Living with depression - Part 1
Living with depression, whether it’s yourself that suffers, or you witness it in a friend or family member, isn’t easy. I asked an internet friend of mine who has first-hand experience of ‘The Black Dog’ to share his experience.
What follows below is his interpretation of events that happened to him two decades ago which he wrote about a few years back. Some names, times, places and events have been changed. Everything else has been left as it was written.
Darkness Visible - Depression 1
The title of this post is stolen from William Styron, an American author who went tonto with depression at the age of 60, then survived to write about the experience. I’m minded to write about my own dabble with darkness, but I’ll probably just write a couple of paragraphs today, perhaps come back to it later and expand. It’s a difficult subject, especially since those with no experience of depression will have major difficulties understanding what it’s really like. I would compare it to teaching hang-gliding to a table leg.
I remember a session with my consultant psychiatrist back in 2003. I’d spent about forty minutes trying to explain what I thought was happening to me, and the shrink was empathising away, making um and ah sounds in all the right places, trying to draw me out and get me to talk fluently about how I felt. ‘I know how you feel, Steven’ he said ‘I’ve had dozens of people just like you sitting in that exact same chair, telling me the same things. I know *exactly how you feel’. I looked at him for a long moment. ‘Tell me, Dr O’Flynn, have you ever had depression yourself? Is that how you know how I feel?’ ‘No’ he said ‘I’ve not suffered it myself, but…’ And I cut him off ‘You don’t know shit, then. You can’t. You have no idea what it’s really like, you’re just picking it up second hand’.
And I truly believe that. No-one who hasn’t had it has a fucking clue about it, and they should thank their lucky stars and pray it doesn’t happen to them in the future.
I’ve had it twice in my life. The first time in 1993, then again in 2002. I think the first time was worse, possibly because I didn’t have the faintest clue what was wrong with me, and I didn’t know anything at all about the complete mental and physical disaster that is severe clinical depression. It was triggered by a combination of life events, for me at least it seems to come on after a succession of body blows, not one single thing. The thing that tipped the balance was my conviction that I was suffering from stomach cancer, when the reality was that I had an ulcer. I’d been feeling rough and under the weather for some time, then on a trip to visit my brother up North I had a rather nasty bleed, crapping a couple of pints of bloody diarrhoea into his toilet. I drove home to Maidstone the next day and went to the doctors….within a week I was in the hospital, and after that it just goes into a blur of jumbled images and memories. I was in and out of hospital for months, tests for this, tests for that, I steadily lost weight, I wasn’t sleeping and I convinced myself I had both testicular and stomach cancer. I was 37 years old that summer, in prime physical and mental condition, but within a few short months I was an absolute basket case.
I seriously considered suicide, the method of choice was a high-speed car crash. I did a few ‘trial runs’, looking for places where I could get up some speed and then smash into something solid and immovable, something that wouldn’t cause any harm to anyone else. I found a likely spot on the M20 motorway, they were carrying out major renovations and upgrades to that road, and I found a place where the motorway curved round and under a bridge. A huge solid block concrete affair, with a sharp right angle edge facing the road. They hadn’t got the safety barriers up yet, it looked a perfect spot. On a couple of evenings I zoomed down that road, building up to about 90 then lining up as I came towards the bridge, just a flick of the wheel to the left, that’s all it would take. Then it’s all over.
Beyond Fear - Depression 2
Obviously I never actually went through with it, or this would never have been written, but during those early months of 1993 there wasn’t a day went past when I didn’t think of suicide. I was absolutely convinced I had stomach cancer, had never been more sure of anything in my life, and I knew with utter certainty I would be dead within the year, probably screaming in pain for most of it. So better to go for a quick exit. Better for everybody, really, when you think about it. Why put Dorothy through the nightmare of looking after a dying husband, force three young children to watch their father waste away in the upstairs bedroom? Everyone would be better off if I wasn’t around. In a couple of years, they’d forget all about me. Life would go on, I just wouldn’t be in it.
My cancer got worse, it metalized in my body, it spread to my testicles. I had a dull throbbing ache in my right testicle, which spread up my leg and into the pit of my stomach. I’m sure I can feel a lump… Yes, it’s definitely there. Won’t be long before I’m riddled with it, maybe I should bring forward my plans for that bridge? I went to the doctors, a military medical centre at the local Engineer Regiment in Maidstone, got the doctor to do a bit of bollock juggling, but he couldn’t feel any suspicious lump. At my insistence, he sent me to the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital (QEMH) in Woolwich for x-rays, ultrasound and other tests. All came back negative. Why were all these people lying to me?
