Walking The Abyss: My Experience With Depression and Anxiety.

fog foggy mist china abyss depression anxiety mental health illness health sad

I’ve never broken a bone in my life. My sister broke her wrist when she was younger and she had a big blue cast, plenty of attention, and an ability to proudly bend her wrist to an unusual position.

I do have a broken mind- a Mental Illness- and I don’t receive any of those things. There is no cast for it, little attention (and it’s not positive) and I am genuinely afraid of my mind at times. I suffer from both Depression and Anxiety; both things that people think you can ‘get over’ if you just ‘pull yourself together’. I’ve had it all my life but for years I genuinely thought I was a crazy freak because my family never talked about it and told me I was just a worrier who got sad.

It was only when my mum was diagnosed with her 4th cancer bout that I got diagnosed too. The doctor wouldn’t give me any medication, just labelled it as I was worried about my mum and it wasn’t too bad. He told me to write down my feelings and so my dad gave me an old (empty) company accounts book that became my journal. It was light blue, which I find faintly amusing, as that seems synonymous with sadness. I had mixed feelings then; relief, so so much relief, that I finally knew why I was feeling this way- I wasn’t insane!- but it didn’t really dent this ocean of sadness inside of me. And it’s quite hard to describe, although I spent most of the pages in my book writing all about it. I feel my chest swollen with pain but it feels like a black abyss that I am walking unsteadily around, millimetres from the edge. You know that feeling when you’re walking too close to the cliff edge and your knees buckle and the ground sways? For me, it’s a little like that:

The days lose their colour; they’re a blur of muted sounds, black and greys and there’s this constant pain and fear. I get this fear because I’m panicking that I will always feel this and I will never escape the abyss and I have this prison sentence forever. I watch friends and family smiling and laughing and it’s like there’s a thick glass wall and I’m watching them at a zoo. I can understand that they’re happy but I have no idea how someone can be happy. It’s like telling someone about chocolate pudding when they’ve only ever eaten Oatmeal all day, every day in their life: how on earth do they begin to comprehend?

I think that people are sure that Depression is contagious. It’s not the common cold; you can’t get it from me. There’s so many well-meaning people that tell me that I’ll get over it and feel better soon and “think of nice things!” and I’m sitting in my mental hell, trying not to wish I would trip up and hit my head and die, or walk into the road and get hit by a car, and counting the seconds until the cloud lifts. I don’t know how to explain it so that someone understands. Sometimes I can; sometimes I tell people it’s a thick grey cloud and you’re lost in the mist and you can hear frightening sounds and shadows but there’s not a single soul for miles. Actually, I’ve never said that one out loud because it’s only just come into my head, but you get the idea, sometimes there’s perfect clarity. Sometimes, I can only shrug and gesture hopelessly. Other sufferers understand; there’s no need to pretend with them, or apologise for ‘feeling down’ or hide away. I like that; I can just sit quietly and listen to something: sometimes just knowing that someone else is struggling helps me to climb out of the abyss, however terrible that sounds.

Having Anxiety combined with Depression is a strange thing. I read someone who summed up Anxiety well and they said that it’s like when you miss the bottom step on the stairs and get that heart-stopping feeling. I think that’s a perfect way to put it. It’s that constant what if  that heart stopping dread creeping into your mind, that panic of missing something. There’s a difference between worrying (which I do) and having Anxiety. I can’t turn it off- of course, I want to(!) so telling me not to worry (shockingly) doesn’t actually help. What I find does help is when I tell a trusted friend what I’m stressing about and we go through all the lists of what could go wrong together and we find a solution for every one- that helps calm me down because I’m prepared for something. It doesn’t always work- sometimes I have panic attacks and almost faint, I get so bad. When I found out my mum was dying of cancer, I kept having panic attacks where I would vomit (I never normally vomit when I’m ill) and often I get very panicky in crowded places: it starts off with me feeling warm and anxious and grows until I get this feeling of being about to pass out. Once, I was in Poland and my friends’ father, who is a Paramedic, was very worried and gave me adrenaline. I still haven’t find out why it happens- I think a lack of iron is also contributing- but I have a fear of the doctors, so it’s a slow process.

