Shadow dwellers


‘Ah that’s rough mate,’ Dave scratched his stubbled chin thoughtfully. ‘My brother-in-law went through that last year…he’s still struggling, you know.’

‘I honestly had no idea, wish you’d told me, Kit-Kat…’

When Katie had to tell her friends and family she’d been diagnosed with depression, she had no idea that she was joining a secret club.

All those absences at work, the dizzy spells and the gradual, more or less complete withdrawal from a once jam-packed social life – she’d had to say something. I mean, people would figure it out for themselves eventually, and they’d talk. People always talk.

And talk they did. When Katie finally summoned enough courage to speak up about the dark cloud that had crept across her brain, she was bowled over by the number of people who told her they’d been through something similar, or knew someone that had. It seemed that the whole planet was sick, and by falling ill she had somehow gained an all-access pass into a world that nobody discusses. A hidden community living in the shadows of their own sorrow and shame.

‘I have depression’. Three small words that were so hard to say. Yet they opened a huge door. A door to an ever-expanding room crammed with family, friends and acquaintances clamouring to talk to her about their experiences of mental illness.

People she knew. Or at least thought she knew.

First cousin Marta had dropped round for a cup of tea, and a chat. Depression doesn’t mean the end of the world, she’d said softly, as Katie gazed vacantly at her designer glasses. She could get better; lots of people go through it. Marta had.

Then Katya from work, Ben from school, Mrs Roper’s daughter, and even one of her closest friends, Elisa. They had all been hiding something.

And now Dave had a story. The number just kept growing.

As he sank back into the moth-eaten sofa and recounted how Stuart had resorted to taking antidepressants for his panic attacks, Katie felt numb. All these people, all this suffering. And she’d had no idea. If Stuart had been in a car pile-up, or been through cancer, she’d have known about it. She’d have sent flowers. Or maybe just a card, flowers are pretty girly…

As if feeling as though all the colour has been sucked out of your world wasn’t horrific enough, how awful to have to go it alone. The injustice of it all rose up inside; a searing, rage-fuelled flame.

Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Dammit. She furiously wiped a solitary tear from the corner of her right eye.

Dave looked uncomfortable, shifting his trainer-clad feet back and forth nervously.

‘Uhh…’ He thought quickly. ‘Do you want me to go?’

Katie shook her head. She didn’t dare tell Dave that a few tears didn’t even scratch the surface. There’s nothing like telling a friend that just a month ago you entertained the idea of dragging a cold, sharp blade over your skin just so you could feel something, to stop a conversation in its tracks. Dave was such a dear friend. But he couldn’t realistically understand what she had been through over the last year, and she felt alone sitting right next to him. The people she loved the most couldn’t really help her.

It was the ones harbouring this secret membership card who would have really been able to reach Katie, like Raymond the bipolar florist, on Melrose Street, who she barely knew. Or her old primary school teacher Mr Parsons, whose elixir of choice for numbing his pain was a very particular, very potent brand of whiskey.

Katie and Dave brewed another pot of tea, and talked some more about Stuart, and how he’d felt too ashamed to share his problems with anyone. Tea’s good for talking about this kind of thing. The sun laughed through the window, as if nothing was wrong in the world.

It had been about ten months since Katie had her first panic attack. She’d felt so terrified and alone, not knowing where to turn or get help. As if she was the only person in the world to be feeling like that. She remembered the impotent frustration like it was yesterday, feeling as if she was screaming at the top of her lungs in a crowded restaurant where no-one so much as looks up from their chardonnay.

Katie learned about the perils of drugs, sex and crime at school. There was a hell of a lot of talk about the importance of exams. But no-one warned of what could happen if she stopped looking after her mind, or forgot what happiness looked like.

She wondered who would be next. Who was already part of her club, she just didn’t know it yet. Perhaps Mrs Beaumont from next door, always so cheery in the mornings? Too cheery for 8am, maybe. Or what about Karl Erikson from her writers’ group, with the smile that never quite managed to reach his eyes.

Katie wondered who was to join her ever-growing brigade of sufferers, and why they had to wait so long to step out of the shadows and realise they weren’t alone. Dave leaned over and poured her another cup of tea.