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Monday, December 14, 2009

Mental illness: "The pain we had to hide"

It's now acceptable for celebrities to talk about mental illness. But away from the spotlight, the stigma remains. An anonymous writer describes her husband's secret despair.

You're not alone: Neil Lennon, Ruby Wax, Marcus Trescothick and Mel C have all suffered from depression

You're not alone: Neil Lennon, Ruby Wax, Marcus Trescothick and Mel C have all suffered from depression

For the past 15 years I have asked people to share with me and many others the most searing experiences of their lives. First as a newspaper reporter, and now in television, I have persuaded and cajoled people to talk to me during the most difficult times. Tales of unimaginable grief, loss, illness, abuse and betrayal.

I have always had the greatest of respect for those who chose to speak out and for those who didn't. Yet it's only in the last few months that I have realised just how much courage it takes to tell such personal stories.

Many of those I've spoken to accepted their names and faces being made public. Their experiences were much worse than mine, their ordeals ongoing, their heartbreak without end. And yet now, as I try to tell a rather simple tale, I can't bear the thought of my name or my husband's being made public – and that perhaps says an awful lot about the story I would like to tell.
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On 10 November, German goalkeeper Robert Enke committed suicide after a years of battling depression. Since then, a host of sports personalities have spoken about the destructive nature of that illness: cricketer Marcus Trescothick, boxer Frank Bruno and footballer Neil Lennon all speaking publicly about how this sickness of the mind overwhelmed them.

Their experiences struck a chord ... In March this year my husband, a 37-year-old sports producer with no history of depression, illness or introspection had a complete breakdown. That's not the term that any medical person would be caught using, but it's the only way I know to describe what happened and how a seemingly well person could spiral into a terrifying abyss.

What made an already nightmarish situation worse was the need to hide it. We were both horribly aware that the stigma of depression could destroy the career my husband had spent 15 years building. Our immediate family knew, and some very close friends, but others were too closely linked to our industry and we hid everything from them. It felt like a dreadful deceit but I still believe we didn't really have a choice

As a freelancer covering sport, my husband travelled the world – it was a job he loved and we often joked that he was a fan with a typewriter. Yet for all he loved that job, it took its toll. There was a fair bit of internal politics, the suitcase was never unpacked, the wash bag always on the back of the door, ready for the off. Neither of us spotted the gradual decline – tiredness and jet lag always a handy catch-all for quietness and unease.

It was in March, on one of those trips, that the wheels came off our merry-go-round. He was in a hotel in California; I was working in Belfast. When my phone rang I didn't really have time to chat and nearly didn't answer.

Only the fact it was the middle of the night in the States made me wonder why he was calling. When I answered I thought there was a problem on the line. All I could hear was a weird noise. It sounded like wailing and gasping yet it also sounded like my husband. When he finally managed to speak it was clear something was going horribly wrong mentally and physically. He said he couldn't sleep, he couldn't breathe properly and he couldn't get a grip. Amidst the tears and the panic he said the words that made me realise things had gone beyond a dose of jet lag. "It's just like what happened to Marcus Trescothick – I've lost it. I'm going mad, baby."

It was the most destabilising moment of my life, yet even then, despite the shock and the fear, I had one very clear thought: that this needed to be kept as quiet as possible.

In the state he was in, the sensible thing would have been to get a colleague to his room as quickly as possible, but we both knew that wasn't going to happen. Anyone seeing or hearing him would know he'd lost it – and we knew that wouldn't stay secret for long. In the end, I phoned reception in his hotel and begged them to put him in a taxi to hospital, all the time calculating that it was only 5am and he could be there and back before anyone else was up and about. All the way there, this man whom I'd only seen cry once in 10 years wept down the phone. He couldn't go on working, yet he couldn't leave without destroying his career; he wanted to come home, yet couldn't imagine what he could tell people. We knew that walking out of a job mid-way through without a good explanation would be an end to the only contract he had. Yet we also knew it was too big a gamble to admit the truth: that depression and anxiety had overwhelmed him and he was broken.

Somehow he managed to get through the next three weeks. Huge doses of sedatives and never-ending trans- atlantic phone calls gradually ate away at the days ... My offers to fly out, or to ring his bosses and claim a family crisis, were rejected. I told our families, but no one else, desperately hoping he'd get home and be fine.

Now I can't believe I ever thought like that. I suppose we both hoped it was a blip and convinced ourselves a few tablets and a bit of sleep would sort it out. The consequences of it not being a one-off were too terrifying to contemplate. Mental illness is not something anyone wants in their life, and the long-term consequences for the CV were never going to be appealing.

Three weeks later he came home, tranqued up, hollow-eyed and skeletal. He may have escaped the shame of telling anyone on that trip, but it was perfectly clear there were going to be no more for many, many months to come.

When I finally made the call to his employers to say he wouldn't be on the next tour, the words depression or breakdown were never used. I used every phrase I could think of to blur the edges, determined not to let the side down with an admission of what had really gone on.

From then on, the spiral was like nothing I could ever have imagined. The laid-back, easy-going man I loved and married was gone – in his place a terrified wreck who would obsess about anything and everything. Unable to sleep for nights on end, he became psychotic – panic-stricken about what the numbers on the alarm clock meant, sure that tennis matches were going on in the bathroom, terrified he might be a child-killer. He became utterly detached from reality – unable to live and love, and unable to remember that he ever had been able. Lying on the kitchen floor, wailing like a child, he was suicidal, begging for the tablets that would end his agony. It scares me now that at times things were so utterly dreadful that I was tempted to just hand them over, suspecting that that would be kinder than to keep encouraging him to face another day.

Friends knew he was at home, but he couldn't bear for them to know why. Trying to explain why he was suddenly around but not available for a chat and not replying to emails required constant quick thinking at a time when his brain was no longer functioning and mine was in a state of shock.

In the months that followed, it was as if some destructive worm had got into his brain and stripped it of everything that was ever good or positive, and exacerbated any negative, be it real or imagined. And yet through the tears and desperation he was willing to do whatever he could. Even in the deepest depths of depression he would see the psychologist and the psychiatrist and go to the Priory for classes that offered hope as well as a glimpse into the private hell of so many others.

It was a world neither of us had ever experienced before, but we were told it was a world that offered us a way back to our old lives – even if at times our former life seemed a distant memory and a far-off dream.

Incredibly, after six months in what can only be described as the eye of storm, the dreadfulness began to lift. With care and medication, his recovery was tentative at first, then incredibly swift. It has taken me another three months to really believe that the depression that almost destroyed us both has finally gone.

Yet even now it worries me who we did and didn't tell. Most people were fantastic, many admitting to their own experiences. However journalism is a pretty small and incestuous world. There are people I told during the darkest days who I now wish I hadn't, and others I probably should have told but didn't – for fear of it coming back to haunt us in the future. I suspect that's the same in most industries, and I fear many others will have tried, with varying degrees of success, to hide their own depression.

As a result of people like Alastair Campbell, Trescothick, Bruno and the others who have spoken out, depression is slowly being dragged out of the shadows. We're learning that it should no longer carry a stigma, that it is an illness like any other. What worries me, though, is that for most people – who are not in the spotlight – admitting to depression is still a very big gamble. Fear and ignorance inform too many judgements.

I'm sure that with time that will change, but there is still a way to go. I feel ashamed that I'm not strong enough to use my own name in this article, but I am too fearful of the consequences. What my name is doesn't actually matter – that I can't bring myself to use it probably does.

Have you or your family suffered from depression and felt you had to keep it secret?


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