I still don’t know if I’m going to be OK. That’s the honest truth. I’m sitting here on a Saturday evening in March of 2017 listening to my two daughters giggling together at the table in the next room as they draw pictures and natter happily. My marriage is over. My career – at least, my “career” career – looks over. For nearly two months now I have hardly worked. For many of the seven weeks since late January, my days have been endless processions of nothing: my most intense activity has been scrolling through my iTunes film collection searching fruitlessly for something I haven’t watched yet. Ordering takeaways. Blank and hollowed out. I haven’t been taking care of myself at all, and it’s only in the last fortnight – with a switch of medication – that things have started to level out.
I no longer want to die. In fact, I want to live very much indeed.
For those of us who reach any sort of crisis in our emotions and thoughts, the complete inability to prioritise our own happiness is so total as to almost be funny. Why would we take care of ourselves? We’re shit. We’re human waste. Everyone would be better off if we would only fuck off and leave them alone. We might have been functioning pretty well on the surface, but it’s often only when we finally tell someone else what our thoughts and feelings have been doing behind our competent smiles that we finally realise: maybe I’m really not OK. Maybe I’m not faking. The horrified look in their eyes, or perhaps a whispered “Jesus…”.That’s the reaction I had from my soon-to-be-ex, my sister, my parents. All understandable, all completely well-meant. But it’s still hard to see their concern for you: the last thing you want is to bother anyone. You already feel like you’re dragging everyone into your misery, and doing it more isn’t any fun.
My breakdown was so slow in coming that I didn’t even notice it until it was all over me. Last July, in my previous job, I started to feel odd in a meeting – trembling and short of breath. Half an hour later I was sobbing and hyperventilating in my boss’s office, completely out of my own control. My fingers buzzed and tingled – a sensation I mostly remember from being stoned when I was a kid. My chest was tight, my ears thumping with blood, my shoulders hitching uncontrollably. My then-boss – a strange but kind woman – called my wife and my therapist and put me in a taxi. I was home for a week, and that was that.
I didn’t take the Sertraline the doctor prescribed me that afternoon. I remembered my previous experiences with SSRI (Selective Seratonin Re-uptake Inhibitor) antidepressants, and was in no rush to experience the feeling of being compressed, smoothed out. Sure, they had dealt with the horrible, dredging scrape of black despair, but they seemed to take a lot of the shine off life too. (Plus, they stopped me being able to come. Which is kind of too much information, but since we’re talking about the shine being gone from life, that’s a big shine to lose.) I went back to work and served out the last couple of weeks in my job.
We went on holiday in early August. When I told people where we were going – Mauritius – I got the expected mix of excited envy: “Oooh, you lucky bastard”. The flights were free, thanks to my wife’s work. The hotel was a last-minute bargain. It was a dream holiday for the price of a Ryanair week in Alicante, and I didn’t feel anything at all. It’s not even that I wasn’t excited: I just wasn’t there. There was no me to do the feeling.
The numbness persisted all the way there. I just felt dead – there’s no other word for it. I felt carved out of concrete: heavy, dull, absolutely inert. And for the best part of two weeks I sat on a sun lounger fifty yards from a cartoon-turquoise sea, stirring myself only to order too many drinks from the palm-thatched cabana bar by the pool. Meanwhile my wife and daughters played and laughed and got on with being a family without me.
And then I improved very slightly and the rest of the summer was more or less OK. I’m a teacher and I get to spend six weeks with my kids, so it was easy to feel better. My new job started, and everyone seemed nice and I was settling in well and getting good feedback and everything was going great and then suddenly it wasn’t.
Sometime in late October, quite without noticing, I stopped. I stopped doing anything. Stopped seeing friends, stopped reading, stopped listening to music, stopped doing any of the work I was being paid for. At home I expended what small emotional reserves I had on faking it for the kids. At school I’d smile and laugh and tell jokes and talk about work and then I’d find myself alone in the office. As soon as anyone’s back was turned, the smile slid right off my face. I’d set aside an hour to catch up on work, and find when the time was up that I’d just sat there gazing into space. I’d take work home and bring it back the next day, untouched. And because I kept telling myself I’d start it tomorrow, I didn’t even notice what was creeping up on me.
