*inserts usual note about self harm, eating disorder, etc*
A couple of weeks ago I read this post by Louise, attempting to explain the difference between depression and heartbreak. I would tend to agree with the rough distinction. Heartbreak is grief, and it has a focus. Depression – the way I experience it – is a kind of crushing, agonising numbness.
I got scared last week that the depression was coming back. I have been not quite okay, but certainly much better, since my surgery for endometriosis in August. Whether it was the relief from chronic exhaustion and inflammation, or the validation of having a concrete diagnosis for the symptoms that have been passed off as all in my head for as long as I can remember, I don’t know, but once I had recovered from the surgery I felt lighter, I had more energy, and I felt tentatively hopeful. Last Tuesday night I started feeling almost like the depression had suddenly returned with no warning, like a vortex had opened up in my stomach. And the next morning I woke up from the dream I wrote about in my last post in incredible emotional pain. Since then I’ve been relentlessly, as in literally every moment I’m conscious, bombarded with distressing memories, nausea, intense urges to hurt myself, and this sense of utter terror. I’ve been walking around like a zombie, unable to focus on anything beyond the sheer wall of noise in my head.
But I’m not depressed. I feel heartbroken.
I told my therapist as much earlier. I’ve been clinging to the fact of that session all week, hoping I could somehow make sense of what’s going on. Frustratingly I spent the first fifteen minutes unable to form a sentence, like back when my PTSD was really bad and I could not verbally communicate to anyone what had happened to me because as soon as I reached for a likely word, I would float away, off into the carpet or the wall or the ceiling. It worked a little better when I closed my eyes and hid my face behind my hands, like if I couldn’t see her, maybe I was speaking to an empty room. I started with the most insistent memories. Of Christmas when I was 17, when I was desperately unwell, having spent half the autumn in and out of hospital, starving, bingeing, abusing laxatives and being stitched at accident and emergency. My relationship with my parents was at an all-time low, with frequent stand offs between mum – screaming – and me – dissociating (get that stupid zombie look off your face and say something!). On Christmas day I sat huddled into the sofa, looking at the presents and trying to remember how I was supposed to act, what I was supposed to feel and say. It all seemed like such a fucking lie, because my parents had made their feelings about me clear and why were they trying to pretend everything was okay? I wasn’t okay. I planned to wait until after my youngest brother’s birthday in January and then kill myself. I just had to last three more weeks, but I felt like I was already dead.
I grew up in a three-bedroomed house with six other people, at least one dog, between three and seven cats depending on the year, rabbits, guinea pigs, fish. I shared a room with one and then both of my younger sisters. I was always alone. Not literally, because that wasn’t possible, but there was a disconnect between me and the rest of the world. I remember numerous times when I was scared or upset about something – the stuff all kids get upset about, falling out with friends or a ghost story that shook me up – and my first reaction was to dissociate, then to shake, then to feel sick. Finally, with a physical problem to report, I would sometimes tell mum, usually getting an eye roll and a mention of hypochondria. Several times a week when I was four or five I would lie awake feeling indefinably *wrong*, that I can now pinpoint as anxiety and dissociation. If I got scared enough I would go downstairs, where I’d sit on the third stair from the bottom trying to find enough courage to go into the living room. Counting. When I get to one hundred, I’ll go in. If I got as far as three hundred I’d usually give up and go back upstairs, but the times when I did go in all went the same way. What’s wrong Katie? I don’t feel well. What is it, do you feel sick? Sore throat? Headache? No/no/no. Go to bed, you’re fine.
I didn’t have the words. I was never given the words to define and describe my emotions. All I had was ‘sick’ and ‘wrong’. At 31 years old I woke up on a random December morning in some kind of horrendous pain and still didn’t know what it was. Is there something physical wrong? Am I having a breakdown? Is this a panic attack? Depression? What the fuck?
I told my therapist, I have always struggled to remember anything much from childhood, but all of a sudden I remember so much, all linked to sadness and loneliness and the desperation of knowing I had to cope with this unnameable horror by myself. I told her, I watched the film Inside Out recently, and I related so much to the process the little girl goes through – how she’s thrown into a situation without the emotional maturity she’d need to cope with it, and with her parents distracted, she slowly loses herself and starts to go numb. But at the end when she runs off the bus, back to her parents, she talks to them and they all cry together – I didn’t cry because it’s a lovely ending, I cried because that’s where my story diverges drastically. At eleven years old I didn’t have accidentally distracted but emotionally literate parents, I had parents as fucked up as I was becoming, who couldn’t help me. I stayed numb, and with more and more distress I couldn’t name, couldn’t talk about, and couldn’t cope with, I wanted to die. I soon learned to calm myself with starvation and razor blades, a system of emotion regulation created by a terrified child that I still can’t seem to override a full twenty years later.
My whole life stretches out behind me, coloured with so much pain I can’t take it in. And I know cutting myself won’t help, I know that this is grief, and what I need is to talk about it and comfort myself. But there’s this much younger part of me who is frantic, suicidal, desperate to hurt herself, devastated at being all alone in the world, and convinced that it’s all her fault. That she drives people away (I do) because she’s so difficult, and conversely, that she is pathetic and attention seeking and really should be able to cope with this, so who the hell does she think she is, making such a fuss? That part of me is so panicked I can’t calm her down, nothing is getting through. She feels unreachable, and I’m so scared.
It’s like that argument with my dad started an avalanche, and I’m being buried, and every memory is another freezing wall of slush threatening to suffocate me. After twenty years of being lost in this vast, white, emptiness I couldn’t make sense of, I’m suddenly overwhelmed by grief.