me too

The #metoo campaign, where women who have experienced sexual assault are encouraged to share their stories on social media, has hit me a lot more strongly than I expected it to. I first saw the tag at the top of my Facebook feed yesterday, shared by a friend, and I had to Google to find out what it meant. Then I kept scrolling, and it just kept appearing. So many of my friends, and I had no idea. My own ‘worst’ experience (look away now if you don’t want to know) was actually when I was at infant school – a group of boys who used to bully me and my best friend once got me into a corner of the playground and made me take my pants off so their ringleader could give the rest of us a rudimentary anatomy lesson, with me as the model. Since then I’ve been groped at a club plenty of times (what woman hasn’t?), and when I went to Morocco aged 15 there were a few similar instances, just without the club.

And I’ve never been physically hurt, and I know it wasn’t my fault, and none of the incidents involved anyone I thought I could trust, but it was abuse, and it was real. And in the past 24 hours I’ve discovered that so many people I love, more than I could ever have guessed, have had that experience too. Of being objectified and degraded, in myriad different ways, at different times and in different places and by different people. I feel sick and helpless. I want to cry, but the depression means I can’t. There is a huge weight of hopelessness lodged in my chest because I want to hurt for all of these friends in solidarity, because what else can I do? It might not even be hopelessness, it’s just a kind of tightness and tension without a lot of actual emotion attached.

Also yesterday I discovered that someone I knew at school, who I actually had a bit of a crush on when I was fourteen, is now a convicted paedophile. His offences span several years. All of his victims are likely experiencing the same kind of crushing darkness that I feel now, and I want to be sad or angry or horrified but I can’t feel it, it’s just blank, like I’m trying to reach something on a shelf that’s just too high for me. And before this all happened I’d started reading A Handmaid’s Tale, so now I want to keep going but it’s really quite hard because it suddenly seems totally plausible and that would be horrifying if my exhausted brain had a setting for that but it doesn’t, I just know on an intellectual level that somehow the horror that’s usually only internal is coming from the outside as well now and there’s nowhere to go to get away.

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square one

Last week I had a performance review at work and it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, or maybe I’d been desperately trying not to think about how it would go so the outcome was always going to be a shock, or maybe I have a warped perception of my own capabilities. Either way, I was really disappointed. And I didn’t cry in front of my boss when I got the verdict, and I managed to laugh it off in front of friends as maybe a slight insult to my pride about which I could just feel indignant and a little bit martyred, but actually I’m crushed. This was one of a series of things that happened recently that would probably be humbling for a well-adjusted person, but I’m not one of those, and I don’t do humble so much as I just crumble.

One of the other things happened today. I’ve been going running for a while now, and it started with a local group which lured me in with the promise of a free t-shirt and an ‘all levels’ route back in January. Today was my twentieth session with them, and still I found myself alone at the back, with not only no one else as slow as me but no one willing to join me at my pace for the sake of being sociable. After this long I’m used to being at the back, which is not a common experience for me because usually if I’m not the best at something I ditch it pretty sharpish, but I still find it demoralising and humiliating that I am so *so* much worse than all of the others. When I’m alone I can forget that I’m slow, but having people to compare myself to week after week and consistently coming out as the worst is slowly scraping away at my self-belief. How can I be getting better if I’m still last?

The third thing is more like a collection of things. I had a difficult week at Rainbows last week where my voice was a bit croaky and I couldn’t shout, and I didn’t know the names of the new girls so I couldn’t get their attention, and they were so excitable I could barely breathe for cries of ‘I’m bored’, ‘Can we go to the park?’, ‘Where’s our other leader?’, ‘Are we doing baking today?’, ‘Is it home time yet?’. Rainbows (like work, I thought) is usually something I’m quite good at, so being so out of control was beyond draining. I feel like I’ve lost my authority and I don’t belong. I’m slightly dreading going back.

