I’m somewhat embarrassed about this! Six years ago, I wrote a blog about turning 70, and five years later I promised to write a follow up piece on turning 75. But last week I turned 76, which makes me a whole year late. When I made that promise I really meant it, but some promises are easy to make but much more difficult to keep.
In September 2018 I returned from a wonderful holiday in Italy, but instead of feeling refreshed, I was exhausted and very low in spirits. By November I felt worse; physically worse, weak and wobbly, and was struggling with loss of memory and concentration. I didn’t want to leave the house, driving felt terrifying because I couldn’t concentrate. I didn’t even want to have a coffee with friends, it was too hard and exhausting and I couldn’t always keep up with the conversation. Finally, I followed my friends’ advice and went to my doctor.
At the time I had a full-time job, and was also writing books, and articles. I’d been doing it for years and I loved it. I’d always had enough energy, but now I had none. It was December 2018, less than two months before my 75th birthday. The last thing I was expecting was to walk out of the surgery with a diagnosis of depression and acute anxiety. Me? Really? Mental health issues? Me? Yes, me!
A couple of years earlier I had interviewed several people about depression as part of the research for a character in a novel. I went back to the notes I’d taken. It’s like being trapped in another world/or a container from which you can see what’s going on but can’t be part of it. Not caring about anything/anyone, unable to think seriously or make decisions, complete lack of confidence, not a scrap of creativity. Felt dead mentally and physically. No physical or mental energy, some days it feels impossible to move. Not happy, not sad, everything just a blur. Always totally exhausted. I feel like a blob of jelly, too heavy to move, but being pushed around by other forces.
It all made sense, I was mired in the depression, helpless, hopeless and exhausted. Some days I felt I could barely move. I was emotionally numb, and I couldn’t write. Writing has always got me through sad or difficult times but I could barely bring myself to write an email, let alone anything else. I started seeing a psychologist, and kept talking about getting back to normal, to where I once was. Your normal was killing you, she said. Instead of thinking of going back to that, let’s talk making changes, one at a time. I had no idea how to change the crazy spiral of overwork driven by anxiety; I had lived that way for at least thirty years. She guided me through it, helped me to confront my own self-destructive behaviour. She suggested simple changes, basic rules about taking better care of myself, reducing commitments, learning to say thanks but no thanks in all sorts of situations.
It’s 17 months since I walked into my Doctor’s office, feeling desperate, it’s been long and hard and my 75th birthday is buried somewhere in all that: I honestly can’t even remember it. But I can remember my 76th, not just because it’s only a week ago, but by counting the changes I’ve made and measuring the way I feel. I’m not through it yet but I am well on my way, learning to live a calmer, healthier, more thoughtful life. But I am already a different person, and I am enjoying the journey. Yoga has been hugely valuable for mind and body. I gave it up 40 years ago but am back now to a daily practice, as well as daily meditation.
Right at the beginning of this horrible journey I adopted a dog – a three-month-old puppy. Gazza is a bundle of joyful energy and affection. He has helped me all the way through this, making me walk, laugh, and be responsible for another living creature. He insists on joining me for yoga, which is not always helpful, and for cuddles which are.
I’ve been hesitant about writing this, but it’s become clear to me that we need to talk more about depression and other forms of mental illness. When I started to talk to friends, I found several had also gone through this but had never spoken about it outside their own families. And I am embarrassed to admit that it had never occurred to me that I might succumb to it. All sorts of factors can lead people into depression. I had never ever given a thought to my mental health, I took it for granted, but I won’t do that again.
So, last week I turned 76, and it feels very much better than those months and years when I was frantically busy driving myself to death. I know I am a very fortunate person, and I also know it’s not over yet, perhaps it will never quite be over, or perhaps I will slip and fall again. But I am clear about what happened – that I drove myself to mental illness, and physical exhaustion. I hope I continue to learn from that. My family, my friends and neighbours have been an endless source of loving mental and physical support, and I am so grateful to them all.
I am grateful too to so many people who have sent cards and messages. Yes, I am now writing another book, which should be available early next year. Thank you all for your kindness, your many letters, emails, texts and messages, which have made a huge contribution to my continuing recovery.