Belle About Town writer May Owen shares her shame and survival of the darkest blues
Yesterday marked the start of Depression Awareness Week, an annual campaign organised by UK charity Depression Alliance. You may already be tempted to stop reading this article here, confident in the belief this is an issue that will never affect you.
‘Weak people get depressed. I’m an emotionally-balanced woman who has led a happy life, depression afflicts only people who have suffered trauma.’
Sound familiar? If so, it’s time for a re-think. Latest statistics indicate that one in four of us will suffer from this debilitating illness – yes, that’s exactly what it is – at some point in our lives. Quickly translated, that means even if you are lucky enough to escape it, someone you love will be blighted by it. Like your successful, attractive, gregarious, popular best friend, for example.
I know this from excruciatingly painful personal experience. This Christmas I was crippled by the most terrifying, life-threatening, cruel and severe episode of clinical depression.
And I’m not talking about feeling a little blue because I had no one to kiss under the mistletoe, or a bit stressed by nerve-crunching pre-holiday work deadlines.
My life became a nightmare, every minute of every waking hour – of which there were many thanks to terrible insomnia (a tell-tale symptom) – almost intolerable. I was a shell of myself – that successful, attractive, gregarious, popular person I mentioned above.
My mind raced with incessant negative thoughts I had no control over – I am a failure, I let people down, nothing I ever do is good enough, I am a bad person, I waste my time on trivialities… I don’t deserve to live. Yes, that’s where the ‘life-threatening’ aspect of the illness comes into play. I was plagued by constant suicidal ideation, convinced that I was never going to escape this living hell.
To admit to yourself that you want to end your life is horrific in itself. It’s difficult to comprehend when you feel mentally well but, to use Winston Churchill’s description of his own depression, it’s like a black snarling dog. As much as you try to run from it, there it is, jaws clenched, ready to pounce and rip you to shreds.
Knowing I had lost all ability to cope by myself – again something incredibly difficult to admit to oneself – I sought the help of my GP, who prescribed me anti-depressants.
Thus began a long, agonising battle to survive – panic attacks when I was put on a medication that didn’t suit me, sleepless nights, foggy days and endless self-loathing. And if this sounds self-indulgent to you, it felt three-fold for me. Guilt plays a major part in depression – feeling that you are self-absorbed, selfish and should just get over yourself.
Four months, seven medications, five doctors, three psychiatrists and an amazing therapist later, I am finally – fingers crossed – on the long and bumpy road to recovery. I can wake up and feel, sometimes, at peace with myself, the overbearing chest heaviness and churning stomach – caused by crippling anxiety – are subsiding and I am finally beginning to feel that I do have a life worth living and something to offer the world.
I’m aware and fear that some people will dismiss my experience as self-indulgent garbage. During darker days I would scour the internet for forums and features on the subject and was appalled to come across one article by prominent mouth-piece Janet Street Porter, who rubbished ‘claims’ by middle-class women – people like you and me – that they were suffering from the condition. The headline: Depression? It’s just a trendy illness. As I said, if you haven’t been there or cared for someone who has, it is impossible to understand the enormity of it.
I felt so ashamed of telling people I was depressed. It was only two months into treatment, when my GP sat me down and told me to compare it to a physical illness, that I began to give myself a break. If I’d had diabetes, this would have been treated with medication to correct an imbalance in my body. I had an imbalance – in this case a chemical one in my brain – that was equally valid and just as important to rectify.
My case is an extreme one – retrospectively I missed the warning signs (insomnia, voracious craving for carbs, spending entire weekends home alone, constantly down on myself) and what could have been nipped in the bud at a mild or moderate stage was left to worsen and poison my mind. I write this piece not because I like the sound of my own voice, but because I want to prevent anyone I can from going through the trauma of clinical depression. Or to give hope to anyone reading who may right now be wading through that dark and scary pool of despair.
Don’t worry about feeling that you are weak by admitting there is a problem. Cliche alert – it takes a stronger person to do just that and ask for help.
Depression Alliance’s