This is the third in my series of mental health posts that will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.
My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.
January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Grief | August – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships
Cloudy skies in Melrose, Scottish Borders (the image is mine but feel free to use it)
Depression is a term that is often heard, but not often fully understood.
It is a normal part of the human experience to feel unhappiness, self-doubt and despondency. Feeling these things for short periods at infrequent intervals is not depression – it is life. Depression is so much more than that. It is an all-encompassing, suffocating and debilitating illness that is relentless in its campaign to rob sufferers of their happiness, self-confidence and hope for the future.
The stereotype of depression might involve the image of someone holed up in their house for weeks, sleeping away their days, not showering or eating properly, and generally cutting themselves off from the world. Sometimes, this can be the case but, more often than not, you would never know someone was suffering from depression unless they told you. Outwardly, they might appear to be perfectly fine. They might turn up to work or school, spend time with friends and family, even continue to pursue hobbies and interests, while all the time their own minds are attempting to sabotage them at every turn.
There is the misconception that depression must have a reason to manifest, like a trauma or personal tragedy, but it doesn’t always work like that. This concept can be very difficult to understand. How can a person just wake up one day and suddenly feel overwhelmed by self-doubt and dejection? Why can’t they just go back to the way they were and ‘snap out of it’?
Let’s look at it another way. Mental illness can be just as debilitating as physical illness, and one should not be taken any less seriously than the other, so imagine for a moment that we’re discussing cancer, and not depression. Sometimes, cancer has an obvious cause, like exposure to asbestos or radiation. Other times, it just appears with no reason or apparent cause. One day, a person is fine and living their life, the next day everything changes and the life they knew is irrevocably altered.
Depression can be exactly like that. Sometimes there is a discernible cause, and sometimes it just appears of its own volition, unwelcome and unexplained, sending a person spinning off their axis into a world that doesn’t make sense anymore.
Like cancer, depression is experienced differently by each individual who suffers from it, and what follows is only my personal experience.
It was 14 years ago that I found myself planning my suicide one night at the age of 15 and, although I am a completely different person now than I was back then, I will never forget what it felt like.
For months prior to that night, I had been suffering from anxiety, OCD and clinical depression, although I didn’t realise how bad things were at the time.
I grew up with a severely autistic brother whose inability to speak and frequent violent outbursts made for a very frightening and isolating environment in which to grow up. In their struggle to cope, my parents inadvertently placed a tremendous burden of responsibility on me that I was far too young to bear. I operated under the misguided belief that if I told them how terrified I was of my brother, how often he attacked me and how much I wished I could just go out and play with my friends, my family would fall apart and it would be my fault.
By the time my brother was moved to a residential care facility where he could have the quality of life he deserved, the damage to mine was already done. I had become terribly withdrawn, fearful and anxious and struggled to relate to my family and friends.
As I got older and had to deal with the onslaught of teenage hormones and the social and academic pressures of high school, I developed severe OCD (described in February’s post) and a deepening depression.
I had trouble forcing myself to get out of bed in the mornings, and I can remember just lying there staring at my alarm clock and wondering what the point of living was. During one of those mornings, my thoughts wove themselves into lines of a poem that described my despondency and disconnection from my sense of self:
That poem was dated 20th July 2003, just over a month before the night I planned my suicide.
That morning had been pretty normal. I had lain in bed for a while before forcing myself to get up for school, look at the X Files episode chart pinned to the side of my wardrobe (which I had made to determine which episodes I would watch each night that would help get me through the day), then drag myself downstairs for a breakfast I had no appetite for.
My lessons went by as usual and I was packing up after the end of a double period of Computing Studies. I have no idea what triggered what happened next, but I remember it vividly. As I was pushing my plastic chair back under the desk, I was suddenly hit by a wave of such profound despair and isolation that I felt faint and couldn’t move. The voice of my teacher issuing our next homework assignment faded into white noise and all I was aware of was the absolute certainty that nothing would ever get better and I would always feel this bad.
I wandered through the rest of the day in a daze until I got home. Dispensing with my planned X Files episodes, I put on an episode of my favourite show, Star Trek: Voyager, and sat despondently in front of the screen, a pile of prescription medications on the bed next to me (thanks to my physical health problems, there were plenty of those available).
