For Mental Health Awareness Week, I am re-sharing the links to my three posts on my recent battle with depression and anxiety:
I was proud to wear my #GreenRibbon today in support of Mental Health Awareness Week:
“Lloyd” – as my name was called I walked slowly and unsteadily towards the consultation room. Inside, in a detailed and extremely wide-ranging conversation, I talked about how I’d been feeling and how things had been, and continued to, deteriorate over the previous few months (more in Part 1 & 2 on that).
The diagnosis from my consultant psychiatrist was clear I was suffering from pretty severe depression and anxiety. Some of my scores on the tests they undertake to test these things were nearly off the scale (not that I realised it at the time). Also, my depression and anxiety was likely to be a biological one – due to a chemical imbalance in the brain – that’s not to say other things going on in your life don’t aggravate it but that it’s likely there in some form most of the time. That explained why, when I’d come off my medication in the middle of 2017, the house of cards had collapsed and it had been nearly impossible to put it back together again.
The next part I found terrifying. We discussed if I actually needed to go into hospital for some intensive treatment. That hit me like a train. That cut through the haze I was feeling. Bang. Right between the eyes.
I wasn’t too fussed on that, I was convinced it probably would have made me worse. We agreed I should not stay in my flat on my own to recover, I needed to be around people who could care for me. So, it was agreed I would go back to Wales.
My medication was overhauled. My previous medication was altered and a brand-new medication was introduced – which would gradually increase in dosage as I saw if there were any side effects.
I can write about it rationally now but the whole morning of that day was nothing short of a whirlwind. At the time I had little to no idea what was going on.
I left the hospital and out in the street I rang my mother. I genuinely couldn’t remember what had just happened. I remember saying I’d been given a “bag full of medication to take” – I hadn’t it was just a few more tablets. I broke down in tears on the phone and sobbed uncontrollably. I remember thinking at that point maybe I’d made the wrong decision about not going into hospital. I couldn’t cope anymore.
I rang my Granny and a similar experience occurred, I still couldn’t remember what had happened in the appointment and I broke down in tears again.
Harder still was explaining to my family the dark suicidal thoughts I’d been having. We have pretty immediate family experience of suicide, so that was genuinely one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had. Thankfully, and as always, they responded amazingly and said they were glad (if that’s the right word) to know and by getting it out in the open with them, I could get the help I needed.
I was a blubbering wreck. On the streets of central London, no less.
Luckily, somewhere deep inside my seemingly non-functioning brain my lawyer’s training had helped. I’d noted down a few things in my trusty notepad during the consultation. I didn’t remember I’d done this of course. But I managed to piece together what had happened and I went to get the prescription for my new medication dispensed.
The thought of organising my journey home from London seemed overwhelming. When I’m well I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Click, click and its done – all online. Easy. It seemed like a major challenge now.
Anyway, I got home. It was different to how I’d felt before and explained in Part 1 & 2. This time I felt totally numb. Everything was negative and all consuming. I wanted to just sleep and never wake up. The problem was I couldn’t really sleep at that point. I was stuck in a perpetual cycle of misery.
What little sleep I could get was punctuated by frequent and lengthy spells of being awake. Time which was spent worrying and feeling incredibly negative about the world and myself. It was destroying me, no matter how hard I fought.
For at least the first week of being home I cried every morning when I woke up. The suicidal thoughts would permeate through even the simplest activities, in the shower, making some coffee. The negativity and misery was everywhere I looked. I couldn’t escape it. Not for a second.
As I sat there staring at the new tablet I was about to take, I wondered if this would be the answer. Yet the negativity kicked back in. The previous one hadn’t really worked. Why should this? Any glimmer of hope disappeared. And disappeared quickly.
Through the whole of this chronic period my energy levels were even lower than before. At the end of each day I’d feel like I’d run a marathon – I hadn’t of course. I’m fat for God’s sake.
I’d try my best to instil some sense of routine in my day, if you can call it that. I’d at least try and be out of bed at a half sensible time and have a shower. Some days that was easy, some days it was next to impossible.
