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.

 

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Why my atheist parents brought me up Christian

I was a mixed-up mixed race kid. My mum was Parsi – a kind of Indian that originates from Iran – although she was born in East Africa and came to Britain when she was 16. My dad was American, but retained his US citizenship and never became British despite living in Britain for the last 45 years of his life.

13.jpg[Me, aged three. There’s a photo of me somewhere aged 14 where I look just the same.]

In terms of religion, my mum was technically Zoroastrian and my dad was a Unitarian Universalist (a wishy-washy, pluralistic kind of Christian) but both were non-practising. And, I later discovered, though they didn’t identify as such, they both held atheist beliefs – which makes sense, as they were highly-educated academics. So why the hell did they send me to church and Sunday school until I was 8?

It all goes back to Auntie Dolly.

I was middle-named after my Asian grandmother, Shirin (there are half a dozen different spellings of Sherine, including Shirin, Shireen, Shereen and Sherin). Anyhow, Nana Shirin had five siblings – two female, two male – with the unusual names of Dolly, Bapsy, Temi and Ferdoon. I think she drew the long straw with Shirin!

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[Me and my tiny little Asian Nan, Shirin, in 2009. I hope I look as good as her when I’m old! She’s 94 now and doesn’t look any different.]

Auntie Dolly was a Jehovah’s Witness. She would go door-to-door trying to convert non-believers. Before she died ten years ago, she would call Nan daily to tell her the End Times were coming, and that she had to become a JW if she didn’t want to go to hell. Poor Nan was very gullible, and this frightened her. My mum would then have to go round and de-program Nan, telling her Auntie Dolly was talking nonsense!

Anyhow, my mum was determined that I shouldn’t grow up and become a born-again Christian or Jehovah’s Witness like Auntie D. She always insisted I was ‘C of E’ – which, for years, I thought was one word (‘seervee’). My mum thought that by sending me and my brother to church and Sunday school, she would ‘inoculate’ us against religion, as we’d realise how boring it was. All I can say is, in my case, it worked better than she could have hoped!

But not initially. I grew up believing in God. I got a load of God at school, too – our ‘broadly Christian’ assemblies were full of hymns and prayers – though, ever the joker, I used to bellow the hymns loudly in a very strong Indian accent, making all the other kids laugh. My teacher Miss Buckley would be furious, and snap, ‘Sing in your normal voice!’ And I would say back in my Indian voice, with a head wobble: ‘But I am Indian!’ She was so angry, but couldn’t really send a note home to my Indian mum saying ‘Your daughter is singing in an Indian accent!’

At school, we studied all the world religions in Religious Studies, but never atheism or humanism. Until quite late, I don’t even remember knowing there was a name for people who didn’t believe in God.

Just because I had faith, though, it didn’t mean I wasn’t skeptical. It never seemed fair that my mum was going to hell for being the ‘wrong’ religion – or, if Zoroastrianism were ‘right’, then me and my brother and dad were. At times, that made me feel like rejecting the whole thing.

I also asked my mum, ‘Is there really a God?’ In response, she told me about Pascal’s Wager: that you had nothing to lose by believing in God, but if you didn’t and He existed, you were in trouble.

Even though my faith wavered at times, I ticked ‘C of E’ on the 2001 census. I remember a guy at university saying he was an atheist. I was shocked, and told him ‘You’re a blasphemer!’ To his credit, he was fairly unfazed by my rather melodramatic assertion.

2017_12_29_14_08_50.jpg

I was also very pro-life – life was sacred, right? I used to say primly, ‘Other women can do what they want, but would never have an abortion.’ Ironically, I knew nothing at all about abortion until I was 24 and was put in the horrendous situation of my boyfriend turning violent while I was pregnant.

When I googled ‘abortion’, I was faced with pages and pages of Catholic propaganda: hugely enlarged pictures of foetuses sucking their thumbs in the womb, and websites that said if I had a termination I would become infertile, get breast cancer and go to hell.

Because of my pro-life principles, I agonised for three weeks about what to do, as the baby inside me grew and grew. In the end, I was too late to take the abortion pills on the NHS, and had to go private to terminate the pregnancy I so desperately wanted to keep. Directly after the abortion, I told my mother I wanted to visit the vicar down the road and ask for his forgiveness.

She scoffed at me: ‘Don’t be so stupid!’

After the abortion, I was too scared to fall asleep in case I died in my sleep and went to hell. I was incredibly depressed and anxious.

Six months later, I started dating a lovely atheist and he told me there was no evidence for God’s existence. I started reading up on science and religion, and eventually concluded he was right. I became really angry about the Catholic propaganda I’d been confronted with at the most vulnerable time of my life.

These days, of course, I’m a resolutely pro-choice atheist – but it’s sad that it took experiencing how pernicious religion could be to change my views.

