Times are weird, right? In fact, I think we need a new word to describe just how weird things are. No words can capture the magnitude of horror that 2020 has been so far. But, for me, in this bizarre dystopian nightmare that gets worse every day, I see March 2020 as one of the best worst months of my life. Are you crazy? To that I say maybe, but hear me out, there’s a story to tell.
In September 2018, aged 44, I started University. Not only fulfilling a lifelong ambition of pursuing higher education, but studying Creative Writing. A dream come true. I threw myself into learning and found joy in deadlines, essays, word-counts, assessments. It was everything I ever thought it would be. I was in love.
I was (am) also a mother of two and a wife. I may* (*definitely) have been selfish and put my own needs and wants way ahead of those of my family. I feel no shame. This was something I had to do or spend the rest of my life wallowing in regret-filled pools of sadness. I regret nothing.
By the end of 2018, however, I was struggling. My moods were erratic and even the simplest of things would push me into full-blown rage followed by soul-crushing remorse. I went to my doctor to request a hormone test as I was (still am) convinced I was perimenopausal. Whilst they were understanding they thought stabilising my mood was preferable to any hormone-replacement therapy, and they gave me anti-depressants. Was it a co-incidence that reports were highlighting a shortage of HRT medicine, that they were running out? Who knows, but I was so desperate to suppress this Mr Hyde part of me I took them.
We spent the next few months trying to find the right dose. I started low, then went up a little, then a little more, then a little more. Each time I felt some blessed relief only for it to change, leaving me defeated. I should have, in hindsight, stopped there. I should have said they were not working for me and came off them. I think I would have too, if I didn’t then suffer a prolonged period of chronic back pain. It was this episode that almost broke me, and I mean broke.
By the summer of 2019, I was an empty shell of who I used to be. I was running on a potent concoction of opiate-based pain relief and anti-depressants. On one hand, I was still doing my course work, albeit wailing the entire time that I wasn’t good enough and that I couldn’t do it, but I did it. God knows how. But I was in constant pain. My back went into spasms that affected my balance and my right leg would often lose sensation and give way. I attended a friend’s wedding and fell twice. The next day, I fell again, busting my already rubbish knees and crushing my confidence into such a fine powder that it blew away on a sigh, leaving me in the deepest, darkest depression.
I didn’t know I was depressed. That might sound silly to some. Yes, I was on anti-depressants but that was just a mood stabiliser; I wasn’t diagnosed as depressed. Yes, I had a history of mental health issues, but anxiety and panic attacks, not depression. I wasn’t depressed. I was in pain. My medication was increased to 150mg and when that did nothing to lift my mood my doctor conceded they were not working. Only, if I wanted to try something different, I had to come off the medication completely. That scared the absolute shit out of me.
I was afraid and I couldn’t do it. My thoughts were in a dark place and my emotions were raw and exposed. When you’re dealing with chronic pain that is not visible to others it’s all too easy for them to think you are overreacting. That you should just get some exercise, and everything will be okay. Even if that exercise is crippling, not only physically but mentally, because it’s another reminder of how useless and shit you are. Adding depression into the mix, meant I ended up on a path of crushing darkness lasting several months. I knew where it was headed, but I wasn’t strong enough to turn back.
In March this year, I hit rock bottom. I knew if I kept walking this dangerous path, there was no return. I managed to complete my second year of university but in every other way, I was failing. Then, I got a phone call from the mental health department of my local hospital, following up on a previous request for CBT through my doctor. My first reaction was surprise as I couldn’t even remember asking for it. Therapy has always terrified me. Too much to uncover and deal with, but it was like someone offering a hand to show me the way out. I grabbed it with my sweaty, clammy one and didn’t let go.
After I received the call, I decided it was time to reduce my medication. It felt right, and at least I had a weekly therapist appointment (albeit telephone because, worldwide pandemic!) to help me if things got difficult. For the first time, I took things slow. I didn’t rush in and cut back in my usual all-or-nothing way. I spent three weeks reducing and as I did; I emerged from the dense fog that infiltrated my mind, body, my life! As corny as it sounds, I was reborn.
Now, almost four months anti-depressant free, we’ve completed over 12 weeks of CBT and I’m continuing to make progress. There are still mood swings (because hello, perimenopause!) but for every low swing I have, I get to experience the absolute joy of feeling every emotion again. Not just the same monotonous, grey-black, muted version that I was before. Please understand, I am a firm believer that anti-depressants save lives. I know they do. And finding the right one for you is life changing. Should I still have needed them, after coming off, I would have tried a different one. I still would if things change, but, for now, I don’t have to.
There’s still back pain, but it’s a dull-ache, annoying rather than chronic and debilitating. I understand myself better, and thanks to CBT, I treat myself with the same kindness I extend to others. It’s a process, but it’s working. When I think back to last year, it’s like standing at the edge of a massive, dark crater, staring down into its depths. I wonder how far it is to the bottom and how the hell did I crawl my way back up? It’s because I had help. I had someone reaching down and pulling me up. Sure, I still had to do the hard work of putting one foot in front of the other, however; the fact there was someone who understood and would help me if I stumbled, was everything.
So, now you understand why 2020 has been my best worst year ever. Even with the fear, uncertainty, and desperation of worrying about those close to me while a raging virus sweeps the world, and my heart aches for those who’ve lost loved ones, it gifted me my life back. I must see the positive in an otherwise desperate situation. In years to come (hopefully) when we have conversations about this year, everyone will shake their heads, expressing how awful it was. That it’s the year they would rather forget. I’ll nod, share their pain and agree the atrocities of 2020 are best left in the past along with racism, bigots and elite governments willing to sacrifice the many to protect the few. I will also think I can never forget, not for one moment.
~The H Word~