Thanks to the courage of plenty of people far braver than I am, and their willingness to speak out about mental ill health, that statement is far less stigmatising and carries far less baggage than it did even 10 years ago. But still, the condition seems one that many people are uncomfortable talking about, however familiar they may be with it from their own experience, or that of their loved ones. If you want to talk about migraines, or a bad back, then I suspect there’s little or no taboo; but sadly, depression still carries an air of dark mystery about it.
At the end of the day though, depression is “just” another illness – and one that is often helped by talking, which makes the reluctance to speak about it all the more ironic, and potentially damaging. So for what little it’s worth, here are my own reflections on my experience of living with depression.
The first thing to say is that I chose the phrase “my experience of depression” quite deliberately. Although it is quite a common condition, I suspect there are as many different experiences of depression as there are sufferers, each with its own grim nuances and dark corners. I suspect we each have plenty in common; but I also imagine that each sufferer, and those that support them, have to get to know their own depression and its personal characteristics. What triggers it? When is it worst? What helps you manage it? So the observations here relate to my personal experience, and may be either more or less relevant to anyone else’s.
People sometimes ask what depression feels like. It’s very hard to describe. It’s not “feeling sad” – I know what “feeling sad” is like, and depression is quite different. The best way I have found to describe it is a complete inability to feel happy; and often an inability to feel anything much at all.
Call in to your mind for a moment the good or fun things that happened to you today, the positive stuff you know there is in your life, perhaps what great friends and family you have, the good job or the house, the treats you have to look forward to – anything that makes you feel good. Hold all that in your head for a few moments, and enjoy the feeling of contentment.
And then imagine that, despite the fact you know all that, you are utterly unable to feel happy. In fact, it just numbs you. You feel nothing. That’s the closest approximation in words I can get to the core feeling of my depression.
Then there’s the guilt. The awful realisation that none of that good stuff makes me happy – so what a selfish, self-absorbed individual I must be. The voice that tells you that “you ought to be happy”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the worst things you can do when I am depressed is try to lift my mood by telling me everything I have to look forward to or be thankful for. All that does is ramp up the guilt.
And then of course, because I don’t have much energy when I’m at my lowest, things don’t always get done very fast – housework, shopping, personal administration. So there’s some more guilt – “Why haven’t you done the shopping yet? You can’t even do that?”. On the (mercifully very few) occasions when I have actually started to wonder whether life is worthwhile, it’s been the guilt that’s tipped me into that.
Alongside that, is a notion I can only characterise as despair, a sense of futility. I’ll never forget the first time I formally sought help for depression. It was a weekend, we’d been out shopping I think, and I was feeling very low. We got home, and for no very apparent reason I started crying. It wasn’t one of those good cries which made me feel better afterwards – it was an acute howling which then collapsed into a prolonged, feeble cry that left me feeling empty. It frightened me so much that this was the point I realised I needed help.
That first formal diagnosis came at the age of 33, but looking back I’ve lived with depression for a lot longer than that. It just took me a while to realise. People ask “does it ever go?”. The answer is yes – and no.
Yes – in that I have long periods where I feel good and function perfectly happily and effectively – the majority of the time these days, I’m pleased to say. And for my friends and family who are reading this, and who will be kind enough to worry about me, let me reassure you that I’m in one of those good places right now!
And no – in that I’ve had to learn to be alive to the triggers of my depression, and try to nip it in the bud when it starts to rear its head. I’ve had to learn to be gentle with myself much more, give myself permission to have good days and bad days, do more things which I enjoy and fewer things which I “ought” to do. I’ve not had a bad episode for around three years now. I may never have another one, or I may – all I can do is take it as it comes, live each day as it is, and manage it as best I can.
And that lesson – to learn to try to live in the present – is a valuable life lesson for anyone, I would suggest. Depression is no friend of mine. People always assume I would rather not live with it, and of course at one level that’s true. But at the same time, I would never forego the lessons which learning to manage it has taught me.
I’ve no idea whether these words will be useful to anyone – and to be honest, I’ve hesitated for a long time over whether to make a blog post like this at all. As I’ve already said, my experiences may be quite different from the next person’s, and who’s to say if the lessons I’ve learned will be of any use to someone else. But if sharing my own experiences makes it even a tiny bit easier for someone who’s suffering right now, then I figure it’s worth it.