“You must be so happy”
You hear it all the time. New job? Oh you must be so happy!! You’re engaged? You must be so happy!! You’re wedding day, you’re pregnant, a new baby. You must be so happy. And you start to wonder whether this is an assumption or an order? You MUST be so happy. But what if you’re not? What if you have all of these lovely things and you still don’t feel happy? Is there something wrong with you? Are you ungrateful? A bad person? Because, and this may surprise some of you, there have been times in my life when I have had everything I ever wanted and guess what? I haven’t been happy at all.
I have lived with depression for eighteen long years, my entire adult life. I went from being an outgoing, popular, confident young girl to just a shell of my former self in just a few months. And I have no idea why or how it even happened, all I know was that everything had changed and I couldn’t find my way back. I had previously heard about people with depression, usually when eavesdropping on adult conversation, and yet it was spoken about in hushed whispers and with a look on their face that implied that it was something so shameful that it wasn’t something you spoke about out loud. And so, aged 18, when I finally plucked up the courage to approach the doctor, who told me that I was clinically depressed and wrote me a prescription for antidepressants, I felt scared, confused and thoroughly ashamed.
And so I isolated myself further, feeling as though there must be something very wrong with me. People would ask me, “What do you have to be depressed about?”, my own family would tell me to, “Cheer up!!” and friends would assume that a night out would ‘fix me’, and slowly I found myself realising that it was easier to avoid people, friends, family and try to “snap out of it” as suggested by so many.
But I didn’t snap out of it and my depression was all-consuming. I would spend weeks holed up in the little flat that I shared with my ex-husband. I would go days without showering, dressing, eating. I would cry for hours on end and have no idea why I felt so desperately sad. I considered ways to end this miserable existence, convinced that everyone would be far better off without me in their lives.
Eventually it got so bad that both my ex-husband and I moved back home to my parents. I had lost a great deal of weight, was physically un-well and desperately in need of some professional help. And back under the care of my family doctor I did begin to receive more support. I saw counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, I underwent various therapies, tried a whole range of medications and at times I began to see glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel.
While all of my friends were beginning their post-graduate jobs or travelling the world, I was under-going intensive therapies and pouring my heart out to yet another health care professional. I felt as though I was the only person in the whole world who felt that way and it was unbearably lonely and impossible for those around me to understand. For all of his faults, the fact that my ex husband stood by during that time was a miracle. To continue to love someone who is intent on pushing you away, who has nothing left to give in return and who, let’s be honest, is no fun to be around, is a hard feat. There would be times where he would have to miss important occasions, events, even work, because I had been crying for ten hours solid and he was too scared to leave me. Times when I would ring him begging him to come home because I was afraid of what I might do. It was a miserable existence for me, but it was equally miserable for him too.
As the years went by, with the correct medication, there were many highs amongst the lows. I would go months where I felt as though I was clawing back a little of the old me and during those times I was happy, I really was. And then I would wake up one morning feeling as though the whole world was about to end, out of nowhere, just like that. And I would sit in the doctor’s surgery begging him to help me, telling him that I couldn’t go on feeling this way, and he would increase my antidepressants and send me on my way.
When Lewis came along I was over the moon, of course I was, being a Mummy was everything I had ever wanted. “You must be so happy!” people would say and I would tell them that I couldn’t be any happier whilst wondering what was so wrong with me? Why did I still feel so sad?
By the time I fell pregnant with Joseph I was finally finding my feet again, beginning to get back on track and things were looking up. I was happily married, enjoying Lewis as a toddler and looking forward to the arrival of our second son. I felt as though we had survived the worst and as I prepared for being a mummy of two, I had no idea that the worst was still to come.
So within just a few months of losing Joseph, it was no big suprise that I was at an all time low. The weight issues that I had teetered on the edge of for the last few years became a massive issue. I lost several stone in just a few months and when the doctor diagnosed me with anorexia I was so far gone that I no longer cared. I was surviving each day on diet coke and a couple of slim-a-soups and, at a time when I felt as though I had lost control of most areas of my life, I was clawing some back for myself. My parents seemed to age over night, they would cry and beg me to get better and yet I told them I was fine, just grieving, reassured them that I was eating and taking care of myself.