My mind started to wander. What would happen if I took them all at once? Would I have time to sneak into my parents’ drinks cabinet and knock back a few bottles as well before they found me?
I took the first few pills. I don’t remember what they were (little pink, innocuous looking things) and just as I was about to reach for more, I heard a powerful and authoritative voice projecting from the television:
‘In command school, they taught us to always remember that manoeuvring a starship is a very delicate process, but over the years, I’ve learned that, sometimes, you just have to punch your way through.’
It was Kate Mulgrew speaking as Captain Kathryn Janeway, and in that moment of sheer hopelessness that line was like a bolt of lightning illuminating a very long and dark night. In this episode, Voyager is trapped in the event horizon of a quantum singularity. Their only escape route is closing fast and the situation looks hopeless. As I continued to watch the scene unfold, Voyager’s struggle suddenly became a metaphor for my own. My hand remained suspended over the pills as I watched Janeway urge her helmsman to ‘keep it together’ as the ship was rocked by turbulence and structural damage.
When Voyager burst triumphantly from the quantum singularity, a surge of hope rushed through me as I began to believe for the first time that maybe I could escape too. I spoke to my parents and within a week my doctor had diagnosed me with clinical depression and OCD, and I began treatment at a centre specialising in adolescent mental health.
During one of my early sessions, the psychologists gave me a questionnaire to fill out so they could better understand how I was feeling. While they were discussing it with me, they asked me which question had been the most difficult to answer. I tried to tell them, but found I couldn’t get the words out, so they laid the questionnaire down on the table in front of me and asked me to point to it instead.
I pointed to ‘Do you think about committing suicide?’ I had answered yes.
That was the first time that I fully realised how ill I was, and I became committed to my recovery. My psychologists helped me to realise that my love of writing was a means by which I could find my way back to myself, and over the months that followed I crafted a path made out of words and metaphors that personified my depression into a force I could fight.
I sent fictional, sword-wielding versions of myself on grand quests to save towns terrorised by monsters who kept them in constant fear. Every time the monsters fell and the towns were freed, I imagined myself freed from the monster of my depression. It took a long time, but that approach is what helped me through and, eventually, I felled my own, real-life monster.
Over the years, I have felt that monster stir to life again, but I have never let him get to his feet and drag me back to the hell I experienced as a teenager. I use every weapon at my disposal to keep him at bay – writing, my friends and family, my work, my favourite Star Trek episodes – whatever it takes until I feel grounded in the present again.
I’m almost 30 now and my outlook on life is completely different than it was then, but the fact that, at 15 years old with decades of my life in front of me, I genuinely believed things would never get better and I would always feel that kind of despair, is terribly sad and shows the power depression wields over its sufferers.
I was incredibly fortunate to have the support available to help me recover, but not everyone is able to work their way through depression and come out the other side. For some people, the only choice they have is to find a way to integrate their depression into their lives, accept it as part of who they are, and carry on. That takes incredible strength and courage. Ironic, considering that depression makes you feel as though as you are weak and worthless.
One notable example of this is author and mental health advocate Matt Haig. His book, ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’, is an illuminating insight into the mind of someone living with depression. There are also countless blogs, twitter accounts and books/magazines out there that are working towards making mental health a less intimidating and misunderstood subject, and ensuring sufferers know they are not alone.
It can be extremely difficult to relate to someone with depression if you’ve never experienced it yourself, and you may be at a loss as to how you can help them.
There are no easy answers to that, but never underestimate the power of simply listening. As someone who cares about them, you can provide a supportive and non-judgemental opportunity for them to express whatever difficult emotions and thoughts they are experiencing, without the fear that you will dismiss them or think they’re crazy. There is immense value in that, because it means they can contradict their depression when it tries to tell them that they’re a burden and no one cares about them.
Be an ally in their fight. Pick up a metaphorical sword and stand beside them. Tell them that they matter, that they are valued and that you are always there to listen. Encourage them to pursue any (safe and legal) avenue that makes them feel better, even if it seems strange or trivial.
Above all, remind them of this: where there is life, there is hope, and things can get better. I, and others like me, are proof of that.