signs

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.

lifesaver

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.

hair trigger

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.

silence

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.