This is also something that upsets me- people are often scared of going to the dentists and people understand that without an issue. I am scared of going to the doctors and people think that’s strange. I’m sweat-inducingly terrified of sitting in the seat in that closed-door room and talking about my problems. I know I’m doing it now but I love to write and the Internet feels different; I’m just a tiny person shouting into the void; it’s not got the same panicky feel for me. I have medication, which has been adjusted a few times, and the doctors try and help, but due to my fears, I’m not the most co-operative patient, I will admit.

It’s gotten worse since my mum died. She was protective of me, her withdrawn, clingy youngest child, and would march anywhere to help me. When I was trying to get a diagnosis, she was the one who dragged me to the doctors, explained my issues, and demanded they help- so they did. I remember that when I was being bullied in Primary school, she had had her 3rd cancer and it was a rumour in the leg. We lived about 15 minutes walk from that school and she hopped the entire way on crutches and demanded to speak to the Headmaster. I miss her so much, there aren’t words for it.

But when I’m in one – or both- of these states, I refuse to get help. I go into Survival mode and lock down the hatches, as it were. My only reasonably effective way of surviving a Depression attack is to curl up in my bed, listen to music that describes this burning pain (I find Guns N Roses to be a surprising help, especially achingly sad songs like Estranged and also Taylor Swift’s Clean is a lifesaver- there were days when that was the only song I could listen to) and wait for the storm to pass. I admit, I have cut in the past. I do not recommend this in any way- especially since my arms are scarred now and people gawk and ask offensive questions all the time- but cutting and seeing blood soothed my brain because I could see the literal damage I’d done and it reflected the mental damage (I felt) enough to calm me down. I even crashed my car, a month after mum died, with the stupid idea that I’d end up in a coma and wake up happier. I say this, knowing that I got help- I’ve been in Therapy for the last year, but it was a dark time for me, plus I had huge car insurance bills to pay.

I hate the past because everything behind me has a stain on it- I think that’s linked to my depression- and I view the future with anxiety so I have to remember to take each day at a time and find one good thing in each day, even if it’s just that I listened to a song I like, or I stroked a dog. Speaking of which, dogs and cats are an immensely good thing for me. I can’t count the times that I’ve cradled my dog or cats (I have both) and wept on them. They don’t understand why I’m sad but never underestimate the comfort they can bring with their quiet, reassuring presence. I never want to be without an animal; I would go so far as to say it’s dangerous. I lived on my own for 6 months without an animal and I got very depressed- they help ease the burden; a comforting solid guide in the fighting mist, I’d say.

I know it’s been a long ramble but I wanted to write this for anyone who suffers in the same way. I don’t want to trigger anyone or whinge about myself so apologies if I have come off in the wrong way but I do want them to find a peer who can empathise with them; you are not alone- that’s the most important thing to remember. Loneliness is dangerous: surround yourself with friends who refuse to let you isolate yourself; it can save your life.

I hope this helps anyone going through a rough patch- stay stable, and remember that every day you’re here is a victory for you.

Cats Vs Dogs: Who’s The Winner?

In the age-old battle of Cats VS Dogs, I have always been on the Dog side for as long as I can remember. That same-named movie did little to reenforce my view that Cats were Evil, despite the quality of the movie. I even managed to raise two German Shepherds, the ultimate Good Boys (and girl, of course) and have been as devote to Mans’ Best Friend as they have to me. When I lost one of my dogs to an illness, I wondered how it was possible to love another creature as much as that.

So when my circumstances changed and I moved into a flat on my own (the dogs are still in the family, don’t worry) I was irritated when everyone’s advice was to get a cat. A cat?! The mother of all Evil? Those cold, calculating, unloving creatures could never equal up to a Dog! I was planning on creating the ideal circumstances to get another dog- a piece of heaven- and I didn’t want to burden myself with a notoriously aloof animal in the meantime.

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At the shelter

However, loneliness is hard to live with and I eventually succumbed. One standoffish animal would be better company than nothing, I reasoned, and I had a plan. One cat could avoid me; two had a lesser chance. So, I resolved to go and find two friendly cats- if such a thing were possible.

There were many cats at the Cat’s Protection League shelter- a UK based cat adoption shelter- a few came as pairs and would be sent to new homes that way. But most were taken, despite people’s lack of appetite for ‘two for one’. Except for the two black cats crouched in one ‘cubby hole’, staring obliquely at visitors. No one was interested in Hank and Nemo, the overweight black monster cuddled next to his diminutive wife/sister?

