This post discusses depression and my experiences. This is not to garner sympathy in any way, but instead to be informational. Writing this has taken some time, due to research and also explaining my past, my experiences, has been difficult. All views are my own unless otherwise stated and backed with source links.
Before getting into my story, below is a brief explanation of depression.
Remember, there is a difference between grieving, be that over a death, relationship break down, work issues. However, grieving can become depression.
From the Black Dog Institute
Depression is a common experience. We have all felt 'depressed' about a friend's cold shoulder, misunderstandings in our marriage, tussles with teenage children - sometimes we feel 'down' for no reason at all.
However, depression can become an illness when:
- The mood state is severe
- It lasts for 2 weeks or more and
- It interferes with our ability to function at home or at work.
- Lowered self-esteem (or self-worth)
- Change in sleep patterns, that is, insomnia or broken sleep
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Less ability to control emotions such as pessimism, anger, guilt, irritability and anxiety
- Varying emotions throughout the day, for example, feeling worse in the morning and better as the day progresses
- Reduced capacity to experience pleasure: you can't enjoy what's happening now, nor look forward to anything with pleasure. Hobbies and interests drop off
- Reduced pain tolerance: you are less able to tolerate aches and pains and may have a host of new ailments
- Changed sex drive: absent or reduced
- Poor concentration and memory: some people are so impaired that they think that they are becoming demented
- Reduced motivation: it doesn't seem worth the effort to do anything, things seem meaningless
- Lowered energy levels.
Now that you know a bit more or have had a refresh, on to my story...
I was 18.
I'd started university, making news friends and the course was interesting. My life with my family was good (living with my parents, who are lovely) and I was in a good, stable relationship.
On the outside, my life was great. Family, friends, girlfriend, university, house to live in, food was plentiful, enough money to survive. Despite this, looking back on the last two years prior to uni, I realised I had a problem, an illness.
Between 16-18, my body saw numerous scars appear, which at 25 are still present. I cut myself on my shoulders and on my chest. I didn't want anyone to see, so the cuts were always hidden. When I was 18, I would wake up regularly, contemplating suicide. I didn't feel like I could tell anyone because I was ashamed. I wasn't strong enough or man enough to overcome something in my head.
At 18 years of age, my girlfriend at the time made a strong suggestion to me that I should try to get help. This wasn't nasty, it wasn't cruel. She was genuinely trying to look out for me. Although I didn't realise this at the time, I was sharing my negativity with her. She was my comfort zone. My partner. She shouldn't have had to be my carer as well. There's a difference between caring for someone who is grieving (death/other loss) or feeling a bit "down" with life events and caring for someone with depression. Looking back on events and realising, now that I know what to look for, how much I was impressing on her (and have done with others since), it must be horrible.
Regardless, this started my healing process. I quickly got an appointment with one of the counsellors at the university. She patiently walked through what I was experiencing, when I was experiencing these feelings and probing to find out what they could mean. At the time, I was experiencing:
- suicidal thoughts, most days
- feelings of worthlessness
- difficulty concentrating
- lack of joy in activities I used to love
- reclusive, not seeing my friends
- and more...
After eight weeks (one session a week), I finished my last session. I had a heated discussion with the counsellor, possibly as I was still denying certain facets of my depression, but there was a breakdown in the relationship and neither of us thought it could continue. Although the sessions ended, I did learn more about my condition, what it meant and ways of improving my mental well-being.
- I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), with bouts of depression during the rest of the year
- I have a real, medical illness, even if it is hidden away
- I was exhausting myself and making things worse by putting up a facade of smiles all the time
- I had to stop taking on other people's problems while I focused on my own well-being
- There were treatments available
- Anti depressants
- Further counselling
- Changing my diet
Although I'd been to counselling sessions, my girlfriend knew and my parents knew, I still wasn't prepared to let anyone else know, not even my closest friends. I was, however, determined to try to ease my symptoms and focus on improving my mental health. To start this, my parents very kindly bought me a Lumie Brightspark, which can be seen below. I opted for light-therapy, as I don't want to be chemically altering my brain chemistry. It's not small enough to slip into a bag unfortunately, but perfect to put on a bedside table and shine in your face first thing in the morning.
I'd wake up 30 minutes earlier (already hard to get up earlier!), turn the light on and stare near it for 30 minutes. You can't stare straight at it, if you want to be able to see much afterwards. Apparently, these lights generate a certain light wavelength - in a safe manner - which, like normal sunlight, encourages the brain to reduce production of melatonin (makes you sleepy) and increase production of serotonin (affects your mood).
