Hope in the dark: a post for mental health awareness week

I’m not sure what triggered my latest bout of anxiety and depression.

Maybe it was the pandemic. Maybe it was getting ill last year. Maybe it was the scary blood test result I had in November which scared me half to death before it turned out to be nothing. Or maybe it was the second or third lockdown, each of which I found harder than the last one. Most likely it was all of the above.

I’ve concluded that the “why” doesn’t really matter, and trying to think my way out of the mess I thought myself into isn’t really helping.

What does feel important is the “what”: What it’s been like, these past few months, to battle with my relentlessly over-protective mind.

It feels important to share because—for all its good intentions—mental health awareness week sometimes feels like a parade of clichés and platitudes that fail to scratch the surface of what poor mental health really feels like.

I’m all for removing the stigma around mental health, but sometimes being not OK—whilst it shouldn’t be stigmatised—is anything but OK.

So here’s what it feels like for me, to spend time in the dark, and to find my way back to hope.

30 March: Dark

Today is the worst day of my life.

Things have been getting gradually worse over the past few weeks. The low-rumbling of anxiety has become louder and now, suddenly, it’s deafening.

I’ve been having panic attacks every day. I’m struggling to work. I’m struggling to eat or drink. I’m struggling to sit still and at the same time I’m struggling to get out of bed. I’m exhausted but I can’t rest. I feel physically dreadful. I feel sick all the time. Everything hurts. My eyes sting from near-constant crying. My muscles tense and twitch and my nerves buzz and zing with a seemingly impossible mix of energy and exhaustion.

I climb out of bed after another broken sleep and stare out of the window. I see the tops of the houses and the trees I see every morning, but today they don’t look the same.

Without warning, my mood is plummeting with alarming speed and force. Within a matter of seconds I’m feeling worse than the worst panic attack I’ve ever had. My feet are on the floor but I feel as though I’m falling. Time seems to whoosh and then slow down. I feel as though I’m suddenly 20 metres behind my eyeballs. The world looks like a sepia-toned nightmare, and everything warps and swims behind a layer of dread and horror.

In a few days time my therapist will tell me this feeling is known as derealisation. She’ll tell me she herself has experienced it recently, that it’s frightening but common, that it doesn’t mean what I think it means. But I don’t know that yet. I feel as though I’m losing my grip on reality. “I will never survive this”, I think.

I tell work I’m sick. I don’t go into detail.

James had to go into work this morning and I’m suddenly afraid to be alone. I frantically message my friend Anna, asking her if she’s free to facetime. My thumbs are fumbling and clumsy and I struggle to type. She replies straight away and within a minute I’m looking at her on my laptop screen.

I try to tell her what I’m feeling but I can’t find the words. “This is more than anxiety, Anna” I blurt out. “Something’s happening to me. I’m so scared”.

I’m really crying a lot now. I tell her I think I’m ruining James’s life and the lives of everyone around me. She tells me emphatically that I’m not, that she knows how awful I’m feeling but that I will get better. She tells me I should call her anytime I need to.

After a few minutes, I feel OK enough to end the call, but as soon as I do I feel a suffocating sense of dread.

I call the Samaritans.

A kind woman with a Manchester accent answers and I tell her straight away that I’m not suicidal. I feel like it’s something I need to declare. Perhaps if I say it, I can solidify it as a fact. Perhaps just by saying the words I can ground myself in the truth of being a person who is struggling, but who is not suicidal. The word “yet” hovers silently over the end of my sentence and I wonder if she hears it too.

It’s not a lie, but the truth is messy. The truth is that I can’t do this anymore. I tell her that, and I tell her I’m terrified of where this is heading. I want her to tell me it’s all going to be OK, whilst knowing she’s not really allowed to do that. Somehow she calms me down anyway.

I put down the phone and go to my Dad’s house. He lives alone and we’re in a support bubble, but I’ve been too scared to see him in person until now. Today I don’t feel like I have a choice.

I try to explain what’s happening. I’m trying to be careful because I know how awful the things I’m telling him must be for a parent to hear, and I don’t want to drown him in whatever I’m drowning in. At the same time, I’m trying to be honest because I’m afraid something’s about to happen and I feel like I need to arm him with the information he’ll need when he has to take over.

