Mental Illness and Me: a Testimonial

I am mentally ill.

Despite having been mentally ill for much of my adolescence and most of my adult life, it is still not an easy thing to admit. Nor is the word ‘depression’ something I’ve ever really been comfortable owning.

The Black Dog, the Cancer In My Mind, the Darkness That Never Seems To Let Me Go – all of those seem better somehow, more free from the stigma of depression. I’ve spent my life trying to pass it off as something else – genius twinned with madness, a self-destructive temperament, a personality disorder. Depressed? No, never that.

Luckily for me, I was diagnosed with autism, which is one of the best ways of avoiding facing up to your illness. You can attribute all of your problems and difficulties, whether motivational, social, functional, emotional, behavioural or cognitive, to that umbrella term. Don’t want to leave the house? Autism. Always interpret things in a negative way? Autism. Feel you just can’t cope anymore as a husband, a father, a human being? Always the autism.

And so I’ve spent the better part of a decade denying that I suffer from depression. I take antidepressants to tamp down the overactive sensory and central nervous system responses caused by my autism, I say. I take anxiety management and mindfulness courses to address my social phobia, I pretend. I wrestle with the urge to self-harm because I’m a father and I don’t want them to take away my kids, without ever asking why I even have those urges to begin with.

Why do I never admit I have depression?

Because I hate depression and I always have, ever since I was first formally diagnosed with it at 17. Because despite repeated assurances to the contrary, I always felt it was a weakness, something that happens to melodramatic teenagers and socially incompetent adults, and not real people. And because, as an illness, it’s just so self-centred, indulgent and sick.

Most of my prejudice comes from within. You’re a wimp, I think. Just get up and do it. Everyone else manages, so why can’t you? You haven’t got anything to be miserable about. Why are you just wallowing? Why can’t you take steps to get yourself out of this funk? Stop being such a fucking baby.

And yet the big secret, the one that nobody likes to admit, is that deep down we actually love our depression. Because it’s ours, and it’s been with us all our lives, our constant companion, and we don’t want to lose it. We get off on just how miserable we are. It’s part of us, and we look on those who ‘get better’ as traitors to themselves, because it’s not real, there’s no ever getting better, this is who we are, depression is what makes us special, and we think we can coexist with it, channel it, control it.

Until we reach a point, as I did a little over two weeks ago, where we realise that it has taken control of us, and it’s eating us alive, and there’s no place else to go but down.

I wish you didn’t have to reach rock bottom to get that epiphany. I wish there was a way that the insight would be granted you before you’re at the point of desperation. But there it is.

I went my doctor with a care worker, and as I started to tell her how I felt, all the denials fell away, and even I hadn’t realised how bad I’d become. As I put into words all the thoughts and feelings I’d bottled up, I discovered just how much I’d been holding in. For forty minutes it kept pouring out of me, the emptiness, the misery, the tears I had never shed. And bless the doctor, even though the appointment massively overran, she gave me the attention that I desperately needed at the time I needed it most.

She prescribed a new antidepressant, in addition to the one I’m already on, referred me to the Community Mental Health Team and sent me for blood tests for possible ME. And despite being hit by a multitude of side-effects – dry mouth, tiredness, nausea, diarrhoea, and a sudden dizziness that comes on every time a dog barks, a door slams or my phone vibrates in my pocket – I feel like a different person. Whether it is because of the pills, the distraction of the side-effects, the outpouring of emotion or some kind of placebo doesn’t matter to me at all. All that matters is that I’m not where I was.

What is astonishing is the change I’ve seen. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience. My thoughts are clear, my heart is stilled. The guy who walked into that doctor’s office a week ago – that angry, bitter, resentful, miserable, broken wretch of a person – is gone. And I’m glad. That guy wasn’t me. I don’t know who he was, but he wasn’t me. A veil has descended over him, as over the dead, and I struggle even to connect him to me. It is as though Gillan died, and I am what has been reborn in his stead.

So finally, with the clarity of thought to reflect, I look at him, this agitated, toxic, troubled soul, and I think: how the hell did he get like that? How did he get like that and how did he manage to keep going so long?

The second question answers the first: he got that way because he kept going so long.

