I always thought I knew what depression was. Then, one day, it turned my life upside down.
A therapist once told me she believed I’ve suffered from a mild-grade depression since I was a young child. I don’t know about that, but I don’t disagree with her. All I know is that I was a very messed-up teenager. I binge-drank, I abused drugs, and I self-harmed. Razorblades and cigarette burns were my thing, and the scars still adorn my body today. I smoked cannabis pretty much every day from the age of about 16 until about 23. Not just casually, but heavily. People will have their own views on that, but at the time, it was the only way I felt I could cope with life. Self-medicating? Definitely. But when I was stoned, I didn’t self-harm anywhere near as much. The consequence of doing so, however, probably contribute to my mental state now, I know that. I don’t regret doing it though, because without it, I may very well not be here now.
It was at the age of 25 that I found out that everything I thought I knew about depression was wrong.
I left the house to go to work one day. As I walked up the garden path, I suddenly began vomiting. I rang in sick and went back to bed, thinking it was just a result of the previous nights’ drinking. It was nearly two months before I would get back to work.
One day turned into two; three days turned into a week. Every day I found it harder to wake up. My energy levels were depleting rapidly. I struggled to get out of bed, I struggled to stay awake, even talking to people seemed to use a ridiculous amount of energy. I went to the doctors, who suggested I was burnt out from work. That made sense, I thought: I had been working a lot of overtime in a stressful job, and it got too much. I just need a week or so off to relax. Except I’d just had a week’s holiday before this happened, and with this illness, it was now two weeks and counting.
The doctors ran tests; blood tests, diabetes tests, heart-rate tests, but everything came back normal. I was starting to get terrified, and I did what nobody should ever do: I researched symptoms on the internet. Needless to say, it didn’t help.
All the time, I was getting weaker and more scared. One day it took me a full five minutes just to open a freezer door; another day I missed a doctor’s appointment because the thought of walking out of my bedroom was utterly terrifying. There was a decorator working downstairs, and I worked myself into such a state that I was literally hiding in terror under my quilt until he finished.
Eventually, after a long chat with the Nurse Practitioner at my local doctor’s office, she said she felt I was suffering from depression. She gave me one of the little questionnaires they have, and I scored ridiculously high. She prescribed me Citalopram, and said this would help. Unfortunately, she was wrong.
Over the next few weeks, I felt like I was legitimately going insane. Throughout the days, the Citalopram detached me from everything. It felt like my mind was a step behind my body, and everything felt almost dream-like, but not in a nice way. I’d look in the mirror, and all I’d see was a gaunt, drugged-up shell of a man. I didn’t recognise myself. Yet the days were a blessing compared to the nights.
I’d lie in bed at night, unable to sleep, for what seemed like days on end. I’d have thoughts so dark, so obtrusive, that I didn’t even think it could be my own mind. Not just suicidal thoughts, but worse. The thoughts of suicide were, in a strange way, a blessing. They were the only thing that made me feel like I had an escape from the madness I felt I was descending into. It was the thoughts that I’d stay alive, that I was going insane, that I was going to be committed, they were the thoughts that terrified me. At times it felt like I was schizophrenic; my thinking patterns seemed so alien to me that it felt like it was someone else’s thoughts. I had been warned that the Citalopram could take up to 6 weeks to work, so I persevered, but only because I was terrified of how much worse I would be off the tablets.
It all culminated one night when I came downstairs for a cigarette. I went to the kitchen door, where I was overcome by the strongest urge. It had been 7 years since I had self-harmed at this point, but suddenly, it was the only thing that made any sense to me. I had to feel something real. I had to know I was still alive, that I wasn’t caught in some nightmare.
I picked up a knife. Slowly and deliberately, I cut into my left forearm. Not too deep, never too deep. It was never about scarring or injury with me. It was about the blood. Seeing the blood flowing again, I felt calm, for the first time in weeks. So I cut again. And again. And again. Before I knew it, both my arms were completely covered in cuts, from forearm to shoulder. Blood was on the kitchen floor. If my Mam or stepdad had come downstairs, it would have been horrific for them, and I’m so glad they didn’t. Yet amidst all the chaos, I felt relaxed, at peace. It was a nice feeling.
