Depression and a light in the darkness

It could have been December 2010, January 2011, February 2011. I don’t know. All the days, weeks and months blurred into one as I lay in bed crying and shaking, the baby girl inside me fluttering and kicking in my belly. I had tried desperately to get pregnant, thinking the dark forces at work that hated me and my atheist activism would at least spare my life if I were growing another life inside me. But no: now I was convinced that it would make no difference to them. I was going to die, and it would be best if I committed suicide.

I was ill, so ill, and I had been doing so well: a columnist for the Guardian, a travel writer for the Sunday Times, an author with HarperCollins. I had met and fallen for the love of my life, and was carrying his tiny baby – the daughter I had always wanted. It could all have been so beautiful, so luminous. I should have been radiant and thriving. Yet I was certain that I was going to be killed, and so I took the 10mg of antipsychotics that knocked me out for 16 hours a day, and spent the remaining eight hours on suicide forums, desperately trying to find someone who would help me end my life.

I wanted to die via the helium method, because apparently it was painless. The only problem was that, if you ripped off the mask in panic, you could end up paralysed, and that would be even worse than being dead. So it was essential that I did it properly, and that meant finding someone to help me. I started writing to a boy I’ll call Matt, a 22-year-old who was depressed and planning to kill himself the same way. He had procured most of the necessary equipment, including a helium canister.

Though we never met up, I found solace in his emails: here was someone who understood the hell I was going through. He was also incredibly kind, writing to me: ‘You sound to me like a remarkably intelligent, articulate individual who has fallen on hard times. I think there’s every possibility you will give birth to a beautiful healthy baby and that alone will inspire you to want to pass on your wisdom to your child.’ I hope I was kind to him too.

I had another friend, a girl I’d met on a pregnancy forum, whom I’ll call Sarah. She was depressed too. Our due dates were five days apart, and we were both expecting girls. ‘I want to kill myself,’ I told her. She replied: ‘Sometimes I also think my baby would be better off without me.’ She counselled me: ‘Wait until you give birth, and if you still feel like this, see a doctor.’ In the event, I would be assigned a psychiatrist after the birth, and he would give me drugs that would return me to 60% normality. But back then, I didn’t believe there was any drug that could help me. I was trapped in this state of fear and sadness for life.

Sarah was unemployed but used to work in a care home. She was blunt and funny and caring. I liked being with her, as it didn’t make me feel like a failure. Everyone else I knew was a successful and functional journalist or writer, enjoying being in the media, revelling in their regular moments in the spotlight.

I wanted to be like them again, so much. I was watching my career crumble before my eyes with every email opportunity I turned down, every television and radio show I refused to be on. I didn’t tell the producers I was scared of being killed, as I didn’t want anyone to know. I told them I was pregnant and in no fit state to appear on their show, which was true. I’d long since cancelled the Guardian video series I’d been scripting and presenting, refused to keep writing for the paper, and turned down a starring role in a Canon advertising campaign. Everything I’d worked so hard for all these years was coming to fruition, and I was too terrified to take advantage. That meant no national newspapers, no telly, no radio. The only thing I didn’t cancel was writing a short quarterly column for Scottish Humanists magazine, as I had convinced myself no one likely to harm me would read that.

When my daughter’s aunt (her father’s sister), a journalist, sent me an opportunity saying ‘You should do this’, I immediately moved to turn it down. It was a photo shoot in Mother & Baby magazine, accompanying an article where I would thank a pregnant friend for being there for me during my pregnancy. We would both receive £100. It occurred to me that I could thank Sarah for helping me with my dark thoughts, though I would have to downplay those as basic anxiety. It might also mollify my daughter’s father, another journalist, who kept insisting that I should carry on with journalism. I worried about it for hours: were the people who wanted to kill me really likely to read Mother & Baby? I called Sarah and suggested it to her. She was incredibly excited: “Oh my God babe, would we have to pose naked?!” She wanted to do it, and I didn’t want to let her down – or my sister-in-law. So, for the first and only time in my pregnancy, I said yes to an opportunity.

And then immediately regretted it. What the fuck was I doing? There were people out there who wanted to end my life, and I was playing into their hands. I shouldn’t even be leaving the house. I burst into tears. The phone interview for the magazine was a nightmare: I affected an upbeat tone, my voice wobbling, and talked blandly about my anxiety, saying nothing of interest. I was choosing my words so carefully, desperate not to attract more attention than necessary. I can’t even remember what I said, and never saw the magazine when it came out.

The day of the photo shoot rolled around – was it February 2011? I don’t know. Sarah was so excited. I was incredibly anxious and tearful, completely regretting my decision to appear in the magazine. We got a taxi to the location of the shoot, a pretty Victorian house in Central London. It was a hive of activity, with makeup artists buzzing around lots of pregnant women. I sat still and said nothing, lost in my desperate thoughts. I knew women were chatting about their pregnancies, making friends with each other, swapping due dates and telephone numbers. I watched them silently, thinking: I wish I could enjoy my pregnancy. It’s meant to be the most beautiful thing in the world. I had to end my first pregnancy when my ex-boyfriend violently attacked me. Now, with my second, I’m too ill to work, too ill to take any notice of my baby, too ill to engage with or relate to anyone who doesn’t have depression.

