Today is Time To Talk Day organised by mental health charity Time To Change, who are working to end stigma against mental health. We thought we’d join in. So grab a brand and meet us at the front gates to the mausoleums in our minds. We are about to take you through the darkened corridors that nobody has ever seen. Some have heard of their existence, others have witnessed some of them. But not everyone has seen everything. We must warn you – it will get ugly. There are monsters in there. Monsters with fangs and claws who will feed on your very soul.
Welcome to the Darkshines.
Most people’s first experience of depression is their own. We grew up with it. Depression was like an extra family member, one none of us liked very much. It was our father’s depression. It was always there, like a sleeping dragon that we’d tiptoe around, trying desperately not to wake. As kids you believe you’re responsible. If you were well behaved, nicer, etc, then maybe your father would be happy. It doesn’t work like that. We’d always felt a sadness inside us. What we didn’t know then, was mental illness can be genetic. The way we inherited our father’s nose (which we hate), his deformed toes (which we kinda like), we also inherited his depression (which we really hate). And like with most mental illnesses, they lie dormant, until there’s a trigger. Ours wasn’t brought on by a trigger, but an explosion.
Our father left when we were 13. Then came back. Then left again 3 months later. Our nan (his mum) disowned us. She’d never liked our mum so as soon as they were divorced, she cut off all contact with us. When our parents were together, she’d never visited us, we always went to Pembrokeshire to see her. Yet when our parents separated, suddenly she came to Cardiff and stayed with our father and his girlfriend. She didn’t phone us to tell us she was there, and she didn’t ask to see us. A few months after that (a month before our 15th birthday), she died. We didn’t go to her funeral. One, because of being disowned, and two, because it would have meant travelling up in the same car as our father and his girlfriend. We hated her with a murderous passion, and had we been forced to endure a two hour car journey with her, she would have regretted it.
4 months later, our other nan died suddenly. One minute she complained she felt sick, the next she was dead. They call it Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. 4% of adults will die suddenly for no reason. Before that, she’d suffered senile dementia for 5 years. It started it off with her constantly offering us food or drink, because she’d forgotten she’d asked, and it ended with her having no idea who we were, believing we were her brother’s kids. It was Nan’s death which kick started our insomnia, which has plagued us on and off ever since.
10 months later, our aunt died, a couple of weeks before our G.C.S.E.s. We grew up 6 doors down from her, our uncle and cousins. She died of cancer, aged 50.
Amongst all this, we were being bullied every day in school and suffering from glandular fever. Aged 14 we were put on anti depressants. That’s when the panic attacks started. Aged 15 we were sent to see a child psychiatrist and were prescribed sleeping tablets. Aged 16, we were also put on beta blockers (Propranolol). We attended school 50% of the time in Year 9, 50% of the time in Year 10, 9 days in Year 11. Then we dropped out. We were hated there so we left. The bullying wasn’t confined to the school – as we walked to and from school, strangers would hurl abuse or objects at us as they drove past. Then one of our teachers who helped us with the bullying, died in a car crash when we were 16. We went to her funeral and stood at the back, away from everyone else.
This was the age we had a breakdown. That’s what we call it anyway, because we don’t know how else to describe it. We locked ourselves in the house, curtains drawn, too scared to answer the door, or answer the phone. If the gate opened, we would dart into the kitchen, grab a knife and hide behind the cupboards so no-one could see us. We developed severe paranoia and became convinced that anyone who came to the door was there to kill us. We wouldn’t answer the phone because we believed that these enemies would phone to check we were there then they’d come and kill us. We can laugh about it now, but at the time, it was terrifying. The school actually sent a welfare officer round, who returned to the school to tell them we weren’t in, so they deduced we were faking it. We were in – we were hiding in the hall, clutching knives because there was a strange man in our garden and we were too scared to open the door. Perhaps our writing minds were too active, perhaps we’d read too many books about serial killers, perhaps we watched too much Crimewatch. But at the time, those paranoid fears were our reality.
We returned to school at the end of the year to sit our GCSE exams. Only ONE teacher ever sent work home for us, our Geography teacher, Mr Grey. The head of year even tried persuading us not to sit our exams at all, because we had no hope of passing. That would reflect badly on their league tables. So we took our exams, just to spite them.
We passed them all.
Aged 17, our psychiatrist cut off all contact with us after we’d taken our father to a session. Bad move. He ranted and swore and blamed everyone but himself for the marriage breakdown. ‘Cos of course, cheating on your wife is never the man’s fault. School had turned their backs on us and now so had our psychiatrist.
