Written by Sarah Williams for World Mental Health Day 2019. Trigger warning: suicide.
On Mental Health Awareness Day last year, I somewhat ironically published an article about the horrors of depression, and the relief of overcoming it. I say ironic, because a few days after publishing it, I tried to kill myself.
I fucked it up, and then tried again about a month later. And then again, a third time, in December.
At the time I remember being frustrated and embarrassed that I couldn’t even do that properly. Suicide is really fucking difficult. Also, the chairs they have in A&E treatment rooms are so uncomfortable it’s really not worth the hassle.
That was a year ago. Three suicide attempts between October and December 2018. Looking back, my sole focus for the last 12 months has been on trying to get better. And you know what? I am better.
I’ve gone back to work. I told my family and my friends, who I was too afraid to speak to before. I’ve sought help from my GP and psychiatric services. I’m eating again. I’m enjoying reading and writing again. I can drive again. I’m actually pretty fucking happy at the moment, and it’s not just a manic blip: I’m positive most days.
I am a jigsaw puzzle that someone dropped on the floor. I was broken, and I’m trying to reassemble myself. Sometimes I try a piece, and it doesn’t fit straight away, no matter how many times I turn it around. It takes a while to find the piece that does fit; I have to be patient.
I’m not fully ‘recovered’ by any means, but I can think clearly again. I may not have brought my cycle of self-sabotage to a complete halt, but I’ve definitely thrown a spanner in the wheels. I’m more aware of my actions and emotions, and I know I deserve to get better.
One of the trickiest aspects of depression is that it makes you think you don’t deserve to get better. You don’t deserve help. There are many people out there who are much worse than you. No matter the level you’ve reached, we all deserve to feel our best. Being miserable isn’t a competition.
The first step for me was realising that I needed help. I’m used to helping others and being responsible, so it took me a long time to ask. Years, in fact.
I’d been juggling anxiety and depression for about as long as I can remember, and it’s only recently that I’ve realised that it’s not normal to feel like that all the time. I fall into the ‘high-functioning’ category of mental illness, which I consider to be a euphemism for ‘we’ve just gotten used to it’.
The issue with being high-functioning is that you genuinely think people will notice how bad you are, when in reality they all think you’re fine. I’d been working quite hard to appear normal, so there’s no surprise my friends thought I was fine!
Even if someone isn’t high-functioning, you will never see how bad they truly are because it is humiliating. We put a brave face on it to save embarrassment. Having company makes us feel better, and we try to act normal around others because we don’t want them to feel bad, and we’re worried they won’t like us if we show our true selves.
The unfortunate reality was that I could be out at a gig, having a laugh and appearing completely normal, then spending the next day helplessly crying, anxiety vomiting and uncontrollably wailing on the bathroom floor. Even for me, that’s not normal. At my worst, I went into complete shut down: I had days when I couldn’t walk or see properly, I couldn’t lift my arms or use my jaw properly. I couldn’t eat without throwing up and I was sleeping 16-20 hours a day. I cried in the street, in the shower and on my kitchen floor. I got paranoid: everyone hated me, I was a burden.
The friends who did notice would try to help: they’d take me out for a day or come to hang out for an evening. Alas, a day of fun doesn’t fix a severe chemical imbalance in your brain.
Despite some friends’ valiant and massively appreciated efforts, I was just getting progressively worse. I’d tell people I was feeling better, but I couldn’t see any way out of it.
While the NHS provides an invaluable, caring and attentive service, it’s also woefully under resourced for mental health issues. Of those attending A&E, psychiatric patients are those least likely to die, and therefore they’re (accurately) triaged to other services, so that urgent attention can be focussed on those more immediately in need.
There are lower-level self-referral services available alongside crisis-level care, but very limited provision in between. As a result, I was bumped between the two for over a year, being told that I was ‘too high risk’ for talking therapies and ‘too low risk’ for constant monitoring. The end result? I got absolutely nothing, because I was deemed inappropriate for the two services available.
It was only when I started to get a little better, with the help of one or two very close friends, that I realised I wasn’t going to get any professional help.
I knew that if I did the ‘right’ things, then I’d improve a little. You know, the things ‘they’ tell you to do. Exercise. Healthy eating. Limiting smoking and drinking. Setting a sleep schedule. Reading. All that self-care bullshit that’s heaped on you in Instagram adverts.