Which fits in well with the work social I have this week, with some other managers. Who are all men, which scares me for reasons I don’t really understand (maybe because I have vivid memories of the group of boys who used to bully me in the playground when I was six, or because it was a boy who claimed my Lego house as his own when I went to read to Mrs Collins on my first day at school, or because at my segregated-by-sex secondary school one of my few male ‘friends’ made a point of telling me that ‘everyone here [at the boys’ school] takes the p*ss out of you every time you’re mentioned), but apart from that they’re nearly all more senior and older and much more experienced, and I just feel so little and out of my depth, like hanging round with my big brother’s friends when they came round to our house.

I was doing okay until this time last week, but now I’m just not sure of myself. I had some sort of self-confidence built up, like a fragile teetering Jenga tower, but it’s collapsed now. And it’s a bit pathetic that my self belief can be taken out by a small series of unfortunate events like this, but it’s true. I feel small and incompetent and like I’m not really doing well at anything. Everyone else is better, faster, braver, more confident. I was trying to get there but now I’m back in my place. And maybe I’m a slightly different person to the one I was last time I was here, maybe I’ll bounce back a bit better and the exercise and the daily gratitude and the best support network I’ve ever had will help, but I didn’t really want to be here again at all.

running away

I’ve sort of taken up running, and a couple of weeks ago I started getting really bad pain in my shins. I Googled the symptoms (don’t do this for any symptoms ever, it’s a bad idea) and concluded that I might have fractured both my tibias and that I’d better stop running pronto (or even running at all, heh heh). After a quantity of red tape, I got to see a physiotherapist last week and after yanking my legs around for a bit he assured me that nothing was broken, it was just muscle pain; I could still run.

I could still run, but it might hurt. This was almost a direct analogue of the one piece of advice from my last therapy that really stuck in my head – depression might take away your enjoyment of a thing, or indeed any feelings towards that thing at all, it might sap your motivation to start on that thing and diminish your energy levels when you’re trying to see that thing through, but you can do it anyway. Breaking a leg makes it impossible to run; damaging a muscle doesn’t. Breaking your back makes it impossible to get out of bed – but having depression doesn’t (at least in my case).

Being told by someone who knows what they’re talking about that I can still run, that it’s possible even if it might be the opposite of enjoyable, was as much of a revelation as when I learnt in December that depression does not have to prevent you from doing things. That thought, a bit like Sirius Black’s knowledge of his innocence which the Dementors couldn’t take from him because it wasn’t a happy thought, has stayed with me. I have done a bit less lying in bed – I keep going to work, even on the worst mornings, and I stay my hours even on the bad days, which are as frequent as ever. I did take a break from a couple of things, but I use the time to do other things, not to flop around. Today I’ve scored a major victory by getting home, making muffins (to an unfamiliar recipe), cooking and eating dinner and sitting down to write this, all before the start of the Great British Bake Off.

Sometimes I wonder what the value of this victory is, though. It’s all very well being a functioning member of society who dusts the lounge and puts on a bra to go round the corner to the shops, but going round being functional doesn’t mean I’m enjoying it. Sometimes I do, but sometimes it’s difficult and exhausting and I really really want to just lie on the floor hating myself and not do things any more, maybe forever. But I keep going – it’s almost a habit now, and in a grey logical sort of way I can see that since lying on the floor is something I’ve never enjoyed I’m more likely to feel happy if I do keep doing things I have enjoyed before that if I do that.

But am I fixing the problem, or working round it? Maybe it doesn’t matter. I never seem to get anywhere when I start thinking about that. Back to the running though, that helps. Mostly because I’m not a natural athlete, so it takes all of my concentration to just keep going and there isn’t space left in my head for any of the usual stress. Everything gets left behind. If I can’t lie on the floor for the rest of time, maybe running would be an acceptable alternative. But, as with all things that help in the short term, when I’m not doing it it doesn’t help. Not in a way I can measure and believe, anyway. So I’ve been running away for months now, and I can keep doing it – regularly, if not perpetually – but I’m not sure where it’s getting me.

