My breakdown happened over an extended period. I guess this is the way it usually is, although it’s usually portrayed as a sudden snap, and some of it felt like that.
I know I’ve always been prone to depression. I’ve been of a melancholy disposition from childhood, had insomnia since I was eight or nine, and had a couple of minor episodes, but the break really started when my relationship collapsed. It wasn’t just that; I was in an incredibly stressful work situation at the same time, and I’m sure this contributed to the break up. We’d been together maybe 15 years, since we were both children really. Our son was born early on, well before either of us was ready for that responsibility, but we weathered that and were stronger for getting through those difficulties. After a decade and half, though, we had drifted apart. I had seen it coming for some time and just didn’t know what to do about it. Part of me just accepted that this was what happened; I’d seen it in my own family - my parents and and grandparents and aunts and uncles, my older sister. Relationships ended. It was inevitable.
But when she ended it my world shattered. She had been my life, my lover and my best friend, for so long. We didn’t do everything together, but shared so much - music and books, similar geeky tastes; we fit together. Too late I tried to argue that we should make it work, but neither of us could or would. My son was now about the same age as I was when my parents divorced, which saddled me with a mixed feeling of fate and crippling guilt that I had failed him.
A few months later I met someone else, and thought it only polite to tell my ex. We’d remained on friendly terms since I moved out, and I’d rather she find out from me that someone else. She responded with pain and anger, suddenly deciding that she had made a terrible mistake and that we should get back together. I was torn in two. Part of me yearned to go back to how things were, but I’d made commitments to this new woman and, besides, how could I trust Mel? She had already torn a hole in my chest that was still seeping rich red blood.
That night is etched into my memory. Mel had called me, asked me to go to see her, told me she needed help. I went over, to the house we had shared, and she tried to talk me into going back to her. I couldn’t, I told her, it was too late, too much. We talked in circles for hours, and I realised it was going nowhere so said I was leaving. “Please,” she said. “Please don’t go. If you leave I’ll kill myself.”
I remember this pressure building in my head, my thoughts speeding up. I love you but I can’t trust you I want us to go back to how we were but I am so scared but I want you but I can’t decide it’s too hard do you really mean that? how dare you say that I don’t want to hurt you I don’t want to lose you I have to leave I can’t leave what can I do? what should I do?
And something snapped, like a piece of metal suddenly reaching it’s stress point. I sat down and I could feel my eyes darting around, trying to find something to focus on, and suddenly Mel wasn’t cajoling or threatening any more. She was worried and scared and asking if I was alright. And I wasn’t alright. I must have begun to behave more rationally at some point, but I can’t really remember much after that. I convinced her I was okay and got back to where I was staying, but something had broken and I just papered over the chasm.
The next break was some time later. That is the only measure I can use; I really have no idea how long, but it was a good while. Work was still stressful, probably worse, the constant threat of redundancy and morale through the floor. I was cycling into work and the closer I got the more I could feel this pressure building inside me, constricting my breathing and making my brain feel like it would burst from my eye sockets. I rode past work and powered up the hill, the release of pressure pushing me along. I had no idea where I was going but just needed to get away. Yes, get away; the countryside. The Peak District, that glorious green swathe where I had spent so much time breathing the clean air and solitude.
I couple of hours in I realised I should call work. I got through to my manager and recall a surreal conversation.
“Hi. Sorry, but I can’t come in. I’m.. not well. I tried but it was too hard. I’m sorry for letting you down.”
“Paul? Are you okay? Where are you?”
“No. Not really.”
“Where are you, Paul?”
“I’m on my bike. I’m sorry. I don’t know, I just started riding. It’s beautiful out here.”
“Paul?” Getting more agitated. “Paul, where are you? Can someone come and get you?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t think I can come back. There’re a couple of finches flying along the hedge beside me, dancing around each other in the sunlight. It’s amazing, almost like they’re showing off to me, but they’re probably not even aware I’m here.”
“Paul,” (I’m aware she sounds scared now and is trying to sound calm, but it doesn’t really register) “Let me help you, tell me where you are and I..”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Look, don’t worry. You take care. Good bye.”
I ended up by one of the many reservoirs that pepper the area, providing water for Sheffield and Barnsley and Rotherham and Chesterfield on this side of the Pennines and Manchester on the other. I stood for I don’t know how long, seriously contemplating chaining myself to my bike and jumping in, trying to come up with reasons why I shouldn’t. The fact that I was always able to ask that question, to consider the possibility that there might be reasons to remain, means I never hit bottom. I know there are many people who didn’t have the strength to do that, and it is nothing but luck that I did. this wasn’t the only time I was that close and I can never forget how it felt to stand so close to that line.
It’s strange, all these years later I can sometimes take the memory of that feeling out - the urge to give in and allow myself the peace of not having to worry any more, to be able to stop fighting and simply be enfolded in the warm embrace of nothingness - and hold it in my hand, hold it up for an almost dispassionate contemplation. But knowing that it is there, having stood at that doorway with my hand on the latch, I know that the door is unlocked and that to open it is an option. Knowing this scares me but, perhaps, it will only become a problem if it no longer does.