Recently I read on Facebook that the eldest daughter of a friend was getting married. I was totally thrown off track by the realisation that the only time I had met the daughter was when she was a baby, yet now in her twenties, she’s to be wed.
It’s not an issue of whether my friend and I not keeping in contact. She was a close friend with whom I had travelled the world (a long time ago), followed shortly after when I was one of her bridesmaids. It’s funny how you can be so involved in each other’s lives and then? Well, then, Cate took a dive into a very thick and murky depression (along with a few other things that sent us in different directions).
I pushed people away. I didn’t appreciate the advice some tried to give me, and I took it to mean that I was being judged for an illness that must be my own fault.
I was in my own world now. I had disappeared from my late twenties. I had dropped off a cliff somewhere, landing at what I never knew was rock bottom (or would I fall yet further?).
I had literally turned to skin and bone, and so social occasions around meals were something I did my best to avoid. The idea of eating with other people (watching me) was enough to send me into a panic attack. “Meeting up for coffee or maybe brunch” was something I refused to be a part of at a time when even the milk in my cappuccino was too much for me. The world had taken up socialising around food and drink, but Cate couldn’t cope!
Many years of self sabotage, followed by years treatment and therapy…
Time has gone on…
And suddenly I find myself 25 years on, when Lucy is getting married (how can this be?) and M is going to be a mother-of-the-bride. Let’s also not forget that S has been a grandmother for a year and the lives of my friends have moved on…
Can you see what has happened? I was 28. My life was ahead of me. It was a time when everyone ‘knew’ that some day you’d be “married with kids”
And now, 25 years on, I’m not married with kids. The closest I have to a child is a much-loved cat, Hobbes. Life didn’t turn out as anyone expected.
It’s really weird to pop your head up for air and find that you’re middle-aged. Everyone else has aged too, but for them their lifespan went on. For me, my life halted before abruptly coming up at 50.
There was never the plan in my mind that I would have children. There were lots of reasons for that, and I just knew it wouldn’t be a good idea. This post is not about regret, because there isn’t regret. What there is, is what I will call life-cycle shock.
The life-cycle for my twenties friends has gone on as it should. But I fell off this darn cliff called mental illness and 25 years of my life just vanished. I’m still a 28-year-old at heart and at mind. My life has taken a different route and while fifteen years ago I couldn’t contribute to the kids’ achievement discussion that my twenties friends were now having, now I have no means of contributing to the comparisons of the grand-kids. Actually, at this point, I am probably better to go outside and catch up with the dog!
I can’t compare photos because you simply don’t take photos when you’re depressed and/or have severe mental illness. Okay, so that might be too much of a generalisation, but look at it this way: you don’t have those family occasions like graduations, engagements, marriages, and births.
I did manage one of those with a graduation, but I didn’t attend the ceremony, didn’t celebrate… and I didn’t have anyone take my photo. That was too much as I was barely hanging on at the time.
When you come up for air 25 years on, you have to expect that it will be different. You know that friends have moved on but, but how do you fit in? Anywhere.
It’s just beyond me to get my head around ‘baby’ Lucy is now to be a bride. Congratulations anyway, Lucy! I am really happy for you.
If you’re like me, you’ll struggle to find the word. You might just hit a blank, and not for the life of you be able to come up with the word you want, or maybe you might blurt out a completely different word than the one you intended. Where did that come from?
It’s called brain fog. Or cognitive dysfunction. Or cognitive impairment. Maybe specific to your illness, it might be fibro(myalgia) fog or maybe chemo(therapy) fog. I’m sure there are others related to other illnesses. I battle with brain fog thanks to two chronic illnesses (fibromyalgia and Graves’ Disease).
They said it might be a problem when I have a flare of my fibro, but actually, it is a constant for me.
I used to be paid to talk. I was employed to train people how to be managers, and so I was either in front of a classroom, talking all day, or other days I might be on the telephone for most of the day planning training programmes. Even outside of my work, I talked. Leading groups.
I spoke fluently, without hesitation. It didn’t worry me whether I was speaking to one person or 200. Much of my speaking was off-the-cuff and I would only have minimal notes to guide me. I was good at this. It was my chosen career until severe mental illness cut me down, but that’s another story.
Now, I struggle to string a sentence together. I stutter, I hesitate, I lose the words I want to use, or completely wrong words come out of my mouth. It doesn’t matter whether I speak to one person or a group, I am constantly battling my brain to come out with the right words at the right time.
I feel like an idiot. I imagine what people must think of me. They would have no idea that I am actually an intelligent person because I really do sound like an idiot.
Worse yet, is speaking to people for whom English is their second language. Most of the staff in the dementia facility where my mother lives are immigrants. My problem is that I struggle so much to say what I want to say, but if they don’t understand me, I have to start all over again. They are trying to guess what I want to say, and I get flustered and my speech gets worse.
