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.

 

This post has been made possible by my Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, 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.

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The secret to success (well, some thoughts anyway…)

I once heard an anecdote from a famous literary agent’s assistant that made me laugh:

‘Every author wants a publishing deal. The authors who are critically acclaimed want to be commercially successful, and the authors who are commercially successful want to be critically acclaimed.

‘Every author is desperate to win an award. And those authors who win an award are most miserable of all, for they see the award as an albatross around their necks and fear nothing they ever do will scale those heights again.’

(Basically, every author is miserable!)

People definitely compare themselves upwards. None of these authors were thinking ‘It’s so great I have an agent!’ They were taking that for granted and wishing they were more successful. So there’s definitely something to be said for being extremely grateful for where you are now in life, rather than always striving for more.

Ariane Flowers.jpg

But if I had any advice for achieving your goals, it would be along the following lines:

Work out what you want to achieve. You can’t aim for a target you haven’t set. I know many people who want to lose weight, but that’s such a nebulous goal that it doesn’t focus the mind. In contrast, a goal to lose 4 stone is specific and measurable, and you know when you’ve achieved it.

Figure out the steps between you and your goal. Break it down into manageable chunks. For instance, today I weigh 12st 4.2lbs. To get down to 8 stone, I need to lose more than 4 stone, but right now I’m aiming for a ‘Club 10’ target of 12st 2.5lbs, which means I’ll have lost a tenth of my body weight since joining Slimming World. (SW is good like this – it rewards you at least every 7lbs.)

Recognise that you’ll fail before you succeed (especially true of weight loss). You’ll take two steps forward, one step back. If we’re talking creativity, everyone gets rejected at times; everyone has to produce more than will ever be published or used. Just think of all the many drafts of novels. Remember Samuel Beckett’s quote: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Keep going. You’ll fall down, but make sure to keep getting up and attempting to succeed. You’ll be amazed by how many people fall by the wayside. The person who succeeds is often the last (wo)man standing. There have been so many times when I’ve thought, ‘Fuck it, maybe I’ll just stay fat!’ but I also know that won’t make me happy. So keep your goal in mind when things get tough.

You never know when your luck will turn – when you’ll come to the attention of a gatekeeper who could change your life, or just get an exciting opportunity. Last week, I was headhunted for a role. It wasn’t right for me, but at least that person now knows I exist.

I also got invited to debate Brexit on Good Morning Britain. They went with another guest in the end, but I wasn’t expecting the invitation, and the randomness of it cheered me up. (Though I was also slightly relieved at being stood down to be honest – pretty sure Twitter would have been unusable for me for about two days afterwards thanks to angry Brexiteers!)

Writers: remember to preface harsh feedback with ‘in my opinion’. I’ve been told before by a literary agent that I can’t write. It floored me; I had to remind myself I’ve written endless columns for the Guardian, and lots for the Spectator and the Sunday Times. That knowledge helped to reframe this person’s opinion as ‘in my opinion, you can’t write’. And, in less polite terms: fuck ’em. Feedback should be constructive, and that wasn’t. Metaphorically kick them in the fanny and move on.

People who aren’t gatekeepers will also be shitty about your achievements. Look at the comments section of any comedy article. You’ll find ‘This isn’t funny’; ‘That’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back’; ‘I can’t believe [publication] pays for this crap.’ That’s cool: you got paid and credited and you aren’t the person wasting your life leaving negative comments. Put it down to jealousy and don’t let it bother you. The publication wouldn’t have run the article if they didn’t like it.

Realise that you have to adapt to life’s changes. The Guardian stopped running me regularly in 2010; it hurt as it was the paper I grew up reading, and I still love it. I’d write for it again in a heartbeat, but if not, other publications are available. I also really enjoy writing for the Daily Mash and writing books for Little, Brown.

Sometimes things change because of you, not your employer. I realised I wasn’t enjoying writing for television in late 2007, and made the leap to journalism after six years of telly. I used to love going into the BBC and being the youngest person in writers’ rooms, but now I go into the BBC as an occasional commentator and am sometimes the oldest person on the panel, and that’s OK too. Life changes and you have to change with it rather than be depressed by it.

Oh, and lastly: never self-deprecate! As someone wiser than me once said, ‘People accept the value you place upon yourself’. Keep telling people you’re rubbish and they’ll eventually believe you.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

Ariane face

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 41

Me: 12st 4.2lbs (total loss in 41 days: 10lbs)

I need to keep going.

John: 14st 4.75lbs (total loss in 41 days: 2.75lbs)

John’s doing well again!

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, 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!)