We went back to school to do our A Levels. This is the biggest regret of our lives. The bullying got worse. We were verbally abused almost every minute of the day. We were punched, had things thrown at us and were even spat at. This was the trigger for the social phobia. When you are verbally abused by people every day, complete strangers, eventually you start to believe the hateful things they say about you. We started self-harming. When your life becomes so bad that the only way you can feel better is to take a pair of scissors to yourself, you know it’s bad. But we were too ashamed to tell anyone. Even now, there are only three people who know we ever did this – our mum, our sister and our clinical psychologist. Admitting it here is a massive step for us. Thoughts drifted to suicide, but we could never do that to our mum. We would often cry ourselves to sleep at night, praying we wouldn’t wake in the morning. Then we’d wake each day, disappointed to find that we’d survived the night, so had to endure yet another day. We admit, during school, we were so angry at the other kids for what they did to us, that we would think about killing them. Told you this would get ugly. Our writer’s imaginations tortured those bastards in ways we never could. We even drew little pictures in our exercise books. Our teachers never called us up on them.
Sixth form isn’t compulsory. We could’ve quit. We thought about it many times. Our German teachers tried persuading us to leave the class, because again, we were ruining their league tables. You see, we were in a small class, where one girl had a German mother, another had lived in Germany for a few years, and the others were highly intelligent and had visited there several times. Then there was us. Who had forgotten everything we’d ever learned and we went from being good at German, to being terrible. We don’t know what caused our loss of memory – the glandular fever, the breakdown, or something else. But since then, our memories have been terrible. Our childhood was good, but we barely remember any of it. We used to remember every book we ever read, or every film we’d seen. Now if we re-read a book, it’s like reading it for the first time.
Aged 20 we finally sought help again and our GP referred us to the North Cardiff Mental Health Team. We met our psychologist, Neil, for the first time. He changed our lives. We weren’t easy patients – every time he complimented us, we told him he was paid to be nice to us, as being nasty to your mental health patients is seen as a bad thing. He’d laugh. He said we were paradoxes, that each aspect of our personality was completely contradicted by another aspect. We fascinated him. By now, we’d learned to live with the depression. We’d stopped taking antidepressants and sleeping tablets at 17 and haven’t touched them since. The Propranolol got us through high school and we only stopped taking those about 3 years ago. At the same time, we were quite easy patients – we had a strong interest in psychology and even took classes, so we’d tell him what was wrong with us and why we felt that way and all he had to do was fix it.
It was the social phobia that was now ruining our lives. We felt so self-conscious being out in public after the abuse we’d suffered. Even walking to the end of the street was unbearable. Aged 20, we practically locked ourselves in the house again, only venturing out to go to the supermarket. We could do a week’s worth of shopping in 15 mins. The less time we were away from the house, the better. We couldn’t eat if anyone else was near us. We could barely speak if there were strangers around. Going out and doing normal things was a complete no-no. We had no friends and were completely isolated. We were prisoners of our fears. Neil used to ask us, if he gave us a magic bullet that took away the anxiety completely for one day, what would we do. We never had an answer for him, because even with our imaginations, we couldn’t picture what it would be like not to have it. The anxiety had become too ingrained in our psyches. It was like trying to imagine how it would be to live without breathing. Even reading how to get over Social Phobia would cause panic attacks, at the thought of having to do what the book suggested. Alongside the anxiety comes what’s known as catastrophising. This is where you picture a scenario but everything goes wrong in the worst possible way. Every time we imagined going somewhere, we pictured something bad happening. It’s a horrible mind set but you can’t stop it. So it makes the anxiety worse. Then you feel bad, you feel worthless, pathetic, even though nothing has happened. Anxiety and depression are like bullies, constantly finding new ways to make you hate yourself. And we did. For so long. Sometimes, we still do.
Aged 25, Neil persuaded us to try and go to Starbucks. We drove to our nearest one and sat in the car for half an hour. There were too many people in there. The thought of walking through those people, getting to the counter to find they might not have what we liked, then having to leave, was unbearable. The thought of ordering something was unbearable. We’d become so accustomed to shouts of abuse whenever there was people around that we avoided all social interaction. When half an hour passed, we drove home, feeling like failures. The next day, we tried again. There were still lots of people inside. We drove away again, once again, feeling like failures. On the third try, we forced ourselves out of the car, practically shaking and feeling horrendously sick.
