Loss and Recovery – Part Two

The only problem with getting a dog was I didn’t like dogs. I didn’t particularly like any animals . . .

Saved by a Dog

The only problem with getting a dog was I didn’t like dogs. I didn’t particularly like any animals …

So there I was, at the end of my thirties – an invalid in bed, suffering from acute fibromyalgia, an ‘invisible’ disease that had gone unrecognised and disbelieved since my early twenties. I’d begun a career as an author – but the illness had caused me to renege on my latest contract and I was too unwell to write anyway. After leaving class teaching due to my health, I’d built up a name for myself as a tutor but now too ill to teach, I’d had to let my pupils go. I’d more or less lost the whole of my thirties to this disease, as well as to the painkiller addiction I’d developed as a result of trying to cope without help. Or even belief. And now that they did believe me, it just felt far, far too late. I just didn’t have it in me to fight anymore. I had come off the painkillers, out of rehab and through eight rounds of ECT, only to find myself in a world of exhaustion and pain – far, far worse than it had ever been before. I had absolutely no motivation to help myself, even though I knew I was going to end up an invalid for life if I didn’t. But all I wanted was to die. I was so sick of it all and had no resilience left to begin this new battle, which was clear I’d most likely be fighting till the end of my days. I just really, really didn’t want to live – especially not like this. So I contacted Dignitas. I spoke about it openly to my family and friends. This was, for a good amount of time, my one and only wish. It wasn’t fair of people to ask me to fight yet another illness in order to lead a life that I didn’t want back anyway. Dignitas accepted patients who suffered from chronic and debilitating depression that hadn’t responded to any medication or therapy. They also accepted patients who had painful chronic illnesses that were unlikely to ever get better, even if they weren’t terminal. Which made me a perfect candidate. I actually felt a tiny bit better once I’d found a sure-fire way out. There would be no mistakes, no unnecessary suffering, no botched jobs to further disable me and burden my family with, or to leave me in a coma for years. At last, I was in control. I had found a way to get rid of both diseases, even though it would cost me my life. But at least I wouldn’t have to suffer anymore. I’d really had enough. Well, at least physically, I’d never had much appetite for life anyway. Ill, there was no way I had the motivation to fight to get to get physically better, just so depression could be the one to run my life. So I spent a further two months just lying in bed. There was no point in getting up or doing anything or seeing anyone, even though I was finally well enough to. Now that my mind was set, I would simply wait to save enough money from disability benefits to be able to travel to Switzerland and pay for my final treatment.

Spring was round the corner but I was still in bed in my darkened room. Despite my best efforts, it was impossible to stay asleep continuously and the hours spent lying awake were torturous. I couldn’t even bear watching TV. I would just stare at the darkness and think about death. I knew that the only alternative to that was to start walking – just to the end of my street – and then build that up by a minute or so each week. But I couldn’t think of anything more frustrating or boring, except perhaps lying here in my own self-made purgatory. Everyone was telling me the same thing – I had to get up and start moving, it was the only cure for muscle atrophy and the only thing that was going to keep me out of a wheelchair. But there was just no way I could force myself to do that everyday, even if I did somehow find the strength to give life another try. Depression had swallowed every iota of motivation and I hadn’t had much to begin with. I might have managed a few days, even a week if I chose to fight, but I knew I’d never be able to do it every single day. Lying in bed for so long did, however, give me lots of time for thinking. After a while it even begin interesting to play the what if game, just to have something to think about. So, what if I really had no choice other than to walk every day? What if someone forced me to do it? Realistically though, nobody was going to come with me and force me to do it, even if they thought they could succeed. At least certainly not every day. Other people’s lives were carrying on, despite mine having stalled for good. And it was my life. If I was completely determined to waste it and throw it away, nobody could stop me.

