This year it feels like Newcastle has taken an unusually long time to defrost after winter. I’m not entirely sure if this is an accurate reflection of reality – that we really are missing a few degrees on the average day, and have had fewer of those nice little heatwaves than usual – or if I am just projecting onto the weather, because my mental health seems the same way. This is far from an original analogy, but the depression I experienced last year felt like the psychological equivalent of having lain on your arm the wrong way in bed; waking up to the sense of intolerable, agonising numbness. It seems wrong to suggest that numbness can be painful, but that kind really is. That strange, aching, emptiness, that heaviness, that absence.
I’m being investigated for endometriosis at the moment, due to episodes of extreme physical pain. I’ve experienced that pain on and off for over a decade, and have slowly become familiar with it. I know which conditions are most likely to set it off, the different ways it usually starts, the course it generally takes, how long it lasts. Just to be weird (because my body seems to enjoy that), if we’re going to ten out of ten on the pain scale of holy fuck rather than taking the shorter route to eight and back, I can almost set my watch by the different phases. From lack of awareness to when it passes five and I know I’m in trouble is most often ten minutes, although on very rare occasions that phase can last a couple of hours, taunting me with will-I-won’t-I (end up retching and screaming on the bathroom floor today). From five to eight, another five minutes. If I top out at eight, usually I’ll be fully in charge of my faculties again in twenty minutes. If it keeps climbing to ten, I’ll stay there for half an hour. After forty-five minutes in total it’ll start dropping again, and after a full hour I’ll be back on the sofa, chugging tea like my life depends on it, because my body seems to go into a sort of mild shock. But before I can curl up safely on the sofa, I have to get through the panic that happens when I realise that today my body is not going to stop at five, and the loss of all rational thought past nine. I’ve only found one way to hang on to any sense that it will ever end, and that is to count. Minutes elapsed, minutes to go, where I am from nought to ten.
Without really being aware I was doing so, I started counting in a similar way over the winter, although without any reassurance as to how long I would have to do so. I started counting at eight, and kept half an eye on the daily fluctuations between there and nine-and-a-half. I didn’t really plan to do anything with the information, there was no concrete intention to use it to look for patterns or to report back to my therapist or GP for safety’s sake, I just counted because then I had something to hold onto. If today is an eight, I will be just about in control of my actions. If today day is a nine, I need to keep very still and quiet so the pain cannot see me. I stop panicking and fold into myself at physical nine, and at psychological nine. Nine means regressing to the little, vulnerable notion that if I hide so it can’t see me, maybe it will leave me alone.
Some research (that’s just one study, there are many more) has suggested that psychological and physical pain can activate the brain in similar ways; that neurologically, my sense that depression is similar to my experience of extreme physical pain might be justified. Switching analogies again, the long climb out of the worst ravages of depression feels more like that numb arm coming back to life. It’s slow, painful, and terrifying, and feels as if my neurons are shooting off all sorts of confused, chaotic signals. Any stress sends the whole thing half way back to numb, with bigger and more violent distress signals once I’ve realised what’s going on and removed the pressure again. Case in point: I spent most of last week veering wildly between deadened and panic-stricken while trying to recover from burning myself out with anxiety on Friday 8th, which was distressing for personal and political reasons. There was one point a few days ago when the numbness lifted suddenly, passed through anger, fear, and sadness at warp speed and settled at the highly disturbing sensation that my whole nervous system was on fire, which was just…odd. I would have done anything to make it stop, but luckily it escalated at the exact time I had to leave the house to pick A up from work, so I took the scenic route back to baseline rather than the faster, pointier, methods I am susceptible to at the moment.
I am trying to see the return of any sensation, however frightening, as A Good Thing, a sign that I am coming back to life. But it takes so long, and involves so much pain and humiliation as I fuck up multiple times trying to find something to hold onto. My analogy seems ironic when I consider that the way I was dealing with life before really was treating my brain like a numb arm: acting as if it was any other body part, as if the symptom of numbness was the whole cause, rather than taking into consideration the position I habitually lie in bed. My consciousness might be nothing more than a bundle of neurons chattering to each other in a frustratingly dysfunctional manner, but that conversation has been shaped by experience, in particular by trauma. I wasn’t just made this way, randomly defective, with nothing to blame but my genes. Dealing only with the symptoms makes the numbness worse in the long term, and is clearly not going to work. I’m still not really sure what, if anything, will work. Therapy, safe relationships, talking to people, trying to get in touch with my emotions, grieving past losses – these are all such nebulous concepts. It was so much easier when I thought everything could be solved by eating more and treating my mind like a vicious sadist needing to be policed 24/7.
My psychological pain scale originally consisted of one axis, similar to its physical equivalent: from having no awareness of pain to intolerable pain that is an immediate threat to my life. All I could see then was absence: nought being an absence of pain, ten an absence so profound I felt as if it would kill me. But there are different types of pain. The numbness of depression and the nerves-on-fire of chaotic, awakening emotions couldn’t be more different, but they are not on opposite ends of a scale either. Shame is different too. The shame of writing in a way that makes me feel exposed, the shame of claiming trauma when my head tells me I’m melodramatic and pathetic, the shame of still finding it impossible to disconnect from that shame when so many people have tried to validate my experiences and feelings over the years, the shame of having resorted in panic to some self destructive way of dialling back from nine to short-lived oblivion. Today I’m writing rather than anything else, but there is shame and confusion in the fact that I can’t guarantee the rest of the week. And anxiety: I count anxiety too, and it behaves strangely. This morning, the forecast predicting thundery showers, I walked calmly home from the shops while a massive black cloud bore down, beginning to spit at me. It held at five for the majority of the walk, seven when the rain started, but under control. It spiked hugely when I went to get the washing in, three steps from my kitchen door, no longer raining.
I don’t long for axes on which to plot happiness or contentment or peace. I long for a basic sense of predictability and security which allows me to let go of counting as irrelevant.