Here is the full transcript of Gill Hayes’ TEDx Talk on Depression, Suicide and the Power of Hope at TEDxExeter conference.
The TEDx team warned me that when I was announced as a speaker, some of you would google me. If that was you, you’ll have discovered I keep a very low profile, so by way of introduction, I asked a few friends to offer a few words as to the kind of person I am. “Jill is the kind of person who lives life to the full, who believes anything’s possible, who laughs from the belly.” No one said, “the kind that suffer from depression,” no one said, “the kind to attempt suicide,” and yet, in the early hours of March 13, 2013, I got out of bed, left my sleeping family, drove to a nearby bridge and jumped. I don’t remember the fall or the impact; I remember being found, I remember a neck brace being fitted and been put into the ambulance.
As I was being taken to a hospital, two policemen would knock at my door and break the news to my husband. From there, the news would spread causing shock and disbelief. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t in great physical shape; many of the bones on the right side of my body were broken: my lung had collapsed, my pelvis shattered; neither was I in great mental shape. Thinking I’d already hit rock bottom, I now contemplated a life as a social pariah confined to a wheelchair with limited access to my kids.
So how on earth had I reached this point? It’s difficult to say when my story begins – roots into depression are complex – but let’s start with the loss of my father. His death had prompted a major reevaluation of life. It was time to make some big changes, so together with my family, we decided to up stakes and move to Devon.
We didn’t know a soul here, but we believed we’d find a better quality of life; we’d live the dream. There were a few setbacks in our new life, but nothing we thought we couldn’t handle. However, a year into our time here in Exeter, I realized that things weren’t quite right. I started waking early; things I previously enjoyed, I didn’t want to do; I was becoming withdrawn, social occasions were a real effort, my concentration levels were flagging, my thinking was becoming muddled, making simple decisions became really difficult. What was going on? A little time on the Internet suggested I was suffering from depression.
Depression? Me? How embarrassing. What did I have to be depressed about? I thought about confiding in friends, but they had real problems: a seriously-ill child, a dying friend, financial problems; I’d come to Devon to live the dream – whining to them that I was feeling a bit depressed? “Really? Pull yourself together.” I thought about going to see my GP, but I’d met a doctor at my practice socially; I didn’t want her finding out my shameful secret so I contacted the local depression service. They suggested a course of cognitive behavioral therapy, and as time progressed, my depression lifted. I could laugh and enjoy things, I could concentrate and engage with people.
It was such an enormous relief. I decided to make up for time; it was time to come back and suck the juice out of life again, I was never going back to that dark place. With gusto I threw myself into every aspect of my life. Few months later, I remember feeling a little under the weather. I just thought I was coming down with something but no, the depression returned.
This time, the descent was much more rapid, and it hit me much, much harder. I couldn’t do the simplest of things: a trip to the supermarket was overwhelming. I stopped taking my post, my emails, I had no appetite. I tried to keep up appearances, but it was hard work so I started to avoid people. I just seemed to shut down.
My concerned husband made me see a doctor. I was given a questionnaire to gauge the severity of my depression. My answers confirmed that it was indeed severe, but I lied on the last two questions, the ones about suicide. How could I confess to feeling suicidal? What if they take away my children? The doctor prescribed antidepressants; said they might make me feel worse before I felt better. Worse? Worse than this? I wasn’t taking them.
And taking them will be proof of my failure to sort myself out. I noticed the way I was behaving was starting to impact on my children; unable to focus or function properly I couldn’t give them the usual levels of attentional support. My mind corroded by depression, I started to believe that this thing that was destroying me would take my family down too. I would not let that happen.
Each morning, I’d wake at 1 am, I’d lie there for hours telling myself how pathetic I was, what a coward I was for still being here, a burden to my family; I would be disgusted with myself by sunrise, for still existing. This had to stop. Of course I knew my family would be upset, but through this depressive lens, I believed that they’d be better off without me. My husband is an amazing father, he would do an excellent job in raising our children.
We had a holiday planned, they’d have time to bury me, grieve, take a holiday to get over it and come back to start a better life without me. Surely proof the depression does terrible things to your mind. The day before my suicide attempt, after dropping the kids at school, I pulled over on the side of the road, I just sat in the car feeling numb. I remember watching the buses. What if I just stepped out in front of one? But that wouldn’t be fair on the driver.
And what if it didn’t work? I just maimed myself that wouldn’t help anyone. I then drove to a bridge where I sat in the car for hours. At one point I wrote a suicide note and then ripped it up in shame. As I drove off, I remember the diary in my bag that revealed my struggle with these awful thoughts; that would be too painful for someone to read after I’d gone. I stopped the car and destroyed it.
