I’m heading to work, reaching the vast, empty square that I often amuse myself by walking across blind, eyes firmly closed behind my sunglasses, for as many steps as I dare, when I realise that there is no music in my headphones, and there hasn’t been for some time. Just a resounding silence. My life is no longer set to a soundtrack.
This is the first sign.
Once at work, the weird situation of not really having much to do – because my job should probably never have been created in the first place – is suddenly getting me down and stressing me out, instead of amusing me, as it had for the past two or three months. Now I’m doubting my own abilities, fearing every new task and filled with a nauseous dread when I think about the week when my colleague will be away and I’ll have to replace her. Imposter syndrome, flatlining self-confidence, retiring to the ladies’ toilet to rest my head between my thighs and breathe through occasional panic attacks…
These are the second set of signs.
Then there are the interactions with people I care about. Face to face is less of an issue, as I tend to bask in the presence of people I love, and also to drink alcohol when I’m socialising, both of which lift my mood. But WhatsApp, for example, the medium of choice for most of my phone-averse nearest and dearest, where banter has hitherto been fluid and easy and fun, has suddenly become a minefield for me. My wit feels dulled; my sparring sword blunted and rusty. Worse still, my reactions are off: I might take offence where none was intended, misunderstand the meaning of something ambiguous (but take it the worst possible way), or read volumes into a protracted silence.
Of course I’m self-aware enough to know that this is happening, so I am beating myself up about my own behaviour and try to address it by either staying offline altogether, to avoid causing harm (which makes people worry) or logging on and making attempts to sound normal.
This is the third sign.
There are other signs, I could go on, but… let’s face it, there is no sense in lying to myself any longer, I just need to admit this. I’m struggling, right now. No-one or nothing rational is to blame, and there is nothing to be gained in looking for a reason, a trigger, a fix.
It’s September: back to school, back to reality. But I’m not sure that summer’s end makes other people spend parts of each day feeling like their skin has been flayed and they want nothing more than to curl up into a tight little ball? The most convincing explanation I have is just that this is the flipside to shooting skyward – for no reason – back in May.
It’s costing me, every day, to wear a cheerful mask in front of my colleagues (who know nothing about my diagnosis), or to attempt to hide how I’m feeling from my children (my eldest does know, and worries, and asked me sternly yesterday whether I was taking my meds – I am).
Then there is the guy I’m seeing. It’s new. He met me when I was right at the apex of my curve. I suppose I’m a little afraid that he may like this new me less, or lack the patience to deal with some of her quirks and insecurities.
But experience has shown me that there is little I can do but wait for the worst of these feelings to pass, and pass they will. It’s not all day every day. It’s just some of the time. It peaks and troughs. It comes and goes. And the alternative is to be medicated to be the point of numbness. That I do not want.
So I’ll roll with this paranoid-melancholy-anxiety rollercoaster for now. If this is the price to pay for my fucking amazing summer, I have no regrets: it was worth it.
It began with a surreal visit to the family planning clinic.
When I called to make the appointment – because my bourgeois, avenue Montaigne gynecologist had gone on vacation for the whole summer, just when I really needed her assistance – it was explained to me that in order to see the doctors, I would first need to sit through a group session with four or five other women. An information exchange. Given my advanced age and the fact that I divulged on the phone that I’d test driven a number of different types of contraception over the years, the lady who took my details jokingly said that I could co-lead the session.
As I arrived last but one, and the doctor saw us in the order of arrival, I wound up spending an hour and a half around the table with a group of women of assorted ages, our number gradually decreasing, as two young girls emerged with bandaged arms (contraceptive implant, because they were worried about remembering to take their pill), and others ducked out to a nearby pharmacy to fetch their prescribed IUDs. I had my Mirena IUD in my bag, prescribed long ago and set aside, but still within its sell by date. I was determined to leave with it inside my womb.
