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Moving Through Depression

by Maggie Baker(more info)

listed in depression, originally published in issue 34 - November 1998

Drinking is one thing. Sleeping is another. Eating is something else. If I could sleep for a week I would, but I can't. I drink more tea than alcohol, though both are addictive. And my eating patterns are erratic – but then I do like each day to be different. My life now is certainly different to the way it was two years ago; to the way it has been for as long as I can remember.

Original artwork by the author

Original artwork by the author

Two years ago, at the age of forty, I was diagnosed with depression. Depression wasn't a new arrival in my life at that point. It had just taken a long time for it to be identified; not least by me. Apart from a brief breakthrough in my early twenties, it was 'normal' for me to struggle, in ways which I've only recently related to depression.

So what has been my experience of depression? And how have I coped with it?

It's sometimes necessary to look back before we can return to the present, and begin to look forward again. I don't remember much about my childhood, but in my adult life I've lurched from one crisis to another.

Aimless after art college in the late 1970s, I had a series of jobs but never felt 'keyed in' to any of them. After a disastrous marriage in my mid-twenties, I met Anthony. We were together for over ten years; even had a business together. The business nearly pulled us into bankruptcy but we struggled through that particular crisis.

I was in my mid-thirties, and I wanted to have a child. Anthony wasn't that keen but he agreed to try, and after about eighteen months I conceived. Concurrently I was diagnosed as having an over-active thyroid gland; within days of that diagnosis I miscarried. After a course of drugs followed by surgery I was given the all-clear and hoped that my dream of having a child would finally come true. But it didn't. I kept hoping, waiting, putting on a brave face, wondering. I began to wonder why other people had families, holidays, something to show for all their hard work. Anthony and I had a house but we'd had to remortgage it, twice, to pay off debts from our business.

By then I had a demanding job which was also very stressful, in a working environment which was anything but supportive. Deep in my heart I knew that the climate and conditions – of our relationship and our circumstances – weren't right for us to have a baby, but I couldn't help hoping, waiting, wanting. And in a way it kept me going, having something to hope for, something to work towards.

For years I had tried to see each disaster or difficulty as an experience to learn from and build on before things started to get better. It was my way of coping; my way of getting through. Yet my inner struggle just went deeper and deeper, and there never seemed to be a clear way through. There was always another hurdle to get over; another obstacle to see as a challenge.

When Anthony's job was made redundant he started a course at a nearby college. It wasn't going to be easy but I thought we would manage to scrape by, as usual. A few weeks into his college course I knew something was going on. I guessed before he told me and in a way it was a relief. Even so, I was still devastated when he left; left me for someone else.

I was 38 years old, nearly 39. In a state of anguish I looked in the mirror and screamed out loud, in disbelief and despair: "You've ruined my life! You've ruined my life!" I don't know if I was screaming to myself, to Anthony, or to the whole world. And as I screamed, I suddenly saw myself – with all the physical signs of ageing, as a sign of failure.

Even the 'brave face' I'd put on so many times in the past was crumbling. I didn't know what I was going to do, but it wasn't too long before I started to realise that this time – perhaps for the first time – it was different. This time I needed help. Desperately.

So how did I go about finding help? And what form did it take? A friend suggested counselling. I'd barely heard of counselling before and thought it was something I probably couldn't afford. Even so, I made enquiries and arranged to see a counsellor in the first week of January 1995. Anthony and I had split up in the November. Now it was December and I still had Christmas to get through.

A friend invited me to join her and her family for Christmas dinner. It meant a lot, that invitation, that year – the best Christmas present I've ever had or ever will have, that's for sure. But I could only hold back the tears for so long, and then on the drive home I got a flat tyre!

I started smoking again. I didn't smoke a lot, but I found some solace in sitting on the floor with my back to the wall in the spare room, letting my thoughts drift away with the smoke for a while. I drank as well: whisky sometimes; wine at other times. I don't advocate alcohol as a long-term solution, but as with any solution there are times when it seems appropriate to apply it to a particular problem. That Christmas I often turned to whisky and wine, to release tears and bring the relief of sleep, even if it was just for a few hours. I walked around the block sometimes, watched television, smoked a bit, sat and worried; walked a bit more; drank again, cried again, slept again. Each waking minute seemed like a day, every day was endless, aching, empty. The holiday period finally came to an end and I went back to work.