Although … the what ifs didn’t stop coming. There were some people who really did have to go out and walk, every single day, usually for many years, often for most of their lives. Normal people, living all around me; people who weren’t trying to recover from muscle atrophy or some horrid illness. And if they felt tired, or became unwell, they usually still had to do it, and often more than once a day … People who had dogs. People who had dogs had to walk. It was that simple. You couldn’t have a dog and not take it out for daily, or twice-daily walks. Not to do so would be unimaginably cruel. The only problem with that idea was I didn’t even like dogs. I didn’t particularly like any animals. I’d adored them as a child, but when, aged eleven, I’d been given a baby rabbit, I’d instantly fallen in love with only to have to watch it die painfully the very next day. I’d been heartbroken and deeply shocked. Even now, the memory of seeing something so sweet and so young, die such a painful death, haunts me. It had been separated from its mother too young, given lettuce to eat when it should have still been suckling on its mother’s milk. The vet could do nothing. He should have put the poor rabbit down rather than send us away only to have it die with us on the way home. It was, I now realise, a traumatising event in my childhood and it wasn’t the only one involving animals I’d experienced back then. Ever since, animals had come to represent pain, loss and death to me. To such an extent that I’d become really squeamish about them and wanted nothing to do with them. I felt slightly better around dogs because they seemed stronger than most domesticated pets but I was always worried they might suddenly turn aggressive and become dangerous. It had always felt safer to leave the animals to the animal lovers and experts. Getting a dog was a ridiculous thought, anyway. Almost ludicrous. Who got a dog because they were too lazy to go out for a walk? I was the last person I could imagine with a dog. Anyone who knew me would have laughed at the idea. For a start, you need to adore animals, or at least dogs, in order to own one, otherwise what was the point? The idea stayed with me though. Looking back, I realise now that I was searching hard. Searching for a reason to stay alive. By now, I clearly didn’t want to die anymore, at least not unless I really could find no alternative to getting better again. Maybe I wasn’t completely and totally run down by life. But I was very afraid. Afraid of staying sick, of never recovering. Afraid of more pain to come.

But still, I couldn’t be serious about the dog thing. It was just to pass the time, I told myself as I picked up my mobile from my bedside table and started familiarising myself with the different breeds. Just a silly distraction. However, when I came to a picture of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, the breed my mother had grown up with, I felt something. A slight thaw. As a child, my mother had been given a Cavalier as a reward for passing the 11+ and had named her Plus. There were still photos of her around the family home and my mother always spoke of her with such affection, I’d felt like I’d known her. I tried comparing her breed to others in the list but everything in her temperament fit what I was looking for. Great with children – that was a prerequisite as, if I ever got well enough to tutor again, I’d have primary aged pupils coming regularly to my home. And every Blenheim (tan and white) Cavalier I saw online looked so familiar. As I had nothing better to do, I thought I might as well read articles on how to get a dog and what to expect; how to look after, train and care for them. Might be useful for some novel I might someday write … But something took hold. As the days melted into nights and nights faded back to days, I slept sporadically, ate snacks and read and read, on my mobile, still in bed. At least it made the time go faster. When, for fun, I started scrolling through ads for Cavalier puppies, I immediately felt myself melt. But everyone went gooey over puppies, right? And dogs didn’t stay puppies for very long. But even the adults were adorable. They had such bright, intelligent eyes and kind, smiley faces. They looked quite different from most other breeds – almost a species unto their own. In videos those tails just never stopped wagging; they were quite overwhelmingly friendly; they seemed delighted by all other dogs and all humans and everything in the world around them. Their temperaments were the exact opposite of mine in every imaginable way. There was something familiar, something comforting and just so special about them. And they held quite a singular power over me – they just couldn’t stop making be smile … It was a while before it really hit me. But then it did, hard. Maybe getting a dog wasn’t a completely ridiculous idea. Maybe, if I fell in love with a dog, I’d not only be forced to go for walks every day, but I might find a new reason to live.