I only have one solitary photo of me when I was pregnant. It is the photo in Mother & Baby magazine, which they sent to me on CD. My mouth is smiling, but my eyes aren’t: I look tense and worried. Sarah’s arm is around me, mine is around her. I don’t want to be there. I am miles away, thinking of myself with a helium mask on, drifting into oblivion. I am wishing more than anything that there were a button I could press to take me from alive to dead. I would press that button in a heartbeat.

Age 30

Anyone who saw the piece in Mother & Baby might have thought I was a happy pregnant woman with a touch of anxiety. In fact, I spent my pregnancy dying inside. My relationship with my daughter’s father had long since fallen apart. We were technically together, but he didn’t want to be with me anymore, and I can hardly blame him. I was in the throes of mental illness, and it’s impossible to have a normal relationship with someone who thinks MI5 or the government are trying to kill them.

I wanted to write this piece for Mental Health Awareness Week, to illustrate that you never know what people are going through. As far as most people were concerned, I was just taking it easy during my pregnancy and having a rest. In fact, I was actively suicidal for the whole nine months. Depressives can be very good at hiding our true feelings. As Ian Maclaren said, ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’

I never met up with Matt. He sent his last email saying: ‘If I drop off the radar then please just assume the obvious.’  Years later, I would write to him and thank him for being a light in my darkest hour. He never wrote back.

Calling the devil at Radio 4

In 2008, I created the Atheist Bus Campaign – an atheist advertising campaign running on British public transport with the slogan ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ The UK campaign was only meant to raise £5,500 over six months, but such was the strength of feeling among atheists, it raised £100,000 in four days. It then went global, running in 13 countries around the world, from the US to Germany to Australia.

Because of all this, the press wanted to interview me a lot. One of the keenest outlets was BBC Radio 4, home of regular religious morning slot Thought for the Day. As I wasn’t religious, I wasn’t allowed to do a proper Thought for the Day, but gave the first atheist Thought for the Afternoon instead a few months later. Soon after the bus campaign launch, I was also asked to chat to Edward Stourton on the regular Radio 4 weekend programme Sunday.

Ironically, I was very bad at taking public transport at the time, as I had experienced severe claustrophobia since being violently attacked and suffocated during pregnancy in 2005. If I was ever trapped somewhere I felt air was restricted, and I couldn’t escape, I would quickly start hyperventilating and have a full-on panic attack. This happened most often when Tube trains stopped in a tunnel underground, but it also happened in TV and radio studios, which either have no windows, or windows that don’t open.

The interview on Sunday was arranged for late October 2008. It was to take place remotely in a BBC studio in Weston House in Great Portland Street, London. I was shown into the studio and was told to wait there on my own for a phone call from Edward Stourton. I set my bag down, put the headphones on and waited. And then it occurred to me that I was in an airless studio with the door shut.

So I took the headphones off and ran over to the door, expecting to be able to open it easily – but it wouldn’t budge. I tugged it hard, but it was so heavy that my brain decided it was locked. And then I started to panic. I was going to die there with no air. I yelled as loudly as I could, but the security guard who had let me in was gone, and there was no one in sight. Why had they locked the door? Maybe they wanted me to die there. I started screaming and crying and shaking.

Then I called my friend Charlie Brooker, and told him what was happening. ‘I’m locked in a studio and am going to die!’

He was very calm and said ‘You’re not going to die. The BBC is the safest place in the world. Calm down. Slow your breathing down. Breathe with me – in – out. In – out.’

I breathed along with him, and slowly felt myself relax. Then I noticed there was an emergency number by a landline phone on the studio desk. I told Charlie I was going to call for help, and phoned the number on the desk. ‘I’m trapped in the studio!’ I told the man who answered. ‘Please can you come and let me out?’

The security guard came quickly and opened the door. It wasn’t locked, he told me – it was just very heavy and stiff, in order that the room would be soundproof. I asked him if he could come and sit in the studio while I did the interview, so that I would be able to get out afterwards. He agreed, and I relaxed and took part in the interview. Edward Stourton was very nice and reassuring, and was kindly and avuncular towards me, despite being a staunch Catholic.

In fact, except for my claustrophobia and the heaviness of the studio door, there was only one unsettling thing about the whole experience of doing an interview on atheism: the BBC emergency telephone number I’d had to dial in order to get rescued…

It was 666.

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Sammy and Jelly, Charlie Brooker, Mary and Tim Fowler, Steve Richards, Alan Brookland, Mark Ormandy, Oliver Vass, Keith Bell, John Fleming, Mark Bailey, Rebekah Bennetch, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Aragorn Strider, Lucy Spencer, Dave Nattriss,, Mark White, Dave Cross, Graham Nunn, David Conrad, Rob Turner, Shane Jarvis, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

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