Every day, I decide not to die
Suicide isn’t painless
It hurts like Hell
It’s set aside for the famous
A little suicide sells
(Carter USM — 1993)
Every day, and several times, I decide not to die.
What a shitty way to start a story.
I apologise (as is my way) from the start. This isn’t a wild, roller-coaster of a story, it’s not very cleverly written, it won’t be unduly bothering the Pulitzer judges, but it is entirely honest, and (I hope) perhaps a little bit helpful to other people.
I can’t think of anything more worthwhile in life than being “a bit helpful”. Perhaps “a LOT helpful”, but we all have to start somewhere.
It turns out I’ve had “Depression” since I was 9 or 10, or maybe earlier. I didn’t know this until I was 44 and finding out was entirely down to the honesty and openness of my amazing, brave friend Emma.
Before I read her blog, I assumed everyone felt like I do, but that I was simply not very good at “being”. Being a Dad, being a husband, being an employee, being a son, being a brother — I was just a bit rubbish at being a human. I assumed that EVERYONE felt like I did, but just dealt with it properly and weren’t such idiots about the whole thing.
My therapist is convinced it’s down to going to boarding school aged 9, and maybe she’s right, but I don’t remember a time BEFORE feeling like this.
Surely, I should have been as giddy as hell when the new Star Wars film came out, or at the release of the new Madness album (IRONY, yes, I know — piss off). I remember my friends being really happy, and being happy for them, but I don’t ever remember being (what other people described as) “happy”.
I adore my children, I (literally) live for them, but even at their births, I don’t recognise this “happy” emotion that other people describe.
That’s not to say my kids aren’t my world — they absolutely are — my only ever ambition has been to be a GOOD Dad (“adequate” or “good enough” never even figured in my plans). I inherited another son when he was 8 (and I was 37) and that only increased my ambition to never let them down — my boys (alongside my wife) are my world.
I only say this to register that, as it turns out, I don’t know what “happy” means. I’m some sort of 48yr old emotional degenerate.
Depression means you’re a selfish twat.
I’m sure it’s not politically correct (or even technically correct), but it sure as shit feels that way. I spend a ridiculous amount of time every day, revving myself up to do the simplest of tasks. And then I get onto a roll of “life-or-death-Vitally-Important-Tasks” for which meals, human interaction and rational thought will simply have to wait.
Such Vitally Important Tasks include:
· Sorting out the recycling
· Planning the meals for the day (for everyone, whether they like it or not)
· Cleaning up the dog-poo from the garden
· Painting that tiny bit of the shed that no-one else in their right-mind would notice
· Emptying the dishwasher, the moment it finishes a cycle
· Ensuring all the socks in the laundry are paired. And the right way out.
I am well aware that all of these Vitally Important Tasks are just distractions from thinking too hard, but I have been creating lists of things like this in my head since early childhood, and, in a way, this may mean I invented CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
I should sue for intellectual theft.
It also, for me*, means that every morning I wake up and have to decide “Not Today”. Or at least “Not right now”. I think you know what I mean, but to be clear “not today” means “not dying today”, not “doing something stupid” as I find myself calling it.
As a Husband and Father, that’s pretty bloody selfish. Who the hell am I to choose to tear apart (or not) the lives of my family? I have a duty to maintain their welfare, their mental health, their status quo**. That means that my thoughts, worries and mental health (and rightly so) are way less important than theirs. What makes that certainty slightly less, well, certain, is therapy. After a lifetime of knowing, in a very fundamental way, that you are less intrinsically important than pretty much everyone else in your world, it feels pretty bloody awkward to process phrases like “You have value” and “You matter”.
To me, I have only mattered insofar as I am useful to someone, or it would upset someone if I weren’t around. My way around this has always been my self-created version of CBT.
If you don’t know (insultingly simplistic description alert), CBT essentially teaches the average non-functioning depressive how to function. It offers a toolkit to get out of bed, to sort the children out and to (most importantly) “NOT DO SOMETHING STUPID”.
