A friend once said to me: “Is depression like love? You don’t know what it is until you have it?”
And yes, in that way (but probably not many others), depression is indeed like love. Until you’ve experienced it for yourself – until you’ve felt it – it’s hard to understand.
Depression is often misunderstood. Most people know the word ‘depressed’ and recognise it as a feeling; a mood. It’s used to describe those times we feel sad, down, upset. It’s usually a passing state of mind. The word sounds a lot like ‘depression’, so it’s easy to see how the two get muddled up. That’s maybe why people say “What’s he/she got to be depressed about?” when they hear that someone successful, talented, rich or good-looking has depression. It seems almost offensive that someone with all those blessings should be moping in public. How dare they feel sorry for themselves? Don’t they know how lucky they are?
Let me tell you something about depression. It doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care what you own, what you look like or what you’ve achieved. It doesn’t choose you because you’re weak. You can’t shrug it off by being ‘strong’. It doesn’t run away because you’re manning up, keeping a stiff upper lip or pulling yourself together. Those things are nonsense. In fact, they’re dangerous – the more you solider on, the more you attempt to ignore depression, the more pressure you heap on yourself to cope, the harder it becomes and the worse the depression gets.
I look back on when depression came into my life, and I can see now that I had unwittingly created the perfect conditions for it to thrive. I was 33 – a father of two young children, not getting much sleep, working hard, not finding time for myself, but still trying to go the extra mile in everything I did – still striving to be excellent at everything, still aiming to please everybody, but gradually transforming into a zombie on a treadmill. This carried on for a long time before the cracks started to show.
A period of prolonged stress that straddled summer and autumn of 2009 was what paved the way for depression to sneak in. The day I stood up from my desk after hitting a demanding deadline and nearly fell to the ground feeling faint and dizzy was a clear signal that something was wrong. From there, I entered a spell of frequent illnesses and minor health problems, each another clue that something more sinister was lurking underneath. One day I realised I never looked forward to anything any more. I dreaded everything. I was worried, anxious and frazzled.
Daily headaches, constant irritation and darkening moods eventually persuaded me to see a doctor, and after some simple tests he said I had depression and prescribed some antidepressants. It took a while – and an increased dose – before I noticed any difference. They took the edge off my symptoms, and the headaches stopped, but I felt I needed more help. That’s where counselling came in. The chance to talk through everything that was on my mind seemed to weaken depression’s powers.
I was feeling better by the following summer. I’d finished my course of counselling, I started to reduce my medication, and I wrote my first blog about my experiences of depression, which felt like another step towards exposing my enemy.
I’d love to say that’s how the story ends, but I’d be lying.
About a month after that blog, another build-up of stress triggered a horrible new bout of depression. This time I needed time off work. I grappled with low self-esteem, shattered confidence, insomnia, anger, and all kinds of other negative feelings that whipped up a non-stop tornado of damaging thoughts in my head.
Through further medication and counselling, many gruelling months of fighting my demons, and many blog posts later, I finally reached a point three-and-a-half years ago where I could say goodbye to my medication.
But depression, and its sidekick, anxiety, still stalk me. I’ve just got wiser to their ways. I’ve learned a lot from depression and arm myself with a set of coping strategies that include talking, writing a daily diary of positive things, getting outside and enjoying nature, and creating time to do the things I like doing – not just the things I have to do.
We can live with depression. It isn’t easy and we can’t do it alone. There are lots of good people we can speak to – as well as my wife, family, friends and colleagues, I’ve had invaluable help from people who were complete strangers to me but have shown me great kindness and support.
A huge number of people have experienced depression, or are going through it right now. Let’s share our problems; let’s expose the bully that haunts us in the shadows. Sometimes it will get the upper hand and we’ll feel like we’re losing the battle, but keep the faith – things do get better.