I am so frustrated by this today but it is like this every day. My inclination is to isolate myself, so that I don’t have to speak. But I can’t do that. I don’t want to answer the phone and actually fear that it will ring.
This is a constant problem for me. Anxiety is up, so is depression because I am so frustrated with the simple task of speaking. For those who think I should be out there working, I couldn’t work. I couldn’t do my job, because my job is talking. I retrained as a social worker, but wouldn’t manage to do that either. I just constantly stumble over my words. (By the way, there are other substantial barriers to me working, but my speech is just one more invisible problem.)
And that isn’t the Cate I always knew. What the f*ck happened to her?
TRIGGER WARNING:This post is a discussion that may be distressing to some people as it looks at suicide and suicidal thinking. There are no details of suicide and no discussion of methods. If you are distressed and don’t know where to access help, I recommend that you use the resource Befrienders Worldwide to find your local support agencies.
You’d have to be totally without wi-fi not to know that two American celebrities have died by suicide in this past week. I admit I hadn’t heard of one of them, but I still knew that it had happened.
I wonder how it is for their families to see, at least the western world, discussing the tragedies in so much detail. I wonder how it is for their personal friends also trying to grieve their loss with the media looking on so intently.
What about the families and friends of the other people who have died by suicide this past week? I haven’t sought out the statistics of how many people across the world die by suicide each week, but my guess is the number would be alarmingly high. How must it be for those friends and families to watch as the world focusses on only two deaths when every death by suicide is a tragedy for us all.
What about the people across our world who attempted to die by suicide in this past week? Again, that number is too high, whatever it is. While we talk of the celebrities who died by suicide this week, do we know who attempted suicide? Were either our friends or our families one of those who was suffering so much that they lost complete hope and tried to end their lives. That’s a really hard place to be. And what do we do about them?
What about the people we know who might have struggled to hold onto hope this week? Do we know if our family or friends are struggling that way? Do we know if those closest to us, might be thinking they can’t go on any longer? Maybe the struggle is too much and they’re thinking about ending it all. Dying by suicide. Do we know?
What about the people in our lives who live with depression? Do we know who they are? Have we considered reaching out to them, letting them know that they’re not alone? Or do they go on thinking it’s only the celebrities that matter?
What about the people who think they don’t matter? I suspect there are no statistics on this one, but I also suspect that the number would be higher than we might think.
What about the people who live with daily pain, disability and sickness? How do they feel seeing the world focused on two lives? What about them? Do they have enough hope to hold onto and keep fighting? Or have they had enough of their battle, and do they matter to you and me anyway.
There are a lot of questions that I have asked, with the sole purpose of thought. They are the questions I began to ask myself this morning. Where do I fit in amongst those questions, but also where are my friends and family in it? Do I know who in my world is struggling with life, and needs my support? Or do I just go on blithely living in my own world? It’s easier that way if I can ignore the fact that people around me are suffering. But should I? And could I do something to alleviate suffering?
What really worries me is how we get involved in discussing the tragedies of two celebrities who have died by suicide. We (particularly social media) will go on discussing it for maybe a couple more days and then we will be back to ‘normal’.
Back to ignoring the fact that too many people die by suicide every day. And too many people attempt suicide each day but don’t get any support to enable them to grab hold of life again. We ‘pump their stomach’ and send them on their way again. How will that help?
Are we ignoring the numbers of people suffering (and I mean suffering!) from mental illness. Stigma is a ‘great’ thing isn’t it if we can push those people into a corner and then forget about them. Are those people in your or my family? What are we doing to support them in life, or is it easier to let them lie hopelessly in that corner?
I hate that two celebrities died by suicide this week. I wish that we as a world could have reached out and helped them so that they didn’t see suicide as their only option. But we’ve been here before. Celebrities who die by suicide generate chat. But how would it be if we take this chat and turn the tables. Turn the conversation of a couple of days into the action of seeking out and supporting those of our circle who need our help. If we stop talking and reading our screens so avidly, for now, and ask the necessary questions of suicide. I believe we can do something of good.
“There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’ No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.”
It is a dark and lonely place, sat in front of the keyboard, ready to write, knowing not how one’s words will be read, whether they will be read at all, but hoping, maybe, to reach at least one person who also walks alone.
That’s me. I want to share with you something I don’t easily talk about. Something that keeps me restless. Something of which I am ashamed.
Drove the night toward my home The place that I was born, on the lakeside As daylight broke, I saw the earth The trees had burned down to the ground
It was twenty years ago that I stopped drinking. There have been drinks since then, too many, but I finally stopped for good about five years ago when I accepted that one drink was never going to be enough. And no matter how much I drank I would never succeed in what was driving those drinks. I needed to no longer be me.
