You don’t have to believe in depression to get it. You can just catch it while you’re going about your normal life minding your own business. In 2003, I was 23 with my own place, dashing good looks, a long-term relationship, new car and had just got a promotion at work.
Despite all of that, a feeling of deadness started creeping up on me. I remember walking to and from work and thinking how grey everything seemed. I’d sit at my desk and look out of the window at the sky wondering what the point to life was. I kept thinking that everyone was going to die at some point – when would it be? Who would die today? (Probably didn’t help that I lived opposite a graveyard) I was on hyper alert for tragedy to strike me at any moment. I tried to work out what it was that didn’t feel right with my life anymore, was it my relationship? Was it the small town I lived in? Was it me? Was I just a horrible, ungrateful specimen who didn’t deserve all the good people in my life? I felt so guilty just for breathing. My head seemed constantly preoccupied with the question: ‘What is wrong with me?’
The funny thing is, I had just started doing an Open University degree in Psychology, and one of the first instalments of my reading was about the symptoms of depression. Although I could tick every one of those boxes – lethargy, loss of enjoyment in things I usually liked, sleep problems, changes in appetite, irritable, tearful, loss of hope, feelings of despair – I still couldn’t (wouldn’t) allow myself to identify with the word depression. Depression was for weaker folk. Depression was for people who didn’t know how to stay positive. Depression was for addicts and for people who had suffered deep trauma. Depression was for people who didn’t have a job or friends. Nope, I wasn’t depressed.
Then the greyness changed into something else – I felt manic, like something needed to change and fast, only I didn’t know what. I got up from my desk at work one day and asked for an emergency half day holiday. My request was accepted and without consciously thinking about it, I found myself in Saks hairdressers asking the stylist to cut my long thick hair into “a Kylie”. The popstar Kylie Minogue was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer and had just had all of her hair cropped to a centimetre short. They tried to talk me out of it “Why not get a concave bob instead?” I could see them behind me in the mirror, looking at each other like I was crazy – I mean, who asks for “a Kylie crop”? The woman had cancer. They cut it off and as I walked back through the High Street of my small town, my own Gran walked past me without giving me a second glance. The novelty of the shock factor got me through the next couple of weeks. People I’d known all my life didn’t recognise me until I went up to them, colleagues patting me on the back and saying how brave I was (short hair wasn’t a cool thing back then). But then the greyness came back with even more force than before.
One day I walked into my sister’s shop and burst into tears. When she calmed me down I told her I just wanted to drive off a cliff. I didn’t even know myself anymore. I started shoplifting. It made me feel alive for maybe ten minutes. I drank to the point of unconsciousness, drove my car into a wall, hit my boyfriend with a curtain pole. The rock bottom day came when I went to pay for some petrol and just broke down crying to the baffled cashier. I didn’t say a word, just stood there balling my eyes out. When I got home I sank down the wall to the floor (like you see in films) and said to my boyfriend that I didn’t know what to do anymore. He said “you need help. Go to the doctors”. There was nothing left to do but go. I didn’t want to lose him.
The doctor was nice and understanding. I told her about everything I was feeling and doing and she said “You have depression”. She prescribed me some medication and sent me on my way. Driving along after that diagnoses I felt the clouds part for the first time in months. Even though I’d always sneered at the idea of depression being a ‘thing’, now a professional doctor had told me I had it, I felt relief. Relief because I didn’t have to try and figure it out anymore. My mind felt quiet for the first time in ages. That night I sat at my computer and read everything I could about depression and joined an online group chat to talk to other people in the same boat. I can’t describe how much better I felt knowing that this was a ‘thing’, and not just me being a terrible person.
I felt fragile, but compassionate towards myself. After months of feeling angry at myself for not functioning properly I finally could just breathe and let myself be. That’s one of the hardest things with depression, realising that your thoughts aren’t telling you the truth anymore. They are warped as they are coming from a fearful and negative place. I took advice to get out with friends, and I started taking long walks. I avoided drinking. With this new perspective: “I have depression”, I was able to treat myself as an injured person. That is, I took better care of myself, I paid attention to my needs. Life got better. Until I moved to Dublin with my boyfriend. In my mind I was living the dream – new country, a city of culture, loads of money, new job, I’d made it in life.
Then one lunch time I was sitting in the cafeteria with my new workmates and suddenly everyone seemed very far away but their voices got louder. I could hear my heart slamming in my chest and I got tunnel vision. I couldn’t catch my breath. I thought I was having a heart attack. The doctor checked me over and couldn’t find anything wrong, but over the next few weeks these symptoms returned along with the feeling that I was being strangled. Turns out they were anxiety attacks. All of this stopped when I left my unhealthy relationship and started to pay attention to my own needs again. Maybe depression and anxiety are our soul’s way of getting our attention when we’re on the wrong path, or maybe it really is a chemical problem. I’m still searching for the answers to this.
It scares me to think how things might have gone if I hadn’t been told it was depression and anxiety. I don’t know what gave me the idea that depression was such a dirty word, something to be ashamed of. As a young woman who had a good social life and everything going for her, I suppose I didn’t want anybody to see me as a victim to be pitied. We all want to be cool don’t we? Now I am 33 and still have bouts of depression and anxiety, but I’m better equipped to deal with it now and I wouldn’t change the journey I’ve been on because it’s made me a more open and caring person.
Looking back at where my depression stemmed from now, I see it as a result of post-traumatic stress, which is rife in our society. Post-traumatic stress isn’t just what soldiers at war suffer. Anyone who goes through a traumatic experience in life and doesn’t talk through it, work through it with somebody else – but just keeps it to themselves and tries to forget about it, bury it – is at risk of suffering with depression and anxiety. One thing I have learned is to acknowledge the hurt you have felt in life, even if it’s just in writing to yourself. Get it out, acknowledge it, let yourself feel whatever you want to feel, be kind and patient with yourself and ask for help if you need it.