During the long wait we touched on so many subjects that were alien to me. Apparently people approach family planning requesting Certificates of Virginity, even though this is completely illegal. The number of people asking for hymen reconstructions is on the rise. A young Muslim couple, for example, who’d been having sex but were about to tie the knot, wanted to get the surgery, at considerable cost, so that their families would be able to perform the requisite checks on the bride on their wedding night and avoid disgrace. An African girl present explained what this entailed. In addition to checking the sheets after intercourse – which I’d always assumed you could work around by buying a fake blood capsule from a joke shop if you were resourceful – said that the aunts of the brides would perform a thorough examination of the bride prior to the act.
“I can’t think of anything worse than getting fingered by my Aunts on my wedding night,” I retorted, provoking a collective intake of breath. Sometimes I say something in French – here “me faire doigter” – and then wonder whether I’ve been far more vulgar than I intended and have caused serious offence. But after a pause, came laughter. The atmosphere changed subtly after that. The ice was well and truly broken. Later, the conversation turned to female genital mutilation. I didn’t attempt make any jokes about that. My filter is defective, but I do have some limits.
When my turn finally came, two doctor’s pored over the documents I’d brought for context. They were conflicted about installing the device at all. All signs point categorically towards my womb being a dead zone. But better safe than sorry, I insisted. It would be a delicate procedure, obviously, because IUDs are best inserted when the cervix is open, when the woman is menstruating. But I was not bleeding, and may never bleed again.
Half an hour later, my legs splayed wide in stirrups, I was having some kind of undignified out-of-body experience, contemplating myself from the ceiling. My breathing was fast and shallow, something I half remembered learning in preparation for childbirth, and I was trying to tune out the scraping, poking, and prodding feelings happening deep inside me.
One Mirena had already been broken and discarded, and I’d heard murmurings that my cervix was “in spasm”. I imagined it clamped firmly closed, uncooperative. After all the waiting, after all this fucking discomfort, after ducking out of work at 4:30 pm, please oh please let them get this glorified fishhook inside me.
Finally, on the last attempt, there was an almighty pinchy grindy stabby feeling, which caused me to cry out, my eyes to water. Mirena had landed. The doctor performed an ultrasound to check the positioning, and prescribed another one for a few days later, as she had some doubts that even after all that, it was in correctly. I limped out of there, feeling victorious, but depleted. And in a great deal of pain.
Take ibuprofen, was their advice, for the cramps and the inflammation. Yeah, I thought to myself. People who take lithium – as I told you I do – are expressly forbidden to take ibuprofen. Call yourself a doctor? But thanks anyway. I’ll just ride it out.
As soon as I’d left the building, there was someone I really wanted to share my news with, but I couldn’t reach him.
I found that odd, because he knew about my appointment, and we had spoken just prior to it. I assumed he would want to know about the outcome. I came out at 7:16 pm and sent him some messages on whatsapp, our preferred means of communication, as we both have a preference for the written word. A little later, I left a phone message. Something I’ve never done before. There was no answer.
I was little worried, to be honest. Things with us are still in the early stages, and we’ve had our teething problems. I’m not always sure I can trust my instincts about when silence means something is amiss, or just that he is busy. He doesn’t like to feel a slave to his phone, and I don’t want to be perceived as pushy. But this was important news. Mirena was for us.
I had made plans to meet a friend in my local, so I went through with it, despite feeling tempted to curl up in bed with a hot water bottle. Maybe alcohol would help numb the pain, and I didn’t much feel like being alone.
After a couple of drinks, I went to the bathroom, and found blood on my underwear. Nothing abnormal given all that inept jabbing and digging, really, but it prompted me to send what could be construed as a dramatic message. I suppose drunken me was trying to provoke a reaction – to break his silence. What I wrote was perfectly understandable in context, or so I thought. It never occurred to me that I might worry, or scare.
My friend and I decided to get some Thai food and were seated at the rear of a long, narrow restaurant with shitty phone reception. My phone remained in my bag for the next hour.
Walking home, at around 11pm, I pulled out my phone and headphones to walk the 200m back to my house with a musical accompaniment, and found 17 missed WhatsApp messages and one missed call.
