I finally worked up my courage to write this post after reading Matt Haig’s outstanding book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ and David Mark’s article a few days ago about access to mental health services in the UK.
‘Well, the blood tests seem fine. It’s just age – you’re not getting any younger, you know.’
And my French family doctor smiles ruefully, as if to apologise for being so ridiculously young and glamorous in the face of my galloping infirmity. I had been complaining of weight gain, migraines, insomnia, lack of energy, occasional palpitations. She suspects menopause or a shade of hypochondria.
I cannot complain that she is not helpful. After all, I am not entirely honest with her as a patient. I am reluctant to share my whole story, and not just because I fear breaking down in tears and using up all of the tissues from the box she has so thoughtfully placed on her desk. I also fear being labelled, once and for all, as mentally deficient or unstable or somehow missing that even keel that most people seem to be able to find. If most people can balance on choppy waters and tack against strong winds, why can’t I?
My mother tells me off each time we speak on the phone: ‘You’re just too bloody sensitive. It’s all in your head. Stop dwelling on things.’ This comes amidst many other helpful suggestions on how to fight obesity, be a better parent, earn more money and be more docile, loving wife. Unsurprisingly, our telephone conversations often end in shouting matches, so are becoming less and less frequent. But I fear she may be right (about the sensitivity bit) and I chide myself for being so weak, so helpless.
The other thing I fear is being given pills to dull my senses and make me gain even more weight. Pills speak of lifelong dependency rather than a temporary measure: it’s about acknowledging a long-term condition rather than a momentary blip in the system. Visions of 1984 hover in the sidelines. Fears of being sanitised and lobotomised swim towards me like shark fins. How will I be able to keep up with my children’s sprightly chatter and constant requests if I am dull as a cow laid out in pastures with grass too high for her to comprehend?
When I was younger, the periods of grim depression beset me mainly in winter, and were offset by manic bursts of activity for the rest of the year. As I get older, those moments of frenetic energy have become too strenuous and it’s greyness evermore. Everything is slowed down to the point of unbearable. I cannot think of more than one thing at a time and I’m forever forgetting what I was supposed to be searching for, where I left my papers, whether I’ve paid a bill or not. I leave everything for later because it is too difficult to do immediately or today or tomorrow or … soon. I get caught out without winter tyres when the snow begins to fall, so my car lurches and sloshes from kerb to ditch.
A sunny day makes me want to crawl under the duvet. You don’t even want to know or imagine what a rainy day makes me feel like. Above all, I want to dig my nails into my flesh, to escape this inner pain which seems to find no release, day after day after day.
When the self-pity has had its play with me, guilt and sneering take their turn. Middle-class ‘woman of leisure’ problems! The world is burning and this here woman can think of naught else but combing her hair! There are hundreds of people starving or dying or losing their homes all over the world at this very moment, while I’m boo-hooing about getting old, failing to live out my childish dreams of being a writer and an academic, being stuck to a faithless husband who doesn’t understand me – the oldest cliché in the book -, children grunting their way towards their teens, a family life which seems as alien to me as if I’d been parachuted somewhere in Papua New Guinea. Only the cargo cults don’t worship me – they despise and can’t wait for my ship to sail away.
My shepherd ancestors – tough cookies one and all – would despise my whingeing. They witnessed the rise and fall of empires, tyrants, wars, forced collectivisation, betrayals in the name of the fatherland or the Communist ideal or simply greed for one’s neighbour’s land or herd. ‘Life is hard, yes, but grit your teeth and carry on! Don’t expect anyone to help, love or understand you. Go up the mountains, all by yourself, find some peace and a mountain stream.’
But I’ve always been a weak urban sapling. The mountains I climbed, the streams that I found, I wanted to rejoice in them with others. I needed to believe that someone cared, that I could be my anxious, failing self and still be respected and loveable. Now I know that all love is conditional. And compassion is not an endlessly renewable source of water. Sharing is a weakness and each one of us is alone – that is the only thing we can count on in life.
‘My therapy is writing and reading,’ I used to say in my twenties with a faraway look in my eyes, hoping I resembled Emily Dickinson rather than Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen rather than Virginia Woolf. But, in truth, it has become more reading than writing now. How can I give voice to my grief and doubts without becoming annoyed with my privileged, spoilt self? How can I deal with the confetti of time left after anxieties, night sweats, endless To Do lists, yet another last-minute catch-up for work, yet another change of plan regarding parents’ evening? What words (other than swear words) will come when I tremble with fury after yet another point-scoring conversation drowning in logical circles? I cannot trust my own thoughts, my own words. I have to feed on the words (and pain and grapplings) of others. It gives me perspective, it makes me feel less alone.
Meanwhile, other than my compulsive reading, all I can do is flounder and flail. Now I understand my childhood nightmare of drowning. It was in fact not water but ash and sand in my mouth. The struggle to appear normal and smiley. The need to carry on.