To cut a long story short, declared an alcholic I turned straight to another addiction. Smoking. Actually it was endorsed by my doctor. And I kept adding addictions as I sought to no longer be me.
I stopped trying to kill myself (to be honest, I’m not sure why) about the time I stopped drinking, but while I might have looked better to anyone looking, I was battling myself so hard that I needed a vice.
I’m not going to tell you what my vices have been. No one knows and it would detract from the point of this post. You see the point is that no one knows. You think you know me well enough to know? You’re wrong. It has all been hidden. From everyone.
Paint yourself a picture Of what you wish you looked like Maybe then they just might Feel an ounce of your pain
Years ago, when I was battling severe depression, my mother used to tell me that I had to tell people how I was because they had a right to know. A sideline is that what she meant was they had a right to know because they were praying for me. That was actually one of the biggest points that put me off Christianity, but like I said, that’s a sideline for another day.
What happened instead, was that I withdrew. Pulled down the covers and hid. If they didn’t know then they couldn’t hurt me by their judgments, their meaningless comments and their complete inability to ‘get it’. Because let’s face it, who does ‘get it’ …unless they’ve been there themselves?
And more important to this post is who gets addiction? Who understands what can drive an addict to destroy themselves trying to achieve some nameless and often unknown goal?
I need(ed) to not be me. I need(ed) to distract myself from what I’m feeling.From the pain within. Maybe even destroy that pain, or just feel better… for a while (in reality, maybe a second).
It’s hard to take courage In a world full of people You can lose sight of it all And the darkness inside you Can make you feel so small
It might seem boring, but the only visible sign of addiction now is my smoking, everything else is truly hidden (but still destructive). Even my smoking, I do alone. I’ve given up telling anyone when I try to give up, because there have been so many attempts. Too many. And now I’m not just ashamed of the need for nicotine, but also of my inability to give it up.
The thing is though, that there are two sides to me. Always. One side wants to give up. That side needs to give up because aside from my health, cigarettes are really expensive in New Zealand and there are other things I could be spending my money on.
But then there is the side of me that wants to smoke. Yes, really. She’s still there, and I know that it is her that stalls the ability to stop. She likes smoking. She likes it when people cast judgment her way. She laughs when her neighbour coughs as she passes. The New Zealand Government wants to do away with smoking by 2025, and she is determined to still be smoking past then. Just because. Because she can.
She wants to stop herself from feeling, stop herself from being …her. She knows there are healthier approaches to life, but she also knows that she can change to a ‘healthier’ addiction but that any addiction can (and will) become unhealthy. She’s stuck on a treadmill. No matter what it is, she will take it to the extreme. Just another addiction. Just another attempt to stop herself from being her.
In this proud land we grew up strong We were wanted all along I was taught to fight, taught to win I never thought I could fail
No fight left or so it seems I am a man whose dreams have all deserted I’ve changed my name, I’ve changed my face But no one wants you when you lose
I never thought this would be me. You don’t even know the worst, but if you’d looked at me 30 years ago, you never would have thought it would be me either.
The short answer is that perhaps this is what trauma does to you. Trauma that keeps repeating, and keeps having you fight not to be you anymore. Because if you can do that, then maybe the trauma will end.
They don’t see the angel
Living in her heart
The good news is, there is an angel living in my heart. Actually, that angel is probably what nearly everybody sees. Because either they’re not looking, they see only what they want to see, or I don’t want them to see. Shame drives it all.
That angel wants to conquer her demons addictions. But it’s hard when shame pulls the curtains. Recently I metaphorically fell on a programme available in my area to help my angel conquer those addictions. All I have to do is go, at the appointed time. Tuesday at 6pm.
That’s not hard, is it? But it is. Three Tuesdays at 6pm have passed since I found the programme and I can’t get myself there. I can’t get there because I’m scared. The anxiety is enormous. There are too many “what if’s” and “yes, but’s”. Every Tuesday (so far) I choose to not go (because I know it is a choice) and choose to stay with my addictions. There is a fierce battle going on inside of me. I need the help but I just can’t quite do it. Yet.
So don’t be afraid to let them show Your true colors True colors are beautiful Like a rainbow
I admit to being a reluctant participant. While I understood the principle of mindfulness, I had no desire to make it part of my life. I know, I’m not meant to say that. But I have.
Maybe it was the fact that it was recommended to me by so many people in so many places. It would help my depression. It would help with anxiety. It would definitely help my Borderline Personality traits and would help my dissociative disorder. On and on have been the recommendations. Apparently it would help with almost any disorder. Don’t get me started on how mindfulness was meant to help with chronic pain. The only thing was that if someone recommended something to help me, I was more than likely to do the opposite.
