This is an account of some of my experiences with depression. As such, it discusses self-injury and other things that can be disconcerting. If you are not in a place where you can handle that, please don’t read on.
I was formally diagnosed with depression when I was 16 or 17. It was a bit of a let-down. As a diagnosis, it felt incomplete; like telling someone with asthma their problem was that they had trouble breathing. Depression felt like the symptom, not the disease.
Over the years, I realised that depression has more than one meaning: depression is a symptom of Depression, and Depression was what I suffered.
I don’t remember when I first started to suffer from depression. I have never been a good sleeper – even as a young child, even before my Mum died, I struggled to sleep properly. And after my Mum died when I was only 5, I started having panic attacks in the middle of the night because I knew one day I would be dead too and that terrified me. Terrifies me.
I remember the first time something happened that could have led to a diagnosis, but I was such a good girl it got hushed up so as not to tarnish my record. I was 12 and my English teacher was my little sister’s form tutor. I can’t remember her name, but she seemed a very kind person and a good teacher. We studied Pygmalion and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream (or at least the Rude Mechanicals therein) with her.
One day, I had a perverse, destructive bug within me. Uncontrollable, like a possession. I remember a detached feeling as I scraped the wooden desk with my scissors spread-eagled to gouge parallel lines across the desk’s surface. My goodie-two-shoes, teacher’s pet friends laughed nervously at this strange behaviour. They didn’t know how to react. I didn’t.
The next lesson, the teacher made an announcement about the vandalism. It had to be this class because the desk was fine before and her form pupil whose desk it was was very upset. I approached her at the end of the lesson and admitted, shakily, guiltily, that it was me. I was internally surprised she didn’t know; I always sat in that spot, so who else could it have been? But she was surprised. It was not the sort of behaviour anyone would have expected from me. We agreed I would come back at lunchtime and sand out the gouges and it would be our little secret. Agent Echo happened to spot me in there, though, and joined us. I didn’t mind, which I think surprised the teacher, and Echo helped me restore the desk. I think it helped bond us: I don’t think anyone would have been so surprised if it was she who had done the damage.
I am grateful my punishment was lenient. I felt guilty enough about what had been done – I would say what I had done, except it didn’t feel like I was in control doing it. The punishment felt good, gently physical and redemptive: as I scrubbed away the marks, I scrubbed away the transgression. I am grateful my punishment was lenient because if it hadn’t been I think I would have been more likely to reoffend.
I was relieved nothing more would be said about it, but now I wonder whether, if it had been flagged, maybe my distress would have been noticed sooner.
I remember the first time I went upwards. I don’t remember how old I was, maybe 15. I was walking home with Hannah & Becky (who, as I recall, had been present for the desk scratching incident) when I suddenly went light-headed and giggly. I could only think I must have walked through some freak chaos-theory pocket of high alcohol content air: I felt very drunk. I don’t remember how long it lasted, but over the years I became more used to the feeling. I don’t think it was ever true hypomania – it never lasted more than maybe a couple of days and I could usually bring it under control. It was a lot more than just happiness, though.
I don’t remember the first time I hurt myself, but I do remember the first time I seriously thought about it. I’d had a paddy over something and to help me calm down Dad let me eat my dinner in the study by the open fire. I remember sitting there, toying the fork in the flames and wondering what it would feel like when the metal touched my skin. I refrained, but I think I knew one day I would give in.
I used to heat metal and flick it against my skin. I moved on to cutting. Both have left scars, but the cuts are more noticeable. I think most people who see them don’t realise what they are but some are simply too polite to say anything.
My sixth form head of year called me in to his office. He’d had reports that I was depressed, that there was a problem with me. He’d kept an eye on me and not seen anything and that made him nervous – I reminded him of another pupil he’d had in another school and he hadn’t taken the warnings seriously. He didn’t enlighten me further. I’ve often wondered about the other pupil.
He told me he would ask me two questions and I could choose not to answer. 1) Was I starving myself or making myself throw up? I shook my head, vehemently denying the charge – I was a very skinny child and young adult and the question always bothered me. 2) Was I hurting myself? I chose not to answer and he extracted a promise from me that I would take care to always keep wounds clean and if I ever needed to I would go to the hospital. I am grateful to him for taking me seriously so calmly and so non-judgementally. He put my name to the top of the school counselling list.
I’ve seen a few counsellors over the years. The one I saw at school was my favourite. My least favourite was the psychiatrist who was so insistent I’d been sexually abused that I nearly made a story up. I went back to the school counsellor after that disaster and she explained there was only one paper on self-injury and it claimed all self-injurers had been sexually abused, but in her experience very few had been.
Admitting to her that I hurt myself meant I had to tell my Dad. It’s one of only two things I would rather have kept secret.
The first anti-depressant I went on was Effexor/Venlafaxine. The only time I have tried to kill myself was when I was on Venlafaxine. It was an insincere attempt. The GP was reluctant to take me off because I was so clearly depressed but I knew it was making me worse so took all the remaining tablets (possibly it had been a mistake to tell a self-injurer that overdosing on the drug would make you very ill but not kill you) and all the painkillers I could lay my hands on. I then panicked and wrote down what I had taken just in case and had one of the few good night’s sleep I’d had prior to moving in with Husbit. I wasn’t ill until a few weeks later when all the side effects I’d gone through at the start returned.
I had a course of CBT once. When the six weeks ended, I was told that was it but then I got a questionnaire asking why I’d chosen to leave counselling. I didn’t particularly like CBT but would have stayed if they’d let me.
I am lucky to have friends with thick skins and forgiving, loving spirits. I would be very alone if I didn’t.
I remember phoning Husbit one night when he was round a friend’s. I needed him to come home to me but I wasn’t able to say and when he came home later I was crying and had plasters on my arm and he wrapped himself around me – arms, legs and soul – and rocked me and told me he needed me. There is powerful magic in being needed.
I was 27 the first time I felt like an adult.
I remember one doctor or counsellor or some such trying to tell me that my mood swings were normal – everyone had mood swings. I went quiet. I was sure my mood swings were more than that – that the depth and strength of feeling was more than what was normal. That the numbness was not normal. I didn’t have the self-confidence to argue. I began to doubt myself.
A few months ago, I realised I had not felt depressed for a while, and even then only for a couple of days. I kept a careful eye on my moods, analysed and watched. This normally is a good way to trigger a downward spiral, because I become alert to the worst. This time it didn’t.
I think I realised I wasn’t Depressed any more the day I could have that thought without worrying that not being Depressed meant I wasn’t special or important.
Now that I am not Depressed I can see how bad it was. Whatever that medical professional may I thought, I was suffering and I survived and I am damn lucky to have done so.