To my surprise he’s calm and seems to understand. We talk for a long time and I start to feel better. He puts on a comedy on the TV for us to watch, and tells me to try and get some sleep on the sofa.

I try to concentrate but I can’t. Waves of anxiety keep crashing over me. When I can’t sleep, and I can’t sit still any longer, we go for a walk around the block and then I call my psychiatrist who tells me to take a double dose of my meds.

My Dad walks me home and helps me explain the day to James. I take my pills and sleep for 14 hours, and I dream of tornadoes and floods.

9 May: Hope

I’m sitting in our back garden with James and his Mum and Dad. I’m biting into a warm scone with clotted cream and raspberry jam.

I’ve been looking forward to this scone. Looking forward to things has come back recently.

I pick a crumb off my jeans. The sun is shining on the back of my neck and a light breeze is gently moving the hair on the nape of my neck. I look out into the garden. The tops of trees and the houses that seemed so strange and menacing on that day a few weeks ago look normal again now. A pair of magpies dance and dive around the top of a tree at the end of our garden.

A few weeks ago I was kneeling at the edge of the lawn I’m looking at now, next to my Dad. He’d encouraged me to keep busy, and gardening felt like the right balance of absorbing, active and mentally undemanding.

I was pulling up the weeds from around the tulips that we didn’t plant, but that arrive faithfully every year like a postcard from the person who used to live here.

My mind would wander frequently as I worked, fearful and restless, assessing itself over and over for signs of danger.

And then I’d get to a particularly stubborn weed, or my Dad would say something, and I’d have to drag it back to the present.

It was ridiculously hard work then, getting my mind to focus on anything other than my anxiety. Carrying out basic tasks took the most colossal effort, and I struggled to hold conversations. If someone asked me a simple question, I’d stare at them blankly, trying to process what they’d said and retrieve the answer from the depths of my preoccupied mind.

Now James’s Mum is asking me how I’m doing, and I know she means my mental health. “I’m OK” I say, and I notice that I mean it. “I’ve just been trying to keep busy and look after myself”, I explain, “I’ve been gardening.”

This catches James’s Dad’s attention. He’s a keen gardener and wants to know what we’re growing. I list the vegetables and herbs we’ve planted and point to the courgette growing in a pot in the corner of the patio.

I planted those one morning a few weeks ago, when I felt so convinced something dreadful was going to happen to me that the idea I’d be around to see them sprouting up in a few weeks’ time seemed inconceivable. But here I am and here they are, with tiny fruits and blossoms starting to appear between the stems.

James’s parents go home and we start taking plates into the kitchen.

I’m wiping crumbs off the worktop and I move a book called “Overcoming anxiety” out of the way. It’s James’s, not mine. It was recommended by a friend whose wife struggles with anxiety and OCD, and he’s been reading it to try and get a better understanding of what’s been going on with me. Seeing it now reminds me that I’m loved and supported, even when it feels like I’m completely alone.

He bought it one day a few weeks ago after a particular talk we had. I was sitting on a chair in the living room, hugging my knees into my chest and absent-mindedly digging my nails into my legs so hard that later I found little purple half-moons on my thighs.

“I can’t explain it but I don’t feel like me.” I’d said to him, serious and wide-eyed. “You’re looking at me and I look normal you think I’m normal, but I’m not. My head is broken, James. I don’t know what to do.”

Understandably, he looked concerned and scared at this, and that scared me even more. I suddenly wanted to run away from him and that look, unable to bear seeing my own worst fears back at me in his worried expression. And so I went for a run. I ran until I felt exhausted and then I ran some more. I ran until I couldn’t think about anything but my feet hitting the pavement and the air moving in and out of my lungs.

I’ve been running a lot since then, and over the past few weeks things have shifted and I no longer feel like I’m running away. Now when I run, I’m running towards things: nature, sunlight, release, relief. I run towards that moment when my thoughts quieten down and give way to a sense of presence and peace. My focus narrows and my mood lifts.

The shift in my running habits reflects a shift of things in general, which are slowly but surely getting better.

There are more good days than bad, and that makes the bad days more bearable. Each day that passes gives me a greater sense of confidence in myself and in the future.

And with each day that passes, hope returns.