I’m not sure whether he thought I’d been butchered by the women at family planning and was bleeding out, or whether it was more about my bikini posts on this blog, and the possibility of self-harm. Maybe both? But when he couldn’t reach me, he had contacted the emergency services, and they’d told him there weren’t grounds to intervene, so he should take a taxi over to my place himself. And he does not live nearby.
Once he’d established that in fact I was okay, he turned back and went home. There was more to this situation; there was a reason for his silence; there were other things happening that week that were causing friction and upset. I understand why he did that, even though I obviously wish he hadn’t.
I curled up on my bed and howled into a pillow for a while. I was hurting, on the inside, because of my fucking bruised and battered cervix, and also because I was horrified by what had happened. I’d risked telling someone I liked a lot about all my most personal shit and it had caused him to freak out, to fear for my life. After just a few dates. That’s too much for any guy to handle. He would bolt. I did not want him to bolt.
I am a person who understands the power of words. I am more careful than most, when I wield them. But I realise now that just because I can joke about suicide with one friend, or because my daughter feels comfortable writing “DIE” in a text message to me, two years later, I will always have to be really attentive to how I use certain language. Particularly when I write it. And when the person is not there, live, to respond immediately, to clarify if there is any ambiguity.
I guess I will never really wash away the stain of what I nearly did. And I’ll always be perceived, in some way, as a liability.
I’ve dated a few boys recently. One of them had an unsettling effect on me, and I was caught off guard, both by the speed and intensity of my reactions and because, on paper, he wouldn’t fit the description of someone I would have expected to start falling for, should such a description exist.
It began with easy, natural banter over the okcupid chat, and whatsapp, followed by one of those electrical jolts that I’ve had maybe twice before when you meet for the first time and there is instant mutual attraction. The icing on the cake was some world class physical chemistry. And a real enjoyment of each other’s minds and company. He whatsapps me all the time and I love how he writes, how he communicates. I can be myself with him, unfiltered. This is new territory for me.
A half dozen dates in, we are still behaving like teenagers, kissing in bars, as excited to see each other the sixth time as the second. We spent a week apart while I was visiting family, and it was a special kind of hell. But we were in constant contact, and the craziness when we were reunited made it almost worth that interminable wait.
Now this part may sound weird to you, because it does to me: he is encouraging me to see other people. Just for one shot dates, mind you. He wants to remain my number one guy. For him, this is supposed to be about trying to be less possessive, or playing around with the idea of that.
Seeing other people feels off to me. It really does. A tiny, perverse part of me is tempted, because I’ve been playing the field lately, and there is no shortage of interested parties. Free time is not in short supply: my kids are away a lot over the summer and he is often busy, while I am antsy, and at a loose end. But the idea that someone who is supposedly so besotted with me wants to share me? I struggle to see that as a positive, however hard I’m trying.
If I go through with it, I think it will be more of an insurance policy than anything else. It will be about me trying to dampen down my feelings, for the avoidance of future hurt.
A vicious little voice in my head is telling me that maybe it’s really about keeping me at arm’s length; giving me an opportunity to find an “out”.
The slap came today, at an unexpected moment, on a related but tangential subject. He was quizzing me about a guy I’d been chatting to on okcupid, who is aged 28 to my 46.
We were sitting on the terrasse of a favourite café, in the sun, a cool beer in our hands. He wore sunglasses, so I couldn’t see the expression in his eyes. I had removed mine.
“You could just go for a drink with him when I’m out with my friends, nothing has to happen,” he said. I raised a sceptical eyebrow, then looked away, because I never can hold someone’s gaze when I’m broaching a difficult subject.
“With an age gap like that, he’s not meeting with me for conversation,” I countered. “I enjoyed flirting with him. The thrill of the chase is fun for me. But he will have certain expectations about how the evening is going to develop. I don’t know if I even want to meet him. Since we met, I haven’t wanted to date anyone else. I’m not even sure I can.”