If depression or anxiety are new things for you, CBT is amazing — a practical guide to getting through your “episode”***. However, CBT isn’t a “cure”, it’s a practical way round the immediate issue, not a longer-term solution to the underlying problem.
*I can’t stress enough, how much this is just the contents of MY ridiculous head, and not the results of some pointy-headed research
** Get down. Deeper and down
***Yes, it does sound like a soap opera. And my god it often feels like one. Probably Eastenders, given the appallingly bad lighting they insist on.
The Rise of The Karens
The side effect, though, of this CBT-way of looking at the world is “Anxiety” — the other biggest mental-health issue of our time. If you were horrified about something 20 years ago, that was probably the start of a national pressure group. Nowadays it’s a post on Twitter or Facebook that no-one will read.
As I’m sure you know, the “Karen” meme looms large on every social media platform. “Karens” are self-righteous (probably white, middle-class) know-it-alls, easily identifiable by their love of “Live, Laugh, Love”* posters on their walls and their “I’d like to speak to the manager” haircuts. Karens are always anxious, because Karens are scared of and offended by everything.
Karens have “anxiety”. Karens are very keen that EVERYONE KNOWS they suffer from anxiety.
Sadly, this means that EVERYONE has anxiety, and by default, your anxiety is less real than everyone else’s. If you don’t remember the famous Monty Python clip of professional Yorkshiremen competing over their progressively hideous childhoods here’s a reminder:
Despite the fact that it’s now more acceptable to discuss Mental Health, this “Karen” phenomenon means that Anxiety and (to a lesser extent) Depression still seem, to many people, to be virtue signals — expressions of how “real” your life is.
This is often a good reason why many of us don’t dare speak about this honestly. There are LOADS more reasons of course, and I’ll come onto them later, but for now, let’s talk about “It’s Popular, So It’s Probably Bullshit”.
I don’t exempt myself from this judgmental worldview by any means. I’m nothing if not an enormously hypocritical prick.
When my amazing friend Emma was shockingly honest on social media about her own mental-health struggles and suicide near misses, my first reaction was (shamefully) “Oh for goodness sake Emma, EVERYONE feels like that, stop being self-indulgent.”
My second reaction was: “Hang on. Emma is intelligent, super-successful and has an amazing daughter, if SHE could be depressed, maybe this isn’t an “It’s Popular, So It’s Probably Bullshit” scenario.
Maybe I should take this [https://patient.info/doctor/patient-health-questionnaire-phq-9 ] test.
I did. It turns out that it’s not always a good thing to get high marks on a test.
* See also: “Is it Wine-o’clock yet?” or “A year from now you may wish you had started today!” [shudder]
So, you’re a Mental. What now?
I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s (although admittedly I was pretty childish in the 90’s too). That meant I had certain stereotypes in-built, despite the best intentions of family and more progressive media:
1) A man provides for his family
2) Boys don’t cry (even Robert Smith said so)
3) Crazy, mental, retarded, weird, psycho, slasher, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers are all the same thing.
4) Admitting weakness is inviting trouble.
5) Different is wrong
6) Loonies end up in an asylum
7) Or they have a lobotomy
With that background, it’s probably not that surprising that recognising your own mental-health problems is a little tricky.
I’d always assumed that EVERYONE had to count to ten before getting out of the car, or ringing a doorbell, or picking up the phone. To find out that I was unusual in this was unsettling to say the least.
How could the rest of the world just casually walk into work without a deep breath and worrying about sweating so much people would notice? Surely this was just some touchy-feely, daytime TV rubbish. A scam to make us all meditate or buy quinoa*.
Coincidentally I had actually worked in daytime TV for a fair while, so I could easily imagine the “IT’S MENTAL HEALTH AND QUINOA* WEEK” press releases being leapt upon to fill the airtime and make us all feel inadequate. Perhaps this was all a big push by “Big-Pharma” to get us hooked on Prozac and compliant to the government…
At this point, I realised my reasoning “why not” was WAY more outlandish than my “hmm, maybe this is true” reasoning.
