Lifesavers

I have had some form of mental illness for as long as I can remember. When I was a young teenager I developed trichotillomania. Pulling out my hair gave me something to focus on, something I could control. I had no idea that it had a name. I had no idea other people did it too. I didn’t even really think about it being strange. I remember talking to a friend at school one lunchtime: she looked more and more distracted, until finally she reached over and pulled a hair out of my mouth. ‘Weird’ she said. Was I? When the patches on my skull became obvious I was taken to the dermatologist, who thought I might have alopecia. Nobody ever said anything about it being a psychological problem. Over the years the pain of pulling went, replaced with a dull ache, which mirrored the one in my head that I was unable to get rid of.

When I was 14 I went to my first therapy session – 2 days at something called ‘Teen Training’. It was hell. I’d been sent with an equally unhappy friend, thanked for supporting her, but in retrospect I think it was probably me they were sending to get fixed. I refused to go back after the first day. I couldn’t see the point of sitting in a circle talking to people I’d never see again about my ‘issues’, my ‘problems’, all of us giving ourselves a pat on the back when we managed to say something ‘difficult’. I thought it was a complete waste of my time.

I managed to do relatively well at school. I went to university and hated it. I was still so young, far too young to plan the rest of my life out at the age of 17, filling in the UCAS form. I switched courses after the first term, changing from English and French (not concrete enough for me) to psychology. This was a mistake. I was bored. I couldn’t believe people were given grants to study the kind of things they were teaching us about. It had no relevance to the real world, to my world. I did badly.

I had the first of two nervous breakdowns. I refused pills. The GP sent me to have cognitive-behavioural therapy in a small room in a building with ‘Mental Health’ plastered all over it. I saw people there who looked ill, who looked mad. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t ill, I just couldn’t get on a tube train. Found it hard to talk to anyone. Felt miserable all the time. Didn’t really want to be here. I was just realistic. The world really was that depressing. The CBT made me worse; the practitioner was contemptuous, he seemed to think if I could just stop concentrating on myself, I’d be okay. I had to get out there, do things. Being told that when you can barely get out of bed is not helpful. I was just another name on his over-long list of appointments.

I went back to work with a small packet of Valium in my pocket. I took one pill, once, so I could get on the train to get there. Someone in the office commented on how happy I looked. I couldn’t wipe the stupid Valium smile off my face. Inside I was screaming. I just wanted to die. I didn’t.

I spent nights lying awake, wishing, hoping that I wouldn’t wake up the next day. I always did. I was always angry. I tried to escape. I read voraciously. I avoided friends I’d known forever. I went to live on a different continent. I did stupid things. I could never get away from myself, no matter what I did. I wished I had a magic, painless pill that would take everything away. Nobody would miss me, it didn’t bother me if they did. I just wanted it all to be over.

A few years later I had a more severe episode. I was pushed to the top of the ‘needs help now’ list by my GP. We had weekly meetings to try and prevent any suicide attempt. He was wonderful. I went to see a different cognitive behavioural therapist. We had fortnightly face-to-face meetings and weekly phone calls, with homework for me in between. I spent one of our meetings unable to speak, choked by tears. She was wonderful. Together they saved my life.

Now I’m in my early 40s. I work in public health, trying to do something useful. I have two MSc degrees in complicated subjects from prestigious places. I have succeeded at some things. I’ve made it this far, and when I’m well and feel able to praise myself, I think that’s an achievement. When I’m not I despair of likely having to live through the same amount of time again. I still pull my hair out, but not as much. I still have days when I look at the Thames floating under Waterloo Bridge on my way to work, and I have to make a conscious effort to keep walking. I have days when I am happy, or at least that’s what I think that feeling is. We none of us can know what that really means for anyone else.

That pill, that magic, get-rid-of-all-the-pain pill, that pill that doesn’t exist – I still think about it, and there are occasions when I would still take it. To know that it would all just go away. But most of the time it’s not like that anymore. Most of the time I’d be angry if I died now. I am fiercely disappointed that I won’t get to see what’s going to happen next century.

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed, but it’s more likely to be because of possibilities: all the places I want to see, all the books I want to read, all the things I want to experience. I’m angry that I’ve spent so long not registering how important all that is. But I’ve stopped beating myself up about it because I’ve finally realised that there’s no point.

Those two people, that doctor and that therapist, probably don’t remember me. Why would they? In our overworked, under-resourced NHS they must see hundreds of people a year. I was one deeply troubled person, someone who needed help desperately, and they gave it to me. And they saved me. And I can never thank them enough. All I can do, all any of us can do, is keep going.