I was loafing on my sofa this evening watching the West Wing when something struck me. I had no idea what was going to happen next. This would make sense if I’d never watched the West Wing before, or if I’d followed it at university (now a decade ago). But I only watched the entire box set for the first time in Autumn 2016. The reason it felt new was that when I watched this programme last autumn, I was mad. I actually was: I’d been signed off work with severe anxiety and depression which had genuinely stopped my mind from working. Every day on sick leave I would go for a ride on a lovely horse on Wimbledon Common, or go for a run or a walk, then come home and watch the West Wing, desperately trying to stop my mind from attacking itself. Consequently I really cannot remember anything about this programme. It’s almost as though I accidentally watched it in German (the only German I know is ich bin zehn which has been of limited use now for 21 years) the first time and am only now watching it in English.
So, hoorah, I’m much better, I’m watching the West Wing in the evening after work because I’ve been back since mid June and while I still feel as though there’s a black hole in me, I’ve got better at navigating around it to the extent that most of the time I totally forget it’s there and just think about things like work, laundry, where the hell my cat is and whether she is enraging one of my neighbours by taking a dump in her flowerbeds, and so on.
But I’m not fully better and can get very mentally tired even when I’m physically excellent, which is why I had to cancel on my oldest friend, Oliver, this evening. We’ve known each other since birth and were looking forward to drinks and setting the world to rights as old friends do. But because he’s an old friend, he gets cancelled on, and he sticks by me and just wants me to be ok.
One of the hardest things is that mental illness is incredibly personal in its symptoms. As well as cancelling on everyone all the time, I have also said some utterly hideous things to pretty much everyone who loves me, hurt those closest to me – and frightened them too. Others on the periphery have been affected too. Most people get this, even if they’re surprised by the way madness manifests itself.
My friend Alice, who I lived with at university and who was just around the corner from me in South West London when I was at my most insane, had to stick by me even when I was incredibly mean to her. She did. A few weeks ago we ran a 10k together to raise money for Refuge. We stuck together the whole way round the course and burst into tears on each other at the finish line, not because of the race but because of how powerful it is for friends to stick together through far worse than stitches and sweaty runs.
My partner has had to take the worst of it, and hasn’t just stuck by me but has helped me build myself back up into a woman who, for the first time in the whole of her life, is actually proud of herself. He has done amazing things to help me in the past two years that no one will ever really know about, but that he should be so proud of – but it has also been a huge burden.
Colleagues, too, have had to deal first with me just disappearing off sick all of a sudden, second with me returning clearly not in a full state of mental health and very sensitive and paranoid about everything, and third with me finally returning for good on very limited hours and without very much confidence in my abilities at all. They’ve had the busiest few years of their careers and could have done without my head exploding in the middle of it, but they stuck by me, reassured me, forgot some of the sillier things I said, and checked up on me.
What’s been interesting has been how people who were more peripheral to my life behaved. Most were kind. One is Katie, who I met briefly at a Spectator event, and who shares the same interest in public policy around domestic abuse as I do. She became one of my most important friends. She messaged me every day when I was on my second bout of sick leave. One night when I was dangerously unwell, she talked me into a more peaceful state by making me go through my wash bag and photograph the various things in it that I liked and describe them to her, like a lovely Guerlain coral lipstick that tastes of watermelon. She, along with a group of friends who, when I was really ill, formed a WhatsApp group which I darkly called my “Suicide Squad”, saved my life this year. I write these blogs to try to help others and I would so recommend setting something like this up if you’re really unwell. Now I only use my group to send my friends silly pictures of myself going running or some awesome new shoes that I bought. But I know it’s there if I need it.
Others in the industry who had also suffered from depression messaged me once or twice a week to check on me and encourage me that things got better. A senior figure sent me two bouquets of flowers wishing me well, which wasn’t just lovely in and of itself but also made me a little less fearful that being ill had somehow wrecked my career. I’ve actually been ill for a shorter amount of time than a lot of women take maternity leave, and I suspect that while my mind has been doing the howling and vomiting rather than a lovely little baby, we share the same fears about the return to work after a spell off.
Of course, some other people have been twits, such as the unkind woman who, when told about the crippling anxiety attacks I was struggling with, and the reason behind them, snapped “of all the things to get upset about”. She clearly has a few more years left in which to grow up, but one of the really important things I’ve learned while being sick is that just because someone says something with feeling, doesn’t mean it’s true. A lot of things that cause mental illness are serious and horrible. But a lot of the ways those illnesses manifest themselves can appear silly because if we were well then we would be able to rationalise them. But our minds aren’t working properly. That’s what mental illness is about.
People are often wrong. But more often than not, people are trying to get mental illness right. And that’s really superb.
The reason I’m writing this, as well as to say thank you to the people who stuck by me when I was so, so sick, is to warn and encourage those who care. Everyone who is ill needs a squad full of people who want to know about your washbag. Those are the most precious people of all. But caring for someone with a mental illness is really hard. Sure, you’re not the one with the torture chamber in your head. But you can feel like some of its worst instruments are still being used against you. And it can go on for months. If you’re caring for someone with a mental illness, you need help and support too. And time to yourself. Oh, and probably a back up plan for when they cancel on you. Sorry, Ollie, and thank you.