Chapter Seven- The Visitor
Before I start I need to be clear that this is only my experience of this illness. I suffered a very extreme form of depression as a consequence of the severe mania I had come out of, and other people may have had very different experiences. But some of what I discuss may be triggering to those who have been through a similar experience. Han x
Anyone who knows me will know I love analogies. It's one of the many reasons I loved Kite as a name for this app as there are so many wonderful ways to talk about Kites in relation to life. A soaring Kite is a beautiful thing, and that's how I like to think of the mums who use the Kite App.
The depressive episode of my postpartum bipolar caused my kite to be anything but soaring. It was broken, discarded, colourless and flightless. I can't tell you how terrible it was to wake up that morning, feeling like a completely different person. When Janet told me that the low would be hard when it hit, I didn't really believe her. I thought I knew better, and that I would be strong enough to fend off any depression. As if it had anything to do with how strong I was, or what my personality was like.
It really surprised me how sudden it was. The few days beforehand I had started feeling a bit anxious and out of sorts. But then bang..it was as if it had kidnapped me overnight. It is so difficult to put into words how depression makes you feel. But I am going to try. Not in a harrowing, make you cry your eyes out kind of way, but in a way that hopefully you can relate to. So because I love analogies so much, I have attempted to put my experience of depression into four analogies.
Before I was unwell I had heard people talking about depression as “The Black Dog”. It was actually how Winston Churchill described his depression during World War Two. To be honest that never sounded too terrible to me. Most people love dogs, they are loyal companions, and seldom hurt people. I don't think that analogy was ever very effective for me in understanding how it felt, or how serious it could be.
I have since read other people refer to depression as “The Visitor”. I find this such a great analogy. Imagine that an unwelcome visitor has snuck into your home and is now following you around. Right up against you, with their breath down your neck. Sleeping in your bed, standing in the shower with you and sitting right next you on the couch. Imagine that this visitor hasn't washed in days, and absolutely gives you the creeps. That is some of what it feels like to be depressed. You want the feeling to go away and you want someone to protect you and tell this person to leave you alone. You can't concentrate as the visitor is everywhere you go and you can never get a break from them. Their presence sucks the life out of you- making the simplest of tasks seems exhausting. Their face is right over yours as you try to go to sleep, when you toss and turn in the night and when you wake in the morning. But the worst part is no one else can see this visitor. And you can't even begin to describe this terrible feeling, as if you cant even find the words, leaving you isolated and afraid.
I definitely couldn't put into words just how distressed I was. It was as if my vocabulary had reduced. I would try and tell Nick, I would call Kent, I would ring my Mum. Kent thankfully arranged for me to have carers day and night, and I would constantly ask them to help me get through a particular moment, when I would feel so overwhelmed and scared. Even the simplest task seemed insurmountable- even holding a cup of tea felt like it weighed 50kg. All I wanted was for someone to tell me how to feel better. To take the awful feeling away.
Have you ever had a stomach bug and tried to look after kids? It is almost impossible. You can hardly focus on yourself let alone anyone else. I can only relate the same thing to the depression I felt. I absolutely could not look after Alice- I felt paralysed and frightened. I also had a high level of anxiety that went along with the depression which surprised me as I wasn't aware they could go hand in hand. I guess everything I was feeling surprised me. Like I had been given access to a part of human existence that I should never have been given.
The average person fluctuates in emotion throughout the day, sometimes happy and sometimes more subdued. Most people can relate to the term “feeling flat” or feeling down”. I like to imagine emotions like an elevator. The top floor, or the rooftop garden bar, is pure happiness. The middle levels are everyday life- going to work or school. Normality. The ground floor represents feeling “down” or “flat”. But it doesn't take too much to get back up to the higher floors and you always feel there is a way up.
Depression on the other hand is like being way down in the basement, and the elevator has stopped working. Many floors underground, with no light and no air. It's so isolating down there. You can hear everyone on the other levels having a great time and going about their everyday life. But you can see no way to get up to those higher levels.
