January 23, 2012

Dawn Willis blogs for Time to ChangeA funny thing happened to me last year. It didn’t start out funny, in fact in started out pretty awfully really.

For many years I’ve had a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder. It’s an illness which I manage well, and for years I managed to avoid huge ‘crisis’, that was until  November 2010 when I began a descent into what would be one of the worst forms of depression I’ve ever encountered; major depressive illness.

Anyone reading this who has experience of depression will know how devastating the effects are, to those of you who haven’t I can only describe it as something affecting both your body and mind to such an extent that it feels as if every movement you make is uphill, though deep sand, and every thought you have is struggling to emerge from a sea of treacle. It’s exhausting, debilitating and affects every single element of your life.

I did recognise I was getting ‘low’ but there had been some circumstances (or triggers, as some like to call them), which I knew were impacting on my mood, so I felt I was able to manage, and I did for a while, but slowly but very surely I began to cope less and less.  I got to a stage where I would sit all day in a dressing gown, in complete silence. I would gaze out of the window at the sea, and I would wish that I had the courage to walk into it, and keep on going until …. Well I am sure you know what my thoughts were.

I thought that I was managing to conceal the worst from friends and family. I’d update my Facebook status with something I thought amusing.  By around 2pm every day I would begin to consider getting dressed, and it would take me about 2 hours to make the move from sofa to into clothing for my daughter coming home from school.

Things came to a head on Boxing Day 2010 when the effort of appearing ‘normal’ and trying to make Christmas the occasion my family deserved meant I was immobile with depression, unable to talk, feeling physically sick and dizzy. I continued feeling like this and made my family promise they wouldn’t send me to hospital, at that point I felt that to be around more people who were unwell was something I couldn’t cope with.

My family made a hugely brave decision, to send me away for a short break. I have many friends in Luxor and I enjoy the country. My daughter had said “Mum is always relaxed there, always happy.” They contacted friends there, said I’d been unwell and asked if they were to send me over for a “rest” would they keep contact with me.

I arrived at the airport the day after New Year 2011, terrified, tired and shaking with anxiety. So nervous in fact, that I felt sure airport personnel would suspect me of some mischief, which made me more scared at the prospect of going through security.

Sitting on the aircraft, alone in an aisle I thought this is very unnatural, and weepy and worried on an aircraft is quite possibly quite disturbing for my fellow passengers nervously wondering whether my boots have been thoroughly inspected for dodgy substances.

There were two chaps in the seats in front of me, who’d apparently decided that I wasn’t to be ‘feared’ and asked if I was Ok, whether this was my first time on an aircraft. “No, I said, but it’s my first time alone.”  They were intrigued and I found myself utter the words. “I’ve been unwell, I have depression, and my family are sending me away for convalescence.” 
I waited, thinking; “what the h*ell? Why did I say that? Oh my word, they’ll think they’ve got a crazy woman on the plane and I’ll be chucked off.” That’s because I would normally have lied, probably said I was just a nervous traveller.  I was stunned that I’d uttered those words and scared by the response I may encounter. The seconds it took for them to respond felt like minutes suspended in trapped time, and I’m sure I held my breath.

“Oh, how terrible for you” said one chap. “I had depression, it was the worst time of my life, no-one could understand it.  Can you remember?” He asked his partner.
Nodding his partner said: “I didn’t know what to do, I said to him once, go for a walk get outside, staying in bed won’t help. He was devastated; I thought I was helping him.”

My five hour flight flew by as we discussed everything from mental health to Luxor, family and much more.
One of them said “Convalescence, what a great idea!”

During my time in Luxor I did begin the journey of recovery, and I blogged it daily. My family hadn’t told anyone what I was there to recover from, but I did, I told everyone who asked me why I was holidaying alone from the staff in the breakfast room to the Egyptian families I know. It was remarkable. I learned of other people struggles with mental illnesses, one lady whom I’d known many years confessed to having been close to suicide herself. It was incredible, nurturing and above all helpful, I didn’t have to act, I was being myself and this meant that getting better (or convalescing) was much more effective.

I was fascinated by the thoughts of the Egyptian people who couldn’t work out why, at a time when I was ill, I was not surrounded by family. They had no issue with the fact it was ‘depression’,  they said that in their homes I would be looked after, cooked for, visited daily by neighbours and friends, and I did wonder, if we as a nation, have lost that sense of community understanding and compassion. 

I was left to explain that my family would love to have been with me, there, but couldn’t afford to, and that I lived in a street I actually refer to as ‘Indifferent Street, and that British people generally don’t have the time to get involved, or live near relations. I explained that illness of the mind weren’t generally seen as needing care and rest, and that often people were too frightened to admit they had them because people would be cruel. The Egyptian people were bemused, and I think, saddened, hearing me say that. I’m sure stigma exists in Egypt, but I didn’t encounter it, nor did I feel it was something which lead to such levels of discrimination that sufferers there felt as ashamed and fearful as we do.

I left Luxor reluctantly, but stronger, and most of 2011 was a time where I recovered and reflected on this illness and how by sheer accident on an aircraft I’d began discussions which were not ‘lost in translation’, but which aided my recovery, and made me promise to myself that I would never again be scared to say; “Actually, since you ask, I’m really not OK.”

If you want to read more about my discovery of recovery, I blogged about this experience on my site.

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