adrenaline starts to dissipate. I’m left feeling hollow and exhausted but it’s preferable to the ordeal of the day. Distraction becomes possible. I embrace sleep only to wake early morning drenched in a cold sweat (a side effect of my medication). Occasionally I might experience sleep paralysis which is very frightening. Then it starts all over again. If I’m lucky I get better in two weeks. But depending on circumstances it can persist for a few months.
My illness has been lurking in the background since my adolescence. In spite of my condition I have managed to travel to foreign continents, thrive in demanding job roles, maintain relationships, live independently and pursue hobbies others might find intimidating. Most importantly I’ve managed to stay alive.
My survival has counted on a number of things. Crucially the impact suicide would have on my family and friends. When I was 16 I took a long walk along the beach near my parents hometown. I was gone for hours. When I returned home I was greeted by police and my distraught parents. They had imagined the worst. I met the eyes of my dad, a mixture of anger and relief and I held my crying mother. And this scene has never left me. For this reason it is important I connect to others, even during my darkest times. The company of others reminds me that I am loved and keeps me safe.
Samaritans are invaluable. Counselling and medication also play their part. Everyone knows that exercise is an anti-depressant but it’s incredibly difficult when you’re deep in the pit. Distraction is also my friend. Painting my neighbour’s wall, walking a friend’s dog, completing a thousand crosswords, whatever I can bear. I try and go to a park, woods or beach once a day. Nature is very grounding. I also look myself in the mirror and say five things I am thankful for. No matter how hard it seems. I’ll score my mood throughout the day, every day. It enables me to gain some perspective. It gives me proof that even though the feelings can be excruciating they will always fade.
The Internet can be both friend and enemy. There’s a lot of scaremongering and self-aggrandising there. However, talks and journals by other survivors can provide hope. And hope is the most important thing to find. I surround myself with stories of hope. I immerse myself in inspiring books and films (true stories if possible).
For me recovery is about taking it a day at a time. Sometimes an hour at a time. Slowly I begin to rebuild my life again. Being in employment is paramount. If I am signed off sick I will be sprinting back to work the minute I feel well enough. Helping other people and being creative is where I find my meaning. Keeping fit and busy is likely to prevent a relapse.
The current mental health campaigns in the media are really positive. There’s more out there in the way support, awareness and acceptance than ever. If it had been in place for me when I was younger my story might have been very different. Mental illness has never been treated with the same compassion as physical illness. People freeze up and feel awkward. They avoid the subject. Some try the ‘pull yourself together/you need to stop worrying’ tact. Unsuccessfully.
Earlier this year I had a short relapse. It lasted about a fortnight. Gravy compared to some of my longer episodes but I was nevertheless unable to work and plagued by dark and violent thoughts. Something unusual happened. For the first time in twenty years of recurrent relapses I received a get well card. Get well soon. I can’t explain the validation this gave me. I wasn’t well. It wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t simply ‘snap out of it’, ‘think positive’ or ‘toughen up’; no more than someone with broken legs could perform star jumps.
If you know someone who is suffering psychologically please don’t give them advice. I know it’s well meaning but don’t do it. Get them a card. Let them know that you love them. Spend time with them. That’s all you need to do.
I am thankful for a wonderful family, my beautiful girlfriend, supportive friends, my creative drive and being here against the odds. At the moment my mood is at a bearable 7. I hope to see a 10 again soon.