Turned out, it wasn’t that busy – it’s just that everyone was sitting on the sofas in the window area, so when we looked in, all we saw was people. We bought smoothies and sat at the furthest table in the corner, away from everyone. That was our first major achievement. Some people may read this and think “you ordered something from Starbucks, so what?” but to us, it was a turning point in our lives. We could no longer bear to live the way we were living. We wanted to be able to just walk into a shop and buy something, to sit at a table without feeling terrified or horribly awkward. We kept the cups as a reminder, so when we feel like we have a long way to go, we can look at them and they remind us how far we’ve come. That was the year we had our first story published. And we had to do a book signing in Waterstones in Cardiff. Our mum practically had to frogmarch us out of the car. Neil was there so that made it easier.
Throughout all this, we also lost numerous pets. We know to most people, that doesn’t mean much. But we’ve always had an affinity with animals we’ve never had with people. We can only feel truly comfortable when in the presence of animals. Each death feels like losing a family member. In 2007 and 2008, our best friends, our dogs, Bru and Jack died, 18 months apart. Whenever we were upset, Bru would force himself onto our laps and lick away our tears. And we’d have to hug him, or he would knock us over until we gave in. Then there was nobody to wipe our tears. We’d lost our best friends. We haven’t had dogs since. Not because we don’t want them, but because we can’t bear to lose them. Last year, our sister’s dog, Misty died. And it hurt just as much as when we lost our boys.
Aged 27, Neil finally persuaded us to join Facebook. We’d avoided all sorts of online interaction, fearing cyberbullying and the mass of rapists and murderers we were convinced lurked online. As you can see, the paranoia hasn’t completely abandoned us. After commenting on a My Chemical Romance page, we had our first friendship request, from a woman named Nancy. In America. We liked the same stuff so we accepted. Then her friends sent us friendship requests and for the first time, we had friends. All in America. Having had such bad experiences with people, we couldn’t believe these people actually want to speak to us, that they actually liked us. Even now, the majority of our friends on Facebook and Twitter are American, and they helped us so much. Some of them had been through similar experiences. We’d never met anyone else who’d suffered from depression or social anxiety and they were so open with us, that for the first ever, we stopped feeling ashamed of our mental illnesses. We finally started to accept them, to realise they were part of us, they made us, us.
Through Facebook, we met a guy called Ryan. After 4 months of chatting online, we decided to meet. We were terrified. We were great at online communication, but face to face? We had an emergency meeting with Neil. He was thrilled. We tried thinking up suggestions to get out of it. He refused to let us. December 23rd 2010, we travelled to Bridgend, a town we’d never visited, to meet Ryan. We’d warned him a bit about the social anxiety so he suggested we play a game of squash. We’d be so focused on the game, we wouldn’t feel awkward. And it was planned to go to a pet shop. We feel more comfortable around animals. We got lost. Horribly lost. And it was snowing badly. And no-one in Bridgend could understand a word we said when we tried asking them to point us in the direction of the pub we were supposed to meet in.
Us and Ryan hung out every week. To escape the awkwardness of hanging out in the house not knowing what to say, we always made sure we had a place to go – Cardiff Bay, castles, Big Pit. In order to escape our social awkwardness and not frighten him off, we forced ourselves to go places we’d never gone, do different things. We didn’t want him knowing how bad we were, so when it came to eating out, we would eat. Bit by bit, by pretending to be ‘normal’, we started to heal. We started going ghost hunting and formed Calamityville Horror. We even started staying away from home, in North Wales, Cornwall, for the first time in 16 years.
During one of Cat’s physio appointments, her physio, Jennifer, noticed she hyperventilated when she breathed. She told us to ask our GP for a referral to MCT – Multi Conversion Therapy. On our first visit, she timed to see how long we could hold our breaths for – 4 seconds. For such healthy, fit, non-smoking people, this was disgraceful. We’d been hyperventilating for so long, we’d actually changed our brain chemistry. And so began regular sessions of being taught how to breathe properly. We’re now taking part in something called mindfulness, where Jennifer is teaching us how to relax. And it’s working. We are slowly learning to control the anxiety.
Aged 30, decided 2013 would be the year we did things we’d never done before. And after meeting up with our best friend from primary school, Neen, we could achieve this. We hadn’t seen each other in 18 years when a chance meeting in Tesco changed that. We joined a zumba class. We went ice skating. We had a party for our 30th, with a bouncy castle and fancy dress. We went to roller derby bouts. (Neen’s an ex derby girl). We flew to Edinburgh! We’d only been on a plane once, when we were 13. We dyed our hair. We went to a rock club. We did a library reading for our books. We did even more ghost hunting. We did 2.8 Hours Later, a zombie apocalypse game in Cardiff. We went to Comic Con where we met Robert Englund, who plays the iconic Freddy Krueger.