I wasn’t planning on two black cats, to be honest, they looked hard to tell apart and weren’t exactly photogenic, plus I had no idea how to take a cat to fat-camp. But they’ve proved to be a blessing for me: Gus is practically dog-like in his behaviour and is as affectionate (to the point of clinginess) and kind as any canine and Macey is a purring machine. Oh yeah, I changed their names: new names, new start.

And there was more change; I had to move for various reasons and ended up living with my sister and her own German Shepherd (GSD) dog, Khaleesi. The cats have been growling, hissing and waving puffy tails for weeks. Today, they are staring at the TV non-plussed while lying calmly on Leesi’s own bed, while she is demoted to my sister’s feet.

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A new pecking order is established.

This has given me a new appreciation of cats- after all the hype around them, I never knew that they could be so generous with their own love. They may not be dogs and master’s of their own, but they’re perfectly willing to lend their hearts, provided it’s handled with delicateness.

The female cat (left) is a quieter girl but more than tough enough to stand on her own four paws. She has a delicate meow but can terrify a dog with a single hiss. Macey loves to curl up on you, even lying on my hips when I lie on my side. She has a fondness for pillows, the windowsill, and befriending people. Oh, and she snores louder than any man I’ve known.

Gus is a big softy. Literally. He will trample down anything to eat more than his fair share (and is now dieting henceforth) but is reduced to a sad gaze if he can’t cuddle next to you. He’s a coward who needs moral support from his sister but gives his heart away to the closest fusser. No matter where you are, Gus truly believes he should be too- more a lap-dog than a  alley-prowler.

These cats chose love over anger when they had to be rehomed after their elderly owner couldn’t take care of them, and resilience is their strong point. Time and time again, they’ve shown me that they’re not a substitute for a dog; they’re friends in their own right.

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Relaxing with the gang

So who wins the war? As a once-Dog-only lover, I have to admit in a draw: Dog’s are Man’s Best Friend but I now believe that Cats are their Wingmen.

The M-Word: Living Without A Mother

Everyone has a mother, of course, but some mothers are diamonds in a sea of sand. I was blessed with such a mother until I was 20, about two years ago. Mum died after battling cancer 6 times (yes, you did read that correctly) and at times, it seems like the cancer was a living beast gorging on her year after year. She’d had her first bout of cancer before I was even born and after three more lots were thrown into the ring, it seemed like she could live forever.

But people can’t, not even if you pour all your love and belief into them, even if they’ve managed to cheat death for so long. I remember that when my mum told us (my siblings and I) that she was dying, I actually laughed. She had been so strong and defiant that it had become a family joke that she could just keep on living; a coping mechanism turned cheer for us. When it finally sunk in, my laughter turned to hysteria and I had a panic attack. Guess who was on hand to comfort me, as always? There, sobbing and struggling to breathe in that crowded hospital room, with mum cradling me and stroking my hair, it was so hard to believe that she wouldn’t ever be in my life.

She was a remarkable woman. I can say that easily as I’ve heard so many people say it in awed tones, shaking their head in disbelief. Yes, she was a fighter and incredible in her own right but she was a superb mother. Our dad could be cold and harsh but mum was soft and giving, always ready to cheer on her kids or cuddle them; when she was angry with us, it stands out in my memory because it was so uncommon. Now, I seek out echoes of my mother in other people; the same phrases she used, a mimicking gesture, the way she laughed, or similar handwriting- there are ghosts of her everywhere, if you look hard enough.

I’m a big reader and I’ve read a lot of books about death; non-fiction and fiction. I naively assumed that this would help me to cope with losing mum; that and the fact that I’d grown up knowing that she could die at any time (she had her first cancer before I was born and her second when we kids were toddlers- there’s five of us) but that was nothing but stupidity. When I thought of losing mum, or dreamt of it as a kid, I cried and cried but I could always creep into my mum’s room and hug her and tell her my fears. She’d comfort me and promise never to die and she’d see my children grow up- and I believed her (poor mum, having to pretend she wasn’t scared herself). I’ve been afraid all my life of losing someone I loved but it didn’t make a dent on actually losing mum.

