I fell off a cliff a while ago.
It took me by surprise, but maybe the signs had been there for a while.
I’d been off medication for six months, my anxiety levels managed.
And of course, in doing so, had removed that invisible protection against depression.
The one miraculous pill does two things, simultaneously:
Stills the flighty anxiety flitters,
Lightens the heavy depression of scraping river bottom.
Anxiety has been my mental health challenge of choice since having children 8 years ago.
I’d forgotten that sometimes, just sometimes, a great grey whale arises from the depths, takes me in its mouth, and descends once more.
I should have remembered where I come from.
I come from strong stock, physically.
The family tree filled with ancestors who stride about in timber limbs until they near their hundredth year.
Ashy white hair, milk blue eyes.
Living large long after their contemporaries leave.
Chip beneath the bark however, and the timber reveals our ancestral marking:
The termites of mental health burrowing deep, a panoply of conditions.
Anxiety, depression, bipolar, suicide attempts, personality disorders, incest, pedophilia.
Health professionals look at my family tree + say:
That’s a profoundly high rate of mental health. You are genetically pre-disposed.
I joke regularly:
It’s a gift that I only scored one of them!
I forgot that it was two.
The grey whale came for me one Sunday morning during an ordinary day, an ordinary conversation.
My husband and I, talking about different options together.
Confronted with a decision, my brain synapses froze.
I excused myself, went for a shower, and howled.
Maybe the grey whale had already had me for a while, I just hadn’t known yet.
Looking back I see the flashes of silver beginning to entwine.
How often I’d started crying. How much optimism I started losing. How much harder I found decisions.
But those were relatively easy to ignore.
Just keep feeling your feelings, Leonie. It’s good for you, I’d think.
I wondered if I would ever progress from those feelings and find hope, healing, clarity.
Until then, intermittent bursts of tears.
And then the tap broke, and the tears did not stop.
I remember the moment at the bottom of the shower.
Plummeting head first into the darkness of misery and hopelessness.
Wild with sadness.
This is it,
I remember thinking.
This is my life now.
I am completely, and utterly fucked. I will never, ever be happy again.
I crawled out of the shower, lay naked on the floor of our bedroom, in a sharp beam of sunlight.
Still it did not ease.
I can’t remember the last time I’d felt this utterly fucked.
I throbbed with the pain of living.
It was over nothing, the conversation that had sparked this.
The whale came to get me for very little reason or logic, just a worm in the blood.
Maybe I was worn out from making decisions. Maybe I was tired and burnt out. Maybe I had neglected having time to myself since starting homeschooling. Maybe I’m just genetically predisposed to it.
No matter what had caused it, here I was, 20,000 leagues under the sea, and no way up.
My brain synapses had snapped and there was no repair.
The sobbing and the pain and the all-encompassing dark did not let up.
Not in an hour, not in two, not in twenty, not in days, not in weeks.
The grey whale had me,
and I was lost to the world.
And so it continued.
The anxiety would begin before I even opened my eyes.
My heart pumped filled with adrenaline, terror unfurling in my veins.
I’d be thumped into reality and wake up afraid, quaking, devastated to be awake.
I’d sit on the couch across from Chris, shaking and rocking and sobbing.
I couldn’t make eye contact, I could barely move apart from the uncontrollable.
As tightly wound up as a caterpillar under threat of a hungry bird.
My husband would spend the morning lovingly, patiently, coaxingly massaging my soul’s limbs back out again.
Tell me what’s on your mind this morning, honey.
It’s nothing, it’s dumb, I’d mutter, not making eye contact.
It doesn’t matter. It’s worrying you. Just tell me anyway.
And so I would.
I’d spill the litany of whatever was eating me alive that day. An odd assortment of ridiculous thoughts and #firstworldproblems that had begun to terrorise me obsessively.
I’ve failed completely as a Mother. I have totally fucked it all.
Why’s that, honey?
The kids can’t ride their bikes properly WITHOUT TRAINING WHEELS yet. I’ve absolutely fucked everything, I can’t get the simplest thing right.
Thinking back on it, this seems patently ridiculous. We’re not a bike-riding family for one, and my eldest is a risk-adverse gentle being who would prefer to be poodling about with a sketchbook than anything which may cause adrenaline. But that’s reason, and I was in no mood for reason. I was CONVINCED by these thoughts that I was both fucked and had fucked it. The amount of pain I had even speaking those words was unbearable.
Chris, to his shining, brilliant credit, did not laugh or tell me to lighten up or look at me like I was bonkers.
He listened. And nodded. And empathised. And reassured. And gave me empirical evidence that I hadn’t completely fucked it, and that in fact, everything was fine.
