One of our readers opens up about her lifelong struggle of coming to terms with her depression and anxiety in the hope it'll help other sufferers.
Words by Mia Florence Illustrations by Jack Oliver Coles
To say that the last ten years of my life has been a ride would be, as the French say, un grand euphémisme.
During the past decade, I’ve enrolled and dropped out of three universities, worked as a social care worker, a shop worker twice, and an assistant at an independent music distributor, which wasn’t as rock and roll as it sounds, trust me. I tried my unsteady hand as a clinical assistant in gynaecology and colorectal clinic which was stressful, very sad and quite messy. I even worked for three long miserable years in medical governance. Now, I’m a tutor — but who in the hell would trust me with their kids I hear you cry? I don’t blame you.
This smorgasbord of random career choices interspersed with panic attacks during commutes, various relationship problems, large doses of insomnia and a cocktail of different medications, my distraught family, concerned friends, sheer exhaustion and finally my attempts of Great Escapes. I’ve never been able to work out a full notice period in my life, but I leave that little nuance out of my CV – natch.
After working all these jobs, playing all these different roles, what I hadn’t truly been since I left sixth-form was being what I really wanted to be — happy. Why? Because, like a reported 350 million other people around this crazy, ever-moving world, I have been continuously ground to a halt every time I thought I might just be on to something, all because of the unfortunate buzzword on everybody’s lips; Depression — with a delectable side dish of anxiety.
I suppose now, looking back, I always showed signs of not being entirely content with myself or situations around me from when I was a young child. After telling my mum about a particular therapy session, I had with the woman who, not to wax lyrical, pretty much saved my life last year. She reminded me of a party she took me to when I was six years old. All of the mums had to bring something they cooked to add to the buffet table. My mum made her famous new potato salad. She put it alongside the plates of sausage rolls, cherry red jelly and tiny triangular sandwiches and joined the other parents in the living room for a glass of wine, expecting me to run off and lose myself in two hours of chaotic fun with all of the other little darlings.
My therapist put it like this; you were worried about your mum’s potato salad then, and you’ve been worried about other people’s potato salad ever since
That didn’t happen, though. What actually happened was that for the next two hours I would come bounding through the dining room doors every five minutes to check if anyone had eaten any of my mum’s potato salad. If they had, I’d excitedly let my mum know, thinking that the reception of her offering was the most important thing in the world to her too. And, if the level of the contents of the bowl hadn’t decreased I would be overcome with such sadness and sympathy for my lovely mum that I just had no interest in winning. No interest in competing in, ‘What’s the time, Mr Wolf?’ or musical chairs, or pass the bloody parcel. I was obsessed; wholly taken over by this one overriding thought. I didn’t want my mum to be sad, and if people didn’t eat her potato salad she would be, and I couldn’t stand that, so I had to monitor this situation — If I don’t know then no one will eat it, and it will be all my fault.
This, to me, is anxiety in a nutshell — or in a bowl of potato salad. Being engulfed entirely by worry, consumed by invasive thoughts and the absolute inability to rationalise. My therapist put it like this; you were worried about your mum’s potato salad then, and you’ve been worried about other people’s potato salad ever since. It might sound ridiculous, but it’s true. People-pleasing has always been a significant problem for me.
Fast forward 21 years to 2017, I’m in a job that I’ve hated for two of the three years I’ve worked there. But I have to stay because if I leave yet ANOTHER job, what would that make me? A loser, a quitter, a waste of space, pathetically weak, certainly unemployed and broke. Mostly, I couldn’t do that to my boyfriend. We’d been living in our own place for a year by this point, and I couldn’t even entertain the idea of telling him that I needed to get out of my employment, again, and that he would have to pay for everything. So, I carry on. I carry on peeling myself out of bed every morning after a pitiful amount of sleep. I carry on getting on the train but not knowing what to do with my hands, or my feet, or my face. Please don’t sit opposite me; please stop staring at me, please, please, please.
I carry on making a massive cup of coffee every morning in an attempt to gain some energy; I take up smoking, I make small talk with my colleagues, crack jokes and pretend that everything’s okay. My best friend at work can tell something’s up, but I try to reassure her. “Oh it’s just one of those days, one of those weeks, one of those months, I’ll be alright, don’t worry, I just get like this sometimes.” I carry on.
And then, all of a sudden, I can’t carry on anymore.