She died in her sleep, with my dad sleeping in the same hospital room, but she suffered for a long time beforehand. It started with a ‘trapped nerve’ that, after a check-up at the hospital, turned out to be a cancer growing in between the bones on her thigh. We began our usual mantra of ‘mum can beat it’ and prepared ourselves for the long slog of living-with-cancer. Except this time, it was a vicious version of breast cancer (she’d had this strain 3 times) and it had settled in her liver- due to mum’s previous radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments (the last of which had genuinely almost killed her itself earlier that year) there wasn’t any treatment that they could try. She was dying.

And here’s where mum really twisted the sword here; she was dying and in pain and scared and she still put being a mother first. She was there, comforting us as we struggled to deal with the news, preparing us for life without her, leaving behind voice messages and texts for us to cling to, and trying to hide her suffering.

I’ve never known love like it; she was the epitome of love for us- always loving, always trying for her kids. My mum taught me that people don’t last forever but their memory does; in that way, they live long after they are gone.

I didn’t make it easy for her. I was selfish; demanding her attention, berating her for leaving us, and falling to pieces when she needed me. I can never forgive myself for that but I do cherish my mum for how well she coped and tended to her kids individually. I was her ‘special little one’, the youngest of five children, but the eldest, who gave her her first grandchild, was loved just as equally, so was the quieter sibling who coped by trying to pretend it wasn’t happening.

One cruel memory I have is when mum was dosed up on morphine, for the pain, which was at the highest level they could give her, and it meddled with her mind, causing her to sleep more and revert back to a childlike mentality. Her hip was broken (this was where the cancer was- between thigh and hip area- and when the doctors had foolishly confirmed she was fine to walk on it) but she still tried to climb out of bed to fetch us Costa Coffee (a treat she loved to bestow on me) or walk to the bathroom (she couldn’t do that either). One day, I lashed out at her after she had been babbling about something and told her that she didn’t sound like our mum anymore. It must have reached through the fog somehow because she clung to my hand and insisted again and again ‘I am your mum, I am, I am’ in her new chilliest voice. How often I’ve hated myself for saying that to  a dying woman! But that’s the kind of lady she was; mother first, herself second.

She did crumble at time, especially before the morphine changed her; scared of dying, scared for us. At those times, when the room was empty, I clambered awkwardly on to her bed and we cried together.

We all took in terms to stay the night and although they were terrible at the time, I’m glad that we experienced them and mum wasn’t alone. One night that I was with her was spent with mum repeatedly pressing the assistance button, begging the nurses for more morphine because the pain was so bad. We were trying to watch ‘our’ DVDs- 13 going on 30 being one- but mum needed constant drinks, turning over, and the nurses kept coming to check up on her. Still, mum lowered the rails on her bed so we could put my camp bed against her hospital bed and cuddle. I remember my head being placed against her chest, listening the the rattling and off-beat heart (she also had heart problems, from the chemo) and wondering when it would stop.

All this time later, the memories are a blur and I think my brain cuts off from them whenever possible. I wouldn’t say that the grief has eased in the last year but it’s the backdrop to my life rather than the centre piece. I think of mum every day, I could hardly not when we were so close- but the memories are sweeter now, I try to remember the good times rather than just the bad.

It was easy to make mum laugh and my dad delighted in doing it; we were a rowdy family who bunched together and jostled over who could make everyone laugh. I envy my sister for being the mirror image of mum but I take consolation in the fact that I was the court jester; I could be wheeled out to summon a smile or laugh, even at the hospital. Now, I work to keep mum’s memory alive, terrified that it would fade away like her- now I know that nothing will dim her for those that new her; she’s part of the landscape in our lives; like a tree bestowing shade upon visitors.

Now, I have gotten used to my mum not being here. I don’t try to send texts to her anymore, or assume she’s in her bedroom and I can state calmly to enquirers that my mother is dead.

It hurts, but it’s a pang rather than a burning.