After a properly difficult talk with my wife (who said “Thank god. I thought you were just a dickhead”), I went to see the GP and manfully, decisively said:
“Hi, are you OK? What a long queue in the waiting room! I bet you’re run off your feet. And at this time of year too, with all the flu around and everything, I bet you get loads of time-wasters — haha! So, yes, right, the reason I just popped in today was (and I’m sure I’m being silly) is, well I did this online test thingy. I don’t want to waste your time and I know how busy you are, sorry, for being silly, but it seemed to say I should urgently seek professional help! Haha! I know, really silly, right? Sorry.
So silly — I’m sure it’s rubbish — 24 out of 27 — I mean, surely that can’t be right?”
The GP was lovely and calm, but quite insistent. I needed to start these tablets right away, and I needed to sign up for the NHS “wellness” programme. It was quite important. And I should tell my wife about it.
I walked out of the surgery, next door to the pharmacy and arrived home with a handful of medication, a website to sign up to and LOT of explaining to do.
*pronounced “KEEN-WAAR” for god’s sake. I mean. Seriously?
At home with a mentalist
By this point my wife had worked out I was a medically recognised idiot rather than your common or garden arse-wit. This was a good thing in one way, but it meant that pretty much every issue was because I was (you know) depressed. Apparently for a little while you have to say it like that: “depressed”. As if GCHQ or the CIA might be listening in*.
At that point, my boys were 15, 12 and 10 — we were dealing with yet another coercive-control court case from my ex-wife and having to move to a new house with a month’s notice all at the same time. This was clearly not the right moment to open up to the children. Equally, my wife couldn’t be expected to keep this as some sort of secret or bear this kind of revelation on her own.
I did a lot of Googling and worked out that, whilst waiting to get on the NHS “wellness” programme (about 6 months), I could try various free online apps such as Headspace or Calm. I did my best to follow the meditation courses they offered, but I was just so tired, I would usually find I’d been asleep for an hour rather than studiously meditating.
Apparently that’s not a normal thing either — being constantly exhausted. Who knew? I just assumed that everyone with children could fall asleep within 10 seconds of siting somewhere quiet.
The next bit took me a while: telling my parents.
I adore my mum and dad. They gave up so much for us children and gave us nothing but love, kindness and attention. I’m sure we were proper little shits, but they never seemed to struggle with 4 children.
The thought of telling my parents that their eldest child was a mental who considered dying every day “normal” really wasn’t an easy one. In the end I invited my parents for dinner and just blurted it out.
Well. I say, “blurted it out”, but I mean, “mumbled something so vague it neither helped nor really explained the current situation”.
A few weeks later, I talked about it properly with my mum and attempted to dissuade her from the idea that it was all her fault. We went for a drink at a pub near her house and after very Britishly skirting the issue for 10 minutes, we started.
“Yes, I do very often want everything to stop. No, that doesn’t mean I actively want to die. Yes, I am disappointed when I wake up most mornings. No, I’ve never tried to do anything “stupid”. Yes, I know I should speak to a therapist. No, the children don’t know.”
Like most parents, my Mum’s initial reaction was to blame herself and my childhood, we joked about the Philip Larkin poem “This Be The Verse”**, but I have always had a loving, supportive family. We don’t fall out, we’re not judgey of each other, and even though we don’t see each other as much as we’d like these days, I’ve always had a great family life.
Then Mum mentioned boarding school. I brushed it off at the time, saying I thought I’d ALWAYS been like this, but I’ve looked into it since, and she might well have been onto something.
*Clearly, they ARE via their cuddly personae “Alexa” and “Siri”, but they probably don’t give a shite in this case.
** They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Boarding school syndrome
I was sent to boarding school for absolutely the best reasons. We had moved to Bahrain when I was 9 and part of the deal with my Dad’s new job there was that the company would pay for any children to go to school in England.
It felt like quite an honour and I knew that this wasn’t something that everyone got to do.
