Living with depression - Part 2
An Unquiet Mind – Depression 3
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.
If I had to describe a psychiatric ward in one word, the word would be ‘boring’. Mental Health is a great believer in the maxim ‘Time is a great healer’. During my first week in the Rubber Rooms I was left pretty much to my own devices. The nurses came round about 7:30 and turfed everyone out of bed, there was a flurry of washing, shaving and getting dressed (all civvies, no-one wore a uniform), then by 9 o’clock the ward was empty. I never gave a second thought about where they actually went, it was enough that they were gone. No-one to ask me questions, I didn’t want to talk anyway. Someone brought me meals in my room, I picked at it a bit but never once cleared my plate. I wasn’t allowed off the ward, the doors were kept locked, and that suited me just fine. Once a day an orderly came for me and I was escorted to see my psychiatrist, Major Wotsisname. He started me off on antidepressants, the standard issue for cases like me was Dothiepin, and I was also given lots of Mellaril. If I ever became agitated on the ward the Psych Nurse would dish out ‘Mellows’ like smarties.
I was all alone on the ward during the day. The rest of the Wackos went off to a separate building a few hundred yards away for ‘Therapy’, but I hadn’t completed ‘assessment’ yet so they kept me under constant observation. I couldn’t maintain enough concentration to read a book or a newspaper, I was totally uninterested in daytime TV, I just sat by the fishtank watching the fish. Hour after endless hour. I was bored shitless.
The other patients started drifting back about 3 in the afternoon. One or two would nod and speak a few words, but most of them just ignored me. I lived for my drugs. Drug round was three times a day, and at ten o’clock they would give me a sleeping pill. To this day, I have no idea what it was, but it certainly did the trick. It knocked me out for the count and provided 8 hours of dreamless sleep every night without fail. I loved that pill. I looked forward to it like the coming of a beautiful lover. To sleep, perchance to dream?
One of my most abiding memories of these dark times was visiting hours. Every day, without fail, my wife would make the fifty mile round trip to see me. I remember waiting for her to come, watching for her tapping heels along the long approach corridor to the Rubber Rooms. I could see her long before she saw me, her white anxious face would break into a smile when she saw me. I’ll never forget it, and I’ll always bless her for the love and support she gave me during those horrible times. Even now, over 20 years later I think of waiting for her and feeling my heart swell when I saw her. If she ever gets on my wick, or seriously irritates me, then I think how much I owe her. She kept me alive that year, no error. For that reason alone I’ll love her till the end of my days. It must have been incredibly hard for her, keeping the home together, telling the kids that daddy was very ill, but would be back soon. My eldest son was thirteen, youngest son was ten, while my daughter was only eight. I’ll lay odds that these days they can barely remember why I was away that summer. I refused point blank to allow the kids in to see me. My wife found that very hard to accept, but I just couldn’t let the kids see me in the Loony Bin.
Time passes slowly on a Mental Health ward. It’s like wading through treacle, everything is done in slow time, nothing gets done with any sense of urgency. Take antidepressants. There are a thousand different types, and hundreds of ways to take them, the Doctor has to find one that ‘works’ for each individual patient. And here’s a phrase to remember ‘you have to wait for the AD’s to ‘kick in’, and it can take up to six weeks to build up to a therapeutic dose. And if they don’t have any noticeable effect, then you can’t just stop dead and switch to another type, you have to wind down slowly, taper off to nothing, then build up again on the second sort. It’s a very wearing process, you sometimes wonder if things will ever get better.
It’s all about mood. Such a simple thing to say, but so difficult to actually grasp the massive effect a low mood has on absolutely every aspect of your life. Depression makes every day hurt. It makes every waking moment a burden, you take no pleasure or even interest in anything at all. Things you used to enjoy you find simply tedious, or impossible to do, so you do absolutely nothing at all. In the darkest days, I just sat still. For hour after hour, not moving, not talking, not reading, not watching TV, not doing anything, just sitting. And feeling worthless, yes, I had that down pat. The only thing that mattered was sleep. If I could get to sleep, then I could make it all go away, if only for a few short hours. And now I’ve got to talk about the most insidious, crippling and murderous part of depression. Insomnia and sleep deprivation.