It’s not that I didn’t want help. I just pushed away the help that came my way. There have been too many recommendations from all types of quarters from my (ex) mother-in-law to the best of psychotherapists, psychiatrists and pain specialists. Most things recommended actually didn’t work. Some have actually caused me more harm rather than good. I just didn’t want to know anymore.
So any time someone mentioned mindfulness or a programme including aspects of mindfulness I just gave a non-committal answer and quietly backed away. I didn’t want to know. That was until recently.
Before I go on, it’s important to clarify just what I’m talking about when I say mindfulness. So here’s a definition from my fav Oxford Dictionary:
“A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”
I got thinking one day about what is a daily activity for me. It’s one that you might be surprised I am linking to being mindful. Most days I spend time with my mother in the secure Dementia Care facility when she has lived for the past 15 months. Not only do I spend time with my mother but also the twenty-odd other residents and the staff. They have all become a bit like family to me.
It occurred to me that when I go through the locked doors, I leave everything behind me and focus on what is happening at that moment. I can’t focus on any of my stuff. That gets left at the door because Mum needs my complete attention. She is also not well enough to be able to give attention to my stuff. It’s not exactly mindful meditation, but it is focusing on the moment.
“Once you’ve got your head around the diagnosis, don’t dwell on the losses or the future as you have no control over each. Instead enjoy this moment as there are still many adventures and laughter to be had”
She made me think that aside from finding a mindful approach the only way to cope with visiting my mother, it was also an approach for those facing diagnosis of illness. It’s far from an easy illness, or an easy place to visit, let alone be there day after day. But there are fun moments. There are adventures to be had. I leave my troubles at the door and venture forth into Mum’s reality. That is all that matters for the time I am there.
While those thoughts have been gradually forming in the background of my mind, I almost literally stumbled a few months ago onto a more conventional form of mindfulness through meditation. I was truly desperate to quiet the tinnitus in my head one night. Having bought a new phone I had lost the app that I used to use a night for nature sounds.
Instead, I came across the app Calm which offers mindfulness meditation. I was listening to it before my rebellious mind had a chance to say no. What’s more, I found the sleep story I listened to, was quietening my mind, focusing on one thing. Now.
For as long as I remember, I have had trouble with over-thinking while I am supposed to be going to sleep. It has been like an automatic switch that pings me into thinking and worrying about everything. As a sufferer of anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) I didn’t have a hope of getting to sleep until I finally collapse in exhaustion. Using sleep stories to focus my attention, I am getting to sleep much quicker and not becoming anxious about the whole night time and sleep thing.
Having found mindfulness useful in sleep I have started using meditations offered by Calm. Yes, really. Me. I admit I have been amazed at how calm I can be after meditating and how it helps me throughout the day.
But I am slow to change my daily routine to make sure I build into each day some time for meditation. I also still find myself amazed to even be going here. Me? Mindfulness? I would have said never. Not for any really solid reasons but simply because I had got a thing in my head and simply wasn’t going to go there.
Well, now I am.
I finish with a rather long quote, but one that I wish I had read, and had the willingness to take on board, many years ago:
“I’m simply saying that there is a way to be sane. I’m saying that you can get rid of all this insanity created by the past in you. Just by being a simple witness of your thought processes.
It is simply sitting silently, witnessing the thoughts, passing before you. Just witnessing, not interfering not even judging, because the moment you judge you have lost the pure witness. The moment you say “this is good, this is bad,” you have already jumped onto the thought process.
It takes a little time to create a gap between the witness and the mind. Once the gap is there, you are in for a great surprise, that you are not the mind, that you are the witness, a watcher.
And this process of watching is the very alchemy of real religion. Because as you become more and more deeply rooted in witnessing, thoughts start disappearing. You are, but the mind is utterly empty.
That’s the moment of enlightenment. That is the moment that you become for the first time an unconditioned, sane, really free human being.”
What are you doing tonight? What I mean is, what are you doing for New Years? The great celebration of New Year’s Eve. It is great, isn’t it?
I’m not so convinced, but then you could just say I’m old, down on myself and I have few friends to spend it with. Any number of those might or might not be true, but for a long time now, I have been less than impressed by the ‘great’ New Year’s celebrations. Please, can’t we just skip to February and carry on as if nothing is different?
New Year celebrations are great if you’re twenty-something, physically and mentally healthy, have money in your purse, have mountains of people you want to spend that occasion with, and while I’m at it, you’re probably an extrovert.
Am I any of those things? The short answer is no. And perhaps that’s my excuse for planning to go to bed tonight, at the usual time (early by most people’s standards) and if I wake (get woken) up at any time while it’s still dark, my cat, Hobbes will have a lot of explaining to do simply because he’s the usual culprit (other than just normal insomnia).
