Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The road back from depression

In the final extract from her book, author Sally Brampton explains how, after her devastating illness, she pieced her life together again

Tom drove me to the mental hospital. I don’t mean that he drove me via love to madness, although part of that is true, but that he put me in his car and took me there for my second stay. I asked him to sit with me at home while I waited for a vacant room – not as easy to find as it sounds. Even private psychiatric units are woefully oversubscribed, which says much about the mental health of this nation.

A word about Tom here. We were still seeing each other, although our relationship was erratic and more highly charged than was comfortable, or even tolerable. He had separated from his partner, who had, some months before, discovered our affair and was justifiably furious, even though, as she herself admitted, their relationship had been dead for years.

We loved and fought, were kind to and hurt each other, came together and fell apart. We could not be together, and we could not stay away from each other. I don’t mean that in any great romantic sense. It was not romantic. It was ugly and bruising, and underneath it all was the recognition that we loved each other and recognised some unswerving connection, but could not find a way to manage it. There was little bliss. It was, in its own particular way, hell.

As we waited for a hospital room, we lay on my bed and Tom read to me from On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill – a passion of his at the time. As a teenager, inflamed by social inequities and the rights of women, I, too, had loved Mill, so it seemed right and familiar that Tom should be reading his words to me. I remember the irony of listening to Tom read about liberty as I waited for a call from the loony bin.

This time, rather than being treated in a psychiatric unit in a general hospital, I was admitted to a dedicated mental hospital. The first evening, Molly came to visit me wearing her school uniform. That innocent grey pinafore and red and white gingham shirt looked so out of place under the harsh fluorescent strip lights of the sad, green hospital corridors that, had I had the energy and strength, I would have bundled her up and scooped her right out of the door.

Instead, I diverted both of us by taking her down to the canteen to have supper, which was served at six o’clock.

I was hoping for pizza or burger and chips, but there was not much she wanted to eat, except white bread rolls and butter. The catering staff seemed particularly taken with Quorn, that chalky substitute for meat. There was curried Quorn, Quorn sausages and Quorn casserole, and I remember wondering if there was some weird connection between meat substitutes and mental illness.

Across the room, which was decorated in bright chintz, with white-painted bamboo furniture, like some cheap gastropub, a table of people discussed me in that obtrusive way people have when they are trying to be discreet. As I buttered Molly’s rolls, I was tempted to stop and write my diagnosis, severe clinical depression, in large black letters on a paper napkin and attach it to my forehead, together with a list of my medication.

Later, after Molly had gone, a doctor gave me a routine physical checkup. He asked me why I was in hospital.

“I have severe depression.” “And why do you think that is?” I enjoy it? “I have no idea.”
I was slightly taken aback. It is not usual for medical doctors to embark on psychiatric questions, even in a mental hospital. “You must have some.” I mumbled about a marriage breakdown. His face was close and he was checking my heartbeat with a stethoscope at the time. He said: “Do you hate men?”

At first, I thought I had misheard him, so I asked him to repeat himself. He came out with the same trite phrase. I was so angry, I was tempted to hit him, but I knew the consequences for my mental-health record. “Don’t be a f***ing idiot,” I said, and burst into tears. Wearing a smug expression, he tucked his stethoscope back into his pocket.

My mother was there at the time, the only time she was ever present when I was in hospital. “Don’t upset yourself,” she pleaded.

“I am not upsetting myself,” I said, sobbing. “I am being upset by somebody else.”

My mother left soon after. Later, I wondered if the doctor was actually a patient who had nicked a stethoscope.

In the months immediately following my suicide attempt, I felt that it was over. I had given up. Nobody and nothing could help me. No drug, no shrink, no hospital, no therapist, no lover, no friend. Not even death could help me. I was on my own and the only way through that I could see was to take one halting step at a time. And so it began, the long, slow and painful road to recovery.

It took three years. Curiously, I see suicide as the turning point, although it didn’t feel like it at the time. By giving up on any expectation that anyone could help me, I took responsibility for my illness and began to look for ways to help myself. Here are some of the things that I did. I offer them up in the hope that they might help somebody else.

I took up yoga, which helped me to understand that comparing myself to others is pointless. They can do what I cannot, and I can do what they cannot, because we are all different and unique. I cannot, for example, squat or sit back on my heels – at least, not yet – but I can sit crosslegged or in the lotus position with relative ease.

I walked for at least half an hour a day. I tried not to isolate myself and began to see my friends, but only for a cup of tea or a quiet meal. I particularly saw my friends who are depressives, both because it was soothing to be among other people who understood and also because I learnt that in helping other people, I began to help myself.

I avoided any social situation that put me under pressure to perform, dress up or pretend that I was fully functional.

I watched old movies and comedies and avoided news and current-affairs programmes, highly charged, emotional drama, or anything that might trigger distress.

I understood that I had an illness, not a weakness.

I stopped feeling ashamed. It was not easy. But in among the bad times, there were also moments when I felt, if not hope, then at least the glimmerings of possibility. I began to believe that, one day, I might be well again and would reinhabit the person I call myself. But, first, I had to understand myself. I had to learn how to live again, just as somebody with a physical illness might have to learn how to walk again.

I embarked on a search for a garden, having finally put my flat on the market and sold it. I knew a garden was essential to my recovery, and, eventually, I found it: a tangle of weed and bramble on which I could impose some order, while still respecting the structure and the life that existed deep within it.

It is not a huge garden, although it is big by London standards, but it does have a curiously peaceful charm and atmosphere. I sometimes think that is because it was designed, then planted, with such hope. Perhaps that is fanciful, but I did once say to a neurologist, as she stood in my garden, that it had played a huge part in my recovery from depression. “Yes,” she said. “I can see that.”

Every story deserves a happy ending. Here is mine. Tom and I met again, three years after we parted. We had not seen each other at all during those years, but he was never far from my mind – or from my heart. We met in a pub. He bought me a drink – lime and soda. Then he bought me a cup of tea.

“You’re a cheap date these days,” he laughed, but I noticed his hands were shaking. So were mine.

He said: “How’s your love life?” I felt as if I was about 13. Was he asking me as an old friend, or because he wanted to know if I was available? I searched for a right answer; then, because I could find no right answer except the truth, I said: “Nonexistent. We were too much of a hard act to follow. How’s yours?”

He was silent for a while, and then he smiled at me. “The same.”

Two years later, we were married. It is, in its own particular way, bliss.

Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression by Sally Brampton (Bloomsbury £15.99) is published on February 4;

Read previous extracts from Sally's book by clicking on the background links below


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