Mental Health Series: March -Depression

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


Depression

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:

Poem

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.

Suicide Prevention Week: Why I’m Glad I Kept Living

Suicide Ribbon

It’s National Suicide Prevention Week, leading up to World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10th.

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and came across the hashtag #IKeptLiving. Suicide survivors were talking about how they were glad their attempts had failed, and those who had thought about suicide in the past were explaining why they decided not to go through with it.

I am one of the latter.

Nearly 14 years ago, when I was 15, I was seriously contemplating ending my life. I had already been diagnosed with clinical depression and severe OCD, and I was being treated by two psychologists at a treatment centre for adolescent mental health. During one of my early sessions, they 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.

One night, a few weeks later,  while I was contemplating my latest round of prescription meds for my numerous health conditions (physical and mental), I started to think seriously about how many I would need to take to make all the pain go away. Probably more than I had handy, I reasoned, so I would likely need to sneak a bottle of alcohol out of my parents’ drinks cabinet to wash them down with.

I didn’t go through with it, but I was dangerously close. I’ve explained why I chose to keep living in a previous post, so I’m not going to talk about that now. Instead, I want to talk about why I’m so glad I’m still here.

If I had taken those pills, I wouldn’t have graduated from high school and two university courses.

If I hadn’t gotten help, I wouldn’t have just come home from the job I love.

If I hadn’t kept going, I would never have gotten two poems and a short story published.

If I had let the darkness take me, I wouldn’t have had the past 14 years with my family and oldest friends, or had the chance to meet all the wonderful new friends I’ve made in those years.

If I had listened to the depression and anxiety, I would never have seen the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone National Park, or three people I love get married.

If I hadn’t focussed on that glimmer of hope, I would never have met my idol, the wonderful Kate Mulgrew, who is integral to the reason I’m still here.

If suicide had been the end of my journey, I wouldn’t have the rest of my life in front of me, and all its unknown possibilities.

Those are just some of the many reasons I’m glad I chose to keep living. I hope you are able to find yours. Remember: you are unique; you are irreplaceable; the world will be worse off without you, not better.

If you need someone to talk to, there are people who can help. The organisations’ names are linked to their websites.

UK

Samaritans: 116 123

HopeLineUK (Papyrus): 0800 068 41 41

Breathing Space: 0800 83 85 87 (Scotland)

 

USA

Crisis Text Line: Text ‘GO’ to 741 741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 800 273 8255

 

International

You can find a list of international suicide helplines here.

 

Kate Mulgrew’s ‘Born with Teeth’ and the impact she has had on my life

Born With Teeth CoverI was going to write a regular review of Kate Mulgrew’s Born with Teeth: A Memoir, but then I read it, and a simple review is not enough to express how I feel. This will be the most personal post I’ve ever written and I’m very nervous about it, but it feels like the right thing to do.

If you know me or are a regular reader of my blog, then you know I have been a fan of Kate and her work since I was 8 years old when I saw my first episode of Star Trek: Voyager, in which she played Captain Kathryn Janeway. I’m 27 now and my admiration and appreciation for her has grown exponentially over the years. She is an exceptionally talented actress; a wonderful orator; incredibly gracious towards her fans (I speak from experience); and a true joy to watch in any role she plays.

She is also, as it turns out, a beautifully gifted writer. Her lyrical eloquence weaves a tale so vivid and engaging that I could see it all playing out in my mind as if it were a movie. Kate lays out in unapologetic honesty a life filled with adventure, grief, trauma, and, above all, a tremendous passion for her work and her family. As she shares the intimate details of the pain of giving up her daughter for adoption, surviving a rape, losing two sisters and the kind of heartbreak only true love can bring, we are also treated to riveting stories of romance, travel and the drama of stage and screen. Kate is an astute observer of human nature and she uses this skill to craft dynamic and colourful depictions of the variety of interesting people she has encountered throughout her fascinating life.

Being the massive Star Trek fan that I am, the chapters about Kate’s time on Voyager were a real treat and I’m certainly delighted that she included them, but even if they hadn’t been there I would still have absolutely loved the book. At times intensely passionate and at others desperately sad, this was a memoir that had me completely hooked from beginning to end and left me with a profound sense of gratitude towards, and a greater understanding of, a woman I have admired for most of my life.

