Firstly, I would like to read out an extract from a book I am attempting to write about my own personal experiences with mental distress. In this particular extract I am writing about hope and starting again after a period in my life when I had been unwell for about 2 years. I was just starting to re-emerge from a vulnerable state and to gradually become stronger. I felt raw, exposed and a whole plethora of other emotions; shame, guilt and fear but I tentatively started to be gentle on myself and to take care of myself. It felt like I had to learn to walk again, and in a way I did, albeit metaphorically! It was a case of baby steps, one day at a time, 2 steps forward, 1 step back….
If I had to describe hope, it would be a tiny seed in a pot of black earth, it’s potential unrealized as of yet, like the garden in my head.
Hope is also sitting on the front doorway step with the sun on my forehead drinking a cup of warm sweet tea listening to birdsong as the buds shoot. The little things. Hope is feeling the possibility of tenderness in the air after a harsh, cold and long winter.
Hope is being intimate with life itself. Hope is being able to let in and receive the warm smile of a friend reaching out, hope is connection, hope is heart-led, hope is hanging onto a thread of hope. It is realizing that the fruits of my labouring in the dark night of the soul helped me to discover the mysteries of life, that life is indeed a mystery, a sort of organized chaos. All comes from seeds and a strange, almost intangible natural law that suggests you get out what you put in, though I had been salvaged from my own particular wreckage by Grace. Hope is shedding my old patterns and opening up to the new. And time, of course, heals when mother nature is left to run her course like a wise old crone.’
I have learnt that there are two things that heal mental distress; love and work, or meaningful activity. I would like to add two more things; time and hope. My mother suggested Time, and patience, as she watched me gradually change over the course of my breakdown and subsequent depression, and, of course, it must have felt like forever for her. There were months when I made no progress whatsoever and was stuck on a ferris wheel of regret and self-recrimination.
The things that healed my mental distress were the unconditional and unwavering love of my mother, my family and friends and the community I lived in. I was kept safe by this body of people. I am blessed with a tolerant and very loving family and a tolerant and loving community, something which to this day I do not take for granted. I now recognise this as a privileged position to be in. My mother and my step-father, Sue King, Carol James and Giana Ferguson being a few of my hands-on 24/7 team, taking it in shifts to be responsible for me, keeping me housed and fed and, if possible, occupied. My mother wanted to keep me out of hospital and off medication. The reality of this is her home became an acute crisis centre and I was a major disruption to the quiet routine of their lives. Obviously, this is not an ideal situation and it would be wonderful if there were places people could go that did not force medication on you if you didn’t want to take it to prevent the medicalisation of what is essentially a human experience. In the beginning I needed round-the-clock attention as is the case with anyone in an acute crisis and when this experience is not blocked or suppressed with drugs it is an enormous work-load for those involved. Saying that, my short time in hospital further down the line was not a bad experience – I was admitted after a suicide attempt – however, I later discovered that I could have been discharged but I was kept in to give my mother a break. In effect, for her mental health. This gives you some indication of the strain she was going through. No doubt, I was lucky that the psychiatrist who worked at my local hospital at the time I was admitted was progressive and humane. I escaped labelling and drugging, though I know this was down to luck and circumstance and who took care of me during my crisis.
I went for many wonderful and helpful alternative treatments; shiatsu, nutrition, exercise, acupuncture, osteopathy, homeopathy, herbs, healing and bio-energy. I only went on an anti-anxiety and anti-depressant for a brief time but it wasn’t for me and I don’t remember it making any difference. However, sleeping tablets may have helped as I badly needed sleep because I suffered from insomnia. Sleep is vital for the healing process. It has to be said, though, that I cost my father and step-mother a small fortune in these alternative treatments, and emotionally I was very draining for my family and extended family and for my mother and step-father, in particular, because they bore the brunt of my distress. So though they kept me safe, no-one kept them safe and they had to learn ways to protect themselves from my depression. This was something that I felt which made me feel more isolated, but I had to learn that although I chose to punish myself and to be unhappy, I couldn’t expect them to stop living their lives and be miserable with me. The nature of my distress was selfish and made me loathe myself even more. I bored myself out of it in the end.
