As Christmas approached I was reminded that it is nearly ten years since my father died. He died at home, body finally failing from gangrene, diabetes and decades of heart attacks and strokes. I was 27 and my mother and I had been his carers for 17 years. They were not pleasant years; he was manipulative and abusive and put us through hell.
His death freed me to face another issue, crippling depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress. I spiralled quickly downwards until I ended up on benefits, unable to leave the house, unable to operate as a human being. I went into counselling and fought back, faced the clichéd responses from people with no understanding of mental health. I was nothing but a lazy malingerer to them, a parasite that had to “get his finger out”, “pull himself up by his bootstraps”, get over himself, get out of the house and get a job. I had people say “give him to me and I’ll whip him into shape in a few days”.
I went through hell, again, not because an idiot told me to, but because I refused to let my life be defined by an illness. Years of deep counselling, every week, that would leave me shaking and sick to my core. After I broke down completely it took two and a half years of that before I could leave the house, but I eventually got two hours a week volunteering with a charity.
They were brilliant, understanding and supportive. Two and a half years later, I got a part time job with them, two years after that and I’m doing the job of the brilliant lady that I started volunteering for all those years before. I’ve been signed-off as no longer needing counselling, and I truly don’t. I have my own house, I can stand up in front of rooms full of people and deliver training to them without thinking twice about it. I have things that were impossible dreams ten years ago.
So why am I not happy? Well, it’s not all been plain sailing. My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year and I faced the spectre of becoming a carer again. Thankfully I had support and help this time and managed to get her into supported housing where she’s really happy, but the last year has been as brutal in its own way as all the others.
But that’s behind me, there are no threats left. No stresses and strains. I should be happy. So why am I constantly fighting the return of depression? Why do I feel worse than I have in years?
I fear that my life has taken its toll. I fear that it has hollowed me out, and the scars it has left behind are so thick that I feel nothing. I don’t know how to live a normal life. I don’t understand friendships or relationships. I feel things only when other people feel them and only feel alive when I can look at the world through their eyes, what was grey and irrelevant becomes vibrant and full of feeling, just because I’m with someone who sees it. If I’m alone I feel nothing and I fear that this makes me overbearing and hampers my ability to form relationships, because I crave that feeling of being alive more than anything else.
I have fought for decades. I have survived. And now, when I have achieved impossible things, I falter, because without the fight I have nothing left and nothing to live for. I did not expect to survive it and do not know what to do now that I have.
All I can say for sure is that other people matter. As much as I would have rejected that years ago I have to embrace it now. People saved my life, people have given me the foundation to fight back and people now give my life meaning. Their actions have an effect on how I feel, they can lift me up with common, everyday feelings that I can’t experience and light up my entire day, or they can sink me with a thoughtless word or careless action. While I struggle to find life and meaning, I find it in others and, very slowly, inch towards finding it in myself.
It’s a very vulnerable situation, but it is the situation I, and I’m guessing a lot of other people, are in. So please, be kind. Your words and actions can make or break someone fighting a battle that you likely can’t understand and, if you have a friend that’s annoyingly keen to spend time with you, please be patient. They may just be trying to live again.