It’s a couple of weeks since Depression Awareness Week, and after skirting around the issue for a long time, it feels like it’s the right time to open up about my own experiences of depression.
I guess blogging about it is the final frontier in accepting there’s no shame in having depression
Mental health issues are something that I’ve been coping with since I was around 11 years old, but it took me a very long time to even admit to myself I was depressed, and even longer to admit it to my loved ones. So I guess blogging about it is the final frontier in accepting there’s no shame in having depression.
It seems hypocritical of me: I work in mental health, volunteer with Samaritans, and have dabbled in fundraising for mental health charities; I am a vehement advocate of reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and encouraging people to talk about it; I have empathy and respect for everyone who has a mental health issue. Everyone that was, except for myself.
Stigma is what keeps people silent about their suffering
Even though I have great respect for those who open up about their mental health problems, there are times when I still feel ashamed of my own. I’ll be honest, I feel like by publicly admitting I have depression, I’m admitting some sort of weakness. It’s incredibly scary to reveal your biggest vulnerability like that, and knowing that people are likely to misunderstand, or judge you; it only makes you feel even more vulnerable.
That’s the thing about stigma, it’s very subtle to the person perpetuating it. They might not even realise they’re doing it; a flippant comment here, a cheesy platitude there. But every insidious little incident adds up and contributes to the wider culture of stigma surrounding mental illness. This stigma is what keeps people silent about their suffering, and ultimately feeling like they’re all alone.
Depression is exhaustion
For me depression isn’t just about being sad for any length of time; depression isn’t an edgy badge of honour pinned to the lapel of a tortured artist. The main thing I think of when I think of depression is exhaustion. When I’m at my worst I can feel the weight of it on my shoulders when I walk, I can barely think straight, I can’t construct a coherent sentence. I would have to take breaks from walking up the stairs, to sit on a stair and just stare at the carpet for five minutes.
In theory, I have no ‘valid’ reason to be depressed. I’m healthy, I have a roof over my head, an education, a job, the most wonderful family and friends, and all in all, a very nice life. However, knowing all that simply adds insult to injury and culminates in a vicious circle: ‘Not only am I depressed, I’m also ungrateful for my lovely life and the people in it, and now I’m even more depressed.’
I would feel incredibly dissociated. I’d sit and look at pictures of earlier, happier times of me with my friends and family and think ‘Who is that girl? She has a nice life, a happy life. That isn’t me.’ I saw life as being abjectly awful, and any nice event or good day was simply a ruse to distract me from the overall abject awfulness of it all.
Different people conceptualize their depression in different ways, but for me I can only describe it as feeling as though I was down a well. Everything within sight was suffocating darkness, no way forward, no way through. I was trapped. At one point I saw no way out of the darkness except by way of taking my life, I'd thought about suicide before, most days in fact, but that was the first time I'd ever been so truly desperate that it seemed like my only option.
It gives me hope that if I share my story perceptions of mental health will change
I'll backtrack here briefly to say that when my mother first found out about my mental health issues, she was less than supportive. I was 12 years old, it was my first experience of stigma because of my mental health and it was from my mum. It's taken us a long time to get to where we are now, and a lot of trial and error, but she began to understand my depression and was, ultimately, the person who saved me when I was at my lowest ebb.
She didn't even know it, but the next day we talked and she was so supportive, she said everything she didn't know I needed to hear. It felt like she'd reached in and picked me up out of the metaphorical well and I could actually begin to see some hope for the future again.
I see that as a tangible example of how taking the brave step of opening up to someone can change their perception of mental health. It gives me hope that if I share my story, along with everyone else who has pledged to support the Time to Change campaign, perceptions of mental health will change and one day stigma will be a thing of the past.