At my first appointment with the counsellor, Deanna, I didn't know what to expect but thought perhaps I was meant to talk about my problems, so that's what I did. I started giving an account of what had happened to me. I started talking, and Deanna listened.

She listened a lot in those early sessions, with occasional comments, summaries and observations. I felt awkward at first, sitting opposite Deanna. Many months later we started sitting side by side on the settee, but initially I opted for a big pink armchair. Face to face, it was a new experience for me – a very new experience.

As I began to talk about events in my life, Deanna would listen. Sometimes she would ask me a question: "How did you feel about that, Maggie?" "How are you feeling now?" At first, when she asked these questions, I would invariably go blank: "I don't know" would come the answer, sometimes immediately, at other times after a few moments of searching for an alternative, only to find that there was nothing there.

No one had ever asked me about my feelings before. Indeed, part of my coping strategy in the past had been to push my feelings further and further down, to brace myself and carry on.

Over a period of a few months, through a one-hour counselling session, weekly or fortnightly, I began to see patterns emerging. Slowly at first, reluctantly even, I began to realise that many apparently different experiences in my life had essential common aspects to them. Why? What had been going on? This was more new ground for me and though tentative and hesitant, even horrified at times, I'd embarked on a retrospective journey that amazed and, in many ways, enthralled me. I'd also started exploring in other ways too.

When Anthony and I had been together it had been easy for us to hide away from the world in each other's company. Now, every evening and weekend dragged on interminably. I looked around for things to do, to keep me occupied and get me out of the house. In the local library I saw a poster advertising a series of meetings: 'Practical philosophy: the love of wisdom'. I tried to find reasons not to go. My usual excuse was that I couldn't afford it, but somehow I knew that I couldn't afford not to this time. So I forced myself to go along to the first meeting – and threw up when I got home later that evening, with a combination of nerves and cigarettes. The same thing happened the following week, but I'd signed up for a course of twelve classes and I kept going, week after week. The social aspects of taking part in these groups meetings were difficult for me, but I found the content of the course fascinating. It was essentially practical, and this helped me a lot.

An important feature of the group meeting was a brief exercise which we were encouraged to practise 'twice a day'. The exercise involved sitting still for a few moments, listening to the sounds that we heard around us, but trying not to 'hang on' to or identify what we heard. Other people in the group, with busy family lives, found it hard to remember or set aside the time needed to practise the exercise at home, but not me. I sometimes practised the exercise more than twice a day – as often as I needed to, in fact. Almost immediately I started to feel a sense of peacefulness and wellbeing that I had yearned for; and even if it lasted for only a few seconds – which is all it did last for at first – those few precious moments were something to hang on to: a sense of swimming and serenity that helped me to face my fear of drowning.

A few weeks later I also started meditating. I had had no instruction in meditation but had read a little bit about it and had heard what others had to say. My method was to say a word or two over and over again in my head. My first words were 'love' and 'peace'. I found the results quite spectacular. At work, the stresses of the day were less inhibiting. Amazingly, situations that I had struggled with for years started to become easier. In finding sources of support, like counselling, the philosophy group meetings and meditation, I had also found ways of 'letting go'.

But I didn't just stop there. I also joined a yoga class and did step-aerobics once or twice a week. Next I joined a local conservation group, doing volunteer work on various environmental projects. I'd started looking for, and was finding, all sorts of new interests and activities.

After the initial difficulties of joining new groups and meeting new people, I began to feel excited and energised, and thought I was well on the way to building a new life for myself. I had no idea at that time just how much work I still had to do on the foundations alone. I still had an enormous amount of digging ahead of me. Nevertheless, I was rapidly discovering aspects of life, and aspects of me, that I'd barely known existed before, if at all.

A momentum started to develop. It wasn't so much like an avalanche, more like a rock defying all the laws of gravity and rolling faster and faster uphill, up a mountain. I peaked briefly, precariously – almost fatally – when I went on a conservation working holiday to Iceland. After that I started to crash back down. Slowly at first, then with great sickening thuds and wallops I went further and further down. Over a period of about eighteen months I plummeted into places so deep and dark and desperate that I thought I would never be able to crawl back out of them; I didn't even want to.