We went camping. We went to Heatherton adventure park where we tried go-karting and got horribly injured with over enthusiastic body zorb fights. Six months later, Lynx’s back still hasn’t healed. We started swimming, which we hadn’t done for 18 years ‘cos we were too self-conscious. So we bought ourselves skeleton bathing suits, battled the horrible nausea and shaking hands, and went to the pool. We went to our friends’ board game events. Cat joined a circuit training class run by her physio after her third knee op.
And we went to our grampy’s funeral. After the best year we’d ever had, this was a sour note to end it. He had a throat infection so us, mum and our sister took turns caring for him, like we always did. It turned out to be Strep A. We took him to hospital on the Wednesday, phoned Thursday, November 21st, and they said he was ok. A couple of hours later, they phoned saying we needed to get to the hospital. He died not long after they phoned. Later that day, Ryan told us he was moving out, after living with us for 18 months. That day it felt like we’d lost everything. He always loved the way we looked. He didn’t care we weren’t able to have jobs or relationships like the rest of our cousins. He loved us for who we were, broken or not.
We haven’t slept properly since Grampy died. A few weeks ago, we lost our appetite completely. That lasted 3 weeks. Our mum currently suffers from depression following Grampy’s death. But luckily, we know exactly what she’s going through, so we can help.
The social phobia is still there but it no longer runs our lives. The depression will never go. We inherited it, after all. But we can live with it. In fact, we don’t know how life would be without it. It makes us who we are. Some days the darkshines return and it’s horrible, but we know it will pass. And despite everything we’ve achieved, sometimes, getting up the next day and carrying on as normal, is our greatest achievement.
Through all this, we’ve always had our writing to allow us to escape reality, even the terrifying version of reality we’d created. But even that can bring on the darkshines. In one way, it’s the worst profession people who suffer from anxiety and depression can be in. The constant rejections make you worthless, that you have no talent, that’ll you’ll never make it. That brings on the depression. Then the depression heightens all the worthless feelings. People who don’t understand tell us to quit. We can’t. Without writing, we have no purpose in life. We’ve never worked – we did our A Levels purely because it would delay us having to find a job. We can only stay at home and write because we live rent-free with our mum. We couldn’t do it without her; a fact people often remind us when they ask us what will we do when she dies. Like we need the extra guilt. What some people don’t realise is that when you’re going through things like this, you feel incredibly guilty – because of the stress you put your family through, because society makes you feel like a scrounger if you’re on benefits, because you’re seen as a failure if you can’t contribute to that scornful society. The guilt makes the depression worse and the depression heightens the guilt. We don’t know what we’ll do when our mum dies. We hope we’ll be making enough that we won’t end up on the streets. But it doesn’t look likely. We earned £160 between us in our first year of self-publishing and £225 so far this year. So we know we’ll probably never make a living. But then there’s always our plan b – bank robbery, selling ourselves to medical science or taking up piracy. The sea-faring kind, not selling knock-off DVDs. You don’t get to wear a tricorner hat for that.
It feels like we’ve had to fight for everything. Our head of sixth form used to call us gutsy, even when we were sobbing in his office, threatening to quit. When we hear about writers making $2000 a month from terrible erotica, (not the good stuff, the crap ‘Bigfoot rape stuff’ trust us, it exists) and we’re lucky to make £10 a month, we feel like quitting. But we can’t quit. We don’t know how. We don’t know what will happen when the day comes when we’re tired of the fight. We live in fear of returning to the dark period of our teenage years. MCR say “will you defeat them, your demons?” Maybe not. But we’ll keep on fighting, because it’s the only thing we know how to do. We haven’t fully conquered our demons, but we can control them.
Reading this post, it reads like a Greek tragedy! Our life has been so depressing! We almost need an emergency meeting with Neil just to get the horror of reading this. Yet we’re here, having written it. 15 years ago, without determination not to let the bastards win, we might not have been. Yes we’re damaged. Yes we bear scars, both physical (thankfully most of those only show up under UV light. Hospital trips aren’t fun – look like a freakin’ road map!) and mental but each one proves we survived. And THAT is our biggest achievement.