Before I go on, it’s important to point out just what would happen if I didn’t do that, if I stayed up until 12.05am, or even say, 2am. I would be very likely to spend at least the next few days in bed in an unreasonable amount of pain, not to mention fatigue. And my brain would turn even mushier than usual (brain fog).
It’s just not worth it to stay up that late and have a change of routine. I have to spend too many days in bed as it is, the last thing I want is self-inflicted New Year celebration pain/fatigue/numerous other symptoms.
Health has been a determining factor in New Year activities for more time than it should. But that’s not about to end. My chronic illness is in it for the long haul. But even before that, I struggled with this occasion.
It’s really hard to celebrate yet another year when you’re suicidal. It’s even harder when mental illness has turned life to hell and getting through the next day seems impossible without facing 365 more days. It’s just not even a bad joke. It’s beyond thinking to consider that another year is ahead, and because you might be depressed in amongst other illnesses, you can’t bear to have another year like the one you’ve just had.
I saw a meme on Facebook yesterday that loudly proclaimed that 2018 would be a better year. Really? Who said? How do you know that 2018 will be a better year? Yes, I guess we can hope. And hope is all important, especially on this occasion, but what if 2018 is a worse year? Who’s to say it won’t be?
In her (and my) younger years, my mother used to like greeting her family first thing on New Year’s Day morning with a chirpy “Happy New Year”. That’s fair enough, isn’t it? I should add that she wasn’t out late celebrating the night before, and she didn’t drink so wasn’t nursing a hangover.
Lots of people will be saying ‘Happy New Year’ on Monday. I admit that I cringe every time I hear it. The first year I was suffering from Major Depressive Disorder and was quietly (I mean I hadn’t admitted it to my parents even though I was staying at their home) desperately suicidal she was a bit stuck. And so for the next following years (too many to count), she would skip the “Happy New Year” and give me a “Well, I hope next year is better than last”. You can’t argue with her thinking, but I didn’t want to even know I was facing another year. “Mum, can’t we just skip this and get on with breakfast?”
My mother hoped that the next year would be better, and I can look back and be thankful that she hoped on my behalf because hope was completely beyond me. It’s funny (okay, well not really at all) that I am left thinking about the year ahead in terms of both my mother and myself. This time I need to hold the hope for her.
I can say with certainty that because of Alzheimer’s Disease, 2018 won’t be easy on Mum. It’s a disease that just keeps getting worse. There’s no chance of recovery and there’s no chance that 2018 will be a better year than the one we’ve just had. The disease will continue to destroy her, bit by bit. There will be less and less of a functioning brain. How do you celebrate New Year when that is ahead of you?
My hope for Mum is that her suffering is eased by the love of those around her, even those who she no longer knows. My hope is that she won’t feel alone or scared. My hope is that she will have peace.
I’m inclined to think that those hopes were something of what Mum has hoped for me, particularly in my many years of disabling mental illness. What is sad is that Mum and I didn’t have, in those years, a relationship in which she could share that with me. We weren’t close, and she and I both knew that much of what she might try to say usually ended in harsh words. It was safer to keep the silence between us. Thankfully, our relationship has changed, although too late to have those conversations.
Mum no longer comprehends that I struggle with illness of any sort. When I can’t visit her, I tell her why but she doesn’t remember the past years nor the journey I have been on. That’s probably a good thing (if any good can be found in her suffering). Maybe it means that she can join in the New Year celebrations at the dementia care facility where she lives. If she can have hopes, maybe she can hope that 2018 is better for both of us. She doesn’t understand that illness deems that unlikely.
But hey, if you’re going out to celebrate New Year with friends or family, have fun. Be safe. And take a moment to think about what you hope for in 2018.
I leave you with a quote. I read this today and was inspired by it. Maybe you will be too. I guess it is my hope for myself for the coming year. To be nobody but myself in 2018.
“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.” ― E.E. Cummings
Have you noticed how some people talk about depression and anxiety as if they are one condition? Or maybe that everyone who has one must have the other? It has been annoying me for a while now, but I think I’ve worked out why. Stigma. I’ll get to that in a while.
Before we get to it, have a look at this…
This is a television advertisement currently playing in New Zealand. from Depression.org, a mental health promotion organisation. I think they do a great job in spreading information about depression particularly. But I find some of what they share is a little misleading (including an unrelated idea put forward in this advertisment that everyone has this ‘A-ha!’ moment as a turning point to recovery. Really? Reading a book to my child will cure my depression or anxiety? But we’ll leave that for now. It’s not the point of my post).
Lately, the advertisements have been adding anxiety into the picture as if it is a simple add-on to depression. It’s fair to say that many people who are depressed also have anxiety, just as many people with anxiety also have depression. But it is not a given, and they are two quite different mental illnesses. Instead of speaking of
Depression and Anxiety
it seems more like
It may well be one of those cases that you have to be seeing the range of advertisements put up by Depression.org all the time, and then you see that they run the two disorders together constantly. But maybe too, you have to be inside my head. And that is where the stigma lies.