I also went on to exercise more, lose weight and generally be healthier. I read a lot about depression and management techniques (including forcing yourself to go out, writing / drawing emotional state, keeping a diary). This is not a fast process. It's taken several years to get to a more stable state. The main thing I've learnt is to identify the early symptoms of my illness:
- Trouble sleeping for more than two days
- Concentration issues
- Increased and decreased appetite
- Jealousy (relationships)
- Short fuse / irritable
- Doubting self
- Depression (who would have guessed)
The biggest help to my mental health, alongside admitting to myself that I had an illness, was being open about it. It started with my closest friends and stayed that way until I was 22.
When I was 22
I had finished university and started working for a company in Somerset. This job started in December. December and January are notoriously my worst two months in every 12 month period - they're the darkest. Topped with stress from starting a new job, I started spiralling hard and fast. I hadn't wanted to take my lightbox with me to the office, as that would mean identifying myself as a depression sufferer to strangers, who I would start knowing more as the months went on. Not something I wanted to reveal.
I had a meeting with my manager, as I had noticed issues with concentration in particular, therefore affecting my ability to learn and do my job. I revealed my illness. It was incredibly hard and took me a few minutes to work up to it, but I did it. This led to the company buying me a Lumie Desklamp. Turns out, people get curious when they see a giant light shining into a person's face. Over the next few months, I got used to telling people why I had the light. I never noticed any negativity aimed my way by my colleagues, merely curiosity.
Since this point in my life, I have shared with colleagues that I have this illness. By no means do I shout about it, but I tell the HR manager and my line manager, so that they can both understand why I might not be myself on some days, as well as help me spot when I am starting to spiral.
There's only been once incident since when I've taken time off work, which was in part due to lack of sleep (sleeping 2 hours a night or less), stress at work and stress at home. This all happened in the December/January months. I had started counselling prior to this to try to mitigate symptoms going into the winter months anyway, as I knew the last winter hadn't been fantastic. Very grateful to Tracey Pinder who helped me through some very tough months. She was calm, professional and supportive.
One of the reasons I didn't want to admit to anyone close to me, let alone strangers, that I had depression, was because of the stigmas attached to the term.
In the media, Janet Street Porter started this article with
"It's just the new trendy illness"
relating it to the number of celebrities or middle-class people stating they suffered from depression. Lumping all people with depression into the same pot. It doesn't matter, in my eyes, that JSP later went on to say
"I am not denying that clinical depression is a real mental illness..."
The headline on its own is damaging enough for anyone with depression. By no means is this the only media example of stigma.
According to Mental Health, the perceived stigma is damaging and linked to media
Media reports often link mental illness with violence, or portray people with mental health problems as dangerous, criminal, evil, or very disabled and unable to live normal, fulfilled lives.
Which is far from the truth.
Pete Etchells of The Guardian writes:
To talk about something that’s so emotive at a deeply personal level feels like it runs the risk of exposing something about yourself that you don’t necessarily want everyone to know about, or to judge you in terms of. I know on some level it sounds silly, but I don’t want to be known as ‘that depressed guy’.
This is his own personal view, his internalised stigma.
The below picture shows, what I think, to be a generalised perception about how people think of depression, created by Robot Hugs. This is put into perspective in the sense of "depression as a physical illness".
Exploring and explaining depression
There are several, very good organisations out in the world promoting depression without stigma, but as an illness which can be treated. My absolute favourite promotion, for its tone, message and implementation, is the video called "I Had a Black Dog" by Matthew Jonstone. His video is used by the World Health Organisation to highlight depression. The signs and the treatments. Please take 5 minutes to watch the video below.
From me to you
Don't give up. Depression is an absolutely horrible illness, but that is what it is. You can be helped. You're not on your own. You may be able to get help and be cured, or you may have management techniques.
Don't be afraid. By keeping everything to yourself and hiding away behind fake smiles and "I'm fine", you're only hurting yourself. It's hard to reveal something so personal, but if you have serious friends, they will stand by you.
Get help. If that's antidepressants and they work for you, then get them. If it's counselling, great, go and speak to someone about how you're feeling, but make sure you're not holding anything back. They can't help if you lie or withhold information.
Although some of my support was removed by breakups, I've always had constants. I have a very, very small group of very close friends who have been there for me, no matter what. My parents are both tolerant and generous with no malice to me. I still have my lows, but those closest to me can spot those dips and tell me if I haven't noticed. I'm lucky and forever thankful to those in my life.
I have no intention of ending things, despite having the thoughts more than occasionally.
I've listed links below of charities, resources and the sources for articles or images I've referenced.
Remember to leave a comment if you think there's something I need to improve, you haven't liked something, you've got something to add. Whatever it is, leave a note. Ask me anything.
Some Mental Health Charities
The Truth About Depression, BBC 2013 - Video, YouTube
Cover image: Eaalim
Neil Lennon Quote: Carry J Nash/Neil Lennon
Dorothy Rowe Quote: Notable Quotes/Dorothy Rowe
Bright Spark image: Lumie
Depression at work: Meaningful minds
Janet Street Porter article: Mail Online
Depression, Robot hugs: Huffington Post