Depression is more than simply feeling unhappy or fed up for a few days. I have often pondered over questions like ‘How do people live with depression, or even just with the knowledge that it could envelop them at any time? With the fear of fear?’ Whilst I do not mean to profess knowledge and understanding beyond that of anyone else in this room, I would like to take a short part of your day to share an account of my own experiences with depression. I shall try to keep it relatively short. I would be most grateful for your attention for the best part.
First of all some facts on depression:
- Globally more than 350 million of all ages suffer from depression.
- 1 in 10 people will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives.
- More than 20 million people in the United States suffer from depression at a given time.
- Women are twice as likely to suffer from depression as men.
- As many as 15% of those who suffer from some form of depression take their lives each year.
- Approximately 80% of sufferers of depression are not receiving treatment.
- Three in four young people fear the reactions of friends when they talk about their mental health problems.
- 90% of people who die through suicide in the UK are experiencing mental distress.
“From one day to the next, my eyes confess
Simply that which my lips fail to address”
Few of you will know that earlier this year I was diagnosed with depression. But, to tell the truth, I already knew. The news didn’t come as much of a surprise to me. And, unfortunately, it won’t be to many of you too. I have known for at least the last year and a half. That much is certain. The hardest thing was knowing what to say. Who I should talk to. Nevertheless, I knew what I wanted to do, what I had to do. But I just couldn’t bring myself to come out and actually say it. Not only did I not want to admit to anyone what the problem might be, but also, more importantly, the last thing I wanted to be was a burden. And I feel guilty for being so. I didn’t want to show people anything was wrong. After all, depressives often tend to play down their illness, in a kind of false self-protection. But it has got to the point where I need people to see, I need people to know, how much I am hurting. I guess I crave acknowledgment and understanding from my friends. I know it sounds selfish of me, but it’s true.
I am aware however, that life for friends and relatives of depressives is at least as difficult as it is for the sufferers themselves. You have your well-meant, optimistic, rational views, but depressives always know precisely why everything you suggest to them can only go wrong. It is only recently that I have realised something must be said. I couldn’t carry on. If how I was now feeling was going to be how I felt forever, or even for the foreseeable future, then I was simply not prepared to live like that. I can’t hide the truth any longer. I just can’t shrug off the listlessness, the lack of interest, the feeling of just not caring. Depression kills all positive feelings. Suddenly everything strikes you as pointless, hopeless. In fact, when my suspicions were confirmed, I was relieved more than anything. It gave me a reason, an explanation. Now I can focus on the future. Taking one step at a time on the road to recovery, with a few small goals and slowly build from there.
Being depressed was the last thing I suspected back then. My life was a good one. To me, I didn’t have much to complain about. The gloom and the inexplicable sadness, the first signs of a depression, dragged me down only for very brief moments. I had a happy family and a great circle of friends. And I was performing relatively well at school. I had my whole life ahead of me. I’m sure you can imagine all the clichés. It was not as if I didn’t have a release from the strains of everyday life either. I did. I have always been very active. My one great passion is sport. I used to represent both the school and Sevenoaks at rugby every weekend. A team that pretty much had everything. In April 2013, Sevenoaks finished as one of the top four rugby teams in the country – losing in the semi-final of the National Cup. Now, I don’t play. I’d like to. But I can’t enjoy the things that I once loved anymore. Yet to me, there was still no apparent reason as to why I would or even could be depressed. I was wrong. What I had failed to understand was that depression doesn’t care who it attacks. Depression isn’t a weakness of character but an illness. An indiscriminate illness that afflicts people without regard to their status, success or strength, and regardless of whether these people have all the qualities and possessions that we might think are necessary for a happy life.
