Depression: The fog I live within
Depression. Such a phonetic, poetic word. Soothing on the tongue to speak, leaving a gentle after-hum in the ear once the word itself has been heard. But to the sufferer, particularly a sufferer who is in denial – to a secret sufferer - to hear the word can feel painful. The secret sufferer feels ashamed, scared, reluctant to take on this word as their own. And to those who have admitted their affliction recently, or those who have known for years and live alongside it with the knowledge and tools they need to do so, the word still feels like something all-encompassing. It can never be a small ailment after all. It will always be almost living in itself, like the twin we never knew we had.
So, what is depression? Who suffers? Is it genetic? Is it trauma-induced? Is it hormonal for women? Is it curable with medication? Can one be cured at all? Does it ever go away? There are so many questions. Although it is a disease that has existed as long as humankind has, it is having its moment in the sun right now. And this is seismic in its positivity. In the world today there are many, many factors that allow depression to breed. Suicide in young men is at a terrifyingly high rate within many Western societies, the UK to New Zealand to name but a few. Young people are under more pressure than they have ever been with the explosion of social media. We are living longer lives and are therefore potentially lonelier in our old age. We are embryonic in our understanding of how technology usage affects us. We live in a world that never switches off. We are bombarded multiple times a day with images, videos, articles, updates, live feeds. We can be shown Kim Kardashian’s perfectly created fake face and body, a film of a bloated-bellied African child walking barefoot and starving in a UNICEF commercial, an advert for a JET2 holiday, followed by M&S’s latest decadent chocolate pudding. Our brains haven’t been re-programmed since the age of the caveman and yet our world is asking us to work at super speed. And we cannot handle it. That’s the truth. We are exposed to the above array of information and we feel: jealous, guilty, sad, frustrated, hungry, guilty, angry, disappointed and then, finally, flat. And the whole time, whilst our mind has done the equivalent exercise it would take our legs to run 5 kilometres, we have sat static on a sofa looking at a screen. We are a race that are being de-pressed quite literally from every corner we turn.
But even so, not everyone is affected, afflicted, infected by depression.
So, what is your typical prototype? What do Hans Christian Anderson, Julian Assange, Caroline Aherne, Charles Baudelaire, Truman Capote, Stephen Fry, Abraham Lincoln, Ray Charles, Agatha Christie, Edgar Degas, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Francisco de Goya, Hulk Hogan, Franz Kafka, Marian Keyes, Jack Kerouac, Anthony Kiedis, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Bill Murray, Isaac Newton, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ronnie O Sullivan, George R. Price, J.K.Rowling, Bertrand Russell, Chris Packham, Frank Sinatra, Richard Prior, Ruby Wax, Emma Thompson, Robin Williams, Oprah Winfrey, Robbie Williams, Boris Yeltsin, Frida Kahlo and ME have that makes us all depressed human beings?
I didn’t and don’t know any of the above personally. But I do know ME.
I am a thirty-seven-year-old woman. I am happily married to a wonderful man. I have three healthy children. They have never been ill. Both my parents are alive. They are still married. I have never had a life-threatening illness. I have a lot of amazing, funny, interesting friends. I have a good life compared to many other lives being lived on this planet. I don’t have an obvious trauma I can blame. I have nothing to be depressed about.
So I delve in time gone by. I had a difficult family life at points, yes. I was exposed to a lot of financial stress, arguments, illnesses and emotional pressure. And I was asked to hide all of this, to keep quiet. But even so, I wouldn’t say I was a traumatised child. I was a highly sensitive child for sure. I used to cry if I stood on grass in case I hurt it. I felt physically ill with a deep sadness for days after watching E.T. Were these signs of a future diagnosis of depression? I can’t be sure.