It’s my stigma. My stigma against anxiety. Yes, for years I have been adamantly denying that I have any struggle with anxiety. Actually, I had completely convinced myself of this lie. Depression? Yes. Anxiety? Absolutely not.
Over this past year, I have been starting to realise just how much anxiety has me trapped inside a little box, refusing to let me live my life to the full.
There, I’ve said it. You have no idea how much of a big deal this is (for me).
Note to self: Cate, the world is not going to cave in for having said this.
I think that for a long time I didn’t want to have anxiety, because of memories of a friend who struggled with anxiety back when I was in my late teens. When I started to have mental health problems in my late twenties I always used to steer the conversation away from the possibility of battling anxiety along with other illnesses, because I (subconsciously) thought of it as how I had seen it in my friend. And I admit that was not the way I wanted to see myself.
While I’m sure the therapists I saw along the way knew I had anxiety, it was never something I was willing to accept. It was okay for anyone else to have anxiety, but not me. And while those therapists might have known the truth, I don’t remember any of them pushing me on the subject.
It made me realise that when I postponed an important doctor’s appointment this week that I had waited over three months for, that there was a pattern developing in my life. I postponed the appointment on account of pain that was going to make it difficult for me to get to the appointment (it would involve a bit of walking because I wouldn’t be able to get a car park close by).
While the issue of pain was authentic, it was perhaps the angst over the issue of getting there and back (with a lot of foot and leg pain in tow) that had worked me into a state of anxiety. It wasn’t until later that I thought that perhaps the pain was all part of the anxiety I felt. Or maybe even the anxiety triggered the fibromyalgia pain. There were other issues related to the appointment that had me anxious too, but it’s fair to say that at the time, I wasn’t keen to accept it. Actually, I just didn’t even see it.
I have a whole lot more to work through in coming to terms with anxiety and how it affects my life. I realise that it has me backed into a corner and that while I thought I was managing my mental health okay right now, I realise that corner is getting tighter and darker. Somehow I need to do something about it, and I suspect I’m going to need some help. That might sound brave and self-aware but this has taken me (gulp!) 25-odd years to even admit. I have a long way to go.
Ironically, from where I started this post, I want to finish with a quote from David Karp. He is writing about depression in his book ‘Speaking of Sadness’ but I think his words apply to me equally whether to depression or anxiety. I have ‘doctored’ it appropriate to my emphasis and hope the author will forgive me.
“Much of depression’s anxiety’s pain arises out of the recognition that what might make one feel better–human connection– seems impossible in the midst of a paralyzing episode of depression anxiety. It is rather like dying from thirst while looking at a glass of water just beyond one’s reach ”
― David A. Karp
“…in a world I’d never known among people whose existence I never thought possible,
became for me a concentrated course in the horrors of insanity and the dwelling-place
of those judged insane, separating me forever from the former acceptable realities and assurances of everyday life.” – Janet Frame, An Angel At My Table
It was Friday, when Carol had been discharged but I was still an inpatient at the local psychiatric hospital where we had got to know each other. Back then, 20 years ago, while mobile phones were common, it was certainly not everyone that owned one. I didn’t have one so relied on being able to use the patient telephone to make contact with anyone outside of the hospital.
Carol and I spoke by phone that day and she told me that she wanted to go ahead with our earlier plans (our suicide pact) to die the next day, but as I wasn’t able to be with her that she would do it alone.
It is fair to say that I totally understood her desire to die. I wanted to die too. While I’m not sure that I outright encouraged her to go ahead with the plan, I am certain that I didn’t discourage her. At the end of our conversation, she told me she was turning off her phone and that we would not speak again. I guess that we ended by saying goodbye, but I don’t remember that aspect.
What I do remember is the terrible dilemma I sat with for the next 24 hours. Would I tell someone or not? Would I get help to stop her planned suicide attempt?
The short story is that I didn’t tell anyone, and that is something I will always have to live with.
Saturday came and went, and I continued to be torn apart by what I knew, and what I imagined was happening, eventually coming to the conclusion that my friend was by now dead. I heard nothing.
It was three days later when my then-husband Dave arrived to visit that night, armed with a letter that had come in the mail. It wasn’t something I was expecting. On opening it I found that it was a ‘suicide note’ from Carol. It was hard to disguise my distress from Dave, but essential because he knew nothing, as did anyone else.
It was some days further on before I got a phone call. It was Carol, and she was in ICU. She had survived but had sustained serious damage to her heart which she would carry for the rest of her life. I admit that I was struck by a terrible dichotomy of feelings. Relieved she was alive but disappointed that she hadn’t achieved her goal. You see, I could understand her despair and desire to end her life. Our hopelessness was something we each carried, but also shared together. In my sickness, I really wanted for her pain and suffering to be over. I was disappointed for her.
