Lack of Communication
Looking back, it all seems so obvious. I struggle to make sense of how neither my husband nor myself spotted the signs and failed to prevent my plunge into severe depression. Eighteen months on, after diagnoses of severe depression and PTSD, twelve months off work, intensive therapy and medication, I can now confidently identify that it was my lack of communication and connection that led me into that dark hole.
It’s hard to imagine how a confident and capable mother and teacher, with a history of strong mental health, can reach these depths, almost out of nowhere. Yet in the months leading up to my breakdown, the signs were there:
- Exhausted, at home I did the minimum required to keep the family going and then crawled into bed as soon as I could.
- Distracted, conversations (even one-to-one) were hard to follow and represented an unbearable noise that I knew I had to respond to at a certain point.
- Irritable, when I did speak up it was normally in frustration about noise or mess or lateness or anything else I perceived my children or husband were doing wrong.
- Nervous, I tried to avoid staff meetings at work with a large number of adults in one room.
- Self-conscious, I chose to eat on my own at work and to mark books behind closed doors. I could sense something wasn’t right but, not understanding what, was desperate that no-one else would find out.
Lack of Communication Leads to Lack of Connection
What I didn’t realise in that state, is that the communication I was running from, avoiding and downright rejecting, was exactly what I needed to save me. You see, the less I communicated, the more inward-looking I became. The more inward-looking I became, the less able I was to connect to anyone around me. This included my husband, my daughters, family and friends. I literally saw myself on the outside looking in. At best, this was isolating. At worst, it made me question the very purpose of my existence.
It took my school nurse to sit me down, look me in the eye and say ‘You need help,’ for me to even recognise that any of this was happening. I was fortunate to be seeing a therapist within a month and this was just the beginning of an incredible journey. Communication, though slow and painful, came first; and gradually, even more slowly and painfully, connection with others followed.
Learning to Open Up to My Husband
The words didn’t exactly gush out during my therapy sessions but, with strong prompts and guidance, I began to talk about the difficulties I was experiencing. Having flashbacks about traumas that went back twenty years, did not make sense to a mind that had always been in control and even admitting them was hard. When my therapist suggested sharing my feelings with my husband, I was horrified. I had always been strong in the eighteen years we’d been together. Shame and fear engulfed me at the thought of having to admit my pain to him. But over the weeks, she pushed and insisted. ‘It doesn’t matter how you communicate, but you have to find your way,’ she said every time I saw her.
I gave in and chose the only method I was comfortable with: text messages for a short ‘I’m not fine’ and letters for an effort to explain something longer. Sitting in the bedroom upstairs, whilst texting my husband on the floor below, seemed absurd at first. Irrational thoughts rushed through my mind. But what if he doesn’t want to know; or what if I upset him; or what if he can’t cope; or what if he tells me to just get on with it; or what if he thinks I’m being silly or over-emotional; or what, or what, or what? What I didn’t realize was these thoughts were my depression talking… and that actually he was desperate for me to open up in any way.
Turning Point 1. Connection With My Family
Looking back, my efforts to communicate with him at that time were a true turning point in my recovery. As I apologised following the first message that literally said, ‘I’m struggling,’ his response amazed me. He explained he could see how much I was suffering and he found my silence far harder to cope with anything I might say to him. I was skeptical to begin with – he had no idea what was going on inside my head (!) – but he proved he believed that time and time again. Every message, every letter, every poem that I wrote him was met with love, understanding and gradual re-building of the connection between us.
That was definitely step one – communication had restored my connection with my husband and given me my first strong tether* in my fight against depression. I suddenly had a sense of feeling a part of my family again, and a valuable part at that too. Not only did this get me back on track with my husband but also with my daughters too. Tether number two.
* A confidant has compared waves of depression to being swept away by an unexpected, brutal tsunami. The more tethers we have in that moment to hold us down, the more able we will be to resist that wave. It will always work because the wave will always pass. It cannot go on forever. This metaphor really resonates with me and I remind myself of my tethers whenever faced with moments of panic, anxiety or fear.
Turning Point 2. Connection with Extended Family and Friends
Now on a bit of a writing roll, I began to write at length about what I was going through. It wasn’t a daily summary, more reflections about different themes as they occurred to me. Self-care, routine, medication, stigma, support etc…I wrote about them all. Not only did I write but I began to share too and this was the next vital step in my reconnection with the world around me. As family and friends read about what I was going through, my bonds with them strengthened and I began to really benefit from their support. My openness surprised many of them; yet they were all grateful to gain better understanding of what I was going through. It felt liberating to be able to admit that I was struggling; as well as wonderful to feel less and less isolated. Tether number three.