Secret Police and murky government organisations have always known what sleep deprivation can do to a person. I remember reading books and accounts from people who’ve survived this kind of treatment, and just glossed over it. After all, what’s the big deal? Well, take it from me, it *is* a big fucking deal. If you don’t sleep for a couple of days you rapidly become extremely cranky. Three or four days and all you can think about is becoming unconscious. After a week and it’s a living hell. Now, it’s physically impossible to stay awake continuously for ever. You *must* sleep eventually, and you *will* sleep eventually. But with depression it seems like you never sleep at all, you become convinced that you haven’t caught a wink in months. I would have sold my soul to the devil for a night’s ‘proper’ sleep, the kind of thing that normal people have every night of their life and don’t give it a second’s thought. Lucky bastards. When I first went into the Rubber Rooms they gave me my ‘coffin’ sleeping tablet and it knocked me cold. I had the ‘mellows’ during the day to calm me down, I’m sure I must have dozed a bit in the chair next to the fishtank, but that marvellous ‘coffin’ pill was the Dog’s Bollocks. They let me have the sleeping pill every night for the first four nights. Then they cut me off, I had to do without. Looking back now I understand that you can’t take strong narcotics every night, you’ll become addicted, and they’ll lose their effect anyway as you become accustomed to them. So the doctors won’t allow more than a few days on coffin tablets. Callous bastards that they are!!!
The evening drugs trolley came round at 10 pm. I used to wait for it, pacing up and down the corridor, my stomach in knots, praying for that purple coffin pill to knock me out. I lurked by the locked doors, peering out through the armoured glass down the corridor, aching for the sight of that big white metal trolley. On the fifth night I was first in the queue, the nurse consulted the chart and handed over my evening dose of AD’s. No sleeping pill. ‘You’ve forgotten my sleeping pill, John’ I said ‘where’s my sleeping pill?’ John consulted his chart ‘Nope, that’s it. Just the dothiepin, that’s all you’re written up for, that’s your lot’. And that was it… Cold Turkey. Depressed people don’t make a fuss, it’s not in them. They just go away and lie down. You won’t see a severely depressed person get violent or shouty. So I just wandered off and sat on my bed. I didn’t sleep that night. After a few hours just laying there I got up and wandered slowly up and down the wards, making sure I was quiet, just meandering aimlessly. The duty Psych Nurse at the nursing station saw me, nodded as I shuffled slowly past, but left me alone. Much later I got a look at the Ward Diary, and every night for weeks there was an entry ‘[my name] wandering the wards again. No noise, no trouble, just walking, not sleeping’.
Malignant Sadness – Depression 4
So, how do you ‘cure’ depression? How do overcome the debilitating symptoms and return to the real world? is it drugs? Maybe Talking Therapy? Counselling Sessions? Fresh Air & Exercise? Arts & Crafts Therapy? All of these were offered in the Rubber Rooms of QEMH, with varying degrees of success. I’ve got my own opinion about what works and what doesn’t, and in my humble personal opinion I truly believe that for most people depression is a ‘self-limiting condition’. Even with no treatment at all I believe that *most* people will gradually get better. Then we have those poor souls with persistent long-term depression, who seem doomed to forever walk the dog. The Lifers. The No-hopers. Every psych ward in the country will have a couple, and every Community Mental Health Team will have a couple of dozen on their books. These are the ones who just don’t improve. *But*, for most people, you *will* get better.
To this day, I can’t recall the exact dates I was in QEMH during 1993. I believe I went in during April or May, and I came out sometime in August, I know for certain it was most of that summer. I was definitely back at work by October. 6 months maximum, 4 months minimum, it’s still a sizeable chunk of time. So what did I do in there? How did I spend the time.
