I was 13 the first time I tried to take my own life. Fortunately, I had no idea what I was doing and it turned out to be an epic failure. I was so embarrassed that I never told anyone about it. Ten years later, my third attempt landed me in the Mater Hospital with organ damage. So many nights in between I went to bed praying I wouldn’t wake up and in the morning I would wake up heartbroken.
hy did I want to die? Well, the problem is that I’ve lived most of my life in an abusive relationship. My abuser tells me every day that I’m disgusting — everything from my big forehead to my chunky ankles. But she hates what’s inside even more. She shouts at me all the time that I’m a failure, a victim, a narcissist, desperate for attention, drowning in self-pity, and the list goes on. She repeatedly tells me that my husband thinks he loves me but some day he will find someone he really loves and will leave.
She says my children are ashamed of me; when they’re asked about their parents they say their dad is cool but their mother is a basket case. She tells me that she wishes I had never been born; that I should have been aborted; that it makes her sick to her stomach to look at me; that I make her skin crawl. She says the thought of having to spend the rest of her life with me makes her want to die and she has begged me many times to kill myself.
Most mornings the abuse starts before I’ve even finished brushing my teeth and it goes on and on, every second of every minute of every waking hour of every day. And it is agony. Why don’t I get away, you may ask? Well, there in lies the crux of it. I can’t get away, because the abuser is my own mind.
I’ll spare you the sob story, but growing up I lost a lot of people who were important to me, starting with my mother who died when I was four years old. Another major loss came when I was seven, another when I was 11 and another when I was 17. As a child, trying to process these losses, I deduced that the common denominator was me, and I must be pretty horrible to cause so many people to leave. That belief was compounded over the years and the end result is this relentless intense self-hate.
The repulsion is visceral. It’s a constant low-grade nausea at the back of my throat. Sometimes it becomes so intense that it makes me vomit. My youngest had a friend over to play one day. I had to run by them to get to the bathroom and I heard her friend ask; ‘Is your mum sick?’ My daughter answered, ‘No, she just pukes sometimes’.
The puking is not to be confused with the ‘dirty feeling’. That crashes over me in a tidal wave of shame that comes without warning and makes me want to tear my skin off with my own fingernails.
In my teens and early 20s I figured it was normal to dislike yourself if there were reasons to, and I had buckets of those. It wasn’t until my early 20s that someone first told me that what I was feeling wasn’t normal, that it wasn’t some melodrama I was lounging in and, most importantly, that it could be treated. My amazing psychiatrist — who has saved my life more than once — simply said: ‘No one would choose to feel the way you’re feeling’.
My clinical diagnosis is major depressive disorder and generalised anxiety disorder. I like to think of it as being wind-swept and interesting. But what drives my depression and anxiety is this crippling self-loathing.
We all have that inner critic. Our inner critic is our friend. It’s a crucial part of our character. It’s the part that says, ‘Woman, step away from that tequila shot. Remember how you made a show of yourself last time?’ It’s the part that tells you your size 14 butt is not going to fit in those size 10 jeans.
Self-loathing is when that part of your character goes into overdrive. The hatred for and criticism of yourself becomes pervasive and disabling and intrudes on all other thoughts. It’s there when I’m watching TV, having a shower, reading, driving, working, shopping, socialising, always. If I don’t constantly fight it back, it can consume me.
Let me be clear, I’m not unhappy. I’m not depressed. I love my life. I am surrounded by the funniest, most loving bunch of people you could ever meet. I grew up in a wonderful home that was full of love and laughter. I have an amazing husband who has an inexhaustible capacity to love unconditionally. I have three healthy and happy teenage daughters and I am fortunate enough to have a job I love. I have family and friends who are there for me day and night. I know I am loved, even if I don’t understand why.
Since that first meeting with my psychiatrist, there has been a lot of counselling, medication, some electroconvulsive therapy and one hospitalisation. That hospitalisation episode completely blindsided me. It felt like an elastic band in my head just snapped. I can pinpoint the exact moment that it happened. One minute I was fine, the next I was paralysed, unable to speak or move my limbs.
