From time to time, my panic attacks and depression return. About five years ago, on the way back from four days in Cornwall (the furthest I had travelled in 25 years), I suddenly felt utterly exhausted.
My wife took over the driving, but when we stopped for a coffee I felt weird and detached again. The next day I felt giddy, and a real fear of another heart attack took root. I was given a thorough physical check-up at my health centre and told that my fears were unfounded. It was another meeting with my old friend, the Black Dog.
It took a few months to get back to normal after that trip to Cornwall and resume my normal life. But I did it.
The dog called again in January 2016, after my mother’s funeral. To my surprise, I had coped brilliantly with the usual tasks following a death: obtaining death certificates, dealing with the undertaker, registering the death and the constant correspondence with solicitors, banks, the funeral and wake. In fact, I had felt astonishingly well. Five days later, I was walking near my flat when that weird feeling hit me. This time I knew what was going on.
My old friend was back and needed a walk.
This time I wasn’t going to stop doing things because my confidence had gone and I was feeling wobbly. To keep myself steady in supermarkets I started using a trolley to lean on and then placed a basket in it. When I had finished my shopping, I simply lifted the basket out of the trolley containing all my purchases before furtively abandoning the trolley.
If there was a long queue, I tried to concentrate on some object in the distance to take my attention away from my neurosis. I also remembered something I had once cynically rejected in a book about depression. The author had referred to it as the WASP technique: Wait, Absorb, Slowly Proceed. It does actually work, but remember to take deep breaths as well. Whenever I sense that feeling coming on again, my wife says to me: “Just go all floppy and pause for a minute.”
You might feel as though other shoppers are staring at you but they’re not.
With the experience of previous episodes, I was able to reason things out more and accept that I had to go back a few steps and revive my coping techniques to build up my confidence again:
- Get out of bed before 9am. Don’t stew beneath the sheets. Problems assume astronomical proportions when you are trying to hide from the world. I found that, although I didn’t want to leave the security of my bed, I actually felt far worse the longer I stayed there.
- Eat breakfast, even if you have lost your appetite and your mouth feels dry and you feel slightly nauseous.
- Give yourself an enjoyable task to kick-start your day. Mornings for me and for many others are the worst time of all, so reward yourself later on in the day perhaps with a few chocolates or a slice of cake. Treat yourself to a new item of clothing or have your hair done.
- Try reading, even though it can be tiring and hard to get started when you have depression. I found I could gain pleasure from autobiographies by famous people I was fond of. Because I could no longer travel long distances, I was particularly drawn towards travel writers’ experiences in some of the world’s most remote or dangerous places (Michael Palin is my favourite). Reading can take you out of yourself, even if only for a couple of hours – as does cooking while listening to a play or music on the radio.
- The unconditional love of a pet: If your circumstances allow, a kitten or puppy, or any pet for that matter, can bring you wonderful comfort and love. Our cat, Tilly, is a lovable creature. My wife and I spoil her unashamedly. She’s recently started lying on my lap in the evenings. And, although I moan about her stopping me do the crossword, I love the warmth of her on my legs. Me, soppy? Perish the thought!
Simplify your life
I have always been a minimalist, forever trying to simplify my life, even as a young man. I hate clutter and have never been tempted to hoard possessions unless they have sentimental value.
I feel a wonderful sense of freedom whenever I “edit” my cupboards, desk drawers and clothes rail. It’s like rinsing your head out.
If I haven’t worn any of my clothes for two years, out they go to some unsuspecting charity shop customer.
- Try simplifying your life by learning to say “no” when you really don’t feel well enough to do something. Explain to them honestly why. Those who are offended are not your friends.
- Don’t overbook your diary; try to spread out your social engagements, holidays, meetings and work schedule. This isn’t always straightforward as events tend to come along in batches but I’ve certainly overdone things on occasions and paid for it.
- Don’t forget: you matter too. I found that, until I really took this message on board, I could not make the progress I needed. I hope this message is as helpful to you as it was, and still is, to me. It doesn’t mean be selfish, it merely means don’t be trodden on or pushed.
As my agoraphobia tightened its grip, I found a perfect way to be able to leave the sanctuary of my home and garden. I bought a second-hand bicycle for £20 which gave me back my freedom. While I felt too wobbly to walk any distance, I found that I could if I was wheeling my bike, which I could ride for many miles without any problems. Cycling is so cheap and healthy and you have time to smell the roses as you pedal. On the canal towpaths, surrounded by beautiful countryside, my problems don’t feel as unsolvable.
I have an old-fashioned bicycle with a single gear; I had the other two gears removed as they nearly always played up. Nothing has gone wrong since. If the hill is steep, I simply get off and walk up it. Marvellous simplicity!
My sister, Sue, also experiences episodes of depression, although to a lesser extent. When she felt trapped in her house after her partner died, a friend left his dog with her. She felt she had to go out and take it for a walk. Bit by bit she could face the outside world again and she was on the road to recovery.
- Find a seat at the end of the row when you go to the theatre, cinema or a crowded football match. Then you have an easy escape route should you need it.
- Cry if you want to. It’s better out than in. Being a sensitive sort of chap, when the Black Dog is barking at its loudest, even sad items on the television news bring tears. Seriously though, when you feel like crying it’s for a good reason. Let it go, don’t fight it. You will, I’m sure, feel noticeably less tense afterwards. It has a cathartic effect.
When you are feeling at your very worst and that indescribable, awful feeling of utter hopelessness engulfs you, you may decide on that day that whatever you try to do just won’t work and there is no point in even attempting to “pat the dog on the head.”
Hopefully this is a passing thundercloud and won’t last too long, but if it does, make an appointment to see your doctor.
One of the most discouraging aspects of my depression was my fear of getting into a conversation with anyone. Normally, I love chatting to people wherever I am, whether in the village centre or football grounds. But when I am feeling at my worst, I feel panic coming on when they approach me.
The same anxiety often takes hold of me in the hours before I get up in the morning. For example, I may sense a twinge of pain in a tooth. Suddenly my mind goes into overdrive and tells me it is an abscess. That sick feeling in the pit of my stomach tenses in terror; I am going to have to have the tooth out. The injection won’t work and I will feel all the pain. The tooth will break and the dentist won’t be able to extract the whole molar! I can’t help checking the source of “pain” with my tongue every few seconds.
Only by forcing myself out of bed, scoffing a swift bowl of Cheerios and facing the world riding on my bicycle around the village could I find any sense of perspective and realise how everything had snowballed out of control. My tooth didn’t hurt and there was no abscess. Anyway, I have a brilliant dentist, so why worry?
I do sincerely hope that this helps you cope better and that you can see the funny side of life sometimes. If you are living with someone with depression and panic attacks, I also hope you now have a better insight into what we are experiencing and how we appreciate your love and support at a difficult time.
Chris Trevor-Wilson, a 68-year-old retired journalist, shares with the reader how he has lived for 30 years with episodes of panic attacks, fear of crowded places and depression and gives encouragement to anyone who feels their life is devoid of hope and their future bleak.
Happily married to his second wife, Sandra, Chris has spent the last 18 years as a part-time gardener following a heart attack in 1999 at the age of 50.
Chris is at pains to point out that he is totally unqualified medically; he merely hopes that his coping strategies and experiences documented here may help and comfort fellow sufferers.