The following year I was finally admitted to an eating disorders unit and I didn’t fight it. I was tired, I was ill and my body was shutting down. I spent the first few weeks in there with a dedicated nurse by my side twenty-four hours a day. She watched me sleep, watched me shower and even watched me use the toilet. It was the lowest point that I can remember. I felt degraded, ashamed and as though I had failed as a mother, a wife and a daughter. And so I did whatever it took to get myself better. I ate, I talked, I wrote it all down, I opened myself up to the various therapies and group sessions offered there and I fought against every thought in my head so I could get out of there and home to my son. And by the end of the Summer when I left the unit, several kilos heavier, I swore that I would never go back.
And whilst I didn’t go back, it was not due to a recovery. My depression fuelled my anorexia and my anorexia fuelled my depression. It was a vicious cycle of self-hatred, self-doubt and self-harm, and I reluctantly accepted that perhaps this was all that my life had to offer. It was un-fortunate that at a time when I was already rock bottom, life continued to throw obstacles, heartache and more misery my way and so when my marriage broke down it was not a shock to me. It had been slowly crumbling for the last few years, the rocky foundations on which it had been built were not enough to keep us afloat. When it ended it simply re-affirmed what I already knew.
That I was not good enough.
And whilst I laughed and smiled and did everything that I could to protect Lewis from it, inside I was dying. When we announced the end of our marriage I remember the look of absolute terror in my parents eyes. A look that said, how will she ever survive this?
But by some miracle, we did. Faced with the option to sink or swim, I threw myself in headfirst and used every ounce of survival instinct to keep treading water. Within a year we had moved into a new home, I was holding down a full-time job, socializing on a weekend and beginning to embark on the world of dating. I had gained weight, without even realising, I was feeling good and I was stronger than I had been in years. With the acceptance that my marriage was over came the freedom from the great weight around my neck, the heavy chains of grief, the never-ending reminder of all that we had lost. For the first time in eleven years I was free to be whoever I wanted to be without that constant battle to repair a marriage that could not be fixed. And as we pieced our lives back together, Lewis and I, we paved the way for a new life, just the two of us and I was excited for everything that lay ahead.
By the time that I met Gaz I was feeling a world away from where I had started. Still, right at the beginning I was honest with him about what it would mean to enter into a relationship with me. I couldn’t promise him that it would all be plain sailing, there would be days, weeks, even months, when I might hit a dark place and need his help to find my way back. There may be times when I was feeling particularly bad about myself where I wouldn’t want to eat, when he would have to stand by and see the weight drop off me and he would be powerless to help.
And it was hard for him. To watch someone you love suffering is just heartbreaking, but to see someone so unhappy when you are doing everything in your power to put a smile on their face must be the most frustrating feeling. I’m very lucky that Gaz accepted me and all of my baggage and not only did he accept it, but he tried his very best to understand it.
For the first time in my life, being with Gaz made me feel beautiful. It’s very hard to loathe yourself when someone is telling you how amazing you are a hundred times a day. Even when you start to doubt yourself, that kind of affirmation most definitely starts to change your mindset and in doing that I felt happier than I had in years.
And I think the common misconception of depression is that we are unhappy most of the time. Depression is so much more than just feeling unhappy. There were times when I was genuinely on top of the world. When Gaz, Lew and I became a family I thought I would burst with happiness but depression doesn’t just disappear over night, it simply fades into the background. You can be feeling happier than you ever thought possible but the sadness is still there, just lingering under the surface, waiting to surprise you. You start to realise that weeks, months have passed and you haven’t cried or had a bad day and then just as you think you have got everything back on track, it jumps out on you, seemingly from nowhere, and knocks you right back down again.
