Oooooooh, mental illness…

A friend on facebook posted this video of real women adopting model poses in public.  It’s quite funny, especially the woman who holds a handbag to her face as she sits motionless in a fast food restaurant.

Although it made me laugh, the most striking thing for me about the film is how the women are ignored.  Passing members of the public mostly just try to avoid eye contact. Acting out of the ordinary, others clearly assume these women are mentally ill and as such are objects of pity or fear.

I have, over the years, had moments of feeling like the mad woman on the bus.  I’ve felt so disconnected from rational thought that to open my mouth and speak aloud is a palpable risk.  It’s no fun.  I think with the wonderful benefit of hindsight that this is my fourth major incidence of depression.  I didn’t know it at the time, but the first was in my final year at university.  Very much in love the previous academic year, I became pregnant and was booked in without consultation for a termination by the GP who had just given me the news.  He didn’t suggest an alternative, and I didn’t ask.  I was bitterly sorry as soon as it had taken place, and I’m sure that was what triggered the end of the relationship and a pretty awful episode of depression and OCD during my finals.  Most people don’t know this about me. I expect there are some who would rather they still didn’t.

I suffered silently with post-natal depression after Pierre was born, nearly thirteen years ago.  In fact, I had no idea what was wrong with me.  I had everything I thought I wanted.  A third baby was more than I felt I deserved.  It took a professional to name what I had, and that helped me contain it. Twice since Juliette died have I slipped into the inky pit – a place that has scant links with legitimate and healthy grief.

Old habits make me want to apologise for being honest now, but I can’t. Perhaps therapy has loosened my tongue and distorted my perspective but I hate the secrecy and pretence in the way we talk and behave.  In Britain and most of Europe as far as depression and other forms of mental illness are concerned, the culture of simply needing to “pull oneself together” and “up by the bootstraps” lingers on.  Some I know deny the existence of depression as a condition.  To talk about it is embarrassing and to confess to suffering is an admission of weakness, and of personal failure. 

I’m open but I don’t exactly bend ears indexing my misery.  That after all is what therapists are for. I do sense that some of my peers find my frankness uncomfortable, but I can’t pretend all is sunny when it isn’t.  It used to matter to me very much that people thought I was alright.  Losing Juliette has narrowed my focus on what is important, and keeping up appearances while your insides shatter is no longer one of them. This year has taught me there’s no virtue or strength in blind denial of your human fallibility.

Equally, I figure no one has to read what I write, either here or in the book I wrote about Juliette.  Writing about it helps me feel less alone, and I’ve long been aware that in articulating powerfully negative thoughts and in giving them a name it weakens their hold.  I wonder too whether a few see themselves in what I write and feel less isolated just as I did reading others at earlier, desperate times.  Perhaps however this is just evidence of my depressional delusion.

Why is depression so feared, though?  That’s a stupid question actually – I’m bloody afraid of it.  A small part of me thinks, like many others less familiar with it than I am, that it’s contagious.  Is that it?  I’ve mulled this over since watching the youtube clip and I’ve decided it has more to do with our ancient ape tribal alignment.  Social inclusion depends on the intellect and conscious thought, and unconsciously we operate more like the beasts that we are. As in Lord of the Flies, the pack is strong and the individual is weak and whether we like it or not, we are evolutionarily programmed to crave the pack.  The mentally ill behave outside what is normal and acceptable and might even be dangerous.  Shunning them feels natural.  Avoiding the eye, then laughing with others about the woman on the bus, or the woman holding an odd pose in public binds us to our “normal” peers.

I know it isn’t only fear – the gloominess of a depressed person can be just plain boring. I am all too aware that depression snatches the colour from my written words and the wit from my speech.  I’m trapped in a room with the dullest person in the world, and that person is me.  Hell is other people, J-P Sartre?  I don’t need to venture out for my nether world.

An extraordinary fact is that worldwide, 1 in 4 people experience some type of mental illness over the course of a year but I know of only a handful.  I think an awful lot of people are keeping quiet.

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Invisible umbilicals

I bumped into Juliette’s best friend this morning.  Quietly, Lottie has put a card on Juliette’s grave each and every Christmas, birthday and anniversary that her friend has been dead.  It is a poignantly beautiful gesture which has become all the more so as the years pass and she grews up, away from the five-year-olds they once were.