After my first week of acclimatisation I was told I would have to go to ‘Therapy’ with the other members of the ward, but no-one ever said exactly what the therapy involved, or even where it was held. I was just told to follow the others when they bimbled off at 9 am in the morning. I had my morning meds, got dressed in jeans T-shirt and trainers then just watched where the others went, then tagged on behind. We went out of the Psych Ward through a side door, across a huge expanse of grass and rough ground, then into a dilapidated old house set in it’s own grounds, a typical ‘country house’ surrounded by trees. It was a big old place, three floors, with about 6 rooms on each floor. There were a few nurses and ‘Group Therapy Leaders’, none of whom wore any sort of uniform. Staff and patients dressed alike were of similar ages, it was difficult to tell who was who. A good clue was that the wackos were all consistently slightly underweight. Depression is a sure fire way to lose a few pounds. (That’s why I like to pile on the beef now, helps me remember I’m not depressed, and also tells me I’ve not got cancer, yet another sure-fire weight-loss programme), but I digress.
Art Therapy was very popular - water colours, just paint absolutely anything you want. At the end of 30-40 minutes, the Group Leader would ask us if anyone wanted to pin their picture up, perhaps say a few words about how they were feeling? I never thought my daubs were worth a second look, but one or two guys would come to the front and say a few brief words. One of the girls always came forward, turned to the group and ripped up the paper in silence, big fat tears running down her face. What the fuck was that about? I never did find out, she never said two words to anyone at the best of times.
Clay and plasticine modelling, that was another good one. Pictionary, that was another staple. Volley ball was often organised, but I never joined in. I didn’t interact very much at all if I’m honest. Very very quiet and subdued, I just drifted along, getting through the days in a fog of indifference. Group Talking Therapy. Now this is tough. Some people just love to talk about themselves, while with others wild horses wouldn’t drag a word out of them. The leaders tried to ensure everyone said a few words, but here’s a fact ‘depressed people are miserable boring bastards’. Hardly the life and soul, so with most of us it’s an uphill struggle. They served lunch at the Therapy Centre, then dished out medication, then back to the therapy. They had a pool table, but I wouldn’t play on it. This is very unusual for me, cos I love pool and I’m a pretty good player. Not with depression, though. Absolutely everything is too much trouble.
At least once a day I was called over to the main complex for a session with the army psychiatrist who was responsible for my treatment. My original Major Wotsisname got posted off to Bosnia, a very fertile ground for military wackos, and a guy called Major Palmer took over my case. I both liked and trusted Major Palmer, so I looked forward to seeing him. He was the only person I would talk to for months. What did we talk about? Fuck knows, just free ranging bullshit, about an hour each day, mostly about me, how I’m feeling, what my hopes and fears are. I don’t care who you are, if the sole topic of conversation is all about you, then you’ll want to talk. Probably shit boring to the other party, but who gives a toss? That’s what they get paid for.
When therapy is over it’s back to the ward. Lay on the bed for a bit, then about 5 pm it’s time for scoff. That’s the highlight of the day unless of course you’ve got a visitor, which I always did. Then about 8 pm it’s ‘free association’ where nobody talks to each other. Drug meds at 10 pm then lights out by 10:30. It’s a boring life.
No pressure. No demands from anyone. No-one wants anything from you. Time passes soooooo slowly. Did I ever mention Psychiatric Wards are boring?
They finally released me from hospital, in late August or early September. The Duty Shrink began by letting me go home for the odd day, then perhaps a weekend or two, then eventually let me out for good. I didn’t go straight back to work, I had a week or so at home, then I went in to work for a couple of mornings a week. The army was really good to me, there was absolutely no pressure to get back in harness, I went to work if I felt like it, and came home if I started getting a little twitchy. I was on a shitload of medication, one of the most annoying side effects was a constantly dry mouth, and of course I had the Dothiepin Turds to contend with. I was back in full time work by the end of October, and by Christmas I was well on the mend.
Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, so they say. Well, I say they’re talking out of their arse. I still believe I never fully recovered from the awful times of 1993, and I’m a different and lesser person because of it. I’m much less confident and outgoing than I used to be, and to this day I still can’t talk properly on the telephone. When I look back on it all the only positive thing I can take from the experience is the knowledge that depression is not forever. It *does* gradually get better, and it’s statistically probable that most people will get over it in between 6 to 12 months. I know what to look out for, and I’m hopeful I’ll never have to feel like that again.
The World Health Organisation’s video “I had a black dog, his name was depression”