But it was their love and belief in me, particularly my mother, that enabled my recovery. My mum did all manner of rituals and healing sessions with me, two incidents stick in my mind; (1) in the custom of a native american Indian ritual, we put all my fears into some tobacco and buried it in the garden – this gives you some idea how desperate things got! And (2) we went to see a bio-energy healer together which was an amazing experience, as he told us we were still connected and never grew apart from each other. I daresay my mother was wishing she had a more cheerful symbiotic companion! My step-father discovered that he has healing hands and went on to do a reiki course after I recovered. Thankfully, something positive emerged from the hell I put them through on a daily basis.
All this gives you some idea of the lengths my mother went to, to help me and without her love and support, I’m not sure that I, or my 2 children, would be here today. I am eternally grateful to her for this and realise how lucky I was to have her support. However, it took it’s toll on her and now she is burnt out herself.
There were different stages to my mental distress and initially I can liken it to falling into an abyss. It was the most terrifying experience of my life. Nothing prepared me for the sheer terror of it. My breakdown was sudden, intense, dramatic and very painful. I literally screamed in terror. All this must have been very disturbing for my family, and particularly, my younger siblings. I was a liability, an embarrassment as I would scream anywhere and at any given time, which at the beginning was most of the time. Mine was the manic variety of depression, rather than an over-whelming tiredness to the bone marrow. I was only a mere 6 stone in weight and could not gain weight. I walked, bent over, like an old woman (in fact, I felt ancient). All this and with my unkempt appearance and terrified demeanor must have been quite frightening for my peers to see when they visited me. My bubbley and out-going personality had meant I was popular and good friends found it difficult to equate my new experience with their old perception of me. Most, told me later, had been so shocked by my transformation that they went home and cried afterwards, but tried to keep it together in my company. I really learnt that I had good friends during this difficult stage in my life.
I have since learnt that depression can manifest in a myriad of ways, and as is typical, mine was based on fear and terror of death, annihilation of my identity, of me and my world, though at the time I didn’t realise that an actual death was taking place; the death of the ego. Of course there was also the awful realisation that there was a serious discrepancy between what I thought my life was and what it actually was. It felt like my personality fragmented into lots of little pieces and I was left shattered. Life, as I formerly knew it, disintegrated and I was ruled by pure, undiluted FEAR and a dark mindset. The black dog… a wild dog. They say the mind makes a good servant but not a good master; I am inclined to agree after my experience. I even lost the power of my speech; I went from a confident, out-going young woman to a terrified and mute one. I’m not sure what I had thought resided inside my head before I had a breakdown but it was only really during it that I encountered the power of the grey matter, my mind. How I had managed to complete a bachelors of arts degree before this in my early twenties without realizing I had a brain eludes me to this day!
When the initial shock wore off, I was in denial for months on end. I was unbearable to live with as I permanently contemplated suicide, being simultaneously terrified of death yet drawn to it, and I was a vortex of despair and a black hole of negative energy. I was a stuck record and would corner anyone I could talk at, about what was basically regret disguised as nonsense. I swung from ‘poor-me’ to disdain, from feelings of superiority to feelings of being unworthy. I felt disconnected from people and I found it hard to let any warmth they showed me in. And god forbid if they tried to be realistic with me, I didn’t want to hear it. I was stubborn, difficult, very timid and passive-aggressive, a complicated mixture to engage with, treatment-resistant, if you like (a term favoured by the medical model). It is for this reason that psychotherapy did not work for me while I was in the depths of my depression, however, many of the things my psychotherapist explained to me during this time have stayed with me and in hindsight make perfect sense. She could see the bigger picture and put the pieces of the puzzle together, which in a nutshell, were un-addressed and unresolved issues from my childhood. It was, after all, a combination of unbridled narcissism, magical thinking, not taking responsibility for myself and my lifestyle that had got me to this point. A case of not thinking! And not really taking responsibility for my life in a true sense. At the time I would not co-operate or take any of it on board. For the time being I was too terrified to venture into the unknown waters of my psyche, rather I clung onto my old way of being, dysfunctional as it was, it was familiar. I craved to ‘go back’ to my former bubble of non-awareness, it was cosy, it was safe but it was long out-of-date. And I was ‘stuck’ in my old familiar patterns, a little girl in a 27-year-old woman’s body! However, now I believe psychotherapy is a powerful tool/ ally through depression, and indeed life, and I have engaged with it since. I have also found family constellation workshops to be hugely beneficial. Unfortunately, during the time that I was unwell I was very closed to everything and stubbornly refused to help myself. I was very angry with the world in general. I also viewed the world through a lens of paranoia.