no it wasn’t

So begins a poem by Adrian Mitchell called ‘Nothingmas Day’, about an ordinary day which is not Christmas. Sometimes a Nothingmas is all I want – ‘the quiet of
unsung carols and the merry silence of the steeple bell’ is all I can deal with. At the risk of sounding like Romans 7, it’s not that I want to do nothing, but there are plenty of things I want to specifically not do. This evening I am not going to the pub with my colleagues, which means I am neither using up my dangerously low energy reserves engaging with people nor anxiously preserving that energy in a corner. I did not stay at the office until all of my team had left, because I’d done my hours and I was exhausted.

This weekend, I hope to not worry about the people I’ve been most worried about this week, because I’m not their mum or the self-care police and worrying isn’t going to help any of us. I’m going to not call the bank and not go into town to face the crowds of tourists and not think about work. Right now I’m not going to zumba because I’ve hurt my foot and it needs to get better, and I’m not going to eat all the biscuits in the house because although I get a kind of savage enjoyment from doing things that I know I will strongly regret later I can see far enough into the future to know that’s not a good idea.

…And such is my inertia that I wrote all of that on Friday and now it’s Monday and I was late for work because I stayed in bed for two hours after my alarm and here I am on the sofa instead of having a bath or doing the specific piece of self-care I wrote down yesterday because I knew I wouldn’t be able to think of any today, with my unwashed hair and tight chest, listening to upbeat music in the hope that it will have some kind of healing effect. But it’s not working, I’m not working, I’m just dragging myself through the day and I don’t know who to talk to or how to make it better, and I’ll never get off these drugs and I need to practise for the half marathon I entered, as if I believed in myself that much, but I need to rest and I can’t rest because I’m anxious and I’m anxious because I can’t rest. I can’t do anything useful but this leaden despair is the opposite of restful. What I most want to not do is feel like this.

reprieve

I think this is what it feels like to be a normal person. I’ve got energy (sometimes) and optimism (sometimes) and things that have been on my to do list for months are finally getting done. I’ve finally followed advice people have been giving me for years about giving up some of the things I used to do which gave me more stress than joy, and it actually seems to be helping. I jumped in a river the other day, fairly spontaneously, and at the weekend I painted my nails. It seems so ironic that the little things I’m supposed to do to help myself get easier the more I do them in exactly the same way that the little things I’m not supposed to do get harder and harder to stop once I’ve started.

And I’ve got feelings, sometimes more than I know what to do with. There were some big changes at work last week which were announced quite suddenly and I was caught off guard and I just cried. And then I looked at my watch and realised I was supposed to be in a meeting and stopped, and then I got home and cried some more. On my current medication I quite often can’t cry and right now my Dad is ill and one of my best friends has just been diagnosed with depression and anxiety too and instead of just having that in a big blob in my chest I could just express my sadness like a normal person and feel a bit better.

And yet there’s always the background spectre of wondering whether this will last, whether it’s just an illusory collection of endorphins and sugar and caffeine and maybe hysteria because of all the pain, or whether this time that will be it and I’m done. Given my family history that does not seem likely. But I should probably just not think about it too much now, because when it stops again I won’t be able to remember what it feels like to be this okay anyway so it’s not as if I’ll be able to miss it. At the moment I can even relish feeling sad because it’s so much more wholesome than the tight restrictive despair I’m used to. But I’m not sad at the moment.

patience

Like probably every parent ever, my mum often used the phrase ‘Patience is a virtue’. When I got older, I would retaliate with ‘Well, it’s not one of mine’. It never has been, and whatever all the experts say about mental plasticity I’m not sure it ever will be. Right now I’m recovering from tonsillitis and it is one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in a long time. It had me completely floored for over a week – I’ve been slurping cough medicine like water and sleeping during the day and drinking cheap scotch for medicinal purposes and it still hasn’t gone away. It’s a bit like a mini version of my journey with depression, except no one is telling me to take up yoga or go gluten free.

