About two or so years ago, I had something of an epiphany. I realised that I was still telling myself “If I can just get through…” (fill in whatever I was facing). As long as I could remember, I’d been doing that. All my life, whether it was the rest of the school term, the busy and/or stressful time at work, those long teething nights when my daughters were babies, exams… you get the idea. “If I can just survive the next few days, weeks, months…” Not the greatest way to live, but I’d made it into an art form.
But the thing is, I’m retired now. I shouldn’t be feeling like this any more. Those types of stress should be a thing of the past. And what was it I was ‘just getting through’ now, in my new life in France? Trips away, long journeys, Christmas… In other words, events that should be enjoyable, not ordeals to be endured, ‘survived’. Something wasn’t right. Instead of feeling better, more relaxed, I actually felt worse than I ever had. So I began to reflect on my life, and in particular on how I had felt over the years. And the more I thought, the more I realised that there had been a pattern of periods of feeling ‘low’, usually associated with stressful times in family or work life. Because there was always a reason for it, I had never considered it to be a problem, per se. Life is stressful, for everyone, and I just got on with it and pushed through.
But my body hadn’t liked it much, this keeping calm and carrying on, and there would often come a reckoning, sooner or later. I have suffered with a few chronic conditions which could be connected to my mental health, such as migraine. My propensity for worrying about things – a family trait – I began to see, from this new perspective, was most likely an anxiety disorder. And in particular at that moment in time two years ago, the inexplicable lump of discomfort I had in my solar plexus, coupled with an overwhelming desire just to stay at home and see no one, I finally accepted was depression.
I am no stranger to mental illness. In my youth, I studied to be a nurse. I have always taken a keen interest in these matters. I know the signs. I recognised it in myself when I was twenty and got some treatment. But why, despite suffering intermittent bouts for the subsequent forty years, had it failed to dawn on me that I needed help…?
As I confided to a friend during my self-discovery process, I think in part it was because I spent many years believing that the feelings I had were personal failings. When I was about ten years old an adult (someone I subsequently came to despise for other reasons) told me that I was lazy. Whilst even then I knew she was wrong, such things cut deep, and whenever I feel that depressive urge to curl up on the sofa and pull the duvet over my head, her words echo in my brain. My fear of doing anything new or challenging I now see was due to anxiety, and not a weakness of character (as I had often suspected).
But it’s not possible to overcome a lifetime of behaviour overnight. Even though I began to realise that I was suffering with a genuine mental illness and that I probably needed medical help, it still took several more months for me to do anything about it. I got quite a bit worse before I accepted that this particular dip in mood was worse than any I could recall, and it wasn’t going to go away on its own. My GP here in France was surprised when I told him how I felt, because, as he said, I’d always seemed so cheerful. But then I did cover up how I felt most of the time. I still do. It was harder to do just before I was on the antidepressants and not sleeping much, and close friends did notice my gradual withdrawal from the world.
One of the worst aspects of this recent illness is that I have found it impossible to write. Writing had been my great joy, my escape, as well as a way of expressing myself. The last thing I wrote was a long story, the third in a series, and about grief. Looking back, I wonder if that choice of subject matter was the first sign of how serious this depressive episode was going to be. I don’t know… it was the logical next step for the character, but I could have left him and moved on.
But anyway, here I am, at the desk, tapping away, writing again. One of the purposes of this blog is to talk about my mental health struggles, in the hope that I might help others, but mainly to express in writing what I often find very hard to say to those closest to me. Not because I don’t want to tell them how I feel, but simply because it isn’t always easy for me to say what I need to at the times they are ready or able to hear it.
I hope you won’t feel this is too self-indulgent, and I hope you will walk with me as I try to explore the inner workings of my psyche and understand what has made me who I am.
And I will also publish some of my fiction on this site as well – perhaps even some new writings, should I ever get any new ideas!