I saw a picture on Facebook the other day. It was called ‘the two faces of depression’ and showed one face showing too much emotion and one face showing none at all. Whilst it obviously missed a lot of important stuff about depression, it rang a bell with me.
Fortunately, most of the time, my primary feeling is numbness. This allows me to function, to carry on, and to keep smiling and keep my ‘office face’ on. Basically it allows me to not appear depressed at all.
This general numbness is frequently interspersed with painfully anxious episodes. Just one sharp word or one snappy email makes my flight or fight reflex bubble queasily in my abdomen and means I spend the rest of the day, or the week, fretting and worrying and dreading what is coming. It hasn’t stopped me from managing to ‘get on with things’ (thank you lovely numbness), but it has made just getting out of bed and getting dressed a major achievement some days. I used to be the (annoying) sort of person who jumped out of bed every morning, ready to face the day. Now I have to psych myself up before I can even get out of bed. In order to do that I have to plan what I’ll do when I get out of the bed, I have to reassure myself that I’ll be fine, I have to create a picture of my whole day in my head, before I can put a foot on my bedroom floor. Even then, I often have to tell myself to ‘just take one step’ and to just get through the next five minutes. This usually sees me through, but last week, I was walking to work and the urge to just turn around and walk home again, to go somewhere safe, to be where there was no-one else, was so strong it took my breath away. I got to work by forcing myself to take ‘one more step’ over and over again. I knew, logically, that once I was there I’d be fine, but the anxious part of my brain was terrified and I spent the entire day just longing for the safety of my house, my room, my bed.
I’ve suspected for some time that the numbness is my brain’s way of protecting me. I know that the complexity of what I really feel is so massive that I can’t really deal with it at the moment. It’s not just that my relationship broke up, and broke up so unnecessarily unpleasantly, it’s not just that I’m dealing with four kids who are devastated by what’s happened, or that I’m trying to hold together two jobs, and sort the family finances as well as everything else with no support. It’s not that I’m worried every day about money. It’s not even that I’m scared about my Mum’s illness and trying to deal with Youngest Daughter’s depression. I think the emotional killer is having to re-evaluate the last ten (possibly more), years of my life, of having to accept that everything I thought was true was a lie. That every memory I have, every photograph I treasure, every little fragment of a precious moment with E just isn’t true. For me that’s such an enormous thing to deal with that I think, for now, my brain has closed off the emotions associated with it.
Sometimes, the floodgates holding the emotion back feel granite like and impenetrable (especially in the few quiet moments I have alone, when I give myself permission to try and feel what I feel), at others they feel filmy and insubstantial and like the slightest pin prick will tear them apart (this is usually when I’m in a situation where the last thing I want to do is cry – for example, at a school open evening, or at the supermarket checkout), but they have largely stayed closed for the bulk of the last year or so.
However, last week things fell apart a bit.
Oldest Daughter had gone back to University, which had cost me a small fortune that I didn’t have, on top of which, due to a cock up by the Student Loans Company, I’d had to sub her for the first few weeks of term. I’d emailed E about the expense, but, predictably, had received no reply. On top of that I’d had a reminder from Youngest Son’s school saying that no payments had been made for his ski trip (the trip E had promised to pay for months ago) and I’d had to find £200 to repair our shower. However, I’d done the accounts and reassured the crawling anxiety in my stomach that I could make it work and that a bit of credit card debt wasn’t the end of the world. Then, just as I was daring to relax on the Sunday, I got this email from E:
“I have given a month for you to digest my previous email. I appreciate it is not what you want to hear but we need to move things forward now.
I can organise valuations if need be but obviously it would be easier if you did this given the need to let someone in.
Let me know which bits of the process you want me to do and I will get things started this week. I can’t address other financial matters until this is resolved so please let’s deal with it now.”
His hassling me re selling didn’t bother me, I’d been expecting another email along these lines, but the patronising and faintly bullying tone of it really upset me. Whilst he can’t sell the house without my consent (it’s in joint names), the suggestion that he was prepared to approach estate agents and potentially let people into my home without my permission was deeply upsetting. I knew that there was no reason to panic, but the fact that I would have yet another unpleasant situation, that wasn’t my fault, to deal with meant the pit of my stomach began to crawl with anxiety again.
The following day I got the news that my lovely, lovely, uncle had died. He and my aunt have been part of my life for all of my life and he had always been a mixture of big brother and ‘other dad’ to me. I was devastated, but I knew my Mum and Dad would take it especially hard, they’d been really close friends, but Mum’s illness had meant she hadn’t been able to get up to see him in the weeks before he passed away. Mum also suffers from cancer, and whilst hers is very different from my Uncle’s I think we all felt the chill shadow that cancer casts that day.
If numbness had been my friend on Monday, it deserted me on Tuesday. A throw-away comment from a colleague cranked open the floodgates and, for a moment, I wasn’t sure if I could close them again.
I was checking my phone at work (ever since Youngest Daughter’s overdose I check my phone for messages and missed calls regularly. I probably don’t need to do it but it takes seconds and it keeps my fear for her at bay). That morning, I was also messaging my Mum and Dad to make sure they were ok and I was watching my Bank Account – E hadn’t transferred any funds to me and, after his email, I was terrified he wouldn’t pay anything. I was staring at my screen in desperation, wondering what I do, and how I’d manage if he didn’t pay any money into my account, when my boss walked past my desk and said “I’ll take that phone off you one day” and laughed.
I was devastated. I was also deeply embarrassed. One of the things I’d prided myself on was managing to hold it together at work and do a good job despite all the stuff that was happening at home. I’m sure the remark was light-hearted (even if it wasn’t it was probably justified, to anyone who doesn’t know that I’m just quickly ensuring there are no messages, it must look like I spend a lot of time ‘on’ my phone), but it really upset me. To my absolute horror, all of a sudden I knew I was going to cry.
In time honoured fashion I retreated to the loo and I sobbed silently and awfully for about ten minutes. I literally couldn’t stop. I cried about Youngest Daughter’s overdose, I cried about my Uncle, I cried about my Mum being so poorly, and I cried because I was so embarrassed about the comment that had been made. Then I cried about the fact that the person I’d loved for 25 years disliked me so much or cared so little he could send emails like the one he’d sent on Sunday. Finally I cried because I was crying, because crying would make no difference and because all I wanted to do was cry.
Eventually I got enough control to get through the day, but when I got home, the floodgates were well and truly opened again and I sat on the sofa and sobbed for most of the evening.
By the next day numbness was properly restored, and after I’d talked myself out of bed, I managed to carry on as normal again, but the whole thing has made me embarrassingly aware of how tenuous my grip on my emotions can be. I know I will tackle those emotions one day, I know I have to, but for now, especially when my stomach plunges every time I get a new email, or text message, I’m grateful for the protective shield provided by the numbness.