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How do you tell someone what depression feels like?
I’ve always been someone who people generally view as easy going, opinionated, a bit of a laugh. I suppose I am all of those things but it’s not the whole story. I’ve suffered from bouts of major depression and anxiety throughout most of my adult life alongside long periods where depression hasn’t had any relevance in my life at all. I work as a teacher and have always done so, I also manage other people. My management style is somewhere between David Brent in The Office and Arsene Wenger.
The hardest part of depression is finding a way to tell people. It is like you are hiding a terrible secret. I think I felt ashamed of myself for getting depression, like somehow I had failed. That’s what depression does to you: it makes you feel like a terrible failure. There are still those quite close to me who probably don’t know that I’ve suffered from crippling depression. I remember that people didn’t know what to say in response. Someone offered me a ticket to an Elton John concert (insert joke here!)
I tended to inch my way along to a ‘full disclosure’: How are you? ‘I’ve not been feeling too good’, ‘Not great’, ‘I’ve been better’, ‘A little down,’
I tended to inch my way along to a ‘full disclosure’: How are you? ‘I’ve not been feeling too good’, ‘Not great’, ‘I’ve been better’, ‘A little down,’…. If people still don’t get the message then they’re a little slow. Then of course there are some who don’t want to accept that you are depressed. They say things like “Oh, you’re probably just tired... you’ve been working too hard… you’ll feel better in the morning…” If you’ve suffered depression you’ll know how hollow these things sound. But, if you’re usually someone who likes to joke around, people find it hard to accept this new depressed you.
Wow, I’m sounding like a great conversationalist eh? But that was when I could even get myself to speak to people at all. In the throes of my worst times of depression, I couldn’t face seeing people at all or even speaking to them on the phone. Why? Because it feels as if you are not you anymore, you’re just a hollow shell. You can’t be bothered with yourself anymore so why should other people? How can you possibly tell someone that you feel like you want to die? How can you describe the arctic winter wipe out blizzard that has become your headspace? But, I tried, I made a pact with myself not to hide if possible, to talk to friends on the phone, to chat about the cricket, because sometimes a tiny ray of sunshine in the shape of a story, a joke, an opinion, a kind word, would, just for a nano-second, help me forget that I was depressed. And that tiny moment is precious.
I was very lucky in that I was able to tell a close colleague at work
Incredibly, I was able to carry on working. I was very lucky in that I was able to tell a close colleague at work what I was going through. They listened and they didn’t judge. They knew that I was often on auto pilot, that I was operating at only about 30% of capacity, that I’d suddenly developed a need to go outside and smoke 5 times a day, but they didn’t treat me any differently than they ever had. Well that’s not true. They treated me with even more kindness and respect than ever before. But it was difficult. I’m the manager, I’m supposed to lead the team and I was really not feeling like leading.
With depression, telling people is a personal choice. I think it is important to keep talking and to be honest, particularly with people closest to you. Of course no one should feel ashamed of being depressed (even though you do) but it’s probably wise to choose your confidants carefully at work in the same way as you might decide to share other very personal things about yourself only with certain people.
It doesn’t feel like it at the time but depression gives you an insight into suffering which can only help you become a kinder and more understanding person
Now that I have thankfully recovered I’m certainly more careful to look beyond other peoples responses of ‘Not so good’ ‘a bit down’ etc and just check that they are ok. It doesn’t feel like it at the time but depression gives you an insight into suffering which can only help you become a kinder and more understanding person.
Poem taken from my collection A Million Acts of Resistance:
Some speak of moving through a spectral landscape,
or the insistence of a black dog come to visit.
Others describe the howling of an arctic winter,
the roaring wind, the shrieking face of anxiety.
For me, after the white out there was dust
like the aftermath of an explosion, that time
before realization: suspended quiet before
the wail of alarms or running of feet.
A dust had come like a charm and settled quietly
How that profound dust choked.
Not like the slight honest dirt which rests
almost politely on the edge of a sideboard.
More a heavy persistent smudge,
working into familiar places:
a football game, a workplace, while cycling,
the road itself, the cars and sky all draped
in merciless grey.
A fine silt collected on the faces of children.
At the point of despair, in the numbing
muteness which is mental pain,
we seek to give that thing a name.
We mutter to the silent whiteness, show yourself.
That we might find some tool to begin,
Some language that could whisper in the dark:
"...Here is a lamp, a candle stub.
Here is a stick to beat the dog off.
Here is a tent to keep warm.
Hold on. I will fetch tools, fire, food,
a brush, a broom."