In the months that followed, Carol and I went separate ways. It wasn’t something that we wanted, it’s just what happened as a result of unrelated circumstances. I shifted to another city, and after eventually ending my marriage, did not return to Wellington. We eventually lost contact and today, I have no idea where Carol is. I have looked for her on social media with no luck.
“Now I am setting out into the unknown. It will take me a long while to work through the grief. There are no shortcuts; it has to be gone through.” – Madeleine L’Engle
Of course, this was not over when Carol and I parted company. There was a lot for me (and presumably her) to process and work through. What I had done, in agreeing to this pact and then ‘allowing’ Carol to go ahead with the plan, was monumental. We were no longer together but I carried guilt with me from that time on. As my recovery from mental illness began, I found myself carrying more and more guilt. I began to understand the implications of what I had done. And now that we had no way of contacting each other, there was no way of working through it.
I think that it’s fair to say that friendships between people with severe mental illnesses can become pretty intense, pretty quickly. It is an emotional rollercoaster that while on that journey we gather those around us into. My experience is that particularly when you are in a group therapy environment, that rollercoaster gets bigger and faster. In group therapy, you are often sharing intimate parts of your life with other participants. You get to know each other well. But it’s an artificial environment, controlled to some extent by the therapist. At some point, it comes to an end, and in my experience, you can expect the friendships to last forever, but that often doesn’t happen. Outside of that controlled environment (for Carol and I it was the hospital), there can actually be nothing to tie you together.
In my years of mental health treatment, I can think of a number of my friendships that have been intense but actually didn’t last once outside of the therapuetic environment. I think this is what happened for me and Carol.
You may rightly wonder why I am sharing the journey I went on with Carol. Why would I even admit this stuff? Good question. I am opening myself up to all kinds of abuse.
A few months back, was the story of Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy, where Michelle (by text messages) encouraged her boyfriend Conrad, to kill himself. Michelle got 15 months prison time for her encouraging texts. At the time, the court announced it’s decision, there was a lot of fierce and hateful comments on social media towards Michelle. I hung my head while the antagonism towards Michelle Carter was in the news because I felt if people only knew, they would target me with abuse too.
What was so different in that case from what I did to Carol? It seemed the only substantial difference I could see was that Carol survived her suicide attempt. Conrad didn’t. While it was reported that both Conrad and Michelle were depressed at the time of his suicide, I suspect too that the mental illness Carol and I were both experiencing was more severe. But no excuse.
I can’t justify anything I did (and didn’t do). It is actually hard for me to imagine doing what I did, but then I am not as severely ill as I was, so perhaps I can claim to be a different person. But some people do bad things when they are severely mentally ill. Many of them end up in prison, forensic psychiatric care, or with severe consequences for what they do. Many have to live with the burden of what they did.
While thinking out loud (that’s what I do on my blog) I am struck that the biggest hurdle is perhaps to forgive oneself for what has been done while mentally ill. I think that is where I am at now. I realise that I need to forgive myself for having let Carol down. I wasn’t a good friend to her because I was so caught up in my own hopelessness that I couldn’t find hope (or help) for her.
I can’t have this conversation with Carol. I don’t even know whether she is dead or alive. But I have to find a way to forgive myself so that I can live on.
TTrigger Warning: This post contains subject matter that is difficult to read. It includes discussion of suicidal ideation, suicide and a suicide pact.
Twenty years ago, I had a year that can best be described as hell. 1997, I was living in Wellington, New Zealand with my (then) husband Dave. I had already (privately) decided that my marriage was doomed, but 1997 saw things spiral down for Dave and me. It took me until mid-1998 (and six months of intensive residential therapy) before I actually left Dave but 1997 was tough, admittedly on both of us.
But it was the year I met Carol, and for that reason, it was a very good year. Weird really, such bad and good together.
Carol was one light in a very dark period. I met her near the beginning of the year when we were both patients at a local psychiatric hospital. We were both being re-admitted pretty much as soon as we were discharged. It was a policy issue, but that’s another story. I was admitted over twenty times that year. I wasn’t being discharged because I was well or even off the crisis list. I was being discharged because they needed the bed for someone else and, so they said, they didn’t want me to become institutionalised. I think it was a little late for that. As I’m sure you can imagine, I spent most of the year there. Carol, who had Bipolar Disorder, was in a similar traffic jam and we very quickly became very close friends.