Barely a month later, I was on a train. Dazed by the spring sunshine, the noise of the passengers, the speed of the countryside flashing past, I sat beside the window for the entire three-hour journey, clutching a canvas puppy travel bag on my lap with a soft blanket, a few toys and a teddy inside. In my rucksack was a heated pad, another blanket, training pads, a bowl and drinking bottle, and some treats. I was headed to Wolverhampton to collect my new eight-week old puppy – an absolutely tiny little Blenheim boy I’d decided to call Misha, the Russian diminutive of Mikhail – or Michael. I’d been to see him once before when he was only 5 weeks old and he’d been a warm, soft, sleepy little bundle of tan and white fur, the size of a baby rabbit that fit neatly into the palm of my hand. But I’d been kept abreast of changes via photos and videos and I knew he was now almost three times the size – although still no bigger than my foot – and that when he played with his toys or his siblings, his tiny tail wagged so fast that it became a blur. I was still very weak and dressed in dark winter clothes as I hadn’t realised it was so warm already and my summer clothes were still packed away. Everything around me felt magnified and I was shell-shocked at the brightness, noise and hustle of life around me. Not only did this day mark one of my few outings since my hospitalisation nearly two years ago, it was also the very start of my recovery. Fibromyalgia might be with me for the rest of my days but my muscle atrophy, which still made climbing a few steps a shaky experience, or standing up for more than a few minutes almost impossible, was being reversed from this day onwards. Lying in bed all day would be a thing of the past and going for walk – not too far at first – would become a big part of my daily routine. Waiting for us back home was everything a puppy could need and more – I had used the interminable three week wait since I’d first chosen Misha to read and watch every dog book and documentary I could lay my hands on, and to shop online for absolutely everything my new puppy might need. When the train finally pulled into Wolverhampton, I could hardly breathe. Most importantly of all, this day marked the most exciting, most anticipated day of my entire life – way above my wedding day; way above the first time I walked in, as newly qualified teacher, to a classroom full of 5-year-olds; way above – something I’d thought impossible till now – even way above the day I first held my first published novel in my hands. This day, I knew, would be utterly life-changing. Nothing would never be the same again …

And I was going to make damn sure that my boy had a good life – the very best I could give him. My purpose was suddenly crystal clear. For the first time in seemingly years, I had a reason to be alive. The depression would come back of course, in stubborn fits and spurts, and there would be some tough physical and mental challenges during the first year of my puppy’s life. I wouldn’t particularly recommend going from two years in bed to buying a puppy! The start was intense. Although I had fallen deeply in love, my drained and weakened body struggled desperately to keep up with the boundless energy of a small, very curious and terrifically active puppy. There would be times I’d think I could no longer manage. But somehow we always pulled through. And it has been so, so worth it. Those deadly, incapacitating and life-threatening bouts of suicidal depression gradually left me, my body grew stronger by the day till my walks to the end of the street gradually increased to rambles in the park or countryside.

He arrived during my deepest, darkest hours, when death felt like the only escape from a world without kindness, or mercy. Like a little burst of magic, he rushed in and restored love, happiness and laughter to my walled-in life and thoroughly iced heart. I no longer live for me and for what I want out of life but for Misha, for whatever he needs, desires and everything I think would make him happy. It’s a much, much simpler life. A much healthier life too. And a much easier way to be. There is no ‘I‘ in my life anymore – there is only ‘we‘.

Depression and Me

The prospect of death was always terrifying but when you are that depressed, you see it as the only way out . . .

The prospect of death was always terrifying but when you are that depressed, you see it as the only way out.

I was inspired to write books about mental illness because it is something I have experienced first hand, something I have grown up with, something which came very close to destroying me. As a child I hated school and spent a lot of time writing stories when I should have been listening in class. Although I didn’t realise I was depressed back then, I found the daily routine stifling and wanted to spend more and more time on my own. By the time I reached secondary school I would lock myself in the toilets at break time just to get away from people. I felt increasingly alienated from my friends around me and out of step with the rest of my peers.

I knew there was something wrong but I didn’t know what it was and I blamed myself for not being more like the others. Finally, things reached breaking point, and I quit school completely at the age of fourteen and did my GCSEs and A levels by distance learning. It was around this time that I started to write – books about mental illness and suicide – a reflection of my deeply troubled state of mind. I studied French Literature at King’s College London and although I found the freedom of university easier to cope with than school, I was still desperately unhappy. My depression peaked in my final year and, just after graduating, I found myself walking around campus, looking up at the tallest buildings, trying to work out which one would guarantee me a fatal fall. In the end I chickened out, wrote a suicide note, and instead went to bed with several bin liners tied over my head which slipped off during the night, sparing me my life.