I picked my daughter up from school and took her to a swimming lesson. She just moved class so I was surprised to see familiar faces I knew. I look dreadful, pale, greasy-haired, exhausted, I was far from the bubbly, chatty person they knew, but I was beyond faking it. That night, I went to bed, and as usual, wake at 1:00 am, “This time no backing out. You have to do this! Don’t stop, don’t think, don’t kiss them goodbye!” So that’s how I came to be lying on the road that cold March morning – a physical, mental, emotional wreck.
As I lay there in my hospital bed fearing the worst, something very beautiful happened: a big tidal wave of love and kindness from friends, family, and community arrived to carry me through this dark chapter. This was shown in all sorts of ways, but what stood out were the many compassionate messages from people telling me of their own struggles with mental health. These were people I thought I knew, sharing sides I never knew existed.
I had no idea the scale of this problem in our society. In my mountain of hospital post I received a gift, from George, a schoolfriend of my son. This beautiful, hand-knitted bookmark had a single word stitched onto it; that word was ‘hope’. This 10-year-old boy had summed up in one word what I so badly needed at that time. Hope is in short supply when you’re depressed; severe depression is a place of complete, total, and utter despair.
I needed to understand. I’ve been extremely ill, and I needed hope that I could and would recover. My physical recovery was long and painful; had a clear structure to it. There were milestones along the way showing encouraging signs of progress. My route back from depression would be less clear. With time, the medication seemed to kick in, my emotions returned, I was able to cry, and what felt like a very long time, I started to re-engage, to function properly. I just felt like my normal self.
I was put on a waiting list for psychotherapy, but waiting lists are long even for bridge jumpers. It would be two and a half years from my suicide attempt before I started therapy on the NHS. It became clear to me that building on my science of recovery was going to be down to me so I started to research depression to understand this cruel illness, to understand my own triggers and my own toxic mix of circumstances that had led me there. This helped enormously, not just in my initial recovery but still today, in my efforts to stay well and thrive. I’m all too aware that my story could have had a very different ending.
My family could have had to go through what an average 17 families, a day, in the UK, experience: utter devastation, so many unanswered questions endless what-ifs. Suicide rates in the UK are shockingly high. It’s a huge yet so often overlooked and misunderstood problem in our society. It’s the number one cause of death amongst all young people age 20 to 34,and men under 50. These deaths are preventable.
I look back at my own story and wonder what would have made a difference. In my recovery, the difference between my physical and mental health care was stark. Despite government promises of extra cash, mental health services have struggled with years of underfunding and are struggling to meet demand. To put physical and mental health care on an equal footing will require a major change to our health system. However, there are changes that we can all make at a grassroots level that can have a media impact and don’t cost a penny.
That starts with increased understanding: depression is not a weakness nor a character flaw; it’s a debilitating illness that affects how we think, feel, and function. When depression becomes severe, suicidal thoughts are common. These thoughts can progress to plans and then to actions. If we learn to recognize signs of depression both in ourselves and others, early intervention can prevent the illness from ever escalating to the point of suicide. Many of us are quick to judge things we don’t understand.
I hear suicide described as selfish, cowardly; I believe that’s us looking at the situation through the prism of a healthy mind. Usual rules don’t apply when you’re in the depths of depression, it warps your thinking. If we understand that, we’re in a much better place to support people in these situations.
Secondly, we can challenge stigma. Even today, well-meaning friends refer to this chapter of my life as ‘my accident.’ “Tell it as it is,” I tell them, “or else, we’re all complicit in feeding the stigma.”
Misconception and stigma smother hope. They compound the cruel elements of the illness: isolation, shame, self-loathing, and prevent people from reaching out for help. Surely, we can all play a role in creating a society where people suffering the torment of depression can reach out and talk openly without fear of recrimination or stigma.
Thirdly, we need to grasp the nettle when it comes to talking about difficult issues. When I came out of hospital, I sat down with each of my children to explain what had happened I remember thinking at the time, “This is a conversation no mother should be having with her child.” But as times gone on, and I’ve come to understand the extent of the problem, I think we should all be having conversations with our young ones about mental health. I thought when it came time for my own kids to fly the nest, it would be death from alcohol, drugs, or a road accident that were on my list of worries.
Statistically, suicide trumps them all. If someone you know is showing signs of depression, ask them how they’re feeling, give them permission to talk about it, remind them there are places to go to get help – Samaritans, Crisis Line; don’t bury it thinking it couldn’t happen to us because it can. Some of us will have our own stories to share. I do realize it’s not easy – I chose to hide my own depression – but jumping off a bridge slightly blew my cover. Sharing our stories is so important; it sends a message to others that they’re not alone that we all struggle to cope from time to time and that it is possible to find a way through this. Like me, you might be surprised to find out how much compassion and understanding is out there.
Once we start the conversation. When I was at my lowest ebb in the depths of despair, George’s bookmark and his message of hope was really powerful. Together, through increased understanding by challenging stigma and just by talking, we can all provide hope, we can all be part of the solution. Thank you.Multi-Page