As I publish this, Jonathan Trott is on his way home from Australia, his demons having got the upper hand. My Twitter timeline is full of comments on it, mostly supportive but - inevitably - the occasional "man up" or "ha ha, he's quitting cos he can't bat any more". Those reactions are hurtful, obviously, but some people can't be reached - they are determined to hide behind ignorance. As well as the unsympathetic, there are the confused. "But your life is great, why are you depressed?" In some ways, that's harder. You feel that you need to justify your mental illness with some catastrophic event. And, if you can't, it can feel like there's no choice but to put on the mask and tell everyone you're fine.
Jonathan Trott has a good life - he has a loving family, he's an international cricket star. But he is not fine. He has a mental illness which doesn't care about those things. Demons are no respecters of money, fame or even love. I was wanting to share this story anyway; both as a thank you to my friends and as a sort of heads-up for people who might believe the lie of "I'm fine". It seems even more relevant now.
This is a story about lies, being fine, and how a friend helped save my life.
Around a year ago, the balance of my depression shifted. I'd been treading water, sometimes making a bit of progress. There were bad days, but there were also good days and I had been feeling as though I was starting to get a handle on life. Then it all changed. With winter coming in, the end of the cricket season, the approach of a Big Scary Birthday... I started to lose my grip on things. The walls were weakening and the demons were finding the cracks again. At the end of October, my heart was broken by the loss of one of my cats. The cracks widened, the demons reached their hands through. I told everyone that I was upset, obviously, but insisted I was okay.
On my 40th birthday, rather drunk, I ended up sobbing into the shoulder of someone I'd just met. Being a cat lady herself, she was sympathetic, thank goodness. Everyone out with me that night was very understanding and I am incredibly grateful. I missed my cat so much, I said. What I didn't say was: "I'm drowning. I'm scared all the time, of everything. I feel so alone even when I'm with people who care about me. I have this tight knot in my chest that feels like a black hole containing all the tears in the world and I don't know how to let it out. I want to scream my throat raw, beat my fists on the wall, take a knife to my skin if only it would get the pain out of my head and make it something everyone can see. Please please don't leave me alone because the demons will get me and I might never get away." There was no way I could have said that. I was ashamed and afraid, and I didn't have the words to articulate what I was feeling. So, at the end of the night, I said I was fine.
The next day, I apologised to everyone and a couple of close friends suggested I should get some more help. I agreed that it was probably time to give medication another try, reluctant as I was. I was seeing a lovely counsellor but she can't prescribe drugs. The GPs can, but they don't have the time to analyse my whole mental health history and consider what might be suitable. With this reasoning, I asked my GP for a psychiatric referral. It didn't go well.
"What makes you think you need a psychiatrist?" he said.
Well, I have a long history of depression, I want to try meds again but I've had no luck with (6 different types of medication) and think I need someone who can spend time looking at the problem.
"I'll give you Drug X," the GP said.
But I've been on Drug X before. It turned me into a zombie, I was falling asleep at the wheel. I'm a single mum who has to take my child to school...
"People drive on Drug X all the time, no problem."
"Look, just try this for a couple of weeks then, if you're still feeling down, come back and we might see about referring you to a psychiatrist."
Um... ok. That's fine.
It wasn't fine. It was patronising and he wasn't listening to me, but the demons were telling me I wasn't worth listening to. I started taking my Drug X. Within a couple of days, I was wrapped in a thick blanket of apathetic exhaustion. I wasn't precisely depressed any more, because I didn't have the energy. I didn't have the energy for anything. I took my son to school then crawled under the duvet and slept until it was time to pick him up. I stopped eating because it was too much effort. But I was fine, I thought. I couldn't feel the pain any more. I couldn't feel anything.
A week or so later, Iain rang and asked if I was ok. With us both having fought demons, we have a thing about checking up on each other and we recognise the danger signs. I told him that I was all right, just a bit tired. Oh, and I'd been to the doc, got some meds which were the same as I'd had before but no problem. The doc had said it was only a couple of weeks, no big deal.
"Don't worry, I'm fine," I said.
Iain knew I was lying even though I didn't fully realise it myself. A couple of weeks was a big deal. It had taken the last dregs of mental strength to go to the GP in the first place. Going back and trying to justify my need for help again might prove too much. A couple of weeks and then who knows how long for the referral? Meanwhile, the demons were tangling themselves around me and pulling me under, and I wasn't fighting any more. Iain could see that I was a million miles from fine. He dragged me out of the demons' grasp, pulled strings and found me help when I didn't have the strength to do it myself. Four days later, I was sitting opposite a psychiatrist who would give me the tools to start putting myself back together.
It turned out that some people have disproportionately severe side effects to certain antidepressants - this is a known fact and not just me being silly or over-reacting. It turned out that there are other options than the SSRIs that are prescribed by most GPs. It turned out that there was a doctor out there who would listen to me, really listen, and treat me with respect despite my mental illness. It turned out that there is a medication which suits me, although it's not without its own side effects.
It turned out that, in time, I might be able to say I was fine and it not be a lie.
I'm lucky. I'm so very lucky. I don't know what would've happened if Iain hadn't called me when he did, or if he'd believed me when I said I was fine. The support I've had from my friends over the last year has been a lifeline. There are good days and there are bad days, but I feel a little more confident now in admitting when I'm feeling fragile. It's made it easier for me to spot other people's "I'm fine" lies as well, because they're more common than you think.
The thing is, some people use the lie of "fine" to mean "I can't be bothered talking about it just now" or "it's none of your business". Some mean "I have a grip on things but if I start talking I'll fall apart so shut up!" And most people genuinely are fine. But sometimes, under "I'm fine" is a tiny whisper that says "please help me." It's difficult to tell, a lot of the time. Admitting that you're not coping is hard. So if your friend, relative, work colleague, whoever, tells you they're ok but you have a weird feeling that it's a lie, chances are that you're right. What you do then is tricky and very much on a case-by-case basis, but it can be as simple as telling them there's no shame in wanting help, and that you're there if they do.
I want to say thank you to the people out there who have been so supportive of my battle with demons. On Twitter, on Facebook, on the phone, in person. People who I've known for decades and people who I've only known for months. Thank you. And please understand that sometimes I might still feel angry and alone, even if it seems I'm fine. Even if I say it.