I continued my CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. After my decline into negative suicidal thoughts, the therapy changed tact and focussed for several weeks on my own safety and developing a safety plan that I could revert to if I felt like I was about to act on some of the negative thoughts. I won’t go into the specifics of this but it involved getting several close friends / family to agree to be a part of the plan and agreeing a code word I could text or WhatsApp them in the event I felt something was about to happen. It’s a genius idea.
Every few weeks I would see my consultant psychiatrist and we would carefully monitor the impact the new medication was having on me. Thankfully, I seemed to tolerate the medication pretty well. These sorts of tablets can be hit and miss for some people, so that felt like a major victory. My medication was increasing gradually nearly every week and I started to see some positive results – the suicidal thoughts began to occur less often and my sleep was getting better. It certainly wasn’t perfect though.
In the early part of this recovery, I wasn’t really capable of much. I’d try and watch TV but I’d often get lost in the haze I was experiencing. I’d often have to rewatch crucial bits of programmes several times to try and work out what was going on. Not like me at all.
I reverted to what I call “simple yet rewarding” tasks. Things I could do easily, without much effort and I could stand back and get at least some sense of achievement. One afternoon, I planted a holly bush in a pot. It took me 10 minutes but it gave me a greater sense of achievement and uplift in my mood than anything had in that month had. I was so proud of it, it seems, I got my father to take a photo of it:
Inspired by that, I did things like moving books around on my bookshelves. Only 5 or 10 minutes a day. But I could stand back and feel like I’d achieved something, even if that was the only meaningful thing I’d done that day. It doesn’t sound all that exciting or fulsome now I’m sure as you read this but it meant a lot to me at the time. Compare that to my usual complicated work as a lawyer and you can understand how basic we are talking.
Crucial I think to my escape from that period was being strict on using my phone and social media. For at least two weeks, I would give my phone to my mother in the evenings so I couldn’t take it to bed and I’d often not look at it bar an hour or so in the evening all day. It was refreshing and liberating. It certainly helped. I stopped all social media and bar a few messages with friends and that I didn’t really have much contact with the outside world.
There were points where I wondered if I’d ever be well again? I contemplated what my life would be like if I couldn’t get out of this patch. Thankfully I didn’t dwell on that too often but it was a recurrent thought around that time.
As we rolled through February I was beginning to feel like I was starting to get better. The deep depression and anxiety I had felt was not as deep and not as bad. It felt more under control. I wasn’t better, but I was getting better.
I continued with my weekly CBT and visits to see my consultant. They were pleased with progress, so was I. It was time towards the end of February for me to go back to London and go back to work – a phased return again. I’d split my time between Wales and London, so I could continue my recovery at home but start to get a sense of routine and normality back into my life.
As I boarded the train in Cardiff Central to London Paddington, I realised this train journey summed up my future now. You’ve made it this far, but there’s still a whole journey to go. That’s how I felt. I still had months and months of recovery and work to do to get back to where I was. I’d escaped the very worst part but this was really only the beginning. I needed to learn to live properly with this condition. It wasn’t going to defeat me. Not for a second.
I want to thank the group of people who have acted as the ‘review board’ for the What Have You Got To Be Miserable About? series of posts. Their guidance was invaluable and they, along with some others, also contributed massively to my recovery, for which I’ll be forever grateful.
I have been truly overwhelmed by the reaction these three blog posts have received. I expected maybe my friends and family would comment and say they liked them. But I have received hundreds of comments, likes, shares, tweets, retweets and private messages since they’ve been posted. Many have shared their own struggles with me and I’ve been touched by their honesty and openness but also worried. I’m worried how widespread the issue of mental illness is. The statistics are shocking but if the messages I’ve received are anything to go by, the reality is far worse.
The plan when I started this blog was to write these three posts – which I found, in a strange way, therapeutic and a useful record for my own purposes – and stop. I didn’t plan to continue.
