In honour of others, especially Matt Haig (see his book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’), who have been open and honest about their own mental health difficulties I post this blog in the hope that none of us need suffer in silence and feel as if they are the only ones going through ,what can be, such excruciating difficulties. When I read this it sounds a bit grand, inflation is one of my problems so, just to deflate myself I do recognise my troubles have been like a midge bite that itches for a few days compared with what many go through, but these thoughts may have some value.
Last month was my Birthday, I have reached the heady age of 54. This last year has, probably, been the most challenging of my life and my wife’s. From the end of August 2014 I was beset with an attack of Severe Anxiety Disorder. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and once it arrived, it was rapidly clear to me, it wasn’t going away without some kind of struggle. If I look back now I see that there were many factors leading up to my crash.
Busyness; this was disguised as fulfilling a whole list of worthy expectations I had set up for myself and led others to expect of me.
Unaddressed Anxiety; I was always the calm one, that was the story I told myself and others especially my own family. In fact deep inside I was terribly anxious about a great many things. But I was convinced, because I allowed none of this into consciousness, that it wasn’t there.
Ignoring My Deepest Desires; by getting involved in all kinds of good work that provided immediate positive reinforcement to my ego I was able to avoid the work that has always been calling me – to sit in front of the blank page and wait, to tend my garden, to live a slower, calmer more centred life and most of all pay attention to my own mortality.
Not Listening; to my heart, my body, my wife, my children, my own words, (this is a really clever ruse – to tell everyone else what they should do – yet to pay little attention to my own advice).
Self-Medication; it is astonishing how good I can be at this, using alcohol, food, the internet, or even projections into the future to dull the ache of not having the courage to face myself with all my mundane human ordinariness.
An explosion. All of these factors are really part of the same whole, and feed off each other. But in my case they gradually built up and then exploded on a Sunday morning in August walking along a street in North Berwick. I suddenly a sharp shock like an electric current, followed by light-headedness and palpitations. There followed a trip to A&E in Edinburgh and then 4 months of spiralling down through the vortex of anxiety and depression. This involved medication ( I would have taken anything to relieve the perching and powerful sense of dislocation), therapy, more trips to A&E and a terrible amount of worry for my ever faithful wife and family. My emergence from the vortex has been slow and painful, and it isn’t over yet.
What helped was the gracious kindness of my wife, my children, and friends – bearing with my agoraphobia, reassuring me of recovery, and loving me. My oldest friends were amazing, walking alongside me and loving me. My Brothers in the Men’s work, face-timing, visiting, emailing and again loving me. I have been having Jungian Analysis – a lifeline that has led me into the maze of my unconscious. This was very frightening at first as it fed into a downward spiral that made me frightened of my dreams and worried that I would be overwhelmed by my unconscious. It has, however become a point of steerage in each week, a mapping and orientation of my own particular life journey.
What hasn’t helped, well to be honest; antidepressants. I reacted very badly to the first ones I was on and haven’t really seen much benefit from the ones I changed to. I am astonished that mental health difficulties have reached such a pitch that hard pressed GPs often resort to medication as the first treatment of choice. I was very quickly on a range of tablets:- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, sleeping tablets (to treat the sleeplessness caused by the SSRI‘s), Beta Blockers (actually these did help as they dealt with the very physical symptoms of anxiety), and last but worst Diazepam. Now, as I said, I would and did take anything offered, offered by kind doctors trying to alleviate very real symptoms. They only have so much time and so drugs are an obvious choice. I also received after about a month Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in the GP surgery from a man who introduced himself as a CBT self help coach. Not a therapist but a self help professional. He was truly delightful and relatively helpful, but by the time I saw him I was totally confused as to which symptom was my condition and which was a side effect of the pills, he could not be sure either.
Symptoms. I was terrified of everything and this expressed itself in physical feelings such as hot tingling in the back of my neck, a feeling like an ice bucket had been poured into my stomach, pins and needles in the forearms, numbness in the shoulder blades. Psychologically I felt totally altered and dissociated, like I was watching myself and monitoring every thought. I was overwhelmed by a sense that I was going mad. I had very odd thoughts of violence and self harm, this increased the terror and a large part of me wanted to be admitted to some facility that would look after me. The psychosomatic feeling of depression followed hot on the heels of all this. It was a kind of relentless plunging feeling that robbed of any savour, all the things I had previously loved. Random thoughts and experiences would bring with them this sinking in the pit of my stomach and wrench me back into anxiety.
Writing. The one thing I continued to do, actually needed to do, was writing. It was salvific, I wrote recently in a poem that, when all was dark : ‘only my pen know its way’. I sensed on walks around a local dam with my wife who has been my constant companion, and with our dogs that something might be stirring. Here is the poem.
The Tremor of Silk
I can glean a seed of comfort
from the breath panting, running,
huffing happiness that Gabriel,
my dog finds in our long walk.
It sets up a yearning that is
painful to my stomach sinking,
down bringing, drear morning
waking, aching for more sleep.
I never dreamed that I would
be called anxious, depressed,
an object of sympathetic card
sending, sad condoling nods.
I have never longed more, or
implored, or burned for relief,
rescue, to gain a vantage point
that sees ahead, an end to all this.
We are walking round the dam,
all three dogs are in full stream
where as I flood, sporadically with
down the neck, hot water panic.
Will it end or am I stuck in this
wet pathed, leaf dropped winter
that issues into no spring as the
raven dark maw won’t release me.
I wonder if dogs get depressed,
Gabriel seems the steadiest of
friends as he wanders ahead licking
the water, unfazed by my state.
His unperturbed gaze is that seed,
not relief, but the tremor of silk,
that grows in his dark eyes and enters
my belly unseen, at least that’s my hope.
So now I have turned 54 and experienced one of the most unnerving periods of my life from which recovery is not so much returning to my old self as a discovery of a deeper, more complex self, a self that has optimism and trepidation in equal measure. The journey to a new life is something I want to offer, as someone said like; ‘postcards from the edge’ on this blog. Or as Thomas Merton called them ‘raids on the unspeakable’. If you have insights to share please don’t hesitate, one of the keys to all this is never to believe you travel alone.