I’d already been diagnosed and successfully treated for an ulcer, the helicobacter pylori virus had just been discovered and understood, so a huge dose of powerful antibiotics had ‘cured’ my ulcer. I should have been dancing in the street, definitely no stomach cancer, it was ‘just’ a common or garden duodenal ulcer. But I knew they had missed it. They’d spotted the ulcer, but my cancer was still there. I knew it.
The depression was raging now, but I didn’t know it. I wasn’t sleeping, I had pounding permanent headaches, I lost weight steadily, and I spent every waking moment dreading my impending early death. I was still going to work, but I had withdrawn into myself, not talking to anyone unless strictly necessary, avoiding contact with other shift members, and on night shifts I just paced the building alone waiting for sunrise. At home I didn’t interact, just sat in silence. I’d go to bed and not sleep. I must have slept at times, but I could never recall anything about it, I was convinced I didn’t get a wink. Every morning about 4:30 I’d snap completely awake, just like a light switch coming on, and I’d feel deeply nauseous, within minutes I’d be retching into the toilet bowl. It couldn’t go on like this.
The army medical service isn’t very good at diagnosing depression. I must have been to the medical centre a dozen times before anyone even considered any sort of mental problem, but eventually I was referred to QEMH, to see the Area Psychiatrist, a Major whose name now escapes me. This bloke was well on the ball, he immediately diagnosed depression and had me admitted to a general ward for observation. My main problem at the time was a lack of sleep, I remember begging him for sleeping tablets, absolutely anything to get me to sleep, but, of course, they wouldn’t give me anything.
I finally had a severe psychotic episode and got carted off to the Rubber Rooms at QEMH. I can remember it clearly. I was in a side room at the ward, it was early evening and I’d become more and more tense and agitated as the day wore on. I was pacing up and down. Then I just stopped and let out a primeval scream, a long loud wail of despair, then started banging my head on the wooden doorframe. I was trying to knock myself out, I just needed some sleep. If I was unconscious, then I’d be asleep, right? The room filled up with people, fellow patients and nurses, but most of them stayed well back. What would you do if you ran into a room to find a big well-built bloke covered in blood and wailing? A couple of male nurses got me to sit on the edge of the bed, listening to me babbling away about the lack of sleep while another went off to find someone to administer the chemical mallet and knock me out. The Duty Psych turned up to escort me to the psychiatric ward, commonly known as the Rubber Rooms. Before I went he gave me four little white tablets, a sedative to calm me down. Some ‘mellows’ he called them, Mellaril, also known as Thioridazine. Over the coming months, I had rather a lot of ‘mellows’.
My first impression of the Psychiatric Ward was of a fishtank, a large well-lit aquarium in a side alcove with a few chairs close by. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s where all new arrivals were parked to chill for a while before being processed, anyone who sat there was left strictly alone. I just sat there, white-faced and trembling, a large fresh bandage around my head, I must have looked a right state, but nothing new to the Rubber Rooms, you get all sorts.
I took absolutely no notice of the other people, the other patients. I just sat there and watched the fish. After a little while a big bloke in a white overall came and sat next to me, introduced himself as ‘John’ and told me he was a Psychiatric Nurse. He’d just filled a prescription for me, he had a sleeping tablet. Would I like to take it, perhaps get a few hours sleep? Is the Pope a Catholic? Does a bear shit in the woods? Bloody right I wanted it!!
Looking back over the years I can see it now in his hand: It was either black or dark purple, quite long and hexagonal, my impression was that it was shaped like a coffin. I washed it down with a little plastic cup of water, then off to lie on my new bed… and that’s the last I remember for a good 10 hours. Bliss.
The Rubber Rooms at QEMH became my home for most of the summer of 1993. I can’t clearly remember the other people who were in there with me, obviously they were all military patients, but they came and went. There were a couple who’d been there for over a year, but most of us eventually got better and moved on. I particularly remember one guy, a big blonde bloke from an Infantry Regiment who’d had two of his mates blown to bits in front of him by the IRA in Northern Ireland. He was well fucked up, in the Art Therapy classes he always drew the same picture, a man in a black balaclava. He was one of the long termers. He was still there when I left.
To be continued… Read Living with Depression Part 2.