Mental illness, such as depression, does not discriminate. Rich or poor, young or old, man or woman, black or white, prince or factory worker – we are ALL susceptible to some form of mental illness.
My own experience with mental illness came about 15 years ago, when I was diagnosed with Clinical Depression after suffering a nervous breakdown. In hindsight, there had been milder depressive episodes since my late teens, which I had ignored or misdiagnosed.
There are many types of depression and severity. Clinical depression, these days more commonly known as Major Depression or Major Depression Disorder, is a severe form of depression. It isn’t like depression caused by a loss (such as the death of a loved one) or medical condition, such as a thyroid disorder.
Clinical depression is extremely debilitating and a real threat to life. It’s bloody horrible. The symptoms I experienced were:
- a feeling of despair and hopelessness
- intense irritability, even over the smallest things
- no interest or pleasure in day-to-day activities
- insomnia at night, sleeping most of the day
- no energy, with even the simplest tasks taking extra effort and time
- reduced appetite
- intense restlessness
- feeling completely worthless, unlovable, a failure and a fraud
- difficulty thinking straight, concentrating and making decisions, living in a fog
- suicidal thoughtsIt was one of the scariest times of my life – for me, my partner at the time and my family and friends.
The causes of my clinical depression are complex – a combination of past traumatic events (not dealing with them at the time), severe stressors throughout my life, addictive behaviour and genetic vulnerability.
I won’t share the details of these factors, but when combined with a deep-rooted value system to expect reward for doing good things/achievements and to put on a brave face, if bad things happen (rather than deal with them), it was inevitable that all this would eventually have a detrimental effect on my mental health.
My breakdown happened whilst I was living abroad, having given up a highly rewarding, but stressful career, and renting out my home, to support my partner in following his dream career. It was almost as if the ‘black dog’ thought – “Yes, this is the time to bite! Let’s see if she listens now!”
After 3 increasingly bleak months, I came back to the UK with the last small piece of energy I had left – I found it from somewhere. Mum was waiting. She saved my life.
I was at my worst. Complete despair. I had no idea what was wrong with me or why …. and to be honest, I didn’t care. I just wanted to go to sleep and not wake up.
The diagnosis of Clinical Depression – by a consultant psychiatrist – after emergency referral by a GP – was, I recall, a huge shock for me and my loved ones. How could I, this successful, intelligent, confident, bubbly, ‘normal’ woman be mentally ill?
I remember sitting in the waiting room at the psychiatric unit with my mum. A patient approcahed and said “Don’t cry little girl” over and over. I whispered to my mum when the patient had walked away “I am not a bloody nutter like her!”
15 years on and thankfully my knowledge, understanding and acceptance of all forms of mental illness has improved …. Mum and I often still have a smile about that moment and the kindness of a stranger.
Of course, once the initial shock of the diagnosis had worn off, putting a name to what I was suffering from was really helpful – a lot people say this, don’t they? It meant I could research it, understand it, get treatment and recover. Easy peasy …. or so I thought!
Yes, with anti-depressants my mood gradually lifted, my sleep pattern and appetite improved, I started enjoying day to day life. I read loads of books on the subject of depression. I ordered materials by the truckload from MIND. After a few months’ wait, I attended 12 weeks of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with an NHS psychcologist. And of course, I had the unfailing support and love of my immediate family and close friends.
Within a year of my ‘crash’, I was so much better, had rented a little cottage, started a business, I was back on track ….. but that track was bumpy!
The thing about major depression is that there is not a quick fix. Taking medication and talking therapies are fantastic, but they are just the start.
For me, I now see that dark period – distressing as it was for me and my loved ones – as a sign that I wasn’t truly living MY life. Because, what I have learnt, is that fundamental to understanding my depression was understanding ME. What makes me tick. What my values are. Why I think (or thought) the way I do (or did). Why I hadn’t dealt with past trauma.
Self-wareness is key. To truly understand yourself, you have to recognise your deep-rooted thoughts and values, where they came from and the behaviours they influence …. before you can even contemplate changing those thoughts, values and behaviours, and ultimately the way you live your life.
It can be incredibly upsetting to revisit past events that were stressful or traumatic, especially if you have surpressed those painful memories for many years.
One can feel guilty for exploring childhood upbringing, but this process is not about finding fault – it is purely about understanding what makes you tick as a person.
One of my unhealthy practices was negative thoughts – not about the outside world – about me. The inner bully is a very common trait in depression. I am now my biggest fan! It’s bloody hard work getting out of the habit of talking to yourself negatively – but once you’ve learnt to catch those negative thoughts, you can stop that downward spiral.
I’ve had a a couple of serious bumps in the road over the years, triggered by loss and perceived failure. These milder depressive episodes have actually been useful, because they were reminders for me to not drop back into old, unhelpful and unhealthy ways of thinking, behaving and living.
Today, I have the benefit of two things. Firstly, the memory of that first really dark time 15 years ago – I am never going back there!
Secondly, my mental health toolkit – all the resources, activities, people, hobbies and so on that I have in my life today, all of which contribute to my good mental health. They are in no particular order, and I’ve probably missed some things off the list.
- Talking openly to family and friends
- Access to my GP & local mental health service, and other professional mental health
organisations, for example MIND and Action for Happiness (I avoid the quacks and
- Citalopram anti-depressants (yes, I still take a low maintenance dose)
- Understanding Depression by Paul Gilbert (excellent book)
- Exercise – Pilates, tennis/badminton
- Gardening – fresh air, exercise and you can eat what you grow
- Sleeping 8-9 hours every night
- Only drinking alcohol on special occasions and only if I’m feeling like it!
- Giving up smoking (6 years plus)
- Reducing coffee intake to 2 cups per day (used to be 10+)
- Drinking lots of water
- Eating good food (work in progress!)
- Working with vunerable adults
- Being involved in community projects
- Paying it forward (Google it!) and doing nice things for people
- Saying NO
- Running my own business
- Feeding a feral cat!
Some final thoughts I’d like to share.
When you become an adult, assuming you have the mental capacity, YOU become responsible for YOUR physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
YOU are responsible for your body and your mind. No one else. You CAN’T change was has happened in the past.
You CAN change your thoughts, your values and your behaviour. Become your biggest fan. It’s good for you!