Also the tonsillitis is viral so I don’t get medication and I just have to wait it out. To be honest I’m not sure how much the medication helps with my depression these days anyway. A similarity is that I’m bombarded, more so than usual now I have a minor physical ailment that people can identify with, by messages from people insisting that I rest. My mum, my boss, people at church, my husband (well, he always says that, but who listens to advice from someone close to them unless it ties in with what they want to do…?) – it will come back or get worse if I don’t rest, I mustn’t just dive back into everything, I have to take things slowly.

What no one seems to realise is I find this so damn difficult. I don’t like to stop and take stock (which incidentally is one reason I don’t do so well at noticing if I’m getting better – I don’t want to make a journal or a mood graph because what if it just shows me it’s all going down the pan? One bit of my husband’s advice I did actually take was to stop tracking my sleep, because if I had even half an hour less than the nightly amount I’d set myself, I expected to be tired and it made things worse. Apparently when it comes to sleep deprivation, ignorance is bliss). I’m scared that if I stop I just won’t start again. I need momentum to keep me going, not endless cups of fruit tea and reruns of the Great British Bake Off.

Also I get stressed, even (especially) when my other emotions aren’t really working, and if I can’t do something active there’s no way to let it off. Talking helps, but I can’t even do that without coughing. I want to go running and dance to the radio, even just empty the dishwasher without feeling worn out afterwards. Yesterday I had to go out and ended up doing 10,000 steps, which is supposed to be an average day for a fairly healthy person, and my legs ached all evening. I can’t even cry, not about myself and not about horrible things in the news – the drugs don’t let me most of the time and anyway I probably don’t have the energy. Resting would probably be easier if I cared about myself, but I don’t. I’m fed up.

easter

The other day, I experienced that most dispiriting of sensations – I saw something that made me smile, but the smile only happened on the outside. My face smiled, but I didn’t feel happy. I’d made the external connection between the experience and how I wanted to react, but the internal connection between my behaviour and my emotions wasn’t there. And it still isn’t.

Instead, there’s a sort of blank emptiness, sometimes filled with anxiety that makes my head spin, long after I’ve fixed the thing (like meeting the work deadline or taking my daily photo or sorting dinner) that triggered it in the first place. As a Christian, especially around Easter, this is particularly difficult to deal with. The most central feature of my life is based on joy and love and I can’t appreciate it. And I feel so ungrateful, and self-centred, and worthless. What is the use of me?

I serve, by helping with Junior Church, but often I do it bitterly. I’m scared that someone will notice how scared I am of not being able to control the children or teach them anything worth knowing or just engage with them at all, and that makes me angry and panicky, or at least something with the physical symptoms of anger and panic but with less actual emotion. I do Rainbows and I’m on a committee at work but I get stressed and feel underappreciated there too. I am constantly frustrated, both with the situations I find myself in and with my inability to react positively.

Messages from friends go unresponded to for weeks, I can’t get excited about upcoming holidays, I can’t even bring myself to hoist up the facade of being anything but weary at the office. I hate that other people can’t see how difficult this all is unless I let myself break down in front of them, which would be even worse. I do things mechanically, from the outside, because it’s more British, or something, just to get on with things instead of admitting I hate and resent them, oh, and I’m jealous because the other people who behave the same as me are doing it because their feelings are wired up correctly.

I’m not even sure where I’m going with this. I’ve got a headache and my chest is tight and I want to just be calm and have some actual emotions, with sensible causes, and to be able to spend time reading the Bible or praying or, you know, anything other than watching TV, without losing concentration after two minutes. Some Christian writers have claimed that depression is just a manifestation of sinful human nature and not a proper illness at all, and the thought of that makes me feel physically sick because if God *and* five years of happy pills can’t get me to a point where I can deal with own failings then what is the point? And if it is a proper illness, how am I supposed to deal with it? It reduces faith, like everything else, to just going through the motions. And I know that doesn’t change the facts, but it doesn’t make things any easier.