I can’t recall his exact reply, but the words – or what I heard in the spaces between them – gave my brain whiplash. It was something to the tune of 28 not being much different to his own 35. The tone was lighthearted. But he might has well have slapped me across the face. It smarted. It left a print. The implication, the way I processed it in the moment, was that nothing could or would ever come of us, because I’m almost twelve years older than he is. It echoed something my mother had said, that I hadn’t wanted to hear.
My vision clouded, and all the sweet words I’d been feasting on the previous week – an ever present chatter in my head – faded in that instant. I laid my head on his shoulder, too close for him to see my pained expression, shut my eyes, took some deep breaths and concentrated on resisting the pull of the down elevator.
The idea that, as my daughter would say, “catching these feels” was ultimately futile, a one-way ticket to nowhere? In the moment, that felt like a far more bitter pill to swallow than any of my meds.
And yet the positives outweigh this to such an extent that I can’t conceive of walking away. I won’t. We are amazing together. He scrambles all my frequencies. And so I am determined to live in the moment, to have this, regardless of how fleeting it might be.
I’ve written here about being desperate to feel things, and I’ve got what I wished for, and then some. I’m willing to take a few risks.
If you let yourself catch feels, you have to accept that they might well slip through your fingers one day.
I had an unusual conversation yesterday with a guy who described himself – with his signature wry smile – as my penpal. There was a little more to it than that but, as we were studying in different cities, in a pre-email world, we wrote each other long, involved letters for a time. His were so witty and elegantly written that they are still in the drawer with my photos and other important keepsakes, twenty-five years later. In my opinion, he is the one who should have gone on to write novels, not me.
We reconnected, many years later, as he still lives in my hometown. After reading my memoir, he messaged me on Facebook with a mini review, and was the only person who ever read between the lines and told me this: “…as some of it was so sad and revealed an introspective person with probable depressive tendencies (which I can relate to) I sincerely hope you’re feeling well and happy…” He’s very perceptive, see, this penpal of mine.
In recent years, Penpal’s understanding of mental health issues really cemented our bond. Not only is he dealing with demons of his own, but he works in social care. I saw him in 2017, and again yesterday. Not in between, because I wasn’t feeling sociable on my interim visits home. Timing is everything, with me: if I’m not on the right place on the curve, socialising can be more difficult.
Our conversation was about our suicide attempts, and believe it or not, we were laughing and joking about it. I was only halfway into my first pint of beer at the time. But being able to have that conversation, being able to joke and laugh while having it? This is a positive thing, I am sure of it.
I’ve touched on my bikini-firemen-sloe gin-sleeping pills-bathtub situation here before. I keep revisiting it here, probably because I need to.
As a prelude to that, I spent maybe a week of mostly lying on my bed, staring at my eyelids. Suicidal ideation was not something I had ever come even close to experiencing before, and I have difficulty spiriting myself back there, even to write about it. I know that in that warped version of reality I inhabited then, I was somehow becoming increasingly convinced that my children and everyone around me would be better off if I was no longer part of the equation. The only solution I could conceive of was slipping gently into a deep sleep, in a warm bath. Because I hadn’t been sleeping – not for several weeks, which was a huge part of the problem – I’d managed to wheedle some pretty strong sleeping pills out of a doctor.
I think it is important to note that I was still vain enough – even in the depths of this sinkhole – to give thought to which bikini I wanted to be wearing when I was found. I have a new favourite swimsuit now. Let the record show that I wouldn’t go with the same choice today. I look better in my new red one piece and I’d happily be buried in it.
Penpal has more than one aborted attempt under his belt and we talked about what he had imagined doing to exit this world: totalling his (really not fast enough) car; jumping in front of a train. I described that powerful feeling I get on the métro platform sometimes when I wonder – for a moment – how it would feel to jump in front of an oncoming train (which I assume everyone gets – at least I hope they do?) But he got as far as obtaining timetables and deciding upon the most suitable place to jump from, so it really was quite a detailed plan.
What really stood out, in both instances, was the thing that saved our lives: a text message.
In his case, a text message from his wife, at a crucial moment, which thankfully brought him to his senses.