As a teenager and young adult I was the wild one, pushing boundaries, daring to be seen. I did consume alcohol, I did use substances that probably weren’t very helpful to my sensitive mind. And I portrayed myself as sexually wild, even though in reality, I only ever slept with people I fell for hard, being far too sensitive and needy to ever be tough enough not to be emotionally scarred by someone not wanting me like I wanted them. Looking back, I was, I realise, sexually mistreated on several occasions too. But I put it down to being that type of girl, big tits, big mouth, a tart with a heart. I never admitted it might all one day press down in my mind and make me sad continually. I also had a severe eating disorder on and off during my teens. I also suffered suicidal thoughts. At the time, I felt I deserved all that I got, even those dark thoughts. But in hindsight, a lot of depressive symptoms were there in blazing glory way back in my history. I was branded a bit ‘mental’, very ‘dramatic’, ‘attention-seeking’. But really, I was a girl struggling mentally far more than I should have done, behaving in ways that were attractive to depression, in ways that fed, nurtured and let my deep-bellied secret thrive and multiply in strength.
Needless to say, I grew up. I ignored my dark days, days where my head felt gluey, oily, days where walking the five-minute walk from my flat to my tube station felt as if I was wading through a thick sludge, my thighs barely able to lift one leg in front of the other. I ignored my emotional episodes, situations like locking myself in a hotel bathroom on Valentines sobbing uncontrollably whilst wrenching and tearing at my stomach, my lovely boyfriend speechless on the other side of the door, as clueless as I was as to why I was so distraught. I ignored all the bad episodes, moods, tears, sludgy days, blackened hours. I ignored the many times when I thought:
“If I just walked in front of that car, would anybody care?”
“I am so tired of this life. I want it all to just go quiet.”
I saw only my up times. I told myself I was just one of those larger than life characters, where there is Ying, there is Yang. I told myself I was more interesting because of how I was. The fear of being vulnerable, ill or mad was far too scary. Self-denial and lies became my go-to side-kick for many years. I married my special person, had my special babies. I wrote two novels. I did an acting course. I lived. When my mother got sick I coped. I was always a coper, taking everything on, juggling all my roles at full speed all at once: mother, daughter, wife, friend.
But, two years ago, I had a pain in my chest. I became convinced I was having a heart attack. I remember googling:
‘Do thirty-five-year-old women have heart attacks?’
I paid £250 to a cardiologist who told me I was fine. The next night the pain started again and I had a huge panic attack, my first. I was convinced I was going to die for a full forty-five minutes. When it was over, I took a deep breath, opened my eyes and said aloud to my husband that I thought I might not be dying but I might…have depression. He nodded, we held each other and then cried – with relief. Finally, after every bad patch, my body had physically shown me enough was enough – I needed to speak up. I needed to look after myself for the first time.
Since that night, I have been on a big old trip down memory lane. And I have read my story back, pin-pointing all the moments when depression was there. It just showed up somewhere in my early teens, around about the time I started manically doing Jane Fonda workout cassettes, drinking black coffee, not eating and taking far too many paracetamols to stave off headaches. On & off depression would come to stay, throw me off balance & shake me up. But I ignored. I fought. I hid. I became a master of a brave face. I'm good at brave faces. It became so easy for me to hide what was happening inside I barely registered the gear change. There were times when I'd be in a social situation chatting & laughing but, inside, I'd be glitching as if wired up on way too much speed, my heart pumping, my head combusting. My loudest, brashest times externally were some of my most scared internally. Looking back, I found anxious patterns too, an OCD perfection to my rigorous routine of self-loathing, self-blame and self-harm, all fuelled and driven by the all-seeing eye of depression.
After all this self-examination, what is my conclusion? I am not sure I will ever have a finite answer. But I certainly have a few things I accept as truth.
My depression is part of my make-up.
It's me as much as I am it.
There is no rhyme or reason.
Maybe, all the experiences I thought caused it were, in fact, caused by the chemical imbalance depression caused in my brain.
Maybe I never had a choice but to behave as I did? Maybe none of it was my fault.