I love and look up to Kate for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, but there is one other reason that I have never spoken of because it was too painful and I didn’t think I was strong enough to give voice to it. But then I read Kate’s memoir, and the courage and bravery of her words gave me the confidence to find my own, and reminded me that there are some things which should not be kept hidden.

I grew up with a severely autistic younger 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 at a time when I was far too young to deal with it. 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, that my family would fall apart. I’m from a rural area in Scotland where there are few resources for special needs children, and with such little support our lives became subject entirely to my brother’s needs.

Eventually, the situation became untenable and my brother was moved to a specialist residential care facility where he could have the quality of life that we could not provide. By then I had become terribly withdrawn, fearful and anxious and struggled to relate to my family and friends. I was already a huge fan of Star Trek: Voyager and Captain Janeway was my favourite character. To help with my anxiety I took a Janeway action figure to school with me. It made me feel protected and gave me courage to get through the day; a tangible reminder of the strength and fortitude of the character herself.

This figure was far from a good likeness of Kate to begin with, made worse by its many paint-scraping trips in and out of my schoolbag!

This figure was far from a good likeness of Kate to begin with, made worse by its many paint-scraping trips in and out of my schoolbag!

A few years later I started to develop health problems. It’s a long and complicated story but, in a nutshell, an undiagnosed autoimmune disease left me with permanent damage to my digestive system and significant problems with my nervous system. When it all began the physical pain only added to the emotional pain I had been feeling for years and eventually it all got too much. One night, while I was watching an episode of Voyager, as I often did to make myself feel better, I was sitting with a pile of prescription medications and 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 have heard many people refer to suicide as a selfish act. It’s not. It’s an act of pure desperation. You don’t think about the devastating impact it will have on the people who love you. All you can think about is making it stop, about silencing the storm inside you, because how can life be worth living if every day, every second, feels like this? How can you possibly be of any use to anyone? There is no hope in that moment that it will ever get better, there is only the crippling fear and pain which has brought you there.

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 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, (‘Parallax’, the second episode of Season One), 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 soon began treatment at a centre specialising in adolescent mental health.

As well as supporting me through my recovery, the psychologists there helped me to realise that creativity was the means by which I could find my way back to myself. I discovered that I could write poetry, and over the months that followed I crafted a path for myself made out of words and metaphors that personified my depression into a force I could fight. When I came to the end of my treatment, the lead psychologist asked if he could keep some of my poems to help the other patients, which I very happily agreed to.

Now, 12 years later, I have a job in the industry I love (publishing), two university degrees, and, most importantly, wonderful relationships with my hugely supportive family and friends. I write as often as I can and also run an online support group for siblings of those with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and Down’s Syndrome, in an effort to provide the kind of help I so desperately needed when I was young.

In 2012 I had the incredible experience of meeting Kate at a Star Trek convention in London. Living in Scotland and finding travel quite a challenge I had assumed that I would never get the chance to meet her, so when I did it was like a dream and I still feel so happy whenever I think about it. My mother kindly made the trip to London with me to give me support and said that she had never seen me as happy as I was after I met Kate, who was as kind, gracious and generous in person as I had always imagined her to be.

Kate and I

Whenever I find myself dealing with difficult emotions, trying to adjust to the side effects of a new medication or struggling with the physical pain and fatigue that are my constant companions, I see Kate as Janeway standing on the bridge of Voyager, telling her crew that sometimes you just have to punch your way through. And I do.


Kate now stars as Galina “Red” Reznikov on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black and she’s absolutely terrific, as is the show itself. You can read my review of the book the show is based on here.

The following are links to some great interviews and reviews of Born with Teeth. Read it. Seriously. Kate Autograph 1

The Washington Post

Publishers Weekly

LA Times

The Mary Sue

CBS interview

One last thing, a shout out to my dear friend Stefani, who very kindly sent me Kate’s book across the Atlantic from Mississippi to Scotland. She has an awesome blog over at Caught Read Handed that I would encourage you to check out if you love books and nerdy things!