Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Chink Collector

All it takes are the days staying lighter for longer to remind me that the worst is over, that the darkness of winter and severe depression, an insidious invader, a mental Trojan horse, are behind me. The parallel of emerging from bleak winter days with their interminable winter nights into the early signs of spring, dovetailing the abating of my depression, does not escape me. It seems almost poetic in its timing. Perhaps the extra daylight is a placebo aiding and abetting me to think sunnier thoughts; there’s no doubting in its therapeutic effect, I embrace it every year. Conceivably the emergence of the green shoots of Snowdrops with the promise of delicate white flowers bursting into bloom provides all the hope of a new dawn; that the eventual hum of bumblebee’s busily collecting their golden nectar signifies endless dazzling days and the heat of summer sun warming bones too deeply chilled by long winter months. But perhaps this rebirth and awakening elicits a more intensive appreciation, simply because the tyranny of my five year depression is over. A Placebo then? Quite so, but who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth? I’ll hug each chink of light to me as though entrusted with the care of a newborn child, for my very survival is intrinsically linked, to its healthy development and greater presence in my life. Depression is a protracted sentence in a mental dungeon for a crime you didn’t commit. You are hopelessly blind to everything that once made your life challenging but worthwhile. A chink of light, signalling hope, is a precious gem that you crave to possess, or a fragile silken thread, a lifeline that you are desperate to grasp, but are terrified to touch lest it rupture and be beyond repair. I am one of the lucky ones. In time, those chinks became shafts that were strong enough to grasp my way to total daylight. The seven dwarfs of menopause – itchy, bitchy, sweaty, sleepy, bloated, forgetful and depressed have been beaten with every step of the way. I’ve become a collector of chinks, a chink collector, all shapes, sizes and wattage welcome here because there is strength in numbers and a girl can’t have too many precious gems to illuminate her journey forward.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Depression is for the Middle classes.....

.....the rest of us have to get up for work in the morning. That’s a quote from a Mike Leigh film that resonates strongly with me - a wee working-class lassie from Glasgow; a straight talking Scottish lass that was raised with a strong work ethic and the ability to get on with things no matter what life threw at me. I thought I knew a bit about depression; my uncle descended into a no-man’s land of desperation before being hospitalised and eventually managing his quest to take his own life; my old friend Ella battled long term first and then secondary cancer whilst seesawing between hope and very dark moments; I tail spun rapidly into a reactionary depression when my parents and three others of my family died over a period of a few weeks some fifteen years ago. I paid special attention to the modules on depression when I was doing my Psychology degree, bringing with me my firsthand experiences which afforded a deeper understanding of the academic knowledge I was attaining. So I was bound to recognise it wasn’t I? Ah, you’d think so wouldn’t you; apparently not.

Five years ago I was preparing to complete my year end exams, get married three days later and move house a few weeks later before preparing for Christmas shortly after that. It was a time of stress, conflicting emotions of excitement and sheer terror that we could fit it all in without something giving. But we managed it with minimal collateral damage. I remember feeling overwhelmed and exhausted at the lack of sleep that is synonomous with a racing mind trying to manage a schedule of a thousand pieces of detail that remained up in the air. About the same time I started to notice some distressing physical changes that worsened as time went on. Severe blood loss for three weeks of every month and cramping that felt like I had a knife lacerating my womb, coupled with sharp lightning bolts of pain across my breasts whilst my skeleton groaned in agony every time I moved; all disabling me into a foetal position of agony for much of the time.

My mood swings became almost legendary in their extremes. If I wasn’t sobbing at an RSPCA appeal on telly, I was raging at the world and giving Himself hell. Our relationship gradually descended into one of backbiting, sniping, pleading and threats. In time, my capacity for attention to detail failed and with only two modules of my degree to finish I capitulated and threw in the towel. For someone who was attaining distinctions on my written course work, I had deteriorated to the point where I read and reread paragraphs over and over before crying in frustration at my inability to absorb the simplest of detail. With even less to occupy my mind I became much too obsessed with the minutiae of life; much too self absorbed in my pity for my situation. I became the menopause, it defined me and in my frustration at living this hell, I bored for England about it.

When Himself and I met ten years ago, we delighted in the shared humour, deep love and respect we had for each other. We had both been in two consecutive long term relationships apiece that ended when our respective partners cheated on us. It was easy to bond in our shared grief and anger of the agony of betrayal within a committed relationship but finding each other cemented our resolve to enjoy our lives to the full. We indulged our love of wine, (me), Guinness,(him), good food and our local Inn. We had five tremendous years of harmony and couldn’t believe our good fortune at getting together at such a stage in our lives. When Himself took early retirement on a good pension our socialising took on another level; free from the shackles of the daily grind we went to bed later than ever, spent much more time in the pub than was good for us, we were in a hedonistic fug.

But the life of a permanent holiday without goals and boundaries began to pale for me, long before Himself was prepared to relinquish his participation in it. The more we drank, the more my darkness deepened. It was a vicious cycle of needing the socialising to lighten my mood and give me a goal for the evening whilst exacerbating my low mood each day. The more we led this lifestyle, the more I was incapable of finding the energy to haul myself out of the mire I found myself in. I knew I was in trouble when I would wake in the small hours with thoughts of suicide on my mind. My recurring dream of opening the hatch to the attic, throwing a rope around a beam and hanging myself would wake me in a jolt of terror. I cannot imagine a more heinous thing to do but I was consumed by my subconscious battering away at me – telling me to find a solution. My life had shrunk to eight walls - my home and the pub. I had begun to find the simplest of tasks such as brushing my teeth or showering an enormous task. I’d sleep in and shuffle around in the same clothes for days at a time not bothering to brush my hair which now resembled a burst couch. I had all the allure of a bag lady, whilst lurching from one HRT to another, each producing limited results. I gave up caffeine, tried every available alternative medicine, drank Soya milk and ate avocados by the bucket load and all to no avail. I had read that the menopause could last for up to twenty years and I was in despair that that was to be my future.