I don’t blame my mum for sending me to church and Sunday school. She was right that they were very boring – and, of course, I never became a Jehovah’s Witness. But indoctrinating kids with lies is wrong – and in my case, it led to a lot of pain and suffering before I finally emerged an atheist.

ABC

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 19

Me: 12st 8.2lbs (total loss in 19 days: 6lbs)

Boom! 2lbs off in one day. That’s how to do it!

John: 14st 1.5lbs (total loss in 19 days): 6lbs

We are neck and neck!

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Ricky Steer, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon. 

Rewards start from just $1 a month, which is 85p in real money and gets you access to my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but EVEN BETTER!

 

The time I got ‘pregnant’, aged 10

The first boy I ever kissed was Seth*, a boy at my school, when I was ten.

Seth was my mum’s friend’s kid, and I would go over to his house to play after school on a Thursday. Though only three months younger, he was in the year below me, so thankfully didn’t realise how unpopular I was at school.

Seth’s mum had a whopping five children, three of them under six – so fortuitously for us, she couldn’t keep tabs on us easily. One warm evening when I was ten, Seth and I were lying facing each other in a hammock in the garden, our bare legs touching – and I started to feel all tingly and weird. Seth must have felt it too, as he asked, ‘Do you want to go up to my room?’

We went up to his room, and he asked me, ‘Do you want to kiss?’. I hesitated, and nodded. Then he warned, ‘No tongues, though.’

I was confused. How could I take my tongue out of my mouth? Surely I couldn’t. I compromised by pushing it as far back in my mouth as I could before we kissed. I still remember how soapy and clean Seth smelt.

The next week, we kissed again, and he said, ‘Do you want to sex?’

My mum had told me about sex a couple of months previously, looking extremely embarrassed. She’d mumbled, ‘The man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina, and that makes a baby.’

The next day, I’d gone into school and excitedly told a girl in my class, ‘Guess what sex is? The man puts his willy in the woman’s fanny!’

‘You’re lying!’ she accused me. ‘That’s disgusting!’

‘I’m not lying!’ I insisted. ‘My mum told me.’

‘You’re lying!’ she said again.

These days, she’s a doctor and is married, so hopefully she now knows I was telling the truth.

I didn’t know how to have sex in practice though.

‘I don’t really know how,’ I confessed to Seth.

‘It’s okay, I know,’ Seth reassured me. ‘I’ve seen it in films. First, you take all your clothes off except your pants.’

We both stripped down to our pants.

‘Then I lie on top of you,’ Seth instructed.

I obediently lay on the floor, and he lay on top of me.

‘And now I do this,’ he finished.

He began thrusting on top of me, and grunting: ‘Uh! Uh! Uh!’

I could feel something hard pressing into my knickers, between my legs, which wasn’t very comfortable.

After about a minute, Seth stood up and announced, ‘There. I’ve sexed you.’

I was distinctly underwhelmed by the sexing. If that was sex, I decided, I was happy to do without it forever.

The next day, I woke up with a sick, horrendous feeling in my stomach. I remembered what my mum had told me: The man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina, and that makes a baby.

This must mean I was pregnant, which was terrible news. My dad was literally going to kill me!

I didn’t tell anyone, though. I just cried every morning for months, and stared at my belly in the mirror. Was it swelling, or did I imagine it? Was a baby growing inside me?

I hadn’t started my periods yet, but I’d heard that you could get pregnant before starting them if there was an egg there. It was the end of my life, and I was only ten.

To her credit, my mum asked me several times what was wrong, but I couldn’t tell her I’d had sex with Seth. She was embarrassed enough about sex as it was, and would definitely disown me.

Eventually, I was exonerated by my Usborne book How Your Body Works. It said that boys started producing semen aged eleven. Seth was only ten! The wash of relief that coursed through my body was immense.

Of course, Seth hadn’t actually come either, and you can’t get pregnant through your knickers anyway – but How Your Body Works couldn’t tell me that.

*name changed

body-works.jpg

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 10

Me: 12st 10lbs (total loss in ten days: 4.2lbs)

I’ve been on tour for the last two days, giving talks for Chichester Skeptics and Worthing Skeptics – and my lovely host has been buying me meals. Unfortunately, it turns out that what goes on tour doesn’t stay on tour, as I’ve returned with nearly a 2lb weight gain (since the day I left).

I’m back on plan today though, and am determined to get my 1 stone award from Slimming World next week. (I’ll actually have lost two stone this year if I hit 12st 7.5lbs, but only the most recent of those will have been with Slimming World.)

John: 14st 6.25lbs (total loss in ten days: 1.25lbs)

The worm has turned! John has started dieting properly and has somehow lost a whopping 2.5lbs in a single day. The race is on!

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters: Ricky Steer, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon.

Rewards start from just $1 a month for my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but I’m even more open in it (if you can imagine that!)