So I’m a blob of physical pain and stress and resent and I’m doing everything all wrong, and even wonderful little things like my husband making me a cup of my expensive special occasion tea because I’m struggling, even though he isn’t well, are only enough to poke a hole in the darkness for a moment or so. I’m not winning, and I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t know what to do about any of the badly managed bits of my life, which is all of them. I have facts, but I want feelings. I want joy.

capability

A friend recently wrote a blog post about how mental illness are sometimes categorised by their symptoms, in particular by what the person is able to do. Perhaps a ‘severe’ case renders the person pretty helpless, unable to commit to a job or maintain a close relationship; a ‘mild’ case would let the person get by, but with the odd bad day or disproportionate reaction to some setback. The friend also pointed out that while it’s obviously easier to put things in boxes like this, and easier too to label the boxes using things that everyone can see (like behaviour), it is neither accurate nor fair.

By the very rough scale above, my depression is firmly in the ‘mild’ category. I have a full time job with quite a bit of responsibility, from which I haven’t taken a mental health-related sick day for over a year; I run a Rainbow unit which requires a weekly time commitment; I socialise; I clean the house (well, sometimes). I recently gained the highest award available within Girlguiding, the culmination of three years of entirely self-driven activity. I don’t lack drive, or tenacity.

What the scales do not take into account is why I might be doing those things. How do they know I’m not working because I’m a perfectionist and I’m secretly terrified that if I make a mistake then everyone will realise how stupid I am and then I’ll lose all my friends? That I’m not keeping myself busy out of desperation rather than enjoyment? Trying to fill my waking moments with things that take up enough mental energy that there is no room for the voices in my head telling me I’m rubbish? Cleaning because bitter experience has taught me that the weight of despair when I remain inert is ever so slightly heavier than the weight of exhaustion when I get up? Often there is very little correlation between my outside appearance my mental state; it’s a coping strategy.

It is the skill born of this strategy that leads to comments like ‘Oh, I never would have guessed you have depression!’. That is the point. I don’t want you to guess. Who wants other people to know they can’t even control their own emotions, especially if those other people are reporting to you or allowing you to look after their children? And maybe it’s reassuring to know that the disguise is working, to be reminded by my boss that all of my work is going just fine, but that doesn’t change the fact that doing all of these things well is so damn difficult.

I am tired. All the time. My currently strategy is to exercise a lot, so maybe it’s just physical exhaustion, but exercise can help depression and other things aren’t helping much so I have to try this because what if I don’t ever get better because I haven’t been exercising enough and it never goes away and I’m always just sad? I am stressed a lot of the time, and my concentration levels are often low so I struggle to be productive for long periods at work. My memory is bad and I find this incredibly frustrating. I oversleep and get to the office just in time to not be late so my day begins with me feeling sleepy and demoralised and like a terrible example to my hard-working and punctual team. I spend weekends doing ‘fun’ things but then all the time goes and I’m still tired and I’m not sure if I had enough fun to justify the weariness now. So it’s hard. And I want to act like it’s not because I wouldn’t wish the effects of this crap upon anyone else, but just because I am tenacious and good at pretending doesn’t mean that my box is ‘mild’.

5 years’ time

It’s just been my birthday, so I have every reason to feel contemplative. More than that, though, this birthday marks five years of taking a daily antidepressant. When I went to the doctor to say I thought I might need them, it was a few days before my birthday and I remember feeling devastated when they told me I shouldn’t really drink alcohol with them (I have not stuck to this) – I was planning to have Champagne for my 21st, and somehow the loss of that seemed like the last straw, as if everything had been manageable up until that point. Not drinking would be a concrete life change I’d have to make: every time there was alcohol on the table (which as a student was most of the time) I would have to consciously admit to myself – and to everyone else, because I’ve never been good at lying – that I wasn’t going to have any, because I was on medication, because I couldn’t cope with my own life.