That was the furthest into the black hole I’ve ever gone. It was terrifying, humiliating and lonely. I don’t remember a lot about it but I do remember my husband sitting beside my bed saying: ‘I don’t know how to bring you back to us’. I didn’t know either and I felt tremendous guilt for dragging him into this life. He deserves better. I wondered if it was worth fighting. In the black hole I didn’t feel shame or guilt. I didn’t feel much of anything.
I’ve never written about this before, mostly because I never wanted to be defined by my condition. It’s not that I’m ashamed of having a mental illness. There’s a line in Fiddler on the Roof that says there’s no great shame in being poor, but there’s no great honour in it either. Well, there’s no great shame in being mentally ill, but there’s no great honour in it either. It’s not my cross to bear. It’s not a badge of honour. It just is.
But I am ashamed of who I am because of my mental illness; this weak, thin-skinned, moan-bag. When I’m close to the edge, the slightest failure, criticism or perceived betrayal can nudge me over and I go spiralling into the abyss — the antithesis of the strong, resilient woman I want to be. Anyone who reinforces how I feel about myself must be immediately and completely cut out of my life.
I’m writing this now because we will not succeed in destigmatising mental illness unless we start being honest about what mental illness is. It’s not always as easily defined as depression or anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm. Mental illness is messy and ugly. It’s uncomfortable to be around and it can be so intertwined with personality traits that it makes it hard to tell where the illness ends and the individual begins.
I have watched courageous people talk about their battles with mental health and their recovery, but I’ve always wondered, where are the people like me? Where are the people who haven’t recovered, who can’t recover? I can’t be the only person living like this. Could it be that this self-hate is what drives some people to drug and alcohol addiction, self-harm and even suicide?
I don’t pretend to be an expert on mental health and I don’t presume to understand anybody else’s experience. I believe we’re only in the embryonic stages of understanding mental illness. There was a time when cancer was considered to be one disease. Since then we’ve learned that cancer is different depending on which organ it affects.
Even within one organ, it is different depending on the cells involved and even the tiny receptors on the surface of the cell. Research is already showing that certain parts of the brain are activated or inactive on a brain scan in people with different psychiatric conditions. Hopefully, we will get to a point where we have the same knowledge and targeted treatments for mental illnesses as we have for cancer.
We have to acknowledge that not all mental illness is curable. Sometimes by the time the damage is discovered, it’s so extensive that it’s beyond fixing, which is why child and adolescent mental health is so crucial. We can catch these negative thought processes before they become engrained.
For some, like me, cure is not an option. What I aim for is nice, long periods of remission while preparing for the inevitable relapse down the road.
I’ve spent 30 years studying my illness and I know my enemy inside and out. I know that some things help and some things make it worse. Social media is bad. Alcohol is very bad. Being around people who make me feel worse about myself is very, very bad.
Doing something for someone else is good. It feels good to give €15 a month to Doctors without Borders rather than buying a Sky Cinema pass. Even better, we started fostering dogs a few years ago and it has been such a rewarding experience. There ain’t no better feeling than knowing you saved a life.
The best way for me to manage my illness is to keep my mind occupied. Manic distraction, my psychiatrist calls it. I work long days. I do Pilates as often as possible because it’s hard to think of anything when you’re sucking one muscle up, another in, keeping others relaxed and not falling over. Basically, I try not to spend too much time in my own head.
I am at war with my mind and will be for the rest of my life. Even with the skills I’ve learned and the arsenal of weapons I’ve accrued over the years, it is hard and there are still times when I feel like throwing in the towel, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let it beat me. I’ve gone into battle with my mental illness many times over the years and so far I’ve kicked its ass every time. I’m still here!
For the Samaritans freecall 116 123 or see samaritans.org. For Pieta House visit pieta.ie