Dave didn’t like our friendship. He was pretty conservative (putting it nicely because this story isn’t about him) and he objected to the friendship Carol and I had primarily because she was a lesbian and because she smoked (I hadn’t started smoking by then nor was she the catalyst to me starting). Actually, Dave wouldn’t ‘allow’ Carol in our house (at times when we were both discharged) for these reasons. I don’t know what he expected might happen if she did come to our home but I was furious and just didn’t tell him when she had been there. What he didn’t know…
I was going through a time of rebellion from my life. I had seen myself as a “nice Christian” and didn’t want to be that person anymore. That rebellion was perhaps part of the reason I had so many hospital admissions that year. As awful as hospital life was, I can now admit that in some ways it was great. I was away from my “nice Christian” marriage and with some like-minded people. I didn’t have to worry about anything, because someone else (usually a nurse) would worry for me. I had no responsibilities and the worst I might get is a night in isolation, but only if there was a bed available.
That said, I was terribly depressed and anorexic. I was recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and while I hadn’t been yet diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) I was very clearly showing symptoms. My psychiatrist had already declared that they simply didn’t have any staff equipped with the skills to help me. I was literally said to be beyond help. Perhaps a culmination of all these psychiatric issues was chronic suicidal ideation. At that point, I had thought about and acted on suicidal thinking constantly for about three years, including my biggest suicide attempt in 1996.
The next part of the story is difficult to tell, but I feel like I need to tell it. I didn’t even accurately tell what happened when I published my book, Infinite Sadness in 2009. I was ashamed and I feared reaction. Would what I had done be the final straw, particular for my family? Would they turn their backs on me?
Carol was also chronically suicidal, and while both in the hospital we eventually formed a pact to die by suicide together. It was planned for a specific date and our goal was to both be discharged so that we could carry out our plans. We would say whatever was needed to achieve discharge.
Carol managed to convince staff that she was ‘safe’ for discharge but I didn’t. I was kept in hospital. I was really angry, perhaps mostly with myself.
“I was bruised and battered, I couldn’t tell what I felt. I was unrecognizable to myself. Saw my reflection in a window and didn’t know my own face. Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away On the streets of Philadelphia.” – Bruce Springsteen
This is a good place to stop this story because actually, this post is not so much about the story. I will continue the story in a later post but what is important to me is how the heck did I end up part of a suicide pact?
I was “unrecognizable to myself”. I was “unrecognizable” to my friends and family. They didn’t mean to leave me “wasting away” but they didn’t know how to help me. Even the health professionals didn’t know how to help. I can’t imagine what they all would have thought if they had known about our suicide pact. Well, now the truth is out and a song just won’t be enough.
Had you told me five years earlier that this is where I would be, I would never have believed you. It just wasn’t possible that I would slide so far down to consider not only my own death but also supporting my friend’s eventual suicide. But that’s what mental illness does. Not for everyone, but when you go down as far as I went down, anything is possible at the same time as nothing seems possible. There was no hope (in both my mind and apparently in that of the experts), and because of that I was prepared to consider both Carol’s and my own death. A completely foreign thought to the Cate I had been five years earlier.
I saw this meme this morning. I found it interesting:
That’s not who I was. I didn’t know I would be ok, I didn’t understand that people still loved me. I had already been told they couldn’t help me, just keep me safe! And I didn’t hope to be well anymore. I just wanted an end. I wanted an end for myself (and for Carol). Yet I was described as being depressed. I had depression.
My point is that depression looks different for different people. I hope that people who are depressed today can say each of the statements in that meme above. But it’s not where I was, and I need you to understand that I was a long way from that point when I considered our suicides.
To be part of another’s suicide plans is not right. I know that. And there are no “Buts…’
I had crossed a line. But whether I was aware of that or not, I can not tell you. I don’t remember the feelings attached to that time.
If you are to have any understanding of what I was doing, know this: I was severely and chronically mentally ill, and my thoughts were far distorted from whom I had previously been. This decision Carol and I made to die together was so badly distorted that perhaps there is no way for outsiders to understand. There are no other explanations. It just was, for both of us. It was perhaps a very clear ‘mark in the sand’ of hopelessness.
When we look at mental illness from the outside it is almost impossible to fully understand. I suggest the meme above offers a ‘nice’ image of depression and one easy for ‘outsiders’ to accept. For many, that will be how it is, but it’s not at all where I was at.
I was wrong to do what I did, but I really had little understanding of right and wrong at that time. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I had no hope.
They say “love changes everything”. I say:
“mental illness changes everything”
It’s not an excuse for what I agreed to with Carol. Her life was worth more than that. So was mine. But it happened because we were both suffering from severe mental illness. You can have no idea how you would act in similar circumstances. So please, choose not to judge us.
Part Two of Carol and my story will continue in a future post. It’s too much to contain in one post. Certainly too much for me, and maybe too much for you. I don’t promise that it will be my next post, but it will be soon so please follow so that you can be sure to read it.