August 15, 2014

I felt guilty - depression was for people who had difficult lives Rachel

My battle with mental illness began sixteen years ago when I was a working mother and Times journalist. I was married with two children, ambitious, and loved my career. I was blessed in many ways, with a nice house and a supportive husband. It took three days for depression to incapacitate me. I went from being fully functioning to lying in a foetal curl on the floor.

I was amazed. I had thought depression was a case of lying around feeling vaguely despondent, and had absolutely no idea it could be so physically painful. I admit to being duped by stigma at the time – I didn’t want to tell people I was ‘depressed’, I wanted to tell them I had some other illness which seemed to me more legitimate and less ephemeral. I also felt guilty – depression was for people who had difficult or troubled lives, whereas I counted myself incredibly lucky, as well as very happy. No-one would believe I was depressed, or eligible for depression. 

The physical pain of a major depressive episode can be worse than physical illness

Now I realize that your brain can go wrong, like any other organ in your body, but we have relatively little understanding of how or why. My doctor explained my symptoms as best he could. As I was suffering from acute anxiety and panic, my adrenaline levels were so high that they were stopping me sleeping. My systems’s priorities had switched from long-term to short-term survival were on a permanent emergency response. I had mobilised fuel reserves I didn’t need and I was taking in surplus oxygen to burn it. My heart had been pounding non-stop as my blood pressure and breathing increased. My appetite had disappeared as my body had shut down energy-consuming digestive processes. My pupils had dilated to let in more light and my reaction time had speeded up, all in readiness for attack.

All these physical responses should normally be short-lived. But in my state of heightened arousal they were maintained, exhaustingly.

Doctors now agree that the physical pain of a major depressive episode can be worse than physical illness. One doctor was quoted as saying in a classic book on depression that if he had to choose between suffering from renal colic, a heart attack and an episode of severe depression, he ‘would prefer to avoid the pain of depression.’

I have tamed my black dog, though sometimes it still barks

Depression is an illness, like cancer or diabetes, with attendant physical symptoms. This has helped me hugely in being open about my illness: I wouldn’t be ashamed or blame myself if some rogue cancer cells had invaded my body or if my insulin levels weren’t balanced. Nor did I need to apologise for suffering from depression.

Poetry has also helped me feel less ashamed of being unwell. Thousands of others through the ages have suffered and written about their own melancholy or depression. I am not alone. Darker poetry by Anne Sexton has helped me better understand the nature of my depression, where the healing images displayed in the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins and George Herbert have contributed to my recovery.

Currently, in the words of Herbert, my ‘shrivelled heart’ has ‘recovered greenness.’ I have tamed my black dog, though sometimes it still barks, and I have written a book about my struggles. If asked, I no longer say it is about the consoling power of poetry but rather a battle against a devastating illness. It was time for me to change. If what I’ve done helps one other sufferer to also open up, it will have been worth it.

Rachel Kelly’s memoir Black Rainbow: how words healed me – my journey through depression is published on 24th April by Hodder & Stoughton. Its accompanying app, also called Black Rainbow, is available for download on the Apple app store. All author proceeds of the book and app are being given to mental health charities. Follow Rachel @rache_Kelly or go to www.black-rainbow.co.uk

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