It’s okay honey. I know you love our kids. It’s normal to worry as a parent! I know I worry a lot too. But I want you to know it’s okay. Our kids will learn how to ride without training wheels. I didn’t really start riding bikes until I was older. Mermaid Daughter #1 doesn’t really love bikes, otherwise she would be more interested and wanting to ride! You care so much about these kids honey. They are great, they are happy, you are doing a good job.
I’d listen, unable to even look in his eyes. I’d still remain convinced that I had fucked it, as that’s what my thoughts were telling me. But he’d let the pressure out of my tyres just enough for me to not implode.
And so it went every day for weeks. I’d wake up pulsating from the shrill adrenaline in my veins. My brain would whirr into life, fixating and obsessing on all the ways I had thoroughly fucked my life. I’d be overcome with shame and pain.
I became afraid of my own brain, how fast it ran into terrible conclusions, how it wiped away all other realities but this: you are fucked. you have fucked it all.
I’m known by my mates for having a joyously high self-esteem.
I don’t spend time in self-doubt.
I rarely spend time in self-flagellation.
I do my best. I try to rest. I make mistakes occasionally, apologise fairly easily, look at what I could tend to and mend so I don’t make the mistake again, and carry on skipping.
I don’t have an inner critic, I have an inner cheerleader that has chanted for as long as I can remember:
You can do this. You’ve got this. You can do this. You’ve got this.
I don’t know how or why, really.
It just is what it is.
I feel like I’d lucked out on missing some part of the human experience for not having low self-esteem, but I didn’t spend much time questioning.
And then it was gone.
Second-guessing myself, triple-guessing, over and over.
Sure that this was the reality of it. That I’d finally woken up to see what a colossal fuckwit I was.
Inner critic had made its late arrival, and was vicious, blood-thirty, louder than all else.
Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Is this what it’s like for everyone else? This is horrific. How do people go on? How does anything get created at all? How do we even walk through this world?
The voice crippled me.
I was a crumpled piece of paper.
As the day turns into twilight, then night, I become more anxious again, agitated, limbs flashing as the tide of anxiety comes riding back in.
What’s happening, honey? Chris asks.
I’m scared of the night, I tell him.
What happens in the night? he asks.
Night is dark and all I can hear are my thoughts.
We go to sleep. Well, he does. I lay beside him, and watch the cavalcade of obsessive thoughts start up once more, bending back into the tightly wound caterpillar.
Then I’d wake Chris up when I couldn’t bear it any longer.
Tell him sobbing, heartbroken about the next catastrophe I envisioned.
Honey, I need to talk to you! Mermaid Daughter #1 is 8! EIGHT! In ten more years, she will be EIGHTEEN. And one day, she will move out. Just imagine that! GONE! FOREVER! NEVER TO SLEEP IN THE BEDROOM NEXT TO US AGAIN. And I will be DEVASTATED. I will be HEART BROKEN. I can’t bear it.
Again, he would listen, and reassure me, tell me we would make it through together. Tell me to gently wind down and try to get some rest.
I’d listen, and try my best, but the panic attacks would roll through the night, waking me, waking him.
I stopped eating, barely drank.
I couldn’t. It was too much work. My system was already working overtime.
Mouth already dry with fear, stomach swarming.
All I could do was shake and cry and rock.
I wondered when I should admit myself to a mental institution.
I seemed broken beyond belief.
I shut away from friends.
I was convinced I would infect them, that my feelings were contagious.
I didn’t, couldn’t do anything but what was absolutely required.
Groceries stores meant crying soundlessly behind dark sunglasses, pretending to be normal.
It took some long, painful weeks before I realised I needed to take action and get help.
I’m surprised I didn’t think of it, surprised my husband didn’t think of it.
Both of us are well-versed enough in mental health and psychology, both of us cheerful proponents of therapy and medication.
I can only assume we were both too busy to think laterally:
I was too busy in the pit of misery, Chris was too busy trying to reach me.
I booked an appointment at my doctor. Sat in the waiting room, crying behind dark sunglasses once more.
How can I help you today?
He is gentle, kind, diminutive.
He doesn’t know.
I start crying even harder.
I’m not okay,
I tell him.
It’s the hardest thing in the world to say those words.
But they are the words that save us.
My doctor listens, asks questions.
Are you feeling suicidal?
No, I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.
Do you think you would ever try to suicide?
No. My brain doesn’t go that direction. I just want to sleep.
I realised at that point how lucky I was that my brain doesn’t fall in that direction. How hard that must be to fight. I was at the mercy of my brain, and I was already cowering beneath its furious You are fucked, everything is fucked, you are a fucking idiot chatterings.
He asks more questions:
Are you eating? Sleeping? Drinking?
No. No. No. I can’t. It’s too much.
I know you are married. How is your husband about this?