With hindsight, I should have noted the phrase “I was SENT”. It’s a phrase still used nowadays as if that’s normal. Seriously — who “sends” their child anywhere unless it’s a punishment. You don’t “send” your child to Nursery or Primary School, do you? They go there for a few hours and come home again, and you always TAKE them.
Obviously no 9 year-old CHOOSES to leave their family unless “home” isn’t a safe place.
I had read “Jennings” books and Molesworth / St.Trinnian’s cartoons. Boarding school seemed a right laugh, all Midnight Feasts and rebelling against the teachers.
The reality was homesickness, a lack of central heating, old-fashioned iron beds with sheets and blankets, unnecessarily complicated rules, isolation and bullying on an institutional scale.
Of course then (as now), the received wisdom was that admitting you didn’t like this was “ungrateful”, “weak” and “selfish”. Your parents (or your parents’ boss in my case) had paid a lot of money for you to be educated in the TRADITIONAL ENGLISH WAY, so you you’d better bloody-well appreciate it.
As standard (I assume), we had our fair share of Paedophiles and sadists working at the school. The sadists were largely the harmless It-Never-Did-Me-Any-Harm type of Real Men who alternated between terrifying or scoffing at young children who didn’t face physical adversity as if they were members of the S.A.S.
The Paedophiles were marginally more subtle. A middle-aged man “keeping an eye on you” in the shower to make sure you were “washing everywhere” seemed perfectly normal at the time. But even we 10-year-olds knew it wasn’t right that Mr Dawson came into the dormitory one night and fiddled with Andrew whilst he froze in terror in his bed and pretended to be asleep.
Of course, the police weren’t called. Social services never heard of it.
Mr. Dawson quietly left the school the next day, and a half-hearted letter was sent to parents explaining away “behaviour” that Mr. Dawson couldn’t account for. I imagine he simply went to work at another school and carried on being a Scoutmaster. The internet isn’t the easiest place to research early-80’s paedo-teachers.
By comparison with some of the horror-stories out there, this probably sounds a bit of a pathetic whinge. After all, I only had to deal with corporal punishment a few times, and by the time I attended the school, teachers hurling wooden board-rubbers and sticks of chalk at young children was beginning to be discouraged.
Still — nearly 40 years later, I can’t hear the song “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners (the soundtrack to my first term boarding), without welling up and regretting I wasn’t stronger in asking to come home to a normal family life.
But that’s the thing about what Dr Joy Schaverien calls Boarding School Syndrome (BSS) — people dealing with it didn’t (and still don’t) dare to complain, because they were “privileged” to go to such a school. It’s like complaining that your caviar wasn’t quite as good as it should have been. And yet, would YOU send your 9yr old child away from the family home, to live with strangers for more time than he or she lived at home?
Would you brush off tales of bullying, abuse and paedophilia as “over-exaggerated” or even “character-building”?
Apparently, the commonest experiences of going to boarding school at a young age are*:
- Unable to cry — no-one to cry to
- Unable to share feelings — No one in authority has the time or interest to sit with you. No one asks “So, how was your day”
- Have learnt to cope alone
- Constantly seeking companionship/love/approval
- Boarding school not only deprived me of love, creativity, self-esteem, etc….it left me in a permanent trap
- Have not experienced love or care
- Where’s Home?
- Fit in everywhere — but belong nowhere
- Always busy. Don’t know ‘relaxed’
- Live by structure
- Tendency to shut down if there are any emotional problems
- It either screws you up or toughens you up
- Resented being ‘got rid of’ to boarding school
- Was it my fault?
- Is something wrong with me?
- Don’t they love me?
- Lifetime avoidance of groups
- Lack of privacy or private space. One tuck box, one bedside table to call yours
I easily identify with 12 of the 18 points above, and I consider myself to have got off lightly.
Symptoms of BSS itself include:
- low self-esteem
- drugs and alcohol misuse and other addictions
- relationship issues — can only identify love towards own children
- obsessive behaviour
- a need to control
Full house on those ones at one time or another in my life.
