Author and manic depressive David Mark has been told he will be able to access the mental health services he needs within a mere three years of going to see his GP. He talks about living with the condition.
Depression’s quite funny, when you think about it. There you are, bumbling merrily along like a daddy-longlegs on a skirting board and then ‘wham’ – the fleece-lined slipper of utter despair turns you into an ink-blot.
Too much? Too colourful an analogy. Sorry. I do that. I have a very visual imagination. In my teens the psychologists called them hallucinations, but that’s not the right term any more. ‘Projections’, was de rigeur, last time I checked. I see things that aren’t there as clearly as the things that are. I picture things with such precision that I sometimes find myself remembering other people’s memories and shielding my head as fictional bats swirl around me. I’ve got a few loose wires. My circuit boards were put in by an electrician who was only in the factory on a day-release scheme from prison. I’m a bit, y’know, wrong.
Does it hold me back? Not a chance. My oddities are my fuel. I’ve turned what’s wrong with me into a career. I write books for a living and spend most of my time living in my head and talking to characters, which is a better way to utilise one’s mental illness than laying in bed eating Jaffa Cakes and weeping (not an easy multi-task), which is always the temptation when spells of colossal dejection occur.
I had one such spell in December last year. Things were going well, career-wise. I’d recently moved from a mid-sized publisher to a big one and my new team seemed to think I was a good egg and were using words like ‘awesome’ to describe the novel I had spent the past few months scraping out of my subconscious with a spoon . My kids were refraining from smashing up bus shelters and both had proven themselves thoroughly reasonable additions to society. Even my partner, who puts up with a lot, had indicated that despite all the evidence to the contrary, I wasn’t a total arsehole and she remained very fond of me.
Then came the slipper. Wham. One minute, fine – the next I was bobbing about in an inkwell, trying not to be sucked down into the blackness. Suddenly, everything was pointless. My dreams were unattainable, my reality was a fraud, my successes were written in water. I knew, with utter certainty, that something terrible was going to happen to one of the kids. I knew it would be my fault. I knew myself to be the source of everything wrong in my own life and that the contagion was airborne. I was a poison. I was infecting all that was good in the world. I saw plants dying and roads cracking with each lumbering step. Ah, this was feeling so familiar …
I’d been there before, of course. I’m 37 now and have been fighting my depression since I was 16. So I knew what was happening to me. This was an attack. An episode. It would go if I didn’t give in to it. I doubled on my anti-depressant pills and started taking them with a medicinal half pint of whisky. But the blackness kept pulling me down. So I did the sensible thing and went to see my GP.
“I’m beyond miserable,” said I. “I feel like I’m drowning in it. I feel like there are black fingers of pure tar reaching into my throat and suffocating my every whisper of hope and possibility.”
The reply was unexpectedly glib. “You’re the writer, aren’t you?”
After a further chat in which I suggested that perhaps it would be better if I didn’t throw myself off anything high, I was told that I was being referred to the local mental health partnership for assessment. A month later, I got an appointment through. Determined to approach the process in the right manner, I told the shrink everything. I was honest, open and despite having spent years building up defences, I even blinked out a few tears.
“You need cognitive analytic therapy,” he said. “We can help you. But I’m sorry, there’s a wait …”
A month after that I received a phone call from a mental health nurse. Would I mind answering a questionnaire? Ever eager to help, I said I would be delighted. Question one … how many times a week do you think about suicide? Is it a) some of the time b) all of the time or c) none of the time.
Where to start? What kind of week? What’s just happened? How do you classify a thought? When you need cognitive analytic therapy, chances are you have a tendency to over-analyse. And forgive me for being ungrateful, but it can be a rather difficult process telling a total stranger your innermost feelings and hearing them say ‘I just need to tick ‘b’ or ‘c’.
So, a mere ten months went by. Then a letter arrived. Did I still need the services of the mental health team?
Well, the depression had lifted months before, but given how long I’d waited for some attention it seemed churlish not to at least stay within the system. So I finally got an appointment. I met a new psychologist at a health centre a mere 30 miles from my house. I was almost looking forward to it – getting started, making progress; rehabilitating my sprained psyche. Turns out I shouldn’t have got my hopes up.
This wasn’t actual therapy, she said. Just an assessment. So we went through what I’d told the first bloke a year earlier. I explained my history, my fears, my desperate desire to think differently. And she was quite clear – I needed cognitive analytic therapy. That was the good news. Bad news, the current waiting time was two years. It would be less if I agreed to group therapy, but there wasn’t one within the area which was suitable.
So, the waiting goes on. Inside the next two years I’ll be up and I’ll be down; I’ll be miserable and hyper; overjoyed and hateful. But I’ll deal with it on my own. As one mental health professional told me recently, there’s nothing anybody can do until you’re standing on the Humber Bridge and looking at the water. Then, they start to take you seriously.