In desperation I gave Himself an ultimatum; he could spend as much time at the pub as he liked, as long as he didn’t put me under pressure to accompany him otherwise I saw no option but to leave him. It caused many an argument between us and I feared for the permanency of our relationship but I feared for my life more. Slowly but surely I divested myself of the negative influences that sought to bring me down. As I regrouped I felt much more in control of my life. Progress was slow but it was there nonetheless. It was my good fortune to encounter a new doctor at our surgery, one who took time to listen to me and treat me with a new approach. Quite simply he coached me through coming off the HRT to see how I would cope and promising new hope to find alternative protocols if this failed. In conjunction, I finally relinquished my devotion to the Atkins induction phase of that vile diet and started a healthier GI diet to include vegetables, fruits and nuts. I had become morbidly obese and giving up smoking had added to my girth, hence my need to control the ingesting of any kind of carbs. I was also physically deficient in many of the vitamins, minerals and nutrients that I needed to create the hormones that my body needed to cope with such demanding changes. There is much research being done now on the effects of poor diet, the lack of hormones and the resultant criminal behaviour. I’d happily provide them with my anecdotal evidence of proof. Oh, and as I was to discover much too late ladies, should you be a devotee of the contraceptive pill, your chances of having a symptom free menopause are high. Shite, if only I had known that, I’d have downed a pack a day.

I’d had so many false starts where I thought I was on the road to recovery only to have them dashed some weeks later so I have been reluctant to write about it all. In the one week a month where I was virtually normal, I would manage to write a post for my blog. I am forever grateful for the comments and the feedback you have all given me. They provided me with laughter and a small thread of hope that I wasn’t completely useless.

Now? I am virtually post menopausal as the physical symptoms have mostly gone and the mood swings have gone to the point I am at peace and almost Zen like. I feel amazingly happy and positive. We had the happiest and best festive season we have had in a long time. Old friends that I had dropped have come back into my life and understood that my reluctance to see them was through sheer exhaustion and a need to protect them from my caustic tongue. I have apologised to the people that matter to me and feel humbled by their generous spirit and forgiving nature. But then, they knew me before I degenerated into the monstrous creature I had become. I am blessed with the close friendship of three good women and our time together is one of laughter rather than gossiping and moaning. I have convinced them that as we all keep bemoaning our respective weight gain that we should be emboldened and join our local Rosemary Conley diet and exercise club. “It’s our year”, I keep chanting just to keep the motivation high. We’ll see how effective I am as a cheerleader when we go for our first appointment next week; but for now the enthusiasm is high and I find myself almost having to book time for myself in our gym as I share it with my fellow lardybutts.

In addition, I have discovered Linkedin, a database of professionals that has a great deal of my old colleagues and friends from my time at Unisys registered on it. So many of them now live around us and we have been having a blast catching up, with more meetings in the offing. It’s like coming home, mixing with my fellow nerd-heads for whom laughter is the name of the game.

I gave Himself the worst of times but he saw it through because he knew the real me and kept the faith that I would return. I’d rail in desperation at him for his stubborn refusal to accept a change in our lifestyle but eventually he acquiesced and that intractability became my strength as he refused to let me go when my bags were packed and I foolishly believed that a life on my own was the answer. We drink moderately now but rarely during the week and as such enjoy the experience much more; my energy levels have risen

So what about Mike Leigh’s statement? Perhaps if I had been working I would have had less time to indulge myself in self pity but depression is a serious illness and mine was compounded by but more likely caused by the onset of the menopause, too much vino, a very poor diet, being overweight, unfit and a lack of any exercise – oh and not being on the contraceptive pill. By all accounts I fit the demographic of a middle class life. But then I hate the outmoded bigoted snobbery and segregation that the class structure condones; that is a topic for another post. But if I am to place us within a demographic, we are comfortable, don’t have to work and enjoyed a hedonistic lifestyle. There was no outward reason for me to be depressed but then, it is indiscriminate of class, culture, gender, age, position and wealth. Just look at the documented accounts of the very successful and popular author Marianne Keys, currently laid low by a crippling black depression to the point where she cannot write her monthly blog post or how Annie Lennox has been dogged by severe depression for most of her adult life.

I didn’t realise the depth of my depression until 18 months ago, and by then I was in the grip of it. The reactive depression I experienced when my family died was loaded with grief and as such was a natural companion to the grief with the deaths being an obvious cause; this new depression was entirely different and much more destructive, and as it was a slow burn with no discernable cause, I failed to see the enemy within. Hindsight is an exact science, and as I look back and see the road I travelled I can see the wrong turns I took. Was I being very middle class and self indulgent? Perhaps up to a point as work can be a salve for all sorts of problems but sometimes it just delays the inevitable but let’s not lose sight of the fact it is a chemical deficiency. There are many levels of depression from blue to grey to black. You know you've hit the black when you are consumed with fear, anxiety, self loathing and the terror that you might end it all and you see no way out. I’ve always held onto the belief that suicide is a long term solution to a short term problem and that kept me on the right track – some people get so much deeper into depression that any kind of rational thought is beyond them, I consider myself lucky I never reached that point but I knew I was teetering on a precipice. I am eternally grateful for the love and support that my closest friends, family and Himself gave me. I wouldn’t be here today without it.