“To fly so high and fall
Is surely better than to have never flown at all”
Mental illness is still surrounded by prejudice, ignorance and fear. Non-depressives can rarely grasp the power of depression because they don’t understand that it is an illness. People wonder why I see everything in such a negative way, why I can’t just pull myself together, why I’m forever moaning in my monotonous tone. They are not to know that I feel powerless in the face of it. I could no longer control it. When confronted with the subject of depression, most people realise that they have at best a vague idea of the illness. The word depression has a certain stigma to it. I’m sure that for a lot of you, it conjures up images of embarrassment, shame and inadequacy.
The black thoughts soon began to increase as time pressed on, with every passing day my distress deepened. If I’m honest, last summer was a real struggle. It was the first prolonged period of time during which I would spend most of my time at home relaxing. – away from my friends and any distractions. Alone. I have since learned that doing something, however much energy it takes, is still better than giving in to the fatigue and having a rest. I have to give the day a structure, do things, and give my thoughts no chance to go round in circles. The important thing isn’t to do anything extraordinary; it is just to do something. Otherwise the thoughts come. There are times when my head is in pieces – too many times to remember, to be honest – but I always think it would have been much worse if I’d been doing no exercise. I go down the gym, run, get a swim in, play football occasionally. But nothing extreme. It is just a way of keeping myself in decent nick.
In short, during the summer my head was a mess, and in truth, it has not got much better since. Depressives are no longer capable of seeing things realistically. I, myself, am no different. And I would see everything in a pessimistic, negative way. I was having difficulty distinguishing between what was real and what I imagined to be real, which as you can imagine, would cause some problems. I do not mean to use this as an attempt to excuse myself though.
“Wherever I turn it all looks black;
At what point was I cast from the beaten track?”
I just didn’t have a clue what was happening to me, or why. All I knew was that I couldn’t deal with it, because I didn’t really know what it was I was supposed to be dealing with, let alone how. It felt like something – or even someone – was taking over my mind and body and was trying to destroy me. It was like someone had sucked my spirit out of me. I felt trapped in a small room, with no light nor windows, and no door. There was no way for anyone to come in and help me and no way for me to get out. I have lost the will to do anything else but try and be happy and secure.
At times, it feels as if within me there is a double-thick pane of glass that screens me off from the life around me. As if I am viewing the world from a distance, rather than taking it all in and living every second. Sometimes, I no longer have the concentration to take part fluently in a conversation. And my gaze isn’t focused on anything anymore. I have become increasingly detached from what is happening around me. I had nothing to say to anybody, low in myself, no confidence. Classic depression. I was putting on a front all the time. And it got to a point where I just got fed up doing that. Consequently school has been a struggle. In truth, I can no longer remember which day of the week it is most of the time, I have to really think about it just to work it out. On my darkest days, I lack the motivation to guide my life in any direction. In the morning I have no desire to do anything that day, and in the evening I hate myself for not having accomplished anything. The emotional strain of the day leaves me shattered. Keeping an emotional lie takes an incredible amount of energy. And I don’t feel a great deal better when I wake up the next morning because I know what is facing me.
“Night and day are as one
In this land obscured of sun”
This last school year has probably been a step too far in all honesty. I have become less and less motivated as the months stretch on. And so now it has come to revision I really struggle. I guess there’s a part of me that doesn’t know where to start, but I think it’s more the fact that I feel like I’m a lost cause. No matter how much effort I put in now, things won’t change. I might get a slightly better grade, but in the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t change my perception of life. Sitting here, looking back now, I know what I want: I just want to enjoy life again. To go back two years when I felt better and appreciate life more.
My overriding emotions were, and still are to some extent, ones of anger and fear. Angry that I had remained silent for too long. Angry that I couldn’t combat my despair. Angry that I couldn’t be the person that I wanted to be anymore. I no longer have great control over my emotions. I am always struggling for control and I fear what might happen if I lose. I’m easily wound up, as some of you I’m sure have realised. And I say words that I have no right to say. Consequently, a fear of what people think of me soon surfaced. As well as a fear of failure and a fear of the future.