Lottie hasn’t lived near us for a while, and recently her mother knocked on the door to say they were moving up to Yorkshire.  The hand-placed, usually hand-made cards were going to stop, and she didn’t want me not to know the reason why.  We’ve kept all Lottie’s cards, from those with childish letters she printed at five, to the beautifully calligraphed ones of recent years. Paula didn’t know we’d done this. When I told her, she cried.

Lottie was down in Essex visiting her Dad this weekend, and had booked a ride at the stables where Celeste has just started Pony Club.  I knew I wasn’t likely to see her again soon and I really wanted to say something meaningful, to thank her for her loyalty and love.  Instead I asked about Yorkshire, standing awkwardly with the horses until it was time to say goodbye to Celeste.

We live in a village so it’s impossible to avoid seeing children that Juliette knew, but Lottie is different.  I look at her and see a tall, beautiful, composed young woman that the lost friend she clearly still cares for, should be.  This morning I found that hard to bear.

*****

I’ve been sitting on another blog post since we came back from camping on Wednesday.  After feeling well for what seems like quite a few weeks, I was suddenly a mass of nerves again, and saw the black dog out of the corner of my eye too.  I’ve worked out why, now.

Elodie wasn’t well over the week the rest of us were fending off the rain in the Lake District.  My parents were lovely with her.  She ate well and got lots of sleep, but there were many more bad days than good ones and she was feeling pretty low with it all.

Months ago, before she was ill, we agreed that she could go to V Festival this weekend as a post-GCSE, pre A Level treat.  Three nights camping with friends and 24 hour live music seemed like a good thing back in March.  The mother I was back then thought she’d be OK, trusted that nothing bad could happen to one of her children ever again.

I dropped Elodie at her friend’s house on Thursday night, so that they could stake an early place in the campsite queue. As we drove there I kept looking at her, grim and grey through the make-up; a scared little girl in a woman’s body.  She wants to be the fun girl her friends knew, and I’m so afraid of how these few days will affect her poor body and mind. I used to feel sorry for mothers who worried.  I wondered how and at what point their faith in human nature and good providence had evaporated, but I’ve become one of them. 

I packed Elodie’s ruscksack with as much nutritious food as I thought she could carry, and when she reluctantly returned my hug as I bit back the words and tears saying good bye in front of her friends, I am painfully aware of how it all looked.  I don’t want to be this mother suffering an agonising stretch of the umbilical cord.  I want to be confident my birds will fly, and that they will be safe without me.  This feeling resonates too much.

When Juliette started school, she was nine months into her chemotherapy programme.  She was four and a half; a baby with experiences that break most adults.  Pale and vulnerable, she still wanted to be the same as everyone else.  She didn’t want the other children to notice the Hickman line tucked in a blue aquarium print bag on a red ribbon round her neck, or the fact that she had no hair.  I took a photograph that morning.  Juliette stands proudly, flanked by her big sister and younger brothers, one hand on her named school bags and the other protectively over Raphi’s car seat.  A pink hat clashes with her red uniform, but it’s her favourite colour and it hides her baldness.  I didn’t want to let her go.

Elodie doesn’t want the extra attention either, from me or from anyone.  She just wants to feel well again and be the same as everyone else her age. The intellectual part of me knows that she will eventually be OK, physically and mentally, but my emotional side remembers I believed Juliette would be too.

Hols

We’re in a confusion of boxes and bags for going away and as we’re camping for a week, it’s packing x 10.  Steph is a hot weather person, and loves returning to his native country, but I “suggested” a few months ago that maybe for once, we don’t go to France this year. Instead, we’re going to the Lake District. 

Steph is a hot weather person, and this area is possibly one of the wettest parts of the UK (clue is in the name) and it looks as though we’ll have rain for the first three days at least.  Normally he would hunch bitterly over the forecasts but there, this time he’s surprised me by not hunching, nor blaming me for deflecting France.  He said last night with a beaming smile that he has “low expectations” for our trip. This is my default mode whenever we go away. I think having low expectations is a great place to start because any good bits are a happy surprise.

We know the area is beautiful, and we’re both looking forward to lots of walking no matter what the weather does.  We’ve promised the children boat trips and possible fishing, so they’re all very excited.  Elodie, never a keen camper at the best of times will be staying with her grandparents for the week.  She’s hoping to ride, sit by the pool and be spoiled by her grandmother. I hope she’ll have a well few days.

