Today is what is sometimes referred to as a book birthday. Being the mother of five children, I prefer to imagine it as the day a book is born. Being the book’s mumma, today I should be sitting up in bed or perching carefully on a bag of frozen peas ( too much information?) or reclining on something comfortable with my newborn either cradled in my arms or in someone else’s. There might even be flowers and chocolate within reach. And probably some prunes, she said, darkly.
There have been so many book birthdays over the years. Some have passed with nothing so much as a pause in the onward flow of book deadlines ; others we’ve celebrated by taking a bottle of something fizzy up a hill and finding a secret river or a sheltered hollow to consume it along with a picnic. On other book birthdays, I’ve been out on The Road, living out of a suitcase and visiting small children in a variety of schools, libraries and lit festivals round the UK. Every one different in its own way.
Today’s book birthday is an altogether different beast. Before, my books were fiction. Well..inasmuch as any writer is capable of teasing out the threads of their own life from the yarn they’re spinning. Sometimes I can only see why I wrote what I did many years after the event. Sometimes it takes a dedicated PhD student to pick apart my texts and offer them, dissected, back to me before the penny drops. Ah, I’ll think, that’s why I wrote that bit. And at times, that same penny drops as I’m standing up there, babbling in front of a group of small children.
For instance, I offer you the menopausal Mr Wolf, a self-portrait if ever there was one. Needless to say, as soon as I spotted the likeness, I blurted out my findings in front of a class of bemused five-year-olds. Thankfully, they hadn’t a clue what I was on about, but their teachers did.
However, I know that ‘Night Shift’, published today, isn’t fiction. It may have dragons, but it’s as near as dammit an illustrated version of what happened to me when I first encountered depressive illness.
First time round, I was prescribed the anti-depressant amitriptyline. I have no idea in what dosage, but it was sufficient to stop my panic attacks ( see previous post, Night Shift : 2), stem the feelings of dread and put me into a merciful sleep. Deep, sticky, dreamless sleep. Sleep from which I awoke into a grey fog. Soon, I was so far from the ‘me’ I once was that I was convinced I’d never be her again. That girl/woman had turned into a shambling, sexless thing ; a thing with no ability to create any more, no interest in anything at all, a thing that merely existed to eat and sleep. Every day for months, I took my little boy to school and crawled back to bed with a large packet of digestive biscuits. I tried to read, but the words slipped off the inside of my head and got lost somewhere in the biscuit crumbs. I tried to cry, but nothing came out. I hid from everyone, didn’t answer the phone and sank deeper into something that nobody seemed to understand. Counselling wasn’t on offer, so I didn’t know that it might have helped. There weren’t any self-help books around, so I didn’t realise that the simplest things might have made a difference.
My mother, determined that I shouldn’t give in to depression and throw away all the hard work I’d done to get a degree and a post-grad, bludgeoned me into accepting a post as lecturer at the same Art College I’d recently graduated from. To her, this was the highest accolade imaginable ; a safe job in academia ranking far above the riskier strategy of becoming an artist. I lasted four weeks. The tears did come. It was utter torture not only to pretend to be normal, but to try and prepare and deliver classes to twenty gorgeous, all-of-life-before-them first year students. I felt like the worst fraud imaginable. I wasn’t an artist ; I was a thing of no use whatsoever. Even resigning my post didn’t make me feel better.
Back I went to the digestive biscuits. I ballooned in weight. When I’d first been diagnosed with depression, I’d been hovering around a worrying six and a half stones. Now, I weighed fourteen. My partner, a primary school teacher who’d been holding the household together in the absence of the-me-I-once-was decided it was time to bail. He’d had enough. I was sad, but not as sad as I could have been ; the depression made the whole break-up feel as if it was taking place underwater. I was drowning anyway, what difference did it make if the water was just over my head or fathoms deep?
The day he left, that night, making tea for my little boy and I, the full weight of what had happened hit me. I had no money. The rent was due, I had no job, my partner was gone, I was ugly inside and out and there was nothing whatsoever to look forward to. I went through the motions of supper, bath time, book and bed for my little boy. Alone at last, I shook out every single pill I had onto a bit of paper, reckoning there was more than enough to do the job. But the prospect of what would happen to my child stopped me. I was all he had.
I flushed every pill I had down the toilet, including my anti-depressants. This wasn’t because I was feeling particularly heroic, but was because in the leaflet that came with them, I was sure I’d seen something about not taking too many and if so, seeking immediate medical advice – i.e. they were toxic in high dosages. So they had to go. The next day I pitched up at the nearest Social Security office and made an appointment to see someone. Within a week, I was in the benefits system as a single parent with no visible means of support. I went to see my landlady and stammered out apologies for being late with the rent. She kindly offered to wait. I looked through the vast number of vinyl albums left behind ( temporarily) by my ex and pulled out Simply Red’s debut ( don’t judge me) and dropped the stylus down on ‘Money’s too tight to mention’ and turned the volume up and danced like nobody was looking.
They weren’t. Then I played the whole of Prefab Sprout’s debut album and cried my eyes out. For everything that had gone. For the loss of a good man. For I had no idea what, but just every single thing. The music touched some frozen part of me and allowed something to thaw. I didn’t know then, but I know now that at that point, the light was about to come back in.
A little something to lighten the day – Sometimes, just doing something different can help. Dreary routines performed without really being aware we’re doing them can contribute to that feeling of being stuck in a rut. So – with this in mind, can I suggest that you listen to something different on your daily commute or when you get home or when you’re doing the school run or whenever you have twenty minutes to yourself to fill your ears with newness? Getting up and dancing is not mandatory, you’ll be glad to know. So – if you normally go running to dance highlights from the 80’s ( don’t judge me, again) then try some Wagner. If you’re on the train listening to reggae on your earbuds, try some Nordic Fiddlers Bloc ( yup, that was a plug for something extraordinary) and if you’re listening to local radio with all its incessant adverts for stuff you don’t need ( more sofas, anyone?) on your car radio, then head over to Radio 3 and stick it out through the quivering violins and swelling opera. This is contrast. Black and white. Even if you listen to enough to decide that you loathe it, you’ll have done something you didn’t do yesterday. Off with the grey blahs and on with the new. With this in mind, I’m going to go listen to ‘The Lark Ascending’ on youtube. Some of my family rate it very highly, but to my horror, I cannot remember what it sounds like.