*TW- Please be advised that this post discusses bereavement, cancer, over-reliance on alcohol, self-harm and suicidal ideation, and thus may contain triggers and content that is upsetting to some readers. Please proceed with caution.
I suffered a mental breakdown a couple of years ago (the first of two recent battles with the Black Dog). It was terrifying. After a prolonged period of everything falling apart in my life, I finally snapped and it was not pretty. I couldn’t get out my front door, I was frozen in fear — of what I didn’t know. I started to dissociate, didn’t feel like I wasn’t in my body, didn’t know who I was, where I was, what I was doing. There were hallucinations sometimes; scary faces that loomed behind my eyes, ready to jump out at me, ready to tell me how useless I am, and telling me I and everybody else would be better off if I just killed myself.
The insidious thing about depressive illness is that it sneaks up on you, and it was only upon reflecting after the worst had passed and with the help of therapy, that I saw how my illness had been building over a period of years and that there were warning signs and triggers. Unfortunately, at the time I had no idea how damaging their cumulative effect could be.
I mentioned that things had been going wrong for several years, and boy, is that an understatement. During the period 2009–2011, I remembered being happier and healthier than I had ever been. I had been dieting and exercising and had lost a lot of weight, and for the first time in my life, I could shop in the groovy stores. I loved my job, I had a social life, and I felt like I was finally finding my feet in the world; a little bit later than expected, maybe, but better late than never.
And then the first of the disasters struck, and as disasters go, this was a doozy; I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It would probably surprise you to know just how much my poor boobs went through in 2012; if you’ve seen my blog, you’ve probably seen “the girls” but you’ve probably never noticed any sign of my scars. Well, I’m careful about camera angles and there’s a reason I often have my long hair falling over my right shoulder in my candid pics.
I had never checked my breasts, thinking that I was way too young to have to worry. (A lesson in hubris ; ladies, check your baps regularly, no matter your age.) I was extremely fortunate all the way through; the first primary lump was a low grade. In the course of subsequent scans, two more primary tumours were found in my other breast, one smaller but a higher grade and potentially much nastier, and the third was a tiny Ductal Carcinoma in Situ, or DCiS, essentially pre-cancer.
I was extremely fortunate that the first lump alerted me and the doctors to the dangerous changes going on in the right breast, and the lumps were able to be removed by wide-local excision, leaving me the rest of my healthy breast tissue. The tumours were all primaries, which is very unusual, but meant that they weren’t metastases- again an extremely lucky near miss for me.
My lymph nodes were clear, and although I spent the second half of 2012 bald, bloated and nauseous on FEC chemotherapy (FEC stands for Fluorourocil, Epirubicin and Cyclophosphamide- the three chemotherapy drugs that are used in treatment), and with painfully burned breasts from radiotherapy, I got through it and made a strong recovery. I’m pleased to say that I have been cancer free since finishing my treatment, and was discharged from breast clinic in 2018. But the trauma of the experience left a mark; one that, in my determination not to dwell on things but put on a brave face and “just get on with it”, I suppressed and left bubbling away in my unconscious.
After the chemo, I wasn’t quite the same person. I got ill more often, a result of the immuno-suppressing effects of chemotherapy on the body, and for months after treatment I would get struck down suddenly with absolute bone-numbing exhaustion. I felt in a fog a lot of the time, and had trouble concentrating, a result of the Tamoxifen I was taking every day. I got a few uterine fibroid tumours which can be a side effect of Tamoxifen, too. These tumours are not dangerous, but by god are they painful bastards when they’re being cut out of you!
In 2015, another even bigger trauma occurred when my mother, my best friend and ally in the world, died suddenly from what was initially believed to be a heart attack (the post-mortem found that it was in fact an aortic dissection; a ruptured aorta. I’m assured that although it would have been excruciatingly painful, it was very quick and she didn’t suffer for long. I’m afraid I don’t really find that much of a consolation.)
The grief process was, nay, is long and painful; it’s still ongoing. But this is around this time that I started to snap, and where the story of my Dark Night of the Soul comes to its crux.
Struggling with grief, I left work early one afternoon and sat watching home movies of my mum. I cried and I drank. Boy did I ever drink. I started by finishing the bottle of red wine that was half-full in the kitchen. Then I polished off the rest of the scotch. I was watching the DVD transfer of our old super-8 films from the 70s and 80s. Mum young, fresh-faced, as I remember her from my childhood. Then the more modern videos, the two of us laughing, making Christmas video messages to send to family abroad, and having so much fun together. I needed more booze: I hit the gin.
I had no mixers, so I drank the Gordon’s Dry straight from the bottle. It was about a third full, but I polished it off in no time. I was pretty wobbly on my legs when I popped across the road to buy another bottle, and I remember talking to the guy behind the counter in the way you do when you’ve been caught out drunk, but you’re trying very hard to act sober. And failing dismally. I am sure I caught him smirking as I attempted to hide my inebriation.
