HOW FAR HAVE I TRAVELLED?
I have journeyed far since my diagnosis in 1991, following a second breakdown. It was called manic depression in those days and I thought it would go away. It never occurred to me it was here to stay and would shadow me through life tripping me up when I was off guard. No-one told me anything about the nature of the condition, its causes, symptoms, signs and treatments. After both spells off work I ploughed my way back into normality through a black cloud, feet wading through treacle and my stomach tied up in knots.
There was no help outside of hospital in 1989 or 1991 – well not where I was living. Both times I was discharged home to an empty house where I sat in the same chair in the kitchen for 12 hours a day. It was what is now fashionably called ‘a dark place’. My only outings were to buy a few items of food to cook at night and to walk our dog in a nearby large park. My colleagues at my college were busy and some shied away from contact with me. It was a desperately lonely time – a drab existence with a failing relationship and the belief that any good life was over forever, that I was unworthy and deserved little. My weekly GP visits brightened my life not because of the doctor but the lovely Receptionist who greeted me warmly, the first time saying how nice it was to see me out and about. She could not have known how I treasured that statement. Few said the same preferring to treat me as an odd ball.
When out of the house, I avoided people, frightened they might ask why I was not at work or might sense I was a mentally ill misfit. I was scared most of the time. Scared of losing my marriage, my job or my home or all three. After all I had met patients in hospital who had fared much worse than me in all three areas.
Luckily I returned after both breakdowns to resume teaching. Perhaps mistakenly but I knew no other way to earn my living. No-one suggested the stress could make me ill again. There were no CPNs (Community Psychiatric Nurses) visiting me at home, no day centres to offer occupational activities, no home visits from the GP. There was just one follow up Out Patient appointment six weeks after discharge. Five minutes to say if I was feeling better. No advice, my only medication a mixture of anti-depressants and Lithium.
I look back in horror at a NHS mental health system that was so lacking in care and information. No-one sat me down and explained what manic depression was so I continued a rather frenetic lifestyle, working late at night marking assignments, planning lessons and writing. I failed abysmally to nurture my inner self, take care of myself properly or do my relaxation exercises – these were the only technique used at my hospital. Once home I had no tape to use although after the second breakdown I was given one but using it was impossible as my husband objected to me shutting myself away in solitude and quiet. I still smoked 20 cigarettes a day and drank more than I should. I had not conquered the essence of a healthy diet and when I did take longer shopping one week when I decided to read all the labels and consult a healthy eating magazine my longer than usual absence was criticised.
In the end my proactive nature saved me. I scoured bookshops for books on depression – the internet was in its infancy – and spent hours walking my dog trying to work out what had gone wrong in my life. It was hard work but I learnt a good deal. I read much and used exercises in the books such as making a list of five things to do each day that I would enjoy. I did crosswords, took up knitting and began writing a diary.
I was, in effect, my own therapist and in the end that is what we all have to be. Recovery has to come from us. No-one can do it for us. But when everything in your head and body is broken and your world is in a state of upheaval, it is practically impossible to take action. Only those who have suffered clinical depression understand how hard it is to drag yourself out of the mire.
I did emerge from the dark place and the mire gradually became a clear calm lake on which I could sail my boat of life. I hope to write about those dark days and how I brought myself back to the land of the living. It won’t do me much good but it may help others.
A card from a true friend contained the following phrase which I try to remember when the clouds darken my mind from time to time. She wrote ‘you will soon be back in the swing of things’.
And I was.