But persevere people did and eventually I came through. I shall never forget the love and light that people gave me in that dark and difficult place, people who took the time to talk to me and reach out to me in my agitated and terrified state and who tried to understand my internal dialogue, nonsensical as it was, and the lessons that I learnt. The one lasting insight I gained was that when I was in depression I felt invisible, and I’m not sure if because I felt it, people then treated me as if I was invisible. But brave were those who tried to reach out and give me my dignity back. I have since learnt that I too can just sit with people who are in pain, like people did for me. Sometimes just to have your pain and isolation witnessed is enough. And for someone to have the faith and knowledge that it will change, this too shall pass and you will come through. Like the Greek myth of Persephone emerging from the underworld, I now have the ability to travel between the two worlds, as do all who experience and recover from depression.
My final point is to look at how nature played a part in my healing process. I should call it my days out in the wilderness because my days were unstructured with no real boundaries in place and I quite literally wandered the roads, hills and fields. I would have been a familiar rambler to the community, and people kept an eye on me if I got waylaid or lost, though I was already lost in my mind, it was kind that people looked out for my actual safety. I didn’t feel safe wherever I was but people kept me safe physically, a sort of collective neighbourhood watch! I am very lucky that I was allowed this freedom, because being in nature is immensely healing, even though I wouldn’t have been aware of it at the time. All the walking and fresh air did me no end of good. Sitting on a beach full of pebbles was my favourite escape and it was here that I discovered the healing power of meditation and just being in a tranquil space beside water. Sometimes it is simplicity that is the most effective tonic. I also used to see ancient Indian symbols in the hedgerows, so my transcendental experiences were bestowed upon me, rather than me seeking them. I felt this was a blessing. I later discovered this to be the ‘mandala’ which is a symbol of integration according to Jung. I had been allowed to experience distress as a transformational crisis and a process of renewal and I am eternally grateful that I was allowed this freedom. I think this is the natural route through. Everyone should have this fundamental right; the right to experience and travel through their distress, in their own time and in their own way (while kept safe). I also had a powerful spiritual experience of christ consciousness and undiluted Grace at my lowest ebb. It was after this that I started to climb out of the claws of depression, and it’s grip loosened. Therein I discovered true hope. I would also like to mention my two children, Hazel and Joshua, here, who have been a pair of miracles and gave me a new life with a whole new depth of meaning.
So, hope, time and love which then leads to meaningful activity are the ingredients I would prescribe for recovery from depression, or mental distress. Also trusting in the process. And being very, very gentle on yourself, and only do what you can manage, and don’t give yourself a hard time if you can’t manage much. It’s all relative, anyway, and one of my favourite sayings is ’I’m a human-being, not a human-doing!’
I emerged from my experience a richer person. I became more open, tolerant, compassionate, grounded, less judgemental or brittle, less hard on myself and an all round happier human-being with a heightened awareness, a shift in consciousness in a new dimension. My psychotherapist had promised me that my life would be better when I got through and she was right. Harder, but better and more real. I now look after myself better and take it easy on myself if I feel myself getting burnt out. I have learnt to love myself unconditionally and I have learnt about boundaries and honoring my emotions. I don’t take myself too seriously but I value myself more.
I shall end with some of a verse I wrote;
‘Let me emerge with my gift of wisdom
Mysterious experience, a seed in dark soil
I come back from the underworld bearing gifts for the soul
I know how to shine light in a dark place
How to navigate through deep waters
I know how to midwife emotions
I speak the tongues of madness, psychosis
I know the terrains of sadness, hidden meanings, metaphors
I have re-drawn the map of my inner landscape
I am shedding skins of inhibitions
I meditate in the holy hedgerow
I died and came back to life
Resuscitated by mother love, unconditional
I can guide you back to light
Deliverance, redemption, grace, my epiphany
I am born again, inside out.’