In mine, a text from my ex-husband, on holiday with my son, to which I attempted to reply. The result looked more like a teenaged keyboard smash than an adult writing a sentence. My ex knew immediately that something was very wrong, and messaged me further to find out what in the actual fuck I’d done, then sent help.
We joked, Penpal and I, that however far gone you think you are, it is impossible to resist picking up your mobile phone when you hear that little vibration, that little beep, announcing a new message.
Irritating as that can be sometimes, one day that sound might just save your life. Although if the message had been spam, trying to sell me something? Well, that might have been the final straw.
I remember once describing to a psychologist – years before my diagnosis – the feelings I was having when I got into a argument with my soon-to-be-husband. After one phone exchange, a wall of orange-red rose up in front of my eyes, like a migraine aura, clouding my vision. There was a ringing in my ears, as though I were about to faint, a tingling sensation in my extremities, and a tightness in my chest. I wondered if this was what having a heart attack felt like. Was I dying?
But it was just my body, mainlining anger-fear-panic. Maybe the person who had coined the English phrase “to see red” had been experiencing something similar.
The psychologist calmly discussed mechanisms for safely exiting this state without hurting myself or anyone else. So I bit down on my pillow and and closed my eyes, waiting for it to pass. I don’t even remember what the fight, or fights were about. Just the feeling of being overwhelmed by the physical manifestation of my emotions. I haven’t seen red for many years, but there are other feelings that my body gives voice to and magnifies in ways that I’m not sure other people’s bodies do. Or not with quite the same intensity.
I find it simplest to describe these using the vocabulary of recreational drug taking, because drugs tend to enhance your perception of feelings and emotions in a similar way. In my youth I tripped out on mushrooms and LSD, rushed on speed, coke and ecstasy, and blissed out on MDMA, so I have some material to work with.
There are my whooshy adrenaline rushes. The good happy ones where I soar, head upturned to the sky, blissed out on the best home-spun MDMA, usually with a musical accompaniment, because feelings like that really need one. If the rush gets really powerful, I might even let out a quiet little moan, after checking there is no-one in the immediate vicinity. Or stop and lean back against a wall; take a few deep breaths. If it feels too strong – like too many lines of coke, strong – a beer will bring me down a notch, so I might stop at a bar and drink one, alone.
Then there are the bad “the bottom just fell out of my world” dives. These are the worst because I can be on a hair trigger sometimes and truly never know when I might step into the down elevator and plummet. The ground comes rushing up to meet me; the panic, the fear, the nausea become all I am. There is always a reason, but my body’s reaction to whatever circumstance is not a rational one, and I lose all ability to react in a measured and logical way.
So I have learned to withdraw when that happens, to try to remove myself from certain situations until the feeling ends. My default position is head between knees, somewhere private: a work toilet cubicle, any toilet cubicle. Breathe in, breathe out. It will pass. Like any bad trip. It’s just a too high dose of something, coursing around my body, scrambling my brain.
Hopefully, when I emerge from the cubicle, pale and a little dazed, and pretend to wash my hands, the hand dryer won’t strike up a conversation with me, like that time I took LSD in Manchester in 1994.
In the sidebar on the right, I caution that posting may be patchy. If you wish to follow what I write here, you may wish to subscribe. And it’s true: there was a period of frenetic activity in July 2017, before I nosedived. I returned briefly, in February 2018. I’ve been trying again this past month.
But that leaves an awful lot of gaps. More silence than words. So I wanted to attempt to unpack why I often find this exercise difficult.
My go-to answer is usually that the meds, combined with low-level depression, made me drowsy or sapped my creativity. This is partially true. There have definitely been days – weeks even – when a superhuman effort was required to hold down my job, keep my children and myself clothed and fed, pay the bills, and deal with whatever other shitty and complex things I had going on at the time (buying out my husband’s share of my apartment! divorcing!) I focused on doing the minimum required to survive, then collapsed into bed to Netflix and chill with myself. So while I’ve seen every decent TV series made since my diagnosis, that doesn’t make for exciting copy.