I resigned from my job. It wasn't an easy decision to make. I needed the money but enough was enough. I didn't know what I was going to do but I knew that I couldn't go back to the way things had been.

Over the next few months I managed to take some time out to rest and try to recover. Too soon, much too soon, I struggled to get back on my feet, and crashed back down again, farther even than before.

As layer after layer of me and my life crumbled and melted away I felt increasingly, utterly, exposed – wretched and wrecked. I can remember walking down the street on more than one occasion, feeling like I was, literally, a walking bag of rubbish. But no one disposed of me and I didn't dispose of myself either. I kept going, hanging on to what I could, even though nothing could hold me for long.

There were four essential points of contact that I clung to, desperately, during this period. One was reaching out, and just managing to grasp on to the notion that I had to learn something, anything, from what I was going through. Another was the solid support and encouragement I received from my counsellor. And another was just managing to grasp on to a sense that, in my exposed and wretched state, I absolutely had nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of. The final one was the knowledge that some people, like my friends and my mum, did care about me, like me, love me, even if I didn't, or couldn't at that point, like or love myself.

The person I'd become, and had liked being, for those few brief months had gone. The glimpses of light I'd had seemed cruel in a way as they had given me a taster of how things could be, how I could be, but only fleetingly. I couldn't hang on to those parts of me that could be gregarious, funny, carefree. I could only watch as they slipped away while I slipped further and further down into depression; much further than I'd ever been before. My counsellor tried to reassure me that these glimpses would return. Friends said there would be light at the end of the tunnel. I could only take their word for it. I couldn't see it, or feel it, for myself.

Eventually, as 1996 turned into 1997, I reached a point where I felt I couldn't possibly face myself, the world, the rest of my life. At this point I kept a promise that I'd made to my counsellor and phoned my GP. I spent three weeks in a psychiatric hospital and started taking the anti-depressant known as Prozac. My stay in hospital gave me time out, a chance to have hot baths, and not have to do anything much more than make a cup of tea. I began to feel a bit better, but even so I thought I would have to live out the rest of my life in a broken state. I also knew that to do this, to just keep going, I would have to make a lot of changes in my life; more than I'd ever made before.

I was still in a very depressed state, finding it hard to motivate myself to do anything at all. Most of the time I just wanted to crawl into a ball, be warm, and go to sleep. Forever.

But I didn't give up; I did keep going; I am still here (though not in the same place that I was before). The life I lead now is different in some ways to the life I was leading before. It isn't what many people might see as a 'normal' life: I don't have a partner; I don't have children; I currently have no fixed address – but increasingly it is the sort of life that is right for me.

Depression has been – is still – part of my experience of life. For me it hasn't, ultimately, been a no-through road. I've had good support but I've also had to, increasingly, learn to listen to myself, to find the right way through for me. This has been one of the hardest things to do, but also in my view, one of the most important. I can now do quite a lot of ordinary everyday things that I thought I would never be able to do again. And I can enjoy doing them. I'm also doing a lot of things that I never imagined I would be doing.

Whatever I do, I have to take my time, and work at a pace that is right for me.

* I spend a lot of time on my own. I need to.
* I cry quite a lot. In tears I find a welcome – and healing – release.
* I've recently stopped taking Prozac.
* Sometimes I sleep and sometimes I drink. I eat in a way which suits me and I'm gradually dealing with difficulties that I have in my relationship with food.
* I can't read much but I have been writing more and more.

Writing has become an important life-line for me. I've been throwing out a writing line to help haul myself back from the depths of depression. In doing so it sometimes feels like I'm setting out on a journey into unknown depths, rather than returning from one. At times the enormity of it all seems almost overwhelming; almost, but not quite.

I no longer feel broken and wretched and, though I know I've still got a lot of mending to do, life is really starting to add up for me now. At the age of forty-two, I've finally begun to realise that I can, and do, count.

Maggie wrote a follow-up article one year later. Click HERE to read.

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About Maggie Baker

Maggie Baker is currently based at the Cae Dai Trust in North Wales. Cae Dai is a registered charity providing practical support for people with psychiatric and social problems. She can be contacted on 01757 701576

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