I still don’t want to admit that. Maybe it’s even worse now that after five years, after getting my degree and getting out of the pressure cooker of the highly academic university where it all began, I still need the drugs. Things have changed in my outlook – now when a small setback makes me feel worthless, I can step back just far enough to see that that’s a disproportionate reaction, but not far enough not to transfer the feeling of worthlessness to the fact that my self-esteem can be shattered by one little thing. This week at work has been full of little mistakes and throwaway comments and pressure and responsibilities and by Friday night I was hurting because I just couldn’t keep bouncing back and making light of things and I wish I could.

I wish I could cry when I feel sad and scared by my inability to deal with my imperfections, instead of the crushing fist squeezing my chest and the mental paralysis that means I can only stare into space for minutes at a time. I wish I could tell people when today is not a good day and I’d like them to just leave me alone. I wish I didn’t need stupid drugs that change my feelings and have fun side effects like making me feel sick most days just to be able to function like all the other people can. Last time I went to the doctor his parting words were ‘Any questions… other than ‘Why me?’?’. Another thing I don’t like to admit is it’s not fair. I understand I can make progress by doing certain things, and maybe I am, but I just want a break. But if I stop I will lose all the progress, and I can’t do that.

I was part of a conversation the other day about trials of drugs which are illegal in many places as treatments for depression. Apparently they can work. Why did no one ask me to take part in one of those trials? I hate not having ultimate control over my own feelings, how on earth am I supposed to ever have control over anything else if I can’t even do that? Will I ever be able to do that again? Will I have stopped taking the drugs in 5 years’ time? Will the SuperBetter app I’ve just started using turn out to be the magic fix I’ve been looking for, where zumba and vitamin pills and mindfulness haven’t made the cut? Time will tell. I hope it won’t take another five years.

now

In answer to the question in my last post, it seems like the time to stop is now. I have a cold so I’m off work (a decision which took validation from four separate colleagues before I was convinced it might be acceptable, even encouraged, rather than lazy and weak), the weather is grey, a lovely holiday has just ended. Internally I am still struggling to restrain my screaming, twisted conscience from beating me and yelling obscenities because why can’t I just get on with life, I’m letting people down, that’s unforgivable; but externally at least I am actually just sitting.

But because I’m just sitting, and because I’m not communicating with anyone and I’m not in the office or at church or at Rainbows or in public, the chances of anyone coming to help me are slim. Even when  I am in those places I don’t tend to go about raging like some kind of dervish, I just get on with things and keep the raging internal. And this presents a conundrum: how is anyone going to understand the actual, heart-rate-increasing, concentration-sapping, headache-inducing panic I feel when a decision like this, one that in spite of my progress still amounts in my head to giving up, that most final and contemptible of acts, has to be made. By the time I’d spent an hour deliberating (read: mostly staring into space trying to suppress the panic) yesterday I was so weary I couldn’t have carried on working even if I hadn’t been physically ill as well.

I’m not supposed to need help. Maybe I’m supposed to accept it when offered because it is, by definition, helpful, but I can’t rely on others to deal with my feelings. Especially if I don’t tell them how I’m feeling. But who wants to know, anyway? We’re British, we don’t talk about feelings. And it’s so easy to get stuck in a cycle of feeling lonely and misunderstood and just not cared about, but that isn’t the point – the point is that I have to do this myself, that whether I tell people about it or not they can’t sort it out and of course most of them won’t understand because they haven’t been here. The trouble with just sitting is it leaves a huge space in which to just think, and thinking for long periods of time only really has one outcome when you are depressed.

Ironically, just sitting is actually meant to be a key to recovery – I’m just doing it wrong. If I could just sit and not focus on the inside of my head, and notice the chill in the air and the grey light outside and my nice soft colourful blanket and the grinding of my laptop (it’s been doing that for months), then I would stop feeling so anxious and all the cycles would stop and maybe just for a bit I’d be okay. I think I can do that sometimes these days, but not when I feel worst and it matters most. Like now.