Sunday, 1 April 2012

I have been leading a life of quiet desperation

Twelve days ago I arrived on the doorstep of the Maytree Respite Centre near Finsbury Park. Maytree is a charity that offers a 'sanctuary for the suicidal'. I don't quite know what I hoped for when I first contacted them but it felt like I was standing at the edge of an abyss without wings or a safety net to break my fall. My arrival at Maytree was the culmination of a 38 year journey during which I had slowly, almost imperceptibly, descended into a decade of chronic depression (varying from mild to severe). I didn't dare to dream it at the time but walking over the Maytree's threshold was the first step towards finally saving my own life. When I left the Maytree's warm embrace five days later I somehow emerged from the lead chrysalis that had nearly pulled me under, laid down my impenetrable battle-scarred armour and felt like I was heading home for the first time in 38 years.

Choose life.

Only half a dozen people knew where I was during those five days, my husband, my twin sister, one of my cousins, my best friend, my therapist and my boss. Only another half a dozen or so knew I was depressed, let alone that I had been fighting an epic, hidden battle with myself for my own survival. When I look back at my photography, poetry, art and notebooks from that decade and beyond it's glaringly obvious that I was depressed but even when I finally saw my GP and was prescribed anti-depressants, at the end of last year, I still found it hard to accept that I was ill.
"Most [people] lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them" ~ Mis-quotation of a line from Henry David Thoreau's 'Walden' [source]
The first part of that line is from Thoreau and comes from Walden which was a manifesto for living simply. The full quote reads:
"The mass of [people] lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things." Henry David Thoreau [source]
For most of my adult life I tried, and failed, to either fix myself, find myself or flee from myself but, to paraphrase Jon Kabat-Zinn, wherever I went, there I was and in the end I ran out of energy, stopped running from the insatiable hungry ghosts haunting my mind and I did the only thing left to do - I faced myself. With the last sliver of hope left inside me I hoped that a small shift would take place while I was at the Maytree - a shift that would keep me safe for a little longer while I continued the battle against my own thoughts. I have no way of explaining the total transformation that took place on my last day at the Maytree and I'm not sure I'll ever fully understand it but it was like waking up from a nightmare just as I was about to hit the ground. In February this year I wrote in my notebook: "my feet and eyes feel heavy as I drag my despair through the snow." However fast I ran, I couldn't get away from the darkness that had descended and the dark void felt like it was starting to surround me on all sides. All I wanted to do was lie down and sleep until the snow covered my tracks and any sign that I had ever existed. I held tightly to any music and poetry that soothed my soul, if only for a second. I tried to memorise one of John O'Donohue's poems in the hope that it would come true if I recited it often enough: "I would love to live / Like a river flows / Carried by the surprise / Of its own unfolding." During my train journey home from London to York last Saturday I scribbled these words down in my notebook: "There's a river of kindness following me home." The next day I added these words on the same page: "it feels so amazing to be alive today."

I will never be able to fully repay the Maytree Respite Centre or those of you who held me in your thoughts while I was there but I will spend the rest of my life breaking my own (and society's) silence around depression and suicide. My new goal in life is to be the poster-child for suicidal recovery and be a voice in the darkness for anyone who is fighting their own battle. At an existential level it's true that we are alone in life and death because we are the only ones who know what it is like to experience the weight of our thoughts and feelings but there are people out there who will walk beside you while you fight to save your own life - keep looking for those people and never give up hope that you'll find them ... they are probably already much closer than you can possibly believe.

This blogpost is just the first of what I'm hoping to share about the bewildering journey I've been on. Last week I did a BettaKultcha talk about how the Maytree had helped me save my own life and I'll post the video of that talk (eeek!) as soon as it's available, then later this month I'll be hosting Eric Maisel on my blog as part of his virtual book tour for Rethinking Depression. In the meantime though, here are the slides (including the script that I used as the basis for my 5 minute talk):


Tom Hirons said...

Way to go, Helen.
I walked that very dark depression road between the ages of 12 and 23 until I clocked that it was just a matter of time before I died from it, and began the excruciating and wonderful work of nourishing the life-force and becoming canny to the ways of the death-force in me. The paradigms I've viewed depression and mania through may have changed radically this way and that down the years, but I still count myself lucky to be alive, a triumph in itself.
There's really nothing wise or helpful I can say here, but I salute your bravery and your firm anchoring of your self in the territory of the alive. Keep on keeping on and enjoy the daylight!
Tom Coyopa.

Anonymous said...

Found your post very moving with much I could relate to.

I spent most of my 20s and early 30s up and down with depression. Unfortunately I found that alcohol was my only way to cope through the week, which obviously is the worst thing you can do. Only in recent years have I been able to clean up my act. Although I still rely on anti-depressants I feel in a better place now.

It takes a lot of courage to admit to those close to you that you are suffering from depression, you are so brave to go public with this and I hope it will help many others who suffer from depression.

So glad you found the Maytree Centre and hope you continue to recover.


Daniela said...

Helen, this is a wonderful post and I'm so glad you have been able to experience yourself as the messy and beautiful kaleidoskope you are! I hope you can really grab hold of that thought and that image, because it's true. I've only met you briefly at the Dark Mountain festival last year and have followed some of your work via your tweets. You have a very unique view of the world, a quirky wonderful one, that reveals things other people may not see. All strength to you, and thanks be to Keith and the others!
XXX Daniela

Helen Harrop said...

Dearest Tom, A and Daniela,

Thanks so much for your kind words of support and encouragement. And particularly for Tom and A sharing some of their stories too. It means a lot to me :)

Anonymous - I spent years berating myself and telling myself that my drinking, poor diet and aversion to exercise were all contributing to the darkness ... what's been interesting for me is that, following my GP's advice, I haven't drunk anything for three months and it didn't have the miraculous effect I was expecting. In fact things got even darker. That's not to say that alcohol may not have been helping me (and it most certainly did increase the risk of me acting on my suicidal thoughts) but talking about the source of my psychological suffering seems to be the thing that has unlocked things for me. So be gentle about judging yourself re: your reliance on alcohol in the past - no doubt every depression is different but, based purely on my experience, it may not have been quite as damaging to your mental health as you've been thinking. I'm not advocating a return to heavy drinking but I reckon you can let go of the judgement that you were contributing to your own situtation :)

A few weeks ago I would have really squirmed at the suggestion that I'm in the slightest bit courageous or brave - it's hard to see yourself that way when you feel weak, desperate and self-centred - But now I can punch the air and say 'heck yeah! and you have *no* idea just how much bravery it's taken me to get this far and how deep my reserves of bravery go - I feel like I've got enough courage for all of us, come and get it' :)

What a difference a fortnight makes :)

Helen x

P.S. Tom and Daniela, are you returning to the Dark Mountain this year? My ticket is booked so I'll see you there if you are :)

Daniela said...

Helen, I will be at the festival. Tom also, last time I checked : )
... will be lovely to see you! XXX