'Change or die'. When 2016 began this was the only thought passing through my foggy mind. I was at a friend's New Year's party, and all I can recall of it is being sat in the kitchen, alone, suckling a vodka bottle like a child at the breast. By this point, my thoughts, if they formulated at all, were sluggish - my limbs were leaden. I couldn't sleep nor concentrate. I didn't know what was happening to me. I thought I'd failed in some way, I thought that my degradation was indicative of a character flaw, of a failure of willpower.
Things quickly went downwards for me. Desperately, I clung to my work, thinking that it would have the answer, the lesson I had missed in school that it seemed everyone else attended, the thing that would free me from the torture chamber that my mind had become. Unsurprisingly, I didn't find it there. I looked for release from my dark and cavernous head in alcohol. In retrospect, I can see that alcohol made my depression much worse (alcohol is a depressant, after all). At this point, my mental timeline begins to blur into a haze of vague embarrassments, booze, crying at cash machines, weeping in bars, suicide attempts.
By the time I returned to university, I felt as though I'd died. I simply couldn't conceive of ever being able to feel anything again. In the rare moments of clarity when I saw my future, all I saw was a black vista stretching ahead of me. To simply live another second, I felt at the time, was agony of the highest order. It was a pain without parallel. In my depression I often tried to take my own life, and I almost succeeded on various occasions. When I saw my future and all that it would entail - failed treatments, booze, empty relationships and emotional deadness - I simply felt that my only option was to take my own life.
After a particularly embarrassing scene at a university bar, I was detained under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. I've written about this elsewhere, so I won't go into too much detail here. I was livid with the police officers who brought me in at the time, but today I have nothing but gratitude for their actions. Simply put, their actions, detaining me for my own safety, saved my life. I highly doubt that I would be alive today if I hadn't been detained.
I had known for a long time prior to my detainment that I was beginning to be exiled from the land of the well. During my depression, I felt as though my passport to oblivion had simply been stamped. Once I was in hospital, I couldn't conceive of being allowed back in to the sacred land of the well. I felt as though I'd been tainted, I was concerned I'd become a pariah. I worried that after my hospital admission I would be recognized as no longer a native of the land of the well, but merely a tourist, a voyeur. Today, I can safely say that my homecoming to the land of the well has been the most nourishing and informative experience of my life.
Looking back on it now, 2016 has been a liminal year - a year of rejuvenation, renewal, growth. Since coming out of hospital I have done things that I simply could never have imagined when I was acutely depressed or in hospital. A few months after being discharged, I offered to write for the Guardian about my experiences, and to my surprise they took me up on the offer. Since then, I have worked tirelessly to eradicate the stigma that surrounds mental health, mental illness and hospitalisation especially. I recently wrote a blog for Mind, and I'm currently in the process of fundraising for them. If all goes to plan, I should be skydiving for them next year, and more media projects are planned for 2017. Before this year, I never understood what people meant when they felt they had a duty to do something - however in my writing I have come to feel just that. Writing about my experiences, in my mind, was the only option, and not doing so would have been inexcusable. Contributing to the pregnant silence that surrounds mental illnesses simply wasn't an option for me.
Of course, this isn't to say that the year has been a bed of roses since coming out of hospital - because of my illness, my hospitalisation and the stigma surrounding both, I have lost innumerable friends. It's a sad, but unfortunately very common, reality of mental illness. I feel regret at having suffered in silence for years. However in my activism and wider journalism, even negative experiences such as these provide valuable fuel for my efforts. Make no mistake though, I am not cured of my depression, that black dog still stalks my every move. But with each passing day the dogs' fur grows greyer and his teeth are beginning to rot and fall away.
Without a doubt, 2016 has been a year of sea change, that despite its horrors, I wouldn't trade. This year, I have grown more as a person, I have laughed harder, cried more, loved and been loved in equal measure, more so than I have in my life thus far. My entire being has changed profoundly. Because of this change, I can now happily say that I am on the cusp of entering one of the happiest years of my life. Describing the sheer totality of this shift in being is difficult, like trying to describe the taste of water. However, the manic-depressive poet, Robert Lowell, summarised this sheer change far better than I ever could; "A lot has happened to me this year...health itself is different, freer and out of the shadow."
Useful websites and helplines:
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Rethink Mental Illness advice and information service is open 9:30 - 4pm Monday - Friday - 0300 5000 927. They have over 100 factsheets with easy to understand information on a variety of issues related to mental health
- CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) is a registered charity, which exists to prevent male suicide in the UK. Call 0800 58 58 58 or visit thecalmzone.net
- The Mix is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41