I read a book a few years ago entitled Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong, by Dr Tim Cantopher. The central premise flips the received wisdom on its head – people with depression are not the weak ones in society but the strong. The weak encounter something difficult, unhealthy, damaging, and they run away from it, quit, give up. The strong put up with it, and press on, and keep going, long after they should. The weak do not endure long enough to get depression; the strong keep going, with no let up or sense of quit, until they’re used up and literally can’t go on any more.

That’s why Gillan got to where he was two weeks ago. He was too damn strong for his own good.

But now he is me, and I will no longer deny it.

I am mentally ill.

I am depressed.

I won’t be quite so strong in future.

And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

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Number 2 – uh oh! (Part 1)

Today I am reflecting on the preponderance of the number two in my life. My wife and I together are two; my daughter is two years and two months old; we have two household pets (a dog and a cat); after the tragic death of Peking the Pecking Pekin two weeks ago, we now only have two chickens; and two weeks from today, we are due to welcome baby daughter number two into the world.

And then we’ll be in more number two than we know how to handle! (Come on, admit it, you were expecting a poop joke).

Yes, my wife is thirty-eight weeks pregnant. I might have forgotten to mention this over the past, oh, thirty-eight weeks. Partly because I wrote a series of posts about how I wasn’t keen on having another baby, and I hate going back on myself; and partly because of good, old-fashioned denial.

Not that the pregnancy wasn’t planned – it was, and I’ll explain about the decision process in Part 2 – but I’ve been caught in a quagmire of complacency and the mistaken belief that I had more time. It was always, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow,’ or, ‘I’ll do it next week,’ but I’ve run out of next weeks and I might have run out of tomorrows too, so I’d better do it now.

You see, the first time you’re expecting, you go to all these classes, buy all these weird and wonderful products, read everything you can about babies and child-rearing, rearrange the entire house, get everything ready, and pontificate about what it means to be a parent. Consequently, the baby takes forever to arrive and you’re in touch with the process every step of the way.

Not so with second pregnancies. The second time round, having been through it all before, you’re a lot more relaxed about the whole thing. I mean, you’ve already got everything a baby could ever need, the house is as babyproof as a marshmallow, and having successfully raised a child from babyhood to toddlerhood, you’re pretty confident you know how this parenthood thing works. Instead of living, breathing, eating, drinking and sleeping pregnancy, therefore, you’re not as closely tied to the day-to-day development of your child, so it races by with little notice until you realise with shock that it could literally arrive any moment and you’ve not prepared yourself emotionally for that wonderful, terrifying, exhilarating, traumatic and altogether life-changing day.

But that’s only half the story of why second pregnancies race to an unexpectedly sudden climax. The other half is that there’s already a pint-sized version of yourself tearing around the house, and throwing herself down the stairs, and loving you, and hating you, and hitting you, and hugging you, and generally taking all your attention, all your love, and all your energy, so you can’t spend anywhere near as much time thinking about the second unborn baby as you did the first. That’s not really fair on the second bump, I know, but it’s the way it is, although I’m fairly certain that my neglect of my child in utero won’t have that many long-term consequences. What’s important is that I focus on her once she’s born.

And therein lies the other reason I’ve avoided thinking about my impending second child until the last moment – I’m terrified of how it’ll change things, I’m terrified of how it’ll affect my relationship with my first daughter, and I’m terrified of letting them both down.

With your first child, you don’t have to divide your attention. You lavish everything upon her because you can. Every need she has, you meet there and then. You give yourself to her, body and soul. She is the centre of your universe.

How can I give that to my second child? Clearly, I can’t. And how will my first child cope when I can’t give it to her anymore either? The best thing I’ve got going for me is the closeness of my relationship with my daughter, and I don’t ever want to lose that, but equally, I want to have the same with my second daughter, and I’m struggling to see how that’s possible. I’ve always considered my heart as fixed in size – one child can have all my heart, two children can have half each, three a third, four (god forbid!) a quarter, and so on. The only way out of this diminishing is for my heart to double in size each time – and I’m not sure there’s enough room in my chest for that. Or perhaps, in my typically autistic way, I’m far too focused on this ‘heart’ metaphor and should stop trying to intellectually analyse something that is beyond conscious comprehension.

I said in my earlier posts on the subject that having a first child is a matter of faith – trusting that you’ll be able to cope and it’ll all work out okay – but that a second child is more of a conscious decision. I’m only now realising that having children is always a matter of faith.

Because for all my cocksure complacency, my know-it-all arrogance and bluster, I’m just as scared this second time around as I was the first.