Today, when my depression comes, it is a quieter beast than it used to be. It quietly perches on my shoulder, spindly grey limbs draped delicately over my collarbone. I can't see depression in the mirror like I’d be able to see a bruise, but when I look at my reflection, I can feel it. I used to cry at my depression as a teenager. I used to lie on the bathroom floor late at night, sobbing into a towel so as not to wake my parents, begging:
"Please go? Please leave me alone? Why me?" But depression never replied.
I am still in the process of finding what works for me to cope when it appears. I have accepted I suffer. What I have trouble with still is the unexpected knock on the door. But when it comes I have to open up, breathe and then dive deep. I swim beside it. I use these tools to help me cope:
The first step for me was talking to a loved one, my husband.
The second was talking to several friends who understood depression either themselves or via a loved one with it.
The third was finding a therapist. That bit was scary. But I took a friend’s recommendation. Once I started talking, I found it wasn’t hard to continue. I didn’t like my first therapist. But my second I loved.
The fourth was finding exercise that suited me. Having been a dancer before, it felt as if my body thanked me for moving in my darkest days.
The fifth was realising eating well made a huge difference to me, and eating regularly. In bad episodes, I’d often not eat at all or binge on sugary shit, a sort of self-flagellation, a form of neglect.
The sixth was reading. I read so many books and articles on depression. It was a comfort to know so many interesting, funny, amazing humans found things as simple as getting out of bed or sending a text as hard as I did sometimes too.
The seventh was washing my hair. Being clean is sometimes a huge ask for a depressed person.
The eighth was making going to sleep a ritual, with candles, oils, no sound save the calming voice of a meditation exercise. This one was never (and is still never) easy with three small children I hasten to add.
The ninth was spending time with kind people and spending less time with those who made me feel weak, toxic, unloved or judged. Sadly, I had to admit there were a fair few toxic people in my life.
The tenth was writing. Writing helped me enormously. It felt like I was emptying myself of sadness yet offering up some goodness to others.
I’d like to say the eleventh thing was medication. But it wasn’t. It isn’t. It is something I toy with monthly, when my hormonal cycle makes my depression worse. I have my prescription of sertraline sitting in my cupboard – I am just too scared to take it. I feel guilty about this, I feel ashamed to feel scared. But then Matt Haig comes to mind. In his nourishing book “Reasons To Stay Alive” he says medication gave him more anxiety than he had without it purely from the all the anxious thoughts he had about being on medication. So, for now, I am yet to try that one. But maybe I will one day. I know for many it can be life-changing, game-changing, monumentally GOOD.
After talking, mending, understanding, I now allow myself to live beside my depression when it appears. I let myself be nothing but mermaid. I dive into the murky waters. And I swim deep, deep, deep down. I take with me my neon tail, my love for the ones I must be brave for & most of all I take my final and most important tool:
Hope is the greatest weapon if you suffer with depressive episodes. Hope is your best friend. Hope is the only one who can soothe and then send an episode away.
It is a story with no ending to be a sufferer of depression. But it is also a journey we can venture along. There is so much out there now to help us. All you need to do is talk about it, hold someone’s hand and step forward. For sitting in mud never helped anyone ultimately.
I hope this article has helped you to know that you are not alone if you are someone reading this with fear in your heart that you are not ok. There are so many of us out there who are not ok – see this website as an arm held out for you to link with, a friend to help you through any darkness you cannot shift alone. For, as the saying goes:
“It’s okay not to be okay.”
There is always light ahead – you just need help to see it sometimes. You are never alone. And you are brave. It is a brave thing to say:
“I have depression – please help.”
Don’t ever feel ashamed – you are beautiful for all that you are. It could just be as simple as, those who suffer just feel everything we feel a bit too much. And ultimately, there is no crime in over-feeling. Maybe us sufferers are just many, many hearts with an inability to measure and manoeuvre our thousands and thousands of unfiltered emotions. And if that is the core of it, then depression really is an untamed and beautiful affliction. Turn it on its head and you will see.