For the past three years I also let my day job – which I loved – eat me alive. At first, doing so may have been a way of skirting the issue that my marriage was imploding. But once that became a reality, staying late or bringing work home filled the void left by first one, then another of my children moving into shared custody with their fathers, leaving an alternate week of emptiness to be filled.
The idea of being alone filled me with dread. My daughter, my eldest, was the last to leave, and she put up a fight, at first. Her therapist explained to me, gently, that it wasn’t because she didn’t want or need to spend more time with her father. She was afraid to leave me, worried I might harm myself. The timing wasn’t fantastic, admittedly, as I wasn’t long discharged from hospital. We managed to defer the change for a couple of months because it was just too soon. Don’t make this look like a punishment for what I nearly did. Please.
But clearly I had no choice but to parent-up and convince my daughter that I was not her responsibility. She could leave me alone. I would be alright. And it’s true, now I look forward to my child-free weeks. But fuck me, it was not easy at first, when I was feeling so shitty, after fourteen years of us always being together. The apartment I love, that I hung on to by my fingernails when I divorced, felt oversized and wrong.
I spent most of the time, as I do, sitting on my bed with my computer in my lap, thinking that I could easily live in a studio apartment the size of my bedroom, really. Sometimes I would force myself to sit on the sofa, trying to reclaim my own living room. But during that time, I was mostly working, which I now realise was unhealthy. And also unpaid. I have a new job now, a much less busy one. It’s like 2005, all over again and I rather like it.
But having no life, or working too much is not really the crux of the matter.
The main reason I have often begun posts, then deleted them, is because when I started this blog, in a state of hypomania, I told my parents, my friends, even my daughter that I had done so. Oversharing is what I do best during this phase of my illness-existence-personality. Boundaries become porous. Things seep through, that shouldn’t.
So while this space may be anonymous – which I think is important, as I don’t want to share my diagnosis with my employer unless I choose to do so, for example – I have effectively hobbled the freedom that it could potentially give me to truly speak my mind.
Imagine, if you will, unleashing your self-hatred onto the page on a day you are visited by your demons, knowing that your sixteen-year-old daughter might swing by at any moment? Lifting the veil on your most unsightly insecurities when you are also trying to seduce someone you really want to impress? These are familiar problems I encountered in a previous blogging existence – because I always did get a perverse pleasure out of painting myself in an unflattering light – but multiplied two hundredfold, because mental illness has been thrown into the mix.
At the back of my mind is the thought that if I get too carried away, write anything too melodramatic, it could – conceivably – be used against me in a court of law one day to remove my children from my care.
I’m still not sure how I’m going to navigate around this, but my brain sure is noisy – the picture above represents me on a good day – so I’m trying with every post to break the silence.
I plot the telltale signs that I’m losing altitude.
The first thing I note is that my energy levels, instead of being Duracell bunny “on” all day long, are beginning to ebb and flow throughout the day. I’m sleeping through the night, until 7am, instead of getting 3 hours’ sleep. My racing thoughts and rapid-firing synapses are beginning to stutter and slow. I’m updating my secret Instagram account less often.
Denial is pointless: I’m losing my hypomanic superpowers and I feel bereft. After being an unstoppable force for six weeks or more, I don’t care to return to mere mortal status. Normality holds no attraction. I want to be me, squared.
When I look at the woman in the mirror, my eyes are less charitable. I see fine lines, a multitude of imperfections. I had shed weight, but now I can almost feel my metabolism slowing, becoming sluggish. Am I already heavier, or is my perception skewed?
I’ve spoken to good friends before about this. Do I really change that much when I come down to earth? Do I still make them laugh? Do I look different? Do they still like me the same?
The verdict seems to be that the difference is mostly in my own head – which is not to say that I don’t dress, move and behave differently as a result – but you’d probably have to be paying close attention to notice.
Right now, I’m trying hard to postpone the inevitable any way I can. Loud music in my headphones. Alcohol. A crazy, intoxicating mutual infatuation with a boy that hits some of the same endorphin high notes. I have faith that I’m going to weather this involuntary descent okay.
But I still wish I could have held onto my superpowers for a little longer.