However it wasn’t until I was twenty that I finally made the link between the horror of my existence and the term depression. I remember wanting to die for a very long time. In fact I think that wanting to die is the wrong expression. The prospect of death was always terrifying and completely final. But when you are so depressed that life is completely and utterly intolerable, you see it as the only way out. It’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place – you’re terrified of dying, of never seeing your family again, of destroying your family as well as yourself, of the pain, of the terrible irreversibility of it all – but you know you cannot go on living. Being alive is simply, totally and absolutely unbearable and you get to the point where you would do anything, and I mean anything to make it go away.

I finally found the courage to speak out about my depression in my twenties and went to seek help. The first doctor I saw to told me I was not depressed at all. Like most severely depressed people I had become expert at hiding my emotions and so the doctor told me that there was no way a depressed person could smile and chat and be so eloquent. Instead of offering me help, he offered me a job! Being told my depression was a figment of my imagination was like a fist in the stomach. But I went on to see other doctors and was referred to counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists. Over the last fifteen years I have tried many different types of therapy and more than twenty different anti-depressants, many in combination, as well as anti-psychotics and mood-stabilisers. In 2014, I even agreed to undergo ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). Some medication I’ve had to quit due to intolerable side-effects, some have made my condition worse, many have had no effect whatsoever. Occasionally a drug has helped for a while before wearing off. However, my official diagnosis is ‘severe refractory depression with bipolar tendencies’ which is rare. Most mood disorders respond well to drug and/or therapy.

Although the illness is always there, these days I am so much better than I’ve ever been at any other period during my life (see my other post Loss and Recovery). On the whole, writing about my experiences through fictional characters has proved an amazingly cathartic experience. It has also allowed me to share what I have been through with others. Even though all my books are fictional, I draw heavily on my own experiences and this has definitely helped me make my writing more real. Whilst in the throes of depression, I often force myself to sit down at my computer and write down exactly what I’m feeling, the exact thoughts that are going through my mind. Later, I try to incorporate those sections into the book I’m writing. Since my very first book came out, so many people have contacted me to say ‘I went through that’ or ‘it was like reading a book about myself.’ This allows me to talk to them about my own struggle with clinical depression and for readers to tell me about theirs. It has been an absolute revelation to discover there are so many people who suffer or have suffered from some form of mental health problem and it has been so reassuring to realise that not only am I not alone, but I am actually in extremely good company! Mental illness is alienating by definition. Breaking out of that bubble and making contact with other sufferers is an enormous and crucial first step.

It has been a long road, shuffled from doctor to doctor and from therapist to therapist and trying just about every medication in the book. However, I still hold out good hope that I will eventually be free of this illness: advances in the treatment of mental health conditions are being made all the time. Nowadays, the vast majority of people who seek help get better very quickly and there really is a lot of help available out there if you have the courage to speak out.

Originally published in SANE’s magazine, Your Voice

Mental illness is still a taboo subject, however it is a biologically-based brain disorder which cannot be overcome through willpower and is not related to a person’s character or intelligence. The simple fact is that mental illness is rapidly on the increase and is fast becoming a massive problem in today’s high-pressured society. A staggering one in four people suffers from some kind of mental illness, 20% of all deaths of young people are by suicide, and suicide is the most common form of death in men under 35. In this country alone, there are estimated to be 24 000 cases of attempted suicide by adolescents each year, which is one attempt every 20 minutes. If you think you or someone you know may be suffering from depression, there are many sources of help available. Depression is an illness, and like most illnesses it can be treated and cured. But you really do have to speak out. This is the only way to get help. If you often feel unhappy, you need to speak to an adult. You could speak to a parent, a guardian, a foster parent, a teacher, a friend’s parent, a doctor, a school nurse, an adult you trust, or contact one of the organisations listed here. Millions of people in the UK and all over the world suffer from a mental health problem. You are not alone.