Even in my fucked mind, this strikes me as a curious question. I don’t know what to answer.
He gets it. He’s good.
But… does he really understand? Is he supportive?
And finally, I click. I understand why he’s asking now.
Not everybody has this. Not everybody has someone in their corner, much less one who understands mental health and empathy and therapy.
I think of all the hours my husband spent uncurling his wound up caterpillar wife. How the walls to my house were falling to pieces, but he was the roof. I’m lucky, even in the complete fuckery of this.
I wonder at how on fucking earth we all get through this life.
The doctor prescribes me medication.
A little of the old stuff. Some new stuff for a few weeks to get me out the otherside.
(Lexapro and Valium, for those playing at home.)
I exit, and I cry behind sunglasses at the chemist while I wait for the medication.
I want to say here:
Counselling and therapy can play a HUGE PART in mental health. I was already having sessions, thus why my doctor didn’t prescribe that to me!
And: I might be a hippy but DAMN do I love me some Western medicine when it works.
I have absolutely zero fucking issues with taking it.
My mental health is a biological, hereditary function just like everything else.
If some chemicals in a pill can resolve the chemical issues in my body that make me go bonkers, I will GOBBLE DEM UP.
Gobble them up I did. In the prescribed amount, and the prescribed time of course.
Taking Valium was like being in an induced feelings coma. It was lovely to not feel so crashingly awful, to be able to eat and sleep and not fear the night (or the day) anymore. To stop the shrill panic in my brain.
I took them while waiting for the Sertraline to build up to a therapeutic level in my system. After a couple of weeks, it wasn’t where it needed to be. So I went back to the doctor and increased its dose. After another week or so, it was up enough for me to start to wean off Valium.
(I share this because I talk about what works for me. You work with your Doctor about what works for you.)
As I waited for the Sertraline to work, I got the courage to tell a couple of friends what was happening.
Oh! Goodie! said one.
I’ve never met Depressed Leonie before! You’re always so blastardly cheerful! I’m really low at the moment too.
Can I take Depressed Leonie out for dinner? It will be so nice just to bitch and moan with you.
My friends share my completely bent sense of inappropriate humour, obviously.
I consented to be taken out. I knew I would be safe. That I could be all of myself with her.
It was an evening of the darkest kind of humour and Italian food.
I might be in a hole, but I knew I would be able to get out.
Over the weeks, life returned into me.
The crying lessened. The panic attacks ebbed. The brain slowed and began to make sense again.
It was less bad, and then much less bad.
The voice that heralded all that was fucked got softer and softer and then was gone.
Finally pinpricks of joy began to pierce into me again.
The whale had released me.
I was floating to the surface.
It was the most blessed relief to become myself again.
I was myself again, but changed too.
I’d been through one of the most painful breakdowns of my life.
My eyes were bared at how bad it could be.
My heart was awash with compassion at the human condition.
How much mental health and brain chemistry and pure life can profoundly affect us.
If someone ever tells me they had a breakdown, I’ll understand it more now.
I think that’s the gift of it all.
Even the most painful of the painful.
It comes, and it leaves.
And I think:
I will understand other people so much more now.
No matter how painful, I’m glad I experienced it.
It feels like this whole journey of life is to experience so we can understand each other that much more deeply, love each other that much more gently.
It’s been a few months now since the whale took me into that underworld.
I began writing this back then, finished it now.
It’s bloody beautiful out here, in the sunlight, on the otherside.
Years ago, me and my husband had a carpool buddy we called Mr P.
He was a mythical sage elf, hilarious and wise in equal turns.
Some days we would drive to work wheezing with laughter.
Some days we would drive to work in silence.
Some days our conversations would be deep and prophetic.
One particular day, it was both.
We drove along in silence this morning, and as we drove through an underpass, he turned from the window and said:
You know, people call breakdown by the wrong name.
So often we call it a breakdown, when really it is a breakthrough.
Then he turned back to look out the window and said nothing more.
That sentence echoed through my mind this year.
The whale took me, and it showed me the truth.
It showed me the truth of human suffering and empathy.
But it also gave both myself and my husband the answer to a question we had been asking for years.
And it’s a story for another day.
But the breakdown was most definitely a breakthrough.
If you’re struggling, I want you to know:
I love you. I know. I get it.
Please get yourself whatever help you need.
There is light and gladness on the other side.
I promise you this, and I promise it to you as a person who didn’t believe that could be true a few short months ago.
Sometimes our brains are capable of incredible, wise, miraculous things. And sometimes our brains tell us really fucking deadshit stuff. When it tells us we are fucked, everything is fucked, it will always be fucked, it’s time to get the help we need to fuck that voice off.
I promise the gladness will come. I promise the pinpricks of joy and light will return.
The Woman Who Was Swallowed By A Whale