It is hard to believe that it has been over 8 years since I was diagnosed with the toxic cocktail of severe depression and anxiety. An oxymoron of an illness that leaves you caring too much and too little at the same time. In those first dark days it was hard to believe I could pull through it, and on the really bad days I’d have questioned if I even wanted to.
This week there have been a couple of reminders of that time. The first was catching up with my boss from those days, who was in London for a conference (I was living and working in Australia when I unravelled). It was strange reminiscing with her, as her memories of that time felt discordant with my own, but this only served to remind me that truth isn’t a rigid thing carved in stone. We are all experiencing the same world but in different bodies.
The other reminder came from seeing ‘See Me Now’ at the Young Vic. A verbatim show with real people, all sex workers, talking about their lives. I’d tell you to rush and see it, but it’s sold out. It’s a show worth trying to get return tickets for, if you have the optimism to queue on the day. One of the women in the show talked about a very dark time in her life, and how it was the love of her dog that kept her going.
When I first started seeing my therapist, I was a tough patient. Smart and destructive enough to question everything she suggested (intelligent nihilists are a pain in their own arse frankly). That was until she suggested something that actually appealed to me, that I should get a pet. She knew I might not be capable of self care every day, but that if another creature was dependent on me I’d drag myself out of bed to look after it. At the same time my landlady had told me I could get a cat if I wanted. She lived next door to me and, when I’d moved in, she’d had her own cat but he’d broken both our hearts by dying. She didn’t want to get another cat of her own, but liked the idea of getting a time-share of mine.
I walked up the road to the vet’s surgery as they always had pictures of rescue cats in need of a home posted on their notice board. They looked after cats that had been rescued by the Cat’s Protection. I walked in and they had several cats I could meet then and there. Louis was a funny looking lanky cat with giant paws & ears, made to look all the more pitiful by the funnel on his head as he’d just had ‘the op’ and had been licking his tender bits raw. It was love at first sight. Within 24 hours he was home with me, making himself very comfortable and destroying all my picture frames (he remains the clumsiest cat I’ve ever encountered). I thought he was about 12 months old when I adopted him, but reading the paperwork after I brought him home, I discovered he was only five months old. He wasn’t an awkward looking cat, he was a kitten that was still growing into his paws & ears.
Today at 8 years old, Louis is a magnificent, long-haired ginger beauty that weighed in at 6.9kg on his annual trip to the vet earlier this month (yes he moved back to London with me, I think he prefers the English climate). And no, he doesn’t need to go on a diet, he’s a big healthy beastie. While we don’t know his heritage, the smart money is on one of his parents being a Maine Coon. Now that’s a breed of cat that can grow very big , a full blooded male Maine Coon can push 11kg!!
My therapist is a genius, and my choice of cat was spot on, as Louis is the most laid back and cheerful cat I’ve ever lived with. He isn’t a lap cat, but likes to be nearby keeping an eye on me. If I’m really struggling with life, or have some other form of illness, I’ll wake up to find him snuggled up next to me. He takes his job of caring for me very seriously. He puts up with the ‘late breakfast days’, when I struggle to get out of bed, without complaint. The other day when I was overwhelmed with a sense of bone-deep tiredness he napped next to me for 6 hours.
On a regular basis his purrs make a mockery of my abusive internal black dog monologue. He doesn’t reproach me for my frailty. I’m currently coming out of a dark spell that hit with vicious intensity for no real reason in January. It was a shock as I’ve been enjoying life as a freelancer and a writer. I’d removed many of the anxiety triggers in my life, but the depression hit like a slow motion wave, dragging anxiety back into my life with it. This is when I’d like to gently remind those lucky enough not to suffer from it, that depression doesn’t need a reason to hit when it does. Trying to make sense of it isn’t helpful, as it can imply that you think we’ve invited it in.
There are things I could have done, and did not, to prevent it hitting so hard, but unfortunately that is how depression works, for me anyway. I stopped exercising, started eating processed comfort food, gave up on my creative writing and avoided leaving the house as much as possible. I morphed into a smelly, PJ-clad homebody who’d only go out if I had to.
At times like these I’m grateful for my theatre addiction and my tendency to book things many months in advance. Not wanting to let people down, I’d wash and leave the house to see a show with my friends (even my GP back in Aus marvelled at the miracle of my stubbornness). Lucky in my friends, I was honest about the fact I was struggling and they listened without judgement. They’d ask questions, try to understand and make me feel less isolated.
Still the darkness would sneak back in during the journey home (I think it may have something to do with the lighting on the underground, can we fix that please?). No matter how vulnerable I’d end up feeling, I’d get home to be greeted by Louis’ loud insistent meows. I like to think he’s asking me where I’ve been, whether I had a good time, but I suspect it’s a repeated refrain of “feed me human, I grow weak”.
The good news is I’m climbing out of the darkness. The itch to get back to editing my novel is back. I’m tempted to go to the gym and my latest Ocado order includes food with actual nutritional value. There may still be a couple of impromptu naps ahead of me, but I feel optimistic for tomorrow. It does mean Louis will be free from snuggle duty, and can revert to prowling the neighbourhood, not the best news for the local rodent population.
For anyone out there who is in a dark place, try to ignore those internal voices telling you you’re worthless, although I know it’s hard. Take care of yourself, don’t beat yourself up for not fighting as hard as you think you should. You’re a miracle of resilience, even if on some days you can’t leave your house, your bed, your pyjamas.
“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.” – Stephen Fry