As so many of you will be painfully aware, people as ill and confused and as desperate as I felt at this moment can be stricken with thoughts of suicide – the darkest idea of all flashing through an unbalanced and disturbed mind of ‘Maybe it would be better for everyone if I wasn’t here?’. The death of a depressive is never a free decision. The illness narrows perception to the extent that the sufferer no longer knows what it means to die. He thinks it just means getting rid of the illness. Most depressives who attempt suicide don’t want to die; they just want the darkness that defines their thoughts to disappear once and for all. When depressive illness is at its most powerful the future appears so bleak that it’s almost impossible to bear. Yet, in the days leading up to their attempted suicides, depressives are often in a better mood. They are relieved that they have finally decided to take what is, in their distorted perception, the only way out, the only solution to their problems. At the same time their improved mood is the façade behind which they hide their plans for death from their loved ones. In fact, it is generally accepted that in most cases depression makes the sufferer an expert at hiding their true feelings. For depressives, thoughts of suicide are to some extent a relief: the thought that there remains a way out helps them in the short term. The danger comes when the thought itself no longer provides enough comfort. Their irrational view of the world, restricted as it is to the negative, drives them to seek that way out of the darkness.
There have been times over the last few months when I have felt more free, more happy. I have finally been able to do what everyone else is doing, and to some extent, have fun. It was the company more than anything that helped. But just as abruptly, I can fall back into darkness. It’s almost as if I feel guilty for not being happy and when I do feel happy I’m guilty because I shouldn’t be if I’m depressed. The next day is always the worse, with the only thing getting me through the day being the knowledge that: if today is the worst day in the world, then tomorrow can only be better.
“The rain may fall; the day may be a strain,
But, don’t you fret, come tomorrow, the sun will shine again!”
Depression is rarely triggered by a single clear cause; sometimes the reason for its arrival remains unexplained. My understanding of what happens when someone falls under depression is that, whether through stress, exhaustion or a multitude of other reasons, a chemical imbalance occurs, reducing the efficiency and amount of transmitters that help the messages get through and the whole system breaks down. In the case of depression the transmitter that staves it off is called serotonin. When the medication works, it helps to stabilise the level of serotonin to the required level. Depressive illness, or at least the commonest form, which is that caused by stress, nearly always happens to one type of person. He or she will have the following characteristics; moral strength, reliability, diligence, strong conscience, strong sense of responsibility, a tendency to focus on the needs of others before one’s own, sensitivity, vulnerability to criticism, self-esteem dependent on the evaluation of others.
Whilst, I don’t want to come across as an attention-seeker, and I hope I haven’t, the main purpose for me doing this is to encourage debate and increase awareness on the subject of depression. If more is known on the illness, then, in theory, more can be done. Hopefully, the warning signs will be more obvious in the future, as a result.
- and almost anything else you can think of.
Lastly, I know I am not alone. This thought has provided me with some comfort, I must admit. I feel more comfortable knowing that others share similar experiences. It’s almost like we can tackle the illness together. In my opinion, the people most at risk to the illness are located in this room. If anyone listening to this is currently experiencing anything like what I have so far described, or recognises something in my words that strikes a chord with them, then my plea to them, for what it is worth, is this: understand that what I am suffering from is a physical illness, that you are not alone, that how you are feeling is not a sign of weakness or failure and that there is nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of. If you do think that you are living with a mental illness, please don’t live in silence. I have been where you are now, and those four walls around you cannot make a positive difference. Speak to a friend, let them know; you may think that they already do know and don’t care, but they need to hear it from you.
You are all motivated people and high achievers, but I personally think that in such a stressful, competitive environment, it is important to take a step back and reflect occasionally. We all have our own methods of escapism. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I try to do a bit of writing. Sometimes it makes a difference to have my thoughts written down, so I can view them rationally.
“We all strive for even greater achievement,
without realising that which has already been accomplished.”
Thank you for reading – your honest thoughts are always welcome.