However, I’ve been inspired by what people have said to me and the reaction these posts have received.
That’s why I’ve decided I will continue writing. I want to continue the conversation that I seem to have started, entirely by accident. There’ll be no fixed schedule – I prefer it that way. I’ll document from time to time how my recovery is going and how my condition is.
However, next I’m going to write a short series on things which have helped me through my depression and anxiety, in the hope it can serve some use for others. So next will be ‘The Power of …’ series of posts and here’s what I’ll cover, in no particular order (as they say on X Factor):
Hopefully they’ll be interesting. They might not be. I haven’t written them yet.
As always, let me know what you think, particularly if things like this have helped you (or if you’ve helped someone else) through depression and anxiety. Over and out.
“You really aren’t very well” came the response from the doctor that I had raced across London to see on 6 October 2017. I had explained my symptoms and the downward spiral I’d been in since I stopped taking my anti-depressant medication (more in Part 1 on that).
We discussed how I’d been coping since and whether this was a momentary ‘blip’ or something a bit more deep-rooted. We concluded that I should start taking my anti-depressant medication again.
The feelings of failure returned. Again. I’d had to resort to the helping hand of medication. Again.
As I write this with a bit more hindsight (a wonderful thing and always 20:20) I wonder why I felt like that? If I’d been to see a GP and was told I needed to take some medication for my blood pressure I wouldn’t have questioned it. Not for a second. Yet, as I went to get my prescription dispensed, I almost cried at the prospect of having to do all of this again.
It was, admittedly, an afternoon of mixed emotions. I was upset I’d resorted to medication again but glad that I was now getting the help I so badly needed.
The doctor had advised that I needed some time off work for me to start my recovery and allow the medication time to work. Despite the fact I’d taken these tablets before it was likely to take around six weeks before they started to have any impact. Six weeks! How was that going to be possible? Fingers crossed it was faster.
And just to put a cherry on it, they can make you feel worse for the first few weeks. Heave. I wanted to be sick.
I’d decided, for some reason, to stay in London that weekend. I don’t know why. And I don’t really remember what I did. It was all a blur. I find that with periods of my darkest depression my memory fails me.
On the Monday, my mother suggested I needed to come home to Wales. I think the thought of the journey (one I’d made hundreds of times before) was just too much. I reluctantly agreed. But it was more to stop my family worrying than for my own sake.
I had a session of CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – that afternoon at the Nightingale Hospital in London. It was still only my second session so we were only just starting to get going. I was lucky my private medication insurance covered an intensive weekly, hour long CBT programme. From what I’ve been told, I would have waited months on the NHS to even start it.
I don’t remember the journey home to Wales. Which now I find worrying. I got back and retreated to bed. Exhausted by what had been happening. As I lay in the same single bed I’d spent my childhood, I pondered what on earth had gone wrong and hoping that I’d be able to function again.
After several quiet days at home, surrounded by my massively supportive and understanding family, I realised my concentration had evaporated. I couldn’t really read anything, let alone work out what it was about. Terrifying. I normally read a couple of books a month. Now I was barely able to read a couple of paragraphs before giving up.
My sleep was disturbed. I’d wake in the middle of the night worrying. Sometimes over the most stupid things. Had I locked the door of my flat in London? What was I going to do about my condition? Why couldn’t I sleep? Was my new oven working? That alone was exhausting.
I’d wake in the morning much later than normal. I’d hope that when I woke it was still dark so I could retreat to the safety of my bed and go back to sleep. It was my bunker. I was safe from the world there. Safe from my own worries. Safe from this shocking condition.