After smoking a few cigarettes, I realised that what was going on was pretty messed-up. Despite feeling insane, I knew what normal was to other people, and the scene in my kitchen wasn’t it. I telephoned a friend, a man I barely talk to nowadays, but the best friend I’ve ever had in my life. At 3.30am, despite starting work at 6am, he drove into town and sat with me, talked to me. He probably kept me alive that evening, and for that, I’ll be eternally grateful. As I sat in his car, bleeding everywhere, he was freaked out. But still, I felt calm.
You see, when you are a depressive, you become a master of deception. I knew what to say, how to act around people, to hide my thinking. But I had made my mind up. I’d had enough of fighting. I wanted the calm. I wanted peace, at last, before insanity took me over forever. I wanted to end my life.
This is the scariest thing about depression. People say people who take their lives are selfish. I’ve said it myself; at times I get irate over suicides. The truth is, when you are afflicted, it isn’t about dying. It’s about ending the madness, and having no other idea how to do it.
The thoughts occupying my mind were overwhelming. My brother had just had a baby, and I believed “if I stay around, I’ll mess her life up, just like I mess everyone’s life up”. I felt that I was too much of a burden to those closest to me, and I couldn’t bear to put my niece through the agony and torture of knowing me. My thoughts convinced me that she, and everyone else, was better off without me. I knew they’d be sad, but I felt they’d get over it, and after the sadness would come relief, that they would be glad that at least I couldn’t hurt them more than I already had.
But then, something incredible happened. My niece had been born with health problems, and without going into detail, she needed a serious operation. Except she fought. She fought, and fought, and fought some more. To everyone’s astonishment, she fought to a degree where she didn’t need an operation. When I cradled her, and looked into her eyes, something changed. I made a silent promise, to both Daisy and myself, that I would fight like she had, that I would overcome my mental illness, just like she was overcoming her physical illness.
I went home, and I threw away the Citalopram. My logic, and I still believe it now, is that anything that makes you feel like you are losing your mind is never going to help. Over the next few weeks, things started getting better. I agreed with the Nurse Practitioner to try Fluoxetine, or, as it is more commonly known, Prozac. The difference was startling. Rather than making me feel insane, it slowly started to lift the dream-like state I’d been walking around in. It wasn’t easy, but I fought. I took to writing things in a notebook, and carrying it everywhere; little phrases like “you’re going to be OK Andrew” or “Remember, you ARE getting better”. Finally, after 2 months of hell, I felt strong enough to return to work.
It wasn’t all a bed of roses; for the next six months it was extremely hard. I felt like I had to re-learn a job I’d been doing for four years. I didn’t know how to talk to my colleagues, and I suffered from panic attacks on a regular basis. I had to take days off from time to time, and when I was there, it felt like everyone was talking about me, especially with the panic attacks, and with leaving halfway through shifts. I was lucky that my manager was so supportive, for all his faults, without him I doubt I would have a job, and for that I’ll be eternally grateful to him. It was so hard, but I made it.
I don’t know what I feel about religion, heaven and hell, all that spiritual stuff. I probably never will know how I feel about it. There is, however, one thing I believe in, and that is Guardian Angels. Throughout my nightmare, the one thing that kept me fighting was my niece, Daisy Willow. At just days, weeks old, she served as an inspiration. I promised her that however hard things got for me, I’d keep fighting, just like she did, and I have.
Two years on, I’m still on Fluoxetine. I’ve come off it a couple of times, and it wasn’t good. One day, I’d like to be off it, but if I never am, I don’t really mind. Over the last month or two, I’ve felt like I was getting ill again, but I think I’ve got through OK. I’m not the best at handling stress, or pressure. I’m terrified of getting ill again. I over-react sometimes. But I’m still here. However many mistakes I’ve made, I’m still here. That, in itself, is worth celebrating.
I made a promise to a new-born baby girl, a promise that I’d never give up. I’m going to keep that promise, no matter what.
Originally published August 30, 2012