The weird thing about Boarding School, is that both the people who liked it, and those of us who hated it have a similar reaction: “It made me the man I am today”.
Sadly, “…the man I am today” isn’t always a positive outcome for everyone.
* Source: Boarding school syndrome: The symptoms and long-term psychological effects
What “Depression” feels like
I had a bit of a revelation today. I think I know how to describe how “depression” feels (or at least how it feels to me).
I don’t for a second pretend to speak for anyone else here, but I had a moment of clarity, so (god-dammit) you lucky buggers get to share the wisdom of my “moment”.
I know. Don’t crowd me, fans.
It had been a busy Saturday, so I had a sneaky middle-aged afternoon nap for what I assumed would be about 20 minutes but was actually the best part of an hour. During that time, my youngest came and gave me a cuddle goodbye before his mum picked him up. I was so dozy I couldn’t wake up to say goodbye properly — just gave him a half-asleep cuddle, a kiss and said I was looking forward to seeing him the day after tomorrow.
My wife came in 10 minutes later. Feeling stupid, I jumped up from the bed and said I was still coming to M&S as planned.
It may have SOUNDED more like “YEH-course-noproblem-YEH-right-jus-gimme-a-sec-mumblemumble”, but I definitely said, “Yes of course darling, let’s go.”.
Anyway. As we got out of the car 10 minutes later, into the half-empty M&S car park, I recognised the all-consuming feeling, but for once it certainly wasn’t low mood.
This was the result of dozing off and trying to jump back into sensible activity without waking up properly, but weirdly (via a moment of uncharacteristic clarity), I realised that this was precisely the way “depression” feels.
· Like I could cry any second
· Achy, like every muscle hated me
· Half-asleep, almost as if I was still dreaming
· Heavy — every step and small movement seemed a supreme effort.
· Like I would have paid money to be allowed to sleep again
· Guilty for having fallen asleep
· Guilty that I hadn’t said a proper goodbye to my son
· Stupid for feeling these feelings
· Self-indulgent for noticing I felt like this
· Selfish for taking the time to have had a nap in the first place
· Guilty for feeling like that
· Stupid for feeling guilty
Writing it down, it seems like a lot, but I think that’s pretty accurate.
Most days I have times when I feel like this, there’s rarely any warning, and I haven’t worked out yet what all the triggers for it are. Obviously, the details are different every time, but the consistent elements are the sudden exhaustion, the guilt, the feeling stupid, self-indulgent and selfish, and the general weird, confusing “fog” where my brain refuses to play ball.
I get the impression that when people talk about “depression” they mean “feeling sad” or “hopeless”, and there is definitely an element of that running through this for me, but it’s way more complicated and annoying than that.
Like I said before (and I have apologised to her for this), when Emma wrote about depression and suicidal thoughts, I thought she was being a drama-queen. I thought that EVERYONE felt like this, and that those of us who even noticed it, or were (god forbid) affected by it like me were just weak losers who needed to get a grip, stop being so lazy and work harder.
I really was QUITE the prick.
Anyway. That’s what it feels like. This isn’t a “poor-me-aren’t-I-a-special-delicate-flower” thing, just a realisation that you can understand a bit of the physical feeling of depression if you’ve ever woken up and started doing things too quickly.
Imagine if you dozed off at your desk after lunch, your boss came in and you had to immediately bluff your way through the presentation you’d fallen asleep whilst writing.
A bit like that, a few times a day. Not dramatic, not exciting, but REALLY bloody annoying when it happens
This bit is pretty dark. Look away if you don’t fancy it — I’d understand, because I would too.
When you’re a selfish arsehole, or a lovely person in the grip of your ridiculous brain, it Is apparently (based on what I’ve read), entirely normal to think about ways you’d like to die.
I’m deliberately avoiding phrases like “kill yourself” or “take your own life” in case both are pejorative or self-indulgent victim-blaming,
“Suicide Options” somehow seems like a more “academic” way to think about this.