So when someone says “I feel down” often it's that they are just stuck on the ground floor. Depression cant be described as feeling down- is it better described as despair, distress or overwhelming emptiness. You have moved far beyond sadness and feeling flat, it is almost inhuman.
Think of an ice cream sundae covered in chocolate sauce, or a delicious roast dinner. The way it makes you feel when you are eating it, and the glorious taste. When you are depressed it is like life is a stale piece of bread- it almost doesn't taste like food. There is not a single piece of joy that you get from eating it and everyone else is wondering why on earth you aren't enjoying the food the same way they are.
I remember looking at everyone else wondering how they felt so happy and “normal”. I almost couldn't remember feeling that way. It felt like I had been eating stale bread forever and couldn't even imagine what an icecream sundae tasted like. But no amount of “pulling myself together” or “cheering myself up” was going to change the taste of stale bread. It was going to take so much more than that.
One thing that shocked me was that colours seemed more muted when I was depressed. A true physical chang. They certainly didn't give me the same joy as they once had. I imagine it now as a rainbow- when you are well you see all the colours so vibrantly and clearly. In that moment of looking at the rainbow you feel pure amazement at mother nature, and it can take you back to the magic of when you were a child. Being depressed makes the rainbow seem blurry. Instead of colours it is just tones of grey and brown. There is nothing magical about it, in fact it seems scary and distorted. You want more than anything to see the colours again and to feel the joy, and are so scared that maybe you will never experience it again.
When I looked at Alice, my beautiful little rainbow, I felt absolutely nothing. I wanted so desperately to feel something, I knew how abnormal it was to be feeling this way. I was so scared that I would never feel any differently, that I had lost my ability to feel emotion and to feel love. I felt so much guilt that I wasn't a good mother, and that she would realise it and be affected by it. So I would lie next to her and stroke her tummy. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing, as all my mothering instincts had gone and I would check in with my carer every few minutes to ask her if I was doing an okay job. Because all I knew was that I needed to try to show love to this little baby, even though I didn’t know what love felt like.
To their credit, Janet and Kent swooped back in quickly when this new phase of the illness hit. Janet was right, I was experiencing a crippling level of depression. I was paralysed a lot of the time, and while I would never let myself stay in bed all day, I would generally be curled up on the couch trying to focus on the TV, as a way to get through each minute. Even watching TV brought about panic. I remember watching breakfast television and wondering how on earth they got dressed that early in the morning to go onto the show. It was unfathomable to me that someone could feel well enough to get themselves dressed that early. Then a new wave of panic would hit about something else. I can’t watch daytime TV now as it takes me back to that time.
Luckily Kent had already experienced the demanding side of me when I was manic. Depressed I was even worse. I couldn't believe what was happening to me and I would call him or email him throughout the day to beg him to do something. To try some different medication. To take me to hospital. That is how desperate I felt- I honestly felt that if I could just be admitted to hospital they would find a way to fix me. Kent and Janet told me to be patient and give the antidepressants some time to work.
The panic would come in waves. So for periods of the day I was just a shell, staring at the TV. Then I would have overwhelming waves of distress about what was happening to me and how long it was going to last. Nick was incredible through this awful time. He did everything with Alice whenever he was home, and took such good care of me too. A lot of the time I would just sob into his arms, pleading him to make it better. I can't even imagine what it must have been like to see me like this.
The tortuous depression lasted exactly two weeks. I woke up on day fifteen and felt completely back to normal. I couldn't believe it. The depression just seemed like a terrible nightmare and I was awake now. I felt overwhelming love for my baby and my husband. I wanted to eat and drink and experience sensations again. Everything was going to be okay. I was sure of it.
I got to have ten incredibly normal happy days. Ten days of feeling like a good mum and a happy wife. I saw friends and went to coffee group. I was so thankful for everything in my life.
But, in a cruel twist of fate, I was only given ten days. On the morning of day eleven I opened my eyes. The Visitor was back. In full force. I didn't even hear him driving down the street, or opening the door. No warning.
That day I learnt two words that I wish I had never needed to learn the meaning of. Rapid cycling….
To be continued.