Wednesday, January 26, 2011

It's not All Black

I've just started reading John Kirwan's All Blacks Don't Cry which my parents bought me for Christmas. JK has done an absolutely brilliant job of raising the profile (and reducing the stigma) of depression in New Zealand. I've never particularly liked famous sportsmen using their celebrity status to push products, services or agendas, but in this case all the media exposure is to be applauded. Just as Blam Blam Blam didn't say, there's a lot of depression in this country. If one of the greatest ever All Blacks can have it there's no shame in you or I having it.

So far it's been interesting reading. Playing international rugby, and having mates who are all called by their surnames with a bonus O or Y added to the end, couldn't be further from the sort of life I led at that age. But my experiences of depression and anxiety were very similar. So similar in fact that reading his descriptions of panic attacks brought back memories from ten years ago that sent a shiver down my spine.

I'm quite good at remembering dates (though not as good as one particular member of the Asperger's group) and it was 18th April 2000 when I had my first panic attack, two days before my 20th birthday. It was the Easter holidays at university and I was staying with Gran in Houghton (Mum and Dad were living in Australia at the time). I was walking back to Houghton from St Ives, and about half a mile from Gran's place my heart started racing for no apparent reason and I struggled to breathe. I held onto a gate because I thought I might collapse. It was scary stuff. When I got back to Gran's I really felt knocked for six, but I gradually forgot about the incident. I then spent a few days at my aunt's place in Wales before going back to university. I had exams on my return to Birmingham and I was finding the study a real drag, but for those few days everything felt horrible. Grey, metallic, yuck. It perhaps doesn't help that a lot of Wales is grey: a lot of grey slate is used in buildings and walls, and the sky is grey most of the time. When Gran asked me what was wrong I said I wanted someone to shoot me. She then gave me a pill - Valium I think - which I happily took. At the time I didn't know I was depressed.

Fast forward to 15th March 2001. I was in Lyon for my third year of university and happened to be in the middle of a tennis match - the second round of a tournament. I lost the first set 6-2 but was 5-2 up in the second when - bam! - I was struck down again. My heart raced, I couldn't feel my limbs, I was short of breath and totally disorientated. I hung on grimly to the fence, sat down for a bit, then stupidly carried on playing. I staggered on for a few more games, losing in a tie-break. I've had a bit of a love-hate relationship with tennis ever since. Thinking I had a serious heart problem I called the doctor late that night. She gave me an ECG test and everything was fine. I spoke to Dad on the phone and he suggested panic attacks - I instantly rejected that idea because, well, I wasn't panicking about anything. I spent the next four days in my room, then went to hospital to get more tests done. Blood tests, X-rays and heaven knows what else. Nothing showed up. I had more "episodes" and more of those horrible grey spells that lasted three or four days. I was worried and confused.

In June I moved back to the UK and I'd pretty much forgotten about my weird episodes until they returned with a vengeance. On 9th July 2001 - the day that Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon in that classic Monday final - I had a two-hour panic attack (although I still didn't know that's what it was). I was utterly convinced I was going to die. Unlike my previous shorter attacks which I got over fairly quickly, this one took over my life. For the next few weeks I slept an average of five hours a day, while for the other nineteen I thought of nothing but death. For three weeks I held down a job packing mobile phones into boxes but I never went out of the house for any other reason - I was too scared to. At work I was standing up the whole time and expected to topple over at any moment; eventually I quit.

I was called up to play interclub tennis. In Mum's words, "it'll do you good". Two men's doubles matches. How would I possibly cope? That day it rained. Surely I won't have to play. But the courts dried up just enough and play I did. Nothing seemed real. Was it some strange dream? I'm pretty sure we lost badly in the first match, but all I remember was the very appropriate Slade song Mama Weer All Crazee Now stuck on a loop inside my head. Early in the second match I decided I couldn't go on. Nobody at the club seemed to mind this and I got a lift home. "That was quick," Mum said. "How did it go?" When I told her, she was incredulous. "You what? They'll never invite you to play again." As if I cared about that!

I'll admit that quitting the match was embarrassing though. It's not something I'd ever done before. I soon developed agoraphobia, which meant quitting anything that took place outside the house. I knew I couldn't go on like that. I had to back to university in seven weeks - how could I do that if I couldn't even leave the house by myself? I rang the doctor. I laughed uncontrollably during my appointment (this has happened to me more recently as well). "I'm worried I might lose it," I said. "You're already losing it," was his reply. He diagnosed panic attacks, gave me beta-blockers and some white pills called Citalopram, and said that in seven weeks I'd be fine.

The pills didn't kick in instantly. I started to hallucinate and became very sensitive to light and noise. Supermarkets were a no-go area. But my doctor was right. When it was time to go back to Birmingham, I was fine. OK, I felt tired a lot of the time, and still had the odd panic attack, but crucially I now knew what they were and I wasn't in constant fear of the next one. I actually felt considerably better than I did before I had the panic attacks (John Kirwan said something similar). For the first time in a long time I was happy in my own skin.

For once I wasn't ashamed of just being me. Between September 2001 and June 2002 I can honestly say I was happy. I knuckled down, studied hard, and came out with a good degree, thinking I'd killed off the depression beast for ever. As I was to learn later, perhaps you never quite do.

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