I started doing those things and found quite quickly that I couldn’t do most of them.
Or I’d do them… but it’d be too much and I’d have a meltdown again.
But slowly, a five minute walk turned into a ten minute walk. That turned into a half hour podcast. That transformed into listening to Friday Night Comedy while cooking myself a decent meal. Sounds nice? It took fucking months.
I spoke to my friends, and I spent some time living with a couple who rather unwittingly sorted me out, just by being themselves and being ‘normal’ around me. One of my friends checked in on me daily when I was at my worst. I phoned Samaritans when I needed to, and I learned it’s better to act early than to wait until I was in a crisis. I learned what a crisis was. I took myself off social media, dropped all my stressful commitments, and set much lower goals and standards for myself.
Here are the things I wish I’d known about recovery at the outset:
- PATIENCE! You must be patient
- It’s going to take a long time
- It’s going to be hard work
- You will relapse and get worse before you get better
- You have to abandon your ego
Jesus fucking Christ, it did not happen over night. I had to build it up very slowly with a huge amount of frustration, and a complete lack of faith or hope.
Hitting rock bottom more than once was what I needed to get myself into a better state. There’s a point where you feel like you can’t get any worse, so there’s fuck all to lose by trying what you can.
My pride took a huge knock throughout all of this, however setting lower expectations for myself has significantly improved my outlook.
When I first tried going back to work, I started with one day a week, thinking that was such a low goal that it would be achievable. Nope! Even that was too strenuous. I then tried doing it a task at a time and that was too much. Finding that I couldn’t do even basic tasks made me feel even more awful and useless and brimming with self-hatred.
I had to take a step back and focus on things that weren’t essential, but were still a bit challenging. Going for a swim. Getting the washing up done. Writing an article. I started to find that I could be a bit more active some days and get things done… then I’d spend the next two days snoring because I’d completely exhausted myself. I mentally beat myself up on those days but, over the course of about five months, I started getting more and more done, and sleeping a bit less.
The two things that helped the most were being active and being social. Just being on my feet for a bit helped my mood enormously. Volunteering in a charity shop gave me something rewarding and low-stress to do on days when I’d otherwise not have gotten out of bed. It felt like a massive step backwards to return to bar work, but a low-stress job where I was on my feet and talking to people on the time wasn’t just achievable and it was fun. It cheered me right up.
I started back in bar work in April, and I’ve slowly built it up from part-time to full-time work. I’m still doing freelancing alongside it, but now that I’m cycling to work every day, spending much of the week on my feet, and enjoying time surrounded by people, I’m full of positivity and I feel a lot more capable of doing the intellectually-challenging work I’m aspiring to.
The most harrowing aspect of my depression last year was the anhedonia: I completely lost interest in a lot of the things I love, including punk rock for a period. I had a wonderful moment of revelation earlier this week.
I went to catch The Slackers, Call Me Malcolm and The Crash Mats at the Retro Bar on Monday night. It was a sold out basement gig with a few friends in attendance. I enjoyed myself entirely: I had a dance, the music was great, the vibe was relaxing. I didn’t feel a single shred of anxiety or displacement; I felt at home again.
I’m scared by this positivity. I think it will end. In the meantime, I’m just focusing on improving one day at a time.
I’m still not well. I keep getting flashes of white-hot rage. Some days I cry for no reason. Some days I can’t get out of bed. I have a froth of anxiety in me that will bubble over when I’m overwhelmed. I still get suicidal thoughts but now, rather than faffing about feeling hopeless and wondering whether to call Samaritans, I just ring them and kick myself out of it.
I may not be well, but I am better. The good days are starting to outweigh the bad. And I’m fucking happy about that.
Although this is only my personal experience, this time last year I could never have imagined having this much hope. It’s my hope that if someone struggling out there reads this, perhaps they’ll glean a little hope from it too.
This isn’t uncommon. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with me, or with you, but we’re often too embarrassed to talk about it.
If you’re struggling: don’t be afraid to ask for help, but don’t expect to get it either. Only you can fix yourself, but remember that you deserve to be fixed.
Put the work in, do everything you can, and you will get better.
For more similar stories, check out our #MentallySound series, which looks at the relationship between music and mental health.