From Depressed and Suicidal to a New Outlook
by Fiona Kennedy
The potted version of the last decade-or-so of my life goes a little something like this: for me—depression as an illness in and of itself is not real. What is real is trauma, hardship, multiple diagnoses, a hospital admission, the breakdown of my marriage, and a hell of a lot of learning. But let’s step back a moment.
I’m a quite an introverted person. I like my space, I don’t like crowds or busyness. I value real, genuine conversation with a close friend or two above a night out with a big crowd talking about nothing at all. I’m far more at ease in nature than a city, and the 9-5 office worker lifestyle is pretty much my worst nightmare. I don’t need lots of nice stuff, foreign holidays twice a year, or designer clothes. I need time alone, every single day. I need time to think, to reflect, to just be. I need time with my husband, my kids, my dogs. I need meaningful connections with the people in my life. These are all things that I know about myself but, for most of my life, I didn’t. I tried to make myself fit into the exact opposite of all of that and, perhaps not surprisingly, it didn’t work.
What is more surprising, with the benefit of several years of therapy and lots of hindsight, is how long it took me to realise all of this, and how many wrong turns I took before I got to where I am now.
I took the standard route through life growing up—school, college, permanent pensionable civil service job, mortgage, marriage, kids—but it was so, so wrong for me. When I was younger, late teens into my early twenties, I managed by making sure I was always in a relationship. I had no real sense of who I was, what my core beliefs were, and my self-esteem was on the floor. If I had a boyfriend, though; it meant that someone liked me and, if someone liked me, it meant I was a worthwhile person. However, as soon as these relationships would end, there would be a massive void which, inevitably, was filled by another relationship. The cycle continued for a few years until I met Ronan, the man I would later marry.
The first couple of years we were together were just gorgeous. We were so in love, so happy. In 2004, we decided to move from Dublin to Galway for Ronan’s job, and so began the start of the slide into the world of emotional difficulties and psychiatric diagnoses. In 2005, we bought our house in a beautiful village in Connemara, 2006 we got married, early 2008, our son arrived, and he was followed in 2010 by our daughter. Perfect, right?
Except it wasn’t. Over the space of those few years, I went from unhappy to miserable to struggling to overwhelmed to depressed and eventually all the way to suicidal. Both of my babies had reflux, which meant months and months of screaming and not sleeping, so I became chronically sleep deprived. I don’t live close to my family and, at the time, had very few close friends, so I was incredibly isolated. I knew less than nothing about self-care, and all my energy went into minding my babies, while at the same time trying to maintain the impossible standards I had always held myself to around the house and at work. Putting my own needs first seemed like the most disgustingly selfish act possible.
In the middle of all this I was handed my first official diagnosis: post-natal depression. I didn’t need a diagnosis. I needed help, and support and, above all, sleep. Of course I was depressed!! Screaming small people, exhaustion, isolation. How could I be anything other than depressed? But instead of help, instead of teaching me to manage those problems, I was given two things I didn’t need: a label and drugs.
Eventually we got through the screaming and not sleeping phase, I settled into motherhood, and depression lifted. But it came back, because I was still working in a job I hated, we were under extreme financial pressure, and I still had no idea of how to mind myself emotionally. I began to self-harm, and my frustration at myself turned into massive, explosive anger. Instead of showing myself compassion when I was struggling, I would verbally berate myself in the worst possible way, while at the same time punching myself in the head, the torso, the legs; anywhere I could reach. When that wasn’t enough, I started punching walls and, eventually, I began reaching for blades.
Enter diagnosis number two: treatment-resistant clinical depression. Meds didn’t work, I wasn’t making much progress in therapy and self-harm was on-going and escalating. My marriage was falling apart and neither of us had the first clue what to do to make it all go away.
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Then came the biggest clanger of all, diagnosis number three: borderline personality disorder. This is one you never, ever want to get, because it’s essentially code for “we do not have the first clue how to help this person, she’s going to be massive trouble to work with.” Borderline has a long, unpleasant list of symptoms; fear of abandonment, unstable relationships, unclear or unstable self-image, impulsive, self-destructive behaviours, self-harm including suicidal behaviour, extreme emotional swings, chronic feelings of emptiness, explosive anger, paranoia, and dissociation. Tick more than five and, congratulations, you have borderline! Good luck with that.
None of this was helpful. Each diagnosis compounded my sense of worthlessness and the belief that there was something intrinsically wrong with me over which I had no control. My husband stopped being my husband, and started being my caretaker. I was no longer his wife, I was someone who had to be watched, managed, minded. My reactions and emotions weren’t to be trusted because of the chemical imbalance in my brain. My sense of self was poor in my twenties, by my thirties I believed there was no hope for me at all; I had an illness that would never leave me. That one belief is responsible for most of the damage that followed.