People often say that there is that one defining moment in their lives when they decide that enough is enough. For me, I think that was when I had Megan. After Eva I became very poorly again with severe PND and it got to the point, as my weight plummeted, where the doctors wanted to re-admit me to the eating disorders unit. By some miracle, whilst waiting for a bed to come up, I fell pregnant with Megan and although not at all planned, I was so happy and desperate to keep her safe. I began to eat again, spurred on by an insatiable pregnancy hunger, and the weight piled back on. When she was born and so poorly, my sole focus was on having her well. Losing weight didn’t even enter my mind and allowing myself to give in to those post-baby plummeting hormones was not an option. All I cared about was being there for my baby. And right there and then, I looked around at my beautiful children who were completely reliant on me, and I knew that I had to change. And more importantly, I was finally ready to change.
And where as previously I have sank back into bad habits between pregnancies, this time it was very different. Falling pregnant with Harry so soon afterwards meant that my weight was at the healthiest point it had been in years. I ate us out of house and home and discovered that my love of food was far more satisfying than seeing those numbers going down on the scales. I re-discovered the joys of eating out, of cooking and baking and sharing meal times with my family. I noticed that my family stopped commenting on my weight, the doctor stopped quizzing me about my diet and that friends were telling me I looked good, I looked healthy and most importantly, I seemed happier than ever before.
After Harry I did lose a lot of weight, due to medical reasons, and yet I have spent this last year desperately trying to gain it back. To see the scales going up each week has made me happy. To see another pound on has been a massive achievement and never in a million years did I imagine that I would ever get to that point. And although, like depression, anorexia never goes away completely, I can now shush those thoughts in my head far better than I ever could before. I can push them away with a new-found strength, tell myself that my children need me to be well, that being healthy is far more important than numbers on the scales and most importantly, that I AM good enough. And I can be content in myself, in a body that, although far from perfect, has given me five amazing children.
And actually, I can hand on my heart say that, the last couple of years have been very kind to us. I see my doctor at regular intervals, I still see a therapist and am due to start a new course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in the next few weeks. I still put those things in place to keep the depression at bay and to make sure that I never sink as low as I have done previously. And my beautiful children still remain to be the best therapy that I could ever ask for. Every single day they make me laugh and smile and I am grateful for this life, for my family and the joy of being their Mummy.
I’ve had people comment the last few years,”It’s like we’ve got the old you back” and I tell them that the old me is long gone. Like all of us as we age, we change and grow, but depression changes you indefinitely. I like to think that my battle with mental illness changed me for the better, shaped the woman I am today as a wife, mother, daughter and friend. I’ve learned to surround myself with positive people, to avoid situations that put me at risk of taking a step back, to remove myself from conversations that revolve around weight loss and negativity. I’ve learned that depression is the loneliest illness in the whole world, that there is no-one else on this entire planet who can see inside your head and share this illness with you and that battling against yourself is the toughest battle you will ever face. I’ve learned that true friends will understand my need for space and will be there to pick up where we left off, even when months have passed. I’ve learned that my family will love me unconditionally, regardless of how much worry and upset I have caused. And I’ve learned that even when there have been times that I have felt it was too hard to go on, there is always so much to live for.
And so when I tell you that I am the happiest woman in the whole world right now, I mean it. Today, right now, I could not be any happier. Tomorrow? Next month? Who knows, I may be struggling. I may be feeling down, anxious or struggling to push those dark thoughts away. There is no pattern, no rights and wrongs, no way of knowing how I will feel from one day to the next. But as adults we seldom share those days with others. We very rarely reply when asked, “How are you?”, “Not great, I’m struggling with my depression.” We are far more likely to say, “Great thanks”, and smile as though nothing at all is wrong.
I have never shied away from talking about my battle with mental health. I finally came to realise that there is nothing at all to be ashamed about and that actually, if more of us spoke about this openly then there would be fewer people suffering in silence. I hope that by sharing my story I can help even one person who is struggling, to perhaps reach out to someone who is feeling scared and alone and tell them, it WILL be okay. I imagine that all of us know at least one person suffering with mental illness, whether you realise it or not, and in a society where mental illness is still very much a taboo, that needs to change.
There’s a lovely quote that I read recently that simply says, “All of us are fighting a battle that others know nothing about. Be kind, always. ”
And that just about sums it up.
A smile can hide a thousand tears, so be kind. Always.