I don’t remember the next few hours. I do remember sitting on the floor in a little corner under the window crying, downing gin straight from the bottle, wishing I were dead so I could see my mum again. Then there was nothing for what I think must have been at least a couple of hours. I then have a dim recollection of being on my mobile phone, stabbing drunkenly at the keys, and someone telling me that they were sending people to help me. I remember I was crying and apologising to them, but I don’t remember what for; my awareness only seemed to snap on mid-call. To this day, I don’t know who I was speaking to or who called who.
I remember being reluctant to give my address when asked for it. I think I was afraid they were going to take me and lock me up, but I don’t know quite why I assumed that was their plan. Just my drunken paranoia, perhaps? The lady on the other end of the line assured me that she could track my address anyway, but it would be quicker and easier if I just told her. Starting to sober up a little by now, I gave her the address (though I think I may have struggled to remember it at first). She told me that the police were coming to check on me. I recall that for some baffling reason, I started to tidy up for their arrival. What an odd moment to be house-proud!
It was now that I was sobering up that I realised how much time I’d lost. I’d thrown up in the bathroom at some point (thank god I was compos mentis enough to make it to the bathroom!), I was wearing my mother’s coat, which still smelled like her, (I don’t remember taking it out of the garment bag. Again, thank goodness I hadn’t been sick on the coat), and it appeared that I’d thrown some things around the living room.
My visiting protectors were two Community Support Officers. To my surprise, they didn’t lock me up, or drag me away in handcuffs or a straight-jacket. They just chatted to me, asked how I was, and as I teetered on uneasy legs I just explained that my mum had recently died and I was very sad and alone tonight, had a bit too much to drink, yadda yadda. They seemed okay with this, and I guess they could see that I was sobering up, and they left after about 10, minutes.
I went to the living room to sit by the window and have a cigarette. It was then that I realised that the large windows that open out fully and look down on the garden four storeys below, were wide open. I have no recollection whatsoever of opening them, or why I did so. It was late October, and the weather was chilly. It couldn’t have been to have a sly fag, because I had just had to go rummaging in my handbag to find my cigarettes and lighter; I couldn’t have done that when I was blind drunk and, even if by some chance I had, I doubt I would have returned all my smoking apparatus to the bottom of my handbag.
I didn’t focus too much on it at the time, my main concern at that moment was nicotine and to call Samaritans for a chat. But it played on my mind; who was on the other end of the phone? Who called who? Why were the windows pulled wide open like that on a cold evening?
When I went into full mental breakdown mode in 2017, I started to self-harm (though I’d had no history of this when I was younger) and I became suicidal. I didn’t make any attempts, but I had gone so far as to plan how I would go about it. I don’t know whether I would ever have gone through with it, as fortunately I was self-aware enough to seek help within a week or two of the harming beginning, and though it was a long road and I still work hard everyday, I now have a brighter outlook, a better awareness of my triggers and warning signs, and a mental health toolkit that I can call on when things are starting to slide.
However, in the course of reflecting with my therapist on the years of build up that led to the breakdown, I came to a difficult conclusion about that drunken October night in 2015, and those wide-open windows. I think I may have been going to jump.
Sadly, when in the worst of my depressive episodes, I would often try to estimate just how much damage a four storey fall onto a lawn would do. It is an admission brutal in its honesty, and I apologise to anyone who may be upset by such a statement of suicidal intent. But uncomfortable as it is, it’s the truth of my experience. And I can’t help but think that during those blacked out/ blocked out hours of drunken misery, I was seriously considering launching myself out the window and hoping that it would be enough to finish me. I’m grateful for whatever it was that stopped me.
My near miss, my lucky escape. What brought about my fortuitous rescue?, I often wonder. I’m certain that the clue is in that mysterious phone call. Did someone call my number, realise that I was in trouble, and pass my details onto emergency services? Did I ring out from my end and, if so, what number had I dialled? (I don’t remember finding any clues in my call log after the number for the massage therapist I’d called that morning.)
Was there still a part of me under all that heartbreak and alcohol that wanted to live, and called for help when she found herself standing poised at an open window and knowing where it was likely to be leading? As an atheist, I don’t believe in the hand of God, but in my more esoteric moments, I must admit to wondering if it was my mother, somewhere in the ether, protecting me and taking care of me just as she always had. However it happened, and whoever I have to thank for it, I’m so pleased that I am still here today to recount the story of my near miss.
If you are suffering from depression, suicidal thoughts, grief, severe anxiety or any other mental health concerns, please don’t be afraid to seek help. You are not alone and, no matter how your illness may try to trick you into believing otherwise, you matter, and the world is a better place for having you in it.
An earlier version of this post at http://jupiterslair.com on June 24, 2019.
Enquiries and comments are always welcome. You can also find me on Twitter @GrantJupiter