Clearly I only know a few proper Depressives personally, and I have only read a tiny fraction of the personal stories out there on the internet.
The basic formula is:
An extended period of mental suffering + opportunity + a trigger = Suicide
[1 week later].
Sorry for having to disappear just then. This is a tough one to talk about.
These are the obvious options that we all see on the TV or in films:
· Self-harm (knife/gun/walking-into-traffic)
· Jumping from a height
Of course, the problem with these, and pretty much any other method is you are inherently being in a selfish arsehole. Someone (quite likely your kids or your other half) has to find your body.
How could I or anyone else do that to another person?
Because that’s what suicide is. The ultimate act of selfishness.
For me, and I guess a lot of other selfish arsehole depressives, we’d love to simply die in our sleep. Ideally, we’d know that, say, on Thursday night, you will have a massive, fatal medical incident in your sleep and simply never wake up.
However, the fact that this way out involves no violence or danger to others doesn’t make it any less selfish. I mean, can you imagine waking up next to the corpse of your loved one? Or, as a child, coming into your parent’s bedroom in the morning only to realise your Dad was dead?
Perhaps the knock on the door from a grim-faced police-officer would be actually be easier.
The Carter USM quote I put at the start of this is particularly relevant for this section:
“Suicide isn’t painless
It hurts like Hell”
Obviously, the “…hurts like Hell…” bit doesn’t refer to the dead person, but those left behind.
Apparently, they describe any suicide like a “Suicide Bomb”, in that there is a “blast-zone”. The people closest to the dead person are the hardest hit, but the blast affects everyone they know in the same devastating way a bomb-blast radiates outwards.
So maybe the old joke: “Anxiety — Preventing Suicide since 7500 B.C.” isn’t that far off, for depressives with people they care about at least.
The thing is, (and just one of the many, boringly exhausting things that Depression involves) — I have to make the decision not to “do something stupid” every day, often several times a day. For the majority of my life, I assumed that everyone had to pull themselves away from the edge of tall buildings or fight the urge to drive straight into a wall. It turns out that most people don’t have that.
Other people can just get on with their day.
This means that I am the weirdo. It’s my brain that’s not working quite right.
Unfortunately, it turns out that there isn’t a System Upgrade you can do for your brain. I’m all too aware that the government (as befits their desire to de-fund the NHS) want CBT to be the answer to everything, but as mentioned above, CBT isn’t a solution, more of a work-around.
How to move on
So no more tears
You’re a big boy now
We’ll have a few more beers
We’ll sort it out somehow
(Carter USM — 1993)
This brings us up to date, and, in short, I have no idea how this ends, but I’m working on it.
I’m on my 3rd type of therapy at the moment — I know therapists hate to have their style of working “labelled” or “categorised”, but for the benefit of anyone reading this, I know I have done some Inter-Personal Therapy (IPT), Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and I’m pretty sure what I’m doing at the moment is a type of Psychodynamic Therapy.
To make any progress towards fixing my stupid brain, all I can do is stick with one method and see how it goes. It might well seem a little bit “trial and error”, but I’m not sure there is any other way.
Whilst we are making great progress, we know so little about the way the human brain works that it makes me think of an engineer from the Manchester Baby computer trying to de-bug a Macbook Pro. Perhaps then it is no surprise that a “cure” for Depression or any other mental illness still seems so far off.
I might never be “fixed”. I might never find out what “happy” feels like, but in the meantime, I have a goal to aim at, a (trial and error) method to follow and more than enough motivation to not give up, in the shape of my family and friends.
For now all I can do is apologise to and offer huge thanks to:
· My wife for, well, everything.
· Emma for opening my eyes and being my friend.
· My family for not freaking out
· The NHS for existing and allowing non-rich people some hope.
· My therapist(s) for their skill and professionalism
· The internet for allowing me to obsessively research and make me feel like I’m doing something.
And to you, for reading this crap. Hopefully it might be helpful to someone you know. If not, then sorry. I’m afraid you’re just not getting back the time it took to read this.