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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What it’s really like appearing on the radio

After I blogged about what it’s like doing live telly, lovely Twitter follower @mrjacktanner asked if doing live radio is different:

So here’s the answer: in my view, doing live radio is far easier than doing live telly, because no one can see you. You could literally be scratching your arse throughout the whole segment and no one would know. Of course, as it’s live, there’s always the chance that you’ll inadvertently say something stupid, which can give rise to nerves.

If I’m at the end of a phone line or alone in a separate studio (and not actually in the studio with the presenter), I generally get around this fear by writing down exactly what I’m going to say – or, at least, having a few pages of notes in front of me, because you can never predict exactly what questions you’re going to be asked. If I’m in the studio with the presenter, then I don’t take in the notes – I just prepare and rehearse beforehand and hope what I’m saying makes sense.

There’s not really much in the way of rigmarole when it comes to doing radio – you enter the studio quietly, making sure your phone is on silent, sit down at the desk, put your bag underneath it, put the headphones on and come close to the mic. Make sure you have some water nearby in case you have a coughing fit. If it’s before the show or the adverts are on or some music, the presenter will greet you; if not and they’re talking, they’ll just nod and smile at you. Your view of them can be blocked by monitors or mics, but you should be able to wheel your chair around for a better view.

I’ve done lots of radio in my pants on the end of a phone line (LBC in particular have lots of phone-in guests) and have also done radio in a studio by myself. It’s much more fun and glamorous when you’re in the studio with the presenter though. The last time was a couple of weeks ago on BBC Asian Network with Mobeen, talking about my experiences of cyberflashing and what we can do about it. It was the hottest day of the year and the New Broadcasting House studio was air-conditioned, which was very pleasant indeed!

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Generally, radio is a lot more low-stakes because of the lack of visuals and the lack of budgets. At my level, you rarely get paid for radio appearances, and nor do you get taxis. (It’s ironic that the more successful you are and the more money you have, the more you get!). During the Atheist Bus Campaign, I was asked to appear on a popular radio station halfway across town, and a celebrity friend suggested I ask the producer for a taxi. So I did, and was met with the coldly-asked question: ‘Do you have mobility issues?’ That put me in my place!

Another time, I was asked to do a few drafts of a page-long radio script and then come into a central London studio and read it out – so a day’s work, in effect. The princely sum I received? £66!

At the same time, radio can be a lot of fun. One of my favourite memories is appearing on Talk Radio’s The Ian Collins Show back in summer 2009, which basically entailed two hours of on-air flirting with Ian. I managed to relax, and the result was lots of witty repartee. We actually met up a few weeks after that, but by then I was dating Lily’s dad (though she was only a twinkle in his eye at that stage).

I was also interviewed about the Atheist Bus Campaign by George Galloway on Talk Radio in 2009. He was quite nice, despite not hiding the fact that he was a believer, and finished the interview by saying in his Scottish lilt, ‘Ariane, I hope you see the light very soon!’. I was going to make a quip about there being a lamp post outside, but I didn’t.

My most starry radio appearance was on Radio 4’s Loose Ends last October, where I promoted Talk Yourself Better. The show was presented by the wonderful Arthur Smith and Clive Anderson, both of whom I managed to convince to be in my next book, How to Live to 100. As a telling sign of a great show, there were pastries galore in the green room!

Elodie

I was on that episode of Loose Ends with lovely Hollywood actress Andrea Riseborough (who starred in the brilliant but terrifying Black Mirror episode ‘Crocodile’) as well as Northern Irish actor Colin Morgan and US million-selling author Michael Connelly – and music from British rapper Kojey Radical. It’s fair to say I was definitely the smallest fish in that pond! We all sat around the table together (except for Kojey, who was performing) and went for pizza afterwards, and Andrea emailed me a free download link to her new film Nancy. You can listen to the show here.

Lastly: in early 2009, I got to make radio history by giving Radio 4’s first atheist ‘Thought for the Afternoon’ on the iPM programme. It was considered such a big deal that it got its own Guardian news story, though they did describe the Atheist Bus Campaign as ‘controversial’. What is the world coming to when ‘There’s probably no God’ is seen as controversial in the UK, where at least 52% of the population is non-religious?!

You can hear my Thought for the Afternoon below. (They describe the campaign as controversial too, but then R4 are more old school.)

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

DAY 31

Me: 12st 5.4lbs (total loss in 31 days: 8.8lbs)

It’s really frustrating to have dieted really hard the previous day, eating nothing but protein, veg and fruit, and still be the same weight. Hopefully I’ll see a change on the scales soon.

John: 14st 3.75lbs (total loss in 31 days: 3.75lbs)

I have put a filter on so John’s fungal toenails (and political leanings) aren’t so obvious!

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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!