One morning, just like that, I crash. It’s happened before, yes. But this time, it’s different. This time, it’s with such incredible force that I can’t get off of the sofa for a month, I can’t eat; I have the opposite problem with sleeping, I can’t stay awake, so I call my boss to say I’m so sorry and I just can’t do it anymore. Thinking that would make me feel better but then I start obsessing about mistakes that I thought I’d made at work, and now that I wasn’t there it was much worse because I couldn’t even try to fix them. I would be exposed, and everyone would finally know what a complete piece of shit I actually am.
I stand in my kitchen the morning after bowing out of my sixth job, the walls start to cave in on me. I can’t breathe.
I manage to call my mum and text my friend from work and my boyfriend, and they all rush home together to find me in a soggy mess, I’m unable to do anything, but cry. I feel embarrassed at all the attention, confident that they must think that I’m a major burden, but they hug me, and they kiss me, and they tell me; enough. Enough now –- we are going to sort this.I don’t believe them, of course, but I don’t believe in anything. So, I go along to the doctors still under cover of my black cloud, and I feel my head nodding and my mouth forming the right shapes to say that yes, I promise I’ll take the tablets correctly and for long enough this time. Okay, I guess I’ll go to a therapist too, but I still don’t believe that anything will make a difference. I’m just not destined to be happy, that’s what it is. I just have to start accepting that.
I start taking my tablets; citalopram, 20 mg a day, just before bedtime. A tiny little white oblong which is supposed to make me feel like I want to live again — impossible, I think to myself. But I take it anyway. And I make my first appointment with a therapist near Liverpool Street, paid for by my unbelievably supportive parents, who I don’t feel I deserve at all. I take my tablets, and I go to weekly sessions for nearly three months, and slowly, slowly, I can’t believe it, but the black cloud starts to clear: I sit, and she talks, and I listen, and I cry, and I talk, and she listens, and she says everything I need to hear.
And as an apparent revelation that might sound to anybody reading this, or anybody who knows me and how unstable my life has been for as long as I’ve been an adult and had to make my own decisions (another issue identified by my therapist). It just hadn’t been evident to me up until that point.
I take my tablets every night; I go on walks with my boyfriend, I start to socialise again. Then, one day as I’m leaving the offices where I’ve been laying my heart out to this incredible woman for an hour every week for the past two months, something clicks in my brain — Mia, you have a condition, and you need to keep treating it.
Even though mental health problems had affected other members of my family for years, even before I was born, I just never made the connection that maybe I wasn’t just lazy, or incompetent, or weak, or pathetic. Perhaps, I suffered from a real illness too, that I needed to address like any other so that I could finally start to feel better. Maybe I could monitor it, and I could live with it. Not only to survive but exist and just keep keeping on and actually live. And I cannot stress to you what an important revelation that was.
Now, it’s the beginning of 2018, and I’m happy. Yes, actually happy. I’m doing better than I have done for a very long time. I’m lucky enough to be able to work part-time at a local tuition centre, and who would have thought it, I’m actually not too bad with kids! The feeling that I get when they’ve finally mastered the time’s table that I’ve been helping them with or the verb form, or when they pass me a note saying I’m their “BFF” is seriously like a shot of liquid gold to me. I’ve also been able to continue with my English Literature degree which I started with the Open University four years ago, as I’ve got more time on my hands these days. More time means more time to relax too, and I try to make sure that I go for a walk every day – to me, exercise is also an essential part of keeping my mind healthy. Not that there aren’t some weeks when all the exercise I get is pressing the button on the PlayStation controller to let Netflix know that yes, I do still want to carry on watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race actually – but I TRY, and I think that’s the most important thing now.
I’ve started to write poetry – what a cliché! But I’m so glad to have discovered my love for writing again when this time last year the thought of picking up a pen was akin to running the marathon with my feet encased in concrete blocks. My relationships with my boyfriend, friends and family are better than they have been for years – and I know how lucky I am to have them, and how so many people have to endure their struggles alone, which I can’t even begin to imagine. Sure, I’m pretty much broke all the time, and I still have bad days, sometimes bad weeks, but not whole months anymore – and I’m so grateful for that.
So, if you’ve read this far, thank you, and if you have recognised yourself in anything I’ve said, or in anyone else’s story because there are many – I urge you to please reach out and ask for help. Try to accept that this isn’t your fault, your feelings and worries are valid, but that your illness is just that – an illness which you CAN treat. Trust me; if the neurotic kid who was obsessed with how much of their mum’s potato salad had been eaten at a party 22 years ago can get through this then mate, believe me, you can too.