Photographs of her are scattered throughout my home but I don’t hoard and obsess over her belongings like I did in the bleak days just after she died. I suffer from depression and it obviously worsened after mum’s death; for the better part of a year, I was desperate to die too and hoped that being involved in a car crash would result in a coma and thereafter death (bad idea; the result was a written-off car and hefty bill) and I was obsessed over anything belonging to my mum; her clothes, her texts (she also left me voice messages, as she knew she was dying, that express her love for me) her furniture, her photographs. I’m a sensitive person anyway and very sentimental so I suppose that was an expected outlet for me but for all my clinginess to anything related to my mother, it all seemed to be sucked into a vast vacuum of grief; nothing seemed to soak up the stain that her death had spread into my life. I’m religious and my faith did help to cushion the fall but thoughts of what happens after death didn’t help as much back then when I wanted my mother now. Comparing that to my siblings, who were less public about their grief, frustrated me. I wanted to be as ‘calm’ as they were; I didn’t appreciate back then that they were hurting just as much but they had different outlets to fill their crater with.

We are now able, after almost two years, to live our life actively; before, we were simply surviving. My brother is pained that my mum last knew his daughter as a toddler, but she knows a great deal about her nanny; my other brother wishes that his fiancee had met his mother; one of my sisters completely changed her life (and hair) after mum died and wishes her mum was there to witness it. She’s gone but certainly not forgotten.

What I can sum up about such a complex subject as grieving is that we all take our own route and we can’t tell what each person is going through. It’s hard to watch and even harder to live through but eventually, the storm subsides into a rainbow; her beautiful memories becoming a story of strength, courage and love.

10 Things That Are Comforting

  1. Rain. Love it or hate it, rain is a necessity for life on earth, as part of the water cycle. I happen to love it, especially when I’m inside and near a window. When that rhythmic faint pitter-patter dances off the wet ground, it tends to be backdrop to pondering.
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Rainfall can be very soothing (pictured here at Clumber Park, UK)
  1. 2.  Your favourite song on the radio. It’s so satisfying knowing that the song you love so much is being blasted out to a new set of listeners; maybe it’ll be their favourite too? Anyhow, the song always seems different when being played in public than in the privacy of your car or home- does anyone else think so too?

3. Speaking of which; hearing childhood songs. Nothing can take you back to those hazy days as quickly as listening to a song that was a huge part of growing up; cue a photo album playing in your head to the tune of *that* song (ours was Norah Jones and Mariah Carey, FYI).

4. Cat Purring. Cats are strange creatures, let’s be honest. I can certainly see why the Egyptians used to worship them; that haughty, imperious feline transforms into a goofy fuzzball at the touch of a well-placed finger. (There’s scientific reasons why cats purr, by the way) When a cat is purring, you just know that everything is right with the world.

5. Dogs. I’m not being specific here but literally everything about dogs is something to celebrate: wagging tails, snuffly noses, warm fur, little woofs, their joy at absolutely everything. Whether you receive your doggy from a reputable breeder or a charity like Dog’s Trust, 10/10 recommend saving your soul by getting a dog. Dogs were created to remind humans of their souls- I’m sure of it.

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Dogs really are Man’s Best Friend

6. A good book. If you’re not a reader, first of all, I pity you, second; you can substitute this with an old rom-com complete with blankets. Books are an ancient form of communication but they’re still as vital to us today. They’re available in virtually any format and can be re-read as a comforting ‘snack’ – There’s plenty of good on-line stores like The Book Depository and Waterstones so fill up your bookshop today!

7. Photographs. If you’re the one in your group that takes all the photographs, you’ll feel satisfaction reading this. It’s such a good feeling to pool around a pile of photographs or laptop and pour through memories- and being sure to include a really bad photo of your brother, for comedy’s sake!

8. Home Cooking. Yes, it’s time consuming but ‘better than shop-bought‘ really is true! Remember your mother’s classic Orange Drizzle Cake? Or your grandma’s Spaghetti Bolognese that only she can get to taste like that? Exactly.

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Home Baking is very satisfying (and tasty!)

9. Pyjamas. I think Duvet Day is the most relaxing set of words in the English Dictionary. What else sums up peace, blankets and cuddles straight away? It may not be acceptable to wear your pyjamas outside (something I will never get over) but they bring immense joy to the wearer when pulled on after a long day. We all know that pun-based pyjamas will never dye out.

10. Reunions. This probably wouldn’t be your first thought (or tenth, in this case!) but meeting up with family members and friends that may as well be family is a very grounding, joyful thing. According to Psychology Today, many people are having an identity crisis and also struggle with Metaperceptions  so being with people who not only know you well but truly love you can be very soothing- and you can probably tick off the things on this list with them at the same time!)

Anything that you think I missed off? Add your own comforting go-to in the comments below!