I went on national TV and talked about my breakdown. In the days following, I received numerous messages of support – from friends, from family members, from people I’d not seen for years or was only really vaguely acquainted with in the first place, and from perfect strangers. Comments tend to fall into two categories:
Well done! I could never have spoken about something like that on TV, you’re so brave
Firstly, I don’t consider myself to be brave. Anyone who spent even the smallest amount of time with me when I was ill, will recall that I spent a lot of time talking about killing myself. It was the first thing on my mind when I woke up in the morning, the last thing at night as I decided how many sleeping pills to take, and how many to save for my stash in case I needed them. I know talk of suicide shocks some people; when I first spoke to the researcher from This Morning on the phone there was an audible gasp as I said “and I planned to kill myself.” I think at this point, I’ve spoken about suicide so much that it’s just not shocking to me any more.
My obsession with suicide – otherwise known as suicidal ideation – was mostly a side effect of my antidepressants. When I told the GP I was obsessed with killing myself, she reassured me it was just a side effect of the pills and would go in time. But then how do you separate which are your own thoughts, and which are just side effects? It’s not like physical side effects, where you can say “my skin doesn’t normally itch like this” or “I don’t normally have headaches like this” – it’s inside your head. I was convinced the GP was an idiot, because I had been having suicidal thoughts since long before I started taking any medication. If I’m honest, I still have them from time to time now, and I’ve been off the medication for three years. Another side effect of the medication was my complete lack of inhibition when talking about it. I had no filter, and would say the most inappropriate things to people I barely knew. I spoke about whatever was on my mind, to whomever was in front of me. Nine times out of ten, the thing that was on my mind was suicide.
Whether thoughts of suicide are a side effect or genuine thoughts or both – they’re still there. We still think them. And it seems to me that more of us are thinking about it than talking about it, and that’s not good. Until 1961 suicide or attempted suicide was a crime in the UK. It was not decriminalised in Ireland until 1993. Although the law changed, until recently many suicides were recorded on death certificates as “misadventure” or similar because either the family was worried about the stigma, or the coroner thought they would or should be. My grandfather killed himself in the early 80s, and it was never really discussed – I didn’t find out until 25 years later. With the arguments in the news lately about assisted suicide and people like Tony Nicklinson’s fight to be allowed to die, there seems to be a large part of the argument against it, based on the fact that suicide is so terrible and awful – which it is; I’m not denying that. But in Tony Nicklinson’s situation – and in countless others – death probably was preferable to the life he was facing. We have this massive phobia about suicide and nobody ever talks about it. Which means that when you start to think about it, you’re scared to mention it. And not talking about it often makes it worse.
We seem to be scared to talk about how we feel; we’re scared to admit weakness, scared to say we’re struggling. And when we do manage to spit those words out, often the people we tell are scared to hear it. People are scared of mental illness, as if they can catch it from someone who is suffering. Or perhaps we are just generally disgusted by the sight of weakness in others. Who knows. Either way, people with mental health issues of any sort often end up as social pariahs. I’ve probably taken a risk in being quite so public in talking about my breakdown; as a freelancer, there’s always the risk that a client might decide not to use me again for fear I’ll… write bonkers shit for their website. Who knows. If I’d been on TV talking about my broken leg though, I doubt I would be receiving quite so many quiet messages from people confessing to having suffered the same.
I’ve seen a lot of comments on social media about Cheryl Fernandez-Versini saying she’s had a breakdown. People seem to think that because she’s rich, famous and good looking she’s being self-indulgent to say she’s had a breakdown. People are endlessly told they “have nothing to be depressed about” as if you’re only allowed to be down if someone has just died or you’ve lost your job. Sometimes people get depressed for no valid reason. Sometimes people are suicidal, not because they have a terminal illness but because the mental anguish they are going through is bad enough to make it feel like a terminal illness. Sometimes something as seemingly insignificant as spilling your tea in the morning or smashing a plate can make you think “I may as well kill myself.” This can happen to you, or me, or a rich and famous celebrity. Nobody is immune. And often the fact there’s no tangible reason for it, just makes it feel worse – because you feel, and are usually told, that you should just buck up and get on with it.
I wouldn’t be so indiscreet as to mention the names of the people who have told me they have also suffered, many with tears in their eyes and shaking voices. I feel honoured that people would feel they could speak to me – and angry that many don’t feel they could speak to other people. Whilst I am finding it slightly uncomfortable for people to recognise me or mention my TV debut to my face, that is more to do with having been on telly than the topic. I would feel the same if I’d been on there talking about cake. I will continue to tell my story in the hope that other people will not feel so alone in their own struggles. I think we should all tell our stories, loudly and clearly, for everyone to hear. Often once you’ve spoken about it, it’s out there and not flying around inside your head so much. If you give a voice to your fear, it’s less scary.
When we are faced with someone telling us they’re depressed, miserable, suicidal, anxious, it’s hard to know what to say. I know a lot of the time people probably make awful gaffes because they just don’t know what else to say. Things like cheer up or do some exercise, that’ll help are probably not meant as callously as they sound. We might pretend not to hear, or change the subject because we don’t know how to react or what to say.
What if it was your son or daughter, who felt so terribly alone and sad, and didn’t feel they could talk about it? What if it was your brother, your sister, your aunt, your cousin, your mum, your dad? Statistically, it’s at least one of them. Wouldn’t you rather they talked about it, than suffered alone? It might be uncomfortable for us to hear that someone we love is going through a horrible time, but nowhere near as uncomfortable as it is for them to be dealing with it alone.