I spent six years working with a therapist while these various diagnoses were handed out. During those years, I became so severely depressed that I spent five weeks in a psychiatric unit. I had stopped functioning, was just about able to look after my kids and quite honestly didn’t care whether I lived or died. I had no idea what to do to help myself, and was convinced that nothing could ever change for me. During my time in the unit, I was given a shiny new prescription for an anti-psychotic as well as an anti-depressant, as it was believed this would help stabilise my moods. It did, but only because it numbed me to feeling anything. I was massively attached to, and reliant on, my therapist, something which contributed to the borderline label. I wanted her to fix me, and firmly believed she was the only one who could. More than that, I had a completely irrational and overwhelming need for her to mind me. I couldn’t bear the boundaries that were imposed by the therapeutic relationship, and constantly pushed them. I desperately wanted to be her favourite client, the one she would break all the rules for her. No matter how often she saw me, it was never enough. We reached the point that if I contacted her about anything other than an appointment reschedule, she wouldn’t respond. The harder she pushed back, the bigger my reaction. With every mail that was ignored, my sense of being rejected grew, likewise with every extra session request that was declined. I couldn’t bear to think that I was just another client to her, that I didn’t mean anything.
Eventually, in 2015, we came to a critical turning point. I took an overdose, and it became clear that the therapist I so cherished could no longer help me. I began to work with a clinical psychologist, and finally, after so many years of trying and fighting and struggling and failing, things started to make sense. At our very first meeting, she told me something that really hit home to me. Any one of us, under the right circumstances and at any given point in our lives, could tick many of the boxes that lead to a diagnosis of borderline. She didn’t accept it as a diagnosis, and certainly not as an illness. Instead, she taught me about how our brains actually work; the physiology behind emotional responses. She taught me about self-compassion, self-care, the importance of making time for myself and how big an impact it has when I ignore these things. She helped me understand and work through the many false beliefs about myself I had carried with me from childhood, beliefs that were shaping every single interaction I had in this world. She helped me recognise relationships that were helpful, and those that were not. Ultimately, I came to realise that there is absolutely nothing wrong with me, not in the sense that I had believed up to that point. For sure, I needed to do a lot of work, but what was most important about what she taught me, was that change was within my power, that I wasn’t being controlled by rogue chemicals in my brain, that I could take responsibility for how I was reacting and behaving.
This presented me with an interesting new challenge. While my labels were horrible, they were also comforting—they gave me a reason for what was going on, and they made it ok for me not to try and take control. I fought hard against having that comfort taken away, because it put the onus of responsibility for managing this firmly back on my shoulders. But what it also did was free me.
Over the last year, I have been discharged from psychiatric services, and successfully weaned off medications that I had been taking for five years. I’ve recognised what works for me, and what doesn’t, and have made massive changes in how I live my life. I no longer self-harm, and thoughts of suicide are a thing of the past.
But it hasn’t been plain sailing. The trauma and hardship of the last decade broke my marriage, and my husband and I separated back in February of this year. This seemed like the cruellest punishment of all—that we fought tooth and nail to get to this point, but lost our relationship somewhere along the way. It’s hardly surprising though. We had long since stopped seeing each other as husband and wife. The two people who emerged from the chaos were so very different from the two who got so horribly caught up in it. That said, it turned out that break needed to happen. We both needed to regroup, to adjust to the new reality we find ourselves in, to come to know ourselves again. Recently, we found our way back to each other and it is just wonderful. We’ve learned so much—about ourselves, about each other, about what we do and don’t need, about what we can control and what we can’t.We are no longer defined by the roles that developed over the last ten years, we can see each other as people again.
I’d like to think that the calm, peace, and happiness I feel now is how my life is actually meant to be. Things are very, very simple around here. I no longer work in an office. I write and I mind dogs. I’m able to be home for my kids every day. There are no more drugs, doctors, psychiatrists, therapists or labels. There’s just us. I’m not naïve, I know life is going to throw many, many more obstacles in our path in the future, but I know we’ll handle them.
I’m not mentally ill, I never was. I was under significant pressure which led to extreme mental and emotional distress, but it was all circumstantial. I needed guidance and help to see, understand and change that. What I’ve learned along the way is invaluable, and helps me to understand both my family and those around me in a way I never could have done before. No doubt my kids will experience difficulties over the course of their lives, but doctors and drugs will not be my first port of call. We’re teaching them about self-care and self-compassion, the value of quiet time and open spaces. They’re in a wonderful school which has a whole school ethos incorporating mindfulness and emotional well-being, and recognising the paramount importance of both for the kids if they are to be able to cope in our incredibly fast-paced world.
I feel like my life is starting all over again and, this time, I know myself. Even more, I really like myself. I’m not going to fight anymore to make myself fit into what society expects of me. It’s been the most phenomenally steep learning curve, but the view from here has been worth every torturous step of the way.
EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
See Related Recovery Stories: Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, Mental Health First Person Essays