Things I didn’t notice myself doing: an inner monologue which swore and cursed myself almost constantly; increasingly unrealistic procrastination; wishing again and again that I could just disappear, cease, dissolve; my heart thumping like a trapped pigeon against the inside of my ribs, constantly constantly constantly; an overpowering sense of shame and imminent discovery for some imagined crime; complete inability to concentrate or read. I wanted to die more than I’ve ever wanted anything, and I didn’t even realise it.
Of course I was sick – badly sick. So why didn’t I notice? Well. Maybe because I didn’t cry, mostly. I appeared to be holding it together. I somehow convinced myself that my fantasies of slicing an arm open, or leaping in front of the fast train through Slough didn’t count as suicidal. I can’t be suicidal! I’d never do that!
I’ll say that again: it literally never occurred to me that thinking several times a day about ways to end my life meant I was suicidal. It’s almost funny.
And then one Friday in January, I found myself in a weird, almost drugged mood. Detached and reflective and actually concentrating on my feelings for the first time in quite a long time. I sat at my desk at work and looked at myself. And it clicked. Without even consciously thinking “Oh god – I’m really seriously depressed” I went downstairs to my boss’s office and told her.
She was sympathetic and kind, as always. She asked me when it started; I hazarded a guess at New Year, but to be honest I couldn’t remember. She told me that she would never have guessed, that I’ve been doing great. I acknowledged that I don’t do well at asking for help, and have a pathological need to appear fine. I told her I would be making a doctor’s appointment, and I went home for the day.
The GP took one look at me and signed me off work for two weeks. And then another week.
And during that time at home, it all collapsed. I’d been standing up for so long that when I finally fell down, I found I couldn’t get up again. Weeping spontaneously in the shower, sitting alone for hours at a time doing nothing. Films on, not really watching them. Eating crap. Not getting properly dressed for days. Just wanting to not be.
I started on the pills, and as before, they blunted me, but made me feel a little better. The bottom got a little further away. The suicidal thoughts got worse, though, without my really noticing. (Apparently that’s a potential side effect of Citalopram, which at the very least strikes me as a surprising and undesirable effect of an antidepressant.)
I went back to work. Everyone was kind and nice and supportive, but the panic attacks returned. I had one in a senior team meeting; I had one in a meeting in which it became abundantly clear I hadn’t been doing my job properly. I got sent home again, and once again the doctor signed me off for two weeks. But work were being so supportive, I wasn’t afraid.
This time he changed my medication: Sertraline and betablockers. In days, I was feeling worlds better. An incredible transformation. And all the problems in my marriage, years of problems, suddenly felt fixable.
We’d been shaky for a long time, but our conversations had always been stymied by my anxiety. This time, we got where we needed to go. It’s been sad, it’s been tearful, it’s been regretful, but it’s also OK. It’s right. We’re good friends. We love our kids. That’s all that matters.
I was finally ready to live again, and part of that is that I’ve quit my job. I hated that fucking job. But I felt so incredibly trapped by my position and the decent salary that until now I’ve never had the guts to take the jump. My superiors gently suggested that maybe my responsibilities might bear looking at, given my illness, and I grabbed at this like a lifeline: I’m going back to something I do well, and binning a third of my old salary into the bargain. It should be terrifying. But you know what happens when you finally face your problems after years of sickness and fear? Stuff stops being quite so scary.
What’s the worst that could happen? It doesn’t work out? I live with my folks for a bit? I’m lucky – I have a small amount of cash in the bank. I won’t starve. I have my girls, and that’s all that matters.
I may be single, and financially poorer than I’ve been in a decade, but god, it’s exciting. I’m free.