I occasionally write my thoughts down in a notepad. It’s not a diary but I find sometimes it helps to rationalise something if I actually have to write it down. I wrote nothing for the whole of September, October, November or December, with one exception. This entry, from 12 October:
I sit here, what do I feel? Not much. That was the problem. Not more than a couple of months earlier, something had snapped. Something inside. I’d gone from dealing with pressure and day-to-day life to a blubbering wreck incapable of even the most basic task. I’d wake in the morning, my body weighing what felt like 50 tonnes, unable to move or contemplate even the thought of facing the world. Life had never been easy and I don’t mean to be dramatic. But it hadn’t. I’d been someone who seemed perfectly capable of feeling the lows of life but truly incapable, most of the time, of feeling any of the positives. Now, people will say – what on earth? You can’t be serious. You never seemed like that – well let me tell you something: it was the most excruciating act.
I found it difficult to transcribe that, but as I said, it’s not meant to be dramatic. It summed up my life with depression and anxiety. Perfectly, in fact.
As the weeks passed, I continued with my CBT therapy, some in person and some over the phone from Wales. They helped. They weren’t life changing but certainly helped me rationalise my condition.
I’d go for a walk with my father every afternoon for an hour. The outdoors and Welsh air helped. Sometimes that was a struggle. Despite the fact I was at home and not doing much at all, I had little energy sometimes. This thing inside me was sucking away not just my soul but also my energy.
Towards the end of November, I started to feel a bit better. In hindsight it was all relative to the previous months. I could function a bit more. With the advice of my doctors, I decided to go back to work. A phased return. A couple of days a week. I certainly got an uptick in my mood when I came back. It was so good to see everyone and my friends in London.
Not long afterwards I took a long Christmas holiday. Before going home, I saw my doctor again. I explained I still wasn’t feeling like I did before all of this happened. My medication was doubled. I went off for Christmas in Wales.
Over Christmas I felt okay. I struggled some days. Some not. It was hard to gauge. Sometimes I thought it was all working out fine. Sometimes I thought we were on course for another disaster. I didn’t give it too much thought. Let’s play it by ear. Day by day.
As I went back to London in early January, I said goodbye to my family. No problem normally, I’ve been coming back and fore London for nearly 6 years now. When I was talking to my Granny, I burst into tears in her living room. I couldn’t believe it. What was going on? My heart was racing. I just wanted to disappear.
I managed to compose myself and go to London. It felt like a major victory.
Once I was back in London it focused my mind that something was still not right. On one of my days off, I didn’t feel great and went to see my cousin and her son and we talked about what had been going on. The more people I told, the better I felt.
Over the weekend, I saw a couple of friends on the Saturday – when we were out, I could feel the anxiety eating away at me. The depression too was raw. Heavy. Dark. All consuming. I spent all of the Sunday in bed. I couldn’t move. This was the worst it had ever been.
October had been bad. This was next level. To use a phrase from George W. Bush (he was talking about Trump’s inauguration speech) this “was some seriously weird shit”.
On that Sunday morning, I realised that I had ticked over into a more severe and dangerous phase of depression.
(I paused for nearly 10 minutes before I wrote this next sentence)
I didn’t want to be alive anymore.
I hated waking up each morning feeling like I felt. I felt upset I did wake up. I didn’t want this to carry on. I didn’t want to be alive. I never made plans to follow this through but the suicidal thoughts kept reoccurring and they were terrifying.
As luck would have it (I was a bit low on that at the time) I was seeing my GP on that Monday morning. I explained to him that I was feeling much, much worse. I explained the suicidal thoughts. It was decided I needed to see a consultant psychiatrist. This was very serious now.
I needed specialist care. I was told on the NHS this would have taken months. My private health insurance meant I went the next morning. I dread to think what would have happened to me if I’d had to wait months. It does not bear thinking about.
So, on Tuesday 9 January, I walked into the Nightingale Hospital in Marylebone. I knew that this was make or break time. I was disorientated, vulnerable and terrified.
In the third and final part of this series, I will talk about my further recovery and how after the darkest of relapses, I managed to put things back together day-by-day, piece-by-piece.
“But you’ve got a great life, what have you got to be miserable about?” That was the response from someone I told about a year ago that I was (and had for years) suffered with depression and anxiety.
I never really planned on making my condition public or talking about it other than to my close friends and family. So what changed?