I’ve been thoroughly depressed but glued to reports of the lawlessness occurring in London and our other major cities.  It will at least be lovely to be away from the television pictures and rolling internet coverage for a while, walking, eating and drinking with some good friends, and spending time with each other as a family. 

Fingers crossed for no spelling mistakes because we’re rushing out the door, now… 

Mother

I know I’m lucky. I don’t work, and that’s unusual for a mother these days. The extra money would be nice but a combination of lots of children, one of whom became very ill, and a paralysing lack of confidence in just what my marketable skills are after years of childbearing, have made working seem out of reach.

Once, I had a job. Before Steph and I got married, I worked in sales.  That was an accident.  I moved to London after graduating in French, and a recruitment agency put me forward for a position as a European sales rep.  For two years I sold Turkish polyester to industrial weavers across Europe.  I was 22, and had not the slightest enthusiasm for selling, but I had fun.  I suspect I got the job because my skirt was on the short side.  That’s not going to get me a job these days.

Not working (unless you count a tiny bit of paid writing) has meant spending a lot of time with my children.  That hasn’t always felt like an unadulteratedly good thing for me or for them. I’ve sometimes thought that I’d be a better mother if I had a life beyond the house, and I have worried about the example I’m setting my daughters.  Saz once told me half-jokingly that I needed to provide a positive female role model for the girls after she spent a night in hospital with Juliette.  In the morning, Saz kissed her goddaughter goodbye and said she needed to get to her office.  “Girls don’t work,” laughed Juliette, indulgent in her godmother’s delusion. “Only mens do.”

My own mother didn’t work or at least, not outside the home.  When school fees became too much of a burden, she opened our big, lovely but shabby house to guests.  Foreign language students we loved and welcomed into the family.  Bed and Breakfast visitors, less so.  A creative soul, she could have been an actress and has a beautiful singing voice, but she was never encouraged.  I did hope I’d be different.

My “failure” in the role of mother when Juliette died and the ensuing depression, blinded me. I felt useless, nothing more than my children’s unemployed carer, a benign yet passive shepherd with little influence. Worse, at times I’d become a malevolent instrument of hurt as the demons of depression took hold. I started to believe my children needed protection from me.

Therapy, blessed therapy, has made me value my role as their mother again.  Writing this blog now I feel somewhat shamefaced to admit that it’s more by accident than design that motherhood has been my career. I look at my children. In the past I’ve been surprised at what fabulous people they are.  This may sound falsely modest but I truly believed and goodness in them was a happy accident, nothing to do with input I’d had. Now I accept that I’ve had a hand in shaping them, but the clay is resolutely their own.

It’s seems a while since I’ve felt this way, but I’m loving the holidays. I usually appreciate not having to skitter out of bed to make packed lunches and chase after uniforms, but it’s more than that. The house is a tip, but rather than slip into my default (depressed) hysteria at the mess, I’m coping with it.  I’m just loving being around the children, and that’s making my heart sing. For me, the most terrifying aspect of depression is how disconnected you become from the people you love.  But the summer holidays loom long, and I feel like I’m getting to know and love my children all over again. It feels amazing. 

I’d had a bit of a break from therapy but I was back at the Priory on Monday. The timing wasn’t great with the holidays, but Elodie had enough energy to take charge at home and I reminded myself that they all need me to be well. I had an hour with my counsellor, then morning and afternoon groups. Unusually, I was the only person in each group, so it ended up being six hours of one-to-one therapy.  The whole day was about Elodie and her situation, which has been weighing very heavily on my mind.  There’s a lot more to her illness than anyone knew. 

When I got home, all four children were grinning from ear to ear.  They’d had a wonderful day, and had organised a “photo shoot” as a surprise for me. These are some of the pictures they took.

Despite our run of bad luck, I am still a believer in fate.  I struggle to imagine how we would have coped with our young family had I been working when Juliette was ill.  Less so how I would have grieved, and given each of them the support they needed. Now, Elodie needs some intensive love and what I’d be able to offer at the top and tail of the day just wouldn’t be enough, for either of us.  I’m a huge admirer of mothers who manage to juggle work and child rearing.  A big part of me feels they are more important, better people than me, but for our family so long as we can manage it, I’ll be at home. And if that means steering our way from one financial crisis to the next, then so be it.