For some inexplicable reason, I decided one day to withdraw from everything in my life. At the time, I was studying abroad at university in Bremen, Germany. Instead of going to lectures, I retreated into a cocoon of duvets and a world of fantasy limited to the confines of my bedroom. I shut out the outside world and ignored all calls from friends and family. The only time I went out was late at night to the nearby convenience store to buy a bottle of coke or beer. The shopkeeper noticed my gradual deterioration and asked me if I was alright. The misery etched in my face was very apparent. My complexion had become pallid and I had dark-rings around my eyes due to poor sleep and diet. Like many people with depression, I responded “I’m fine”, knowing full well that I wasn’t.
It was as though fuse blew in my head and I felt no longer able to cope with day-to-day existence. During the day I slept and at night, I’d surf the internet to distract myself from the feeling that life had absolutely no meaning. Due to my lack of activity, my body became listless and exhausted, and I could no longer cope with even the most prosaic of tasks.
Things got really bad about 8 weeks into my self-imposed isolation when, foolishly, after a sleepless night I broke free from my miserable stasis and my squalid little bedroom. I boarded a train early in the morning for the Dutch city of Groningen where, after a long walk in the bitter cold, I entered a coffee shop and bought a couple of joints. I thought they’d calm me down, but they had the opposite effect. I felt my heartbeat race like it never had before. I then felt the ground move underneath me. I felt like my head was being filled with some gassy, incendiary fluid and was going to explode.
The panic wouldn’t subside. It got to a point that I convinced myself I was dying of a heart attack and begged a passerby to call an ambulance. After a quick check of my vitals, I was declared fine and told by the paramedics to eat some sugary food and sleep it off. I felt reassured, but still residual panic lingered and I felt strange tingling sensations on the train journey home. The next day, I woke up feeling exhausted from the day before but resolved to clean up my act. However, the panic returned, worse than ever and suddenly I felt as though I was being sucked into a vortex of despair and agony. It was a hellish sensation.
Trying to fight it only made it worse and, very reluctantly, I told my landlord who also lived in the house I was staying in that I was suffering from panic attacks. It was extremely embarrassing to admit this to somebody and a crushing blow to my self-esteem. I used to pride myself on being stoical, and yet here I was making a huge fuss about something that wasn’t even physical. Healthy males are meant to be awash with bonhomie, not enveloped by fear and despair like I was, I thought to myself. Luckily, my landlord noticed I was suffering and drove me to the nearest hospital. There, I checked into a psychiatric ward where I spent 8 long weeks getting myself fit again.
It was a surreal experience looking back on it. At times I felt fine; other times, I dissolved into undignified fits of crying and required a sedative to calm me down. Thankfully, I improved over time and was eventually able to find my way out of the darkness and even if the depression occasionally does creep back, I now have the techniques to keep it at bay. For a long time, I vowed never to tell my story for fear of what others might think. Male pride had prevented me from opening up to the world about how fragile and sensitive I really am. But here it is. I am unashamed to admit I was in a dark place, that the world had got on top of me and, rather than opening up about how I was feeling, I retreated into a place that only prolonged my suffering.
It’s so important that we open up to depression and anxiety so that anyone in a dark place can talk candidly to somebody about how they’re feeling. Don’t think that hiding how you’re feeling is the right way about it. It isn’t. Depression is not an indication of weakness, but a natural result of being a human being in a demanding and often chaotic world. To feel shame about it is to ignore what complex creatures us human beings really are and the myriad difficulties we face in our lives. The sooner people can ask for help, the sooner they will be able to improve.