Well I had been quietly taking a dose of anti-depressant medication for several years until a regular medical appointment in May 2017. With hindsight that period was one of my ‘good’ ones. At that appointment it was suggested I should probably start to wean myself off the medication I was taking. I agreed as I felt things had improved quite considerably.
What followed can only be described as a series of events which I never want to repeat again. These are not the sort of medications where you can go ‘cold turkey’ – you need to follow a careful plan of reducing the dose gradually over several weeks and months. The lawyer in me drew up a calendar and chart, carefully monitoring when I should take a tablet, then miss one. At first, I thought this was all rather easy. What was all the fuss about?
I then had a planned operation (totally unconnected to any of this) which went well and other than a wound infection, healed and caused no further problems. The operation served a good purpose as it took my attention away from the withdrawal. I had something else to think about.
Once the operation and the joys of changing dressings passed I started to notice something strange. My heart was racing constantly. I was vomiting when I woke up in the morning. I had these weird ‘zapping’ sensations in my head, like I was being electrocuted. I felt really quite unwell. At first I put it down to the fact I might have some lingering effects of my wound infection and it was a very hot period in London and I’m not a big fan of the heat. But it continued. And it got worse. Much worse.
I decided it was time to go and see a doctor. I explained my symptoms. I was suffering from classic withdrawal symptoms from this type of medication. I needed to ride it out or start increasing the dose again to stave off the withdrawal symptoms. Having already invested two months in the withdrawal, I thought I should carry on, regardless of how bad I felt. Perhaps that was a mistake, I’ll never know.
More weeks passed and things did start to improve on the physical side. Some of the zapping stopped and my heart didn’t race as much. Good. That’s progress. Wrong.
I had a long planned week in Wales in the middle of September. I noticed on the mental side my old symptoms quietly beginning to return. I wasn’t interested in anything. I didn’t really want to leave the house. I didn’t really want to leave my bed. With hindsight, posting photos on social media of me doing things was a way of diverting attention away from me not feeling great. I just hoped no one asked “How are you?”.
Back to London I went. I remember spending the train journey obsessing over some small domestic issue (I was having a new oven fitted) but I was fixated on it. Obsessed. One track mind. What if it didn’t fit? What if I couldn’t cook food? What if? What? What? Why? When? I was aware the depression and anxiety was all coming back.
In a more reflective moment in late September 2017, I wrote the following in my notebook “Perhaps its just because the emotions are more real now because the medication has finally gone out of your system”. Nice one, Dr Rees.
You get the idea, I’m sure, of where this is going.
September turned to October and my depression and anxiety was now back. It was a troubling time. I remember thinking, what on earth do we do now? A failure. Can’t function. Can’t enjoy anything. What’s the point?
The first week of October 2017 is one I’ll remember for a long time. As the week progressed I could feel things deteriorate before my very eyes. Each morning I got up (even at the weekends) I was sick at the prospect of the day ahead. I got ZERO enjoyment from anything, I remember painful social events where I’d put on my best game face whilst I was slowly disintegrating inside.
On Friday 6 October 2017 (my father’s birthday), it all reached a head. I woke up thinking I was deteriorating at such an alarming rate that I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Terrifying. I went to work and I remember being in a large meeting, hoping that I wouldn’t have to say anything. It was a meeting I’d been to many times and when I was well never even made my heart rate increase. I returned to my desk and broke down in tears.
I felt like a failure. I’d failed without the helping hand of my medication. How pathetic, I thought.
This was now an emergency. I couldn’t see an NHS GP that day or for at least a week, so I paid £50 to see a private GP that very afternoon.
It was clear to me, even at that point, that a mental health emergency was not treated in the same way as a physical health emergency. That made me angry. From the tweets I’ve received since starting to talk about this issue, it seems the NHS treatment available for mental health varies massively with those with major conditions waiting months, if not years, for treatment.
In Part Two I’ll pick up what happened in my initial recovery. How I thought things were going to plan until another major setback nearly derailed everything.