Cripple in Cambridge – Week 3

In Mental Health Week ABBI BROWN takes a break from being our in-house cripple to become our in-house clinical depressive.

anorexia depression fire help mental health Samaritans squirrell suicide tim window

I like to think I’m a fairly cheerful person. I try to see the good in people. I’m a big fan of silver linings. I rarely take anything seriously, which is a good thing during hospital appointments, and a bad thing during practical criticism seminars. I like being silly.

I also have suicidal depression, and anorexia.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for the way my life has turned out. I have a roof over my head, clothes on my back and food on my plate. I have a supportive family, fantastic friends and am coming to the end of my time at one of the best universities in the world.

Yet however privileged my life might be, there are days (or sometimes weeks, or sometimes months) when I just don’t want to live it. In Michaelmas term this year, my mental illnesses collaborated in a quite spectacular firework show of crazy. I put my friends and family through hell, and I couldn’t understand why anyone was upset because I simply could not comprehend the fact that other people thought my life was worth living.

I am so, so sorry for the upset I caused. But I also worry that nobody quite seemed to ‘get it’.

Not bad, but not quite the point

Over the past few years, the taboos surrounding mental illness have been rapidly broken down. In Cambridge in particular, illnesses such as depression and anorexia have become the subject of honest, open, mainstream discussion. It’s good to talk – and we do.

Suicide, on the other hand, is still as justifiably taboo as ever. It’s an upsetting topic, and one we’d all prefer not to think about, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make some attempt to understand those who have suicidal urges – and what you should do if you do.

When it comes to explaining diseases like depression, many writers and cartoonists (Tim Squirrell included) revert to comparing mental illnesses to physical ones. As someone with both, I can vouch for this comparison being incredibly unhelpful. Like many people with chronic pain, I have often been told that the pain is in my head, and that it would go away if I’d only stop thinking about it.

And yes, Tim, depression is indeed ‘a way of experiencing yourself and the world, a way of interacting with other people and living your life’, but so is any long-term physical disability. To create division between the two helps neither the mentally ill nor the physically disabled.

Very admirable - BUT don't forget physical health too

Yes, mental health. On it’s own

Instead, to explain what it’s like to be suicidal, I’ll hand over to David Foster Wallace.

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of  ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing.

The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant.

The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really.

You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

Not an ideal exit

In 2011, five million people contacted the Samaritans, 20% of whom were suicidal. Some of those will have gone into hospital or mental health units. Some of those will have gone on to take their own lives. But the majority got up the next morning, slapped on a face as close to happy as they could muster, and went to work, or to a lecture, or to take their kids to school.

If you’re one of those people, you don’t have to do it alone. Admitting you’re depressed is one thing. Admitting you are a danger to yourself is quite another. It’s a pretty big thing to unload on friends or family, but there are multiple people and organisations – your college nurse, the University Counselling Service, a GP – who are prepared to hear this kind of thing, and trained to help you deal with it. There is no shame in admitting you’re not coping.

Thanks to a change of anti-depressants, I am no longer suicidal. I wake up in the mornings happy to be alive, and elated that I’m happy. It gets better. I promise.