Turning Point 3. Connection with the Outside World
A year after my breakdown, and well into my recovery, my social media savvy younger sister suggested I set up an Instagram account. My writing, in the form of articles and poems, had grown and she thought it was time I began to share it outside my own comfortable bubble. I hesitated at first. Such openness with the outside world scared me. I feared criticism or ridicule for a moment…until I reflected on how much I had learnt over the year and how much that might help others. And so my Instagram account was born, along with a dream and a vision to reach out to those suffering from mental health problems.
On this platform, that I was so suspicious of at first, I have met an amazing community of people. Mental health warriors, mental health advocates, therapists and counsellors. I have started to learn so much from them and to benefit from their positive feedback about what they learn from me (I have also learnt the important tip of unfollowing anyone who brought my mood down in any way). I have made strong connections with a valuable community that aims to help, support and guide those in crisis, as well as try to give tips to avoid falling into the dark pit in the first place. How I wish I had accessed this community eighteen months ago. Tether number four.
Social Media Connections Become Real World Connections
A couple of months ago, I hit a particularly low point. I couldn’t contact my therapist and I didn’t want to speak to a different one. Scared to admit I was ‘failing’ to my husband, I reached out to a stranger who I knew little about apart from her inspiring posts on Instagram (I appreciate this was risky but I was in a bad place…not to be recommended!). For a couple of weeks, this person who didn’t know me, responded patiently and thoughtfully to a stream of messages. At times she reassured me. At other times she challenged me. She helped me focus on the positive aspects of my recovery, rather than on the current dip. She reminded me that recovery always looks like a scribble rather than a straight line; and that I would reach the end of it eventually. She clearly had faith in me and she cared. She also introduced me to the concept of tethers.
I was enormously grateful. Yet, once I began to feel a little better, it struck me that I didn’t get it. Why had she made such an effort to support a complete stranger? Her response was The Starfish Story. You can read more about it here but, essentially she felt that if she could save just one person with her efforts, then it was worth it. I was deeply touched and, a few months on, we are still in contact. Tether number five.
Knowing this community also led me to take part in a beautiful Self-Care Sunday event this weekend. After a day of yoga, meditation, self-care advice and mood food, I came away feeling rejuvenated. More importantly, however, I came away with a powerful sense of connection with twenty incredible women who had shared the experience with me. It was a day of openness, honesty and positivity, as well as tears and sad stories. One of those stories was mine. I was very open about my difficult journey with this group of women I didn’t know. It wasn’t easy but the feedback I received both on the day and afterwards, was incredible. They appreciated my efforts to share such a personal story. And we all left feeling connected in a way that, for me at least, had seemed impossible at the start of the day. Tether number six.
More About Tethers
The wave metaphor really resonates with me. Especially since feeling so much better, it constantly strikes me how depression can still knock me sideways, leaving me gasping for breath. The idea of tethers is so powerful. The more you have, the stronger you will be as you resist that wave. And the key is this: at the heart of every single one of those tethers you will find communication and connection. Don’t forget too, the crucial point that every wave will die out in the end. No wave can last forever.
Please, it doesn’t matter how deeply you are in that hole, please find your way to communicate. Be it text messages or phone calls, loved ones or strangers, social media or the local park, just communicate. Open up to others and you will feel those connections emerge. As they grow, you will wake up one day and realize that you are strongly tethered to this earth and that no tsunami will ever be able to sweep you away. Try it. I did. And from those depths, I am now flying high.
Hold On and Believe
This poem I wrote below was inspired by Lionheart Psychotherapy…
Hold On and Believe
Perhaps self-care or therapy or medication,
Help you manage it all through pure dedication:
You won’t allow depression, anxiety, panic or fear
Dare to challenge your recovery and re-appear.
Diligent and determined you will not let them win,
They simply cannot challenge your peace within;
You stride forward with purpose, clear who’s in control –
You will never plunge again into that deep, dark hole.
Then from nowhere, your stability is swept aside
By a wave you are seemingly unable to ride;
It is brutal, unexpected and incredibly fast
Bringing back pain you thought was left in the past.
Nausea, the shakes, a slow drum-roll heart beat,
Physical symptoms you cannot defeat;
It can feel that you have plunged down so very low,
That there’s no way out, nowhere to go.
Please just hold on though, you will succeed
With the right tools to fight it, this wave will recede:
Choose your strategy carefully, what is right for you,
So you can keep going and see the battle through.
Identify what tethers you, what can hold you down,
Who is it that you love, who transforms your frown?
Hold tightly to something (preferably a hand),
And don’t let go – take a firm stand!
Use the senses to name things within your sight,
This is a distraction, gives emotions respite.
Count objects you see or backwards in fours,
This can bring calm, as can other mindless chores.
Breathe in slowly, make your exhale even longer,
It will relax you as well as make you feel stronger.
You could even time how long this wave persists
So next time you’ll know how long to resist.
The key is finding out what it is that works for you,
Because that classic cliché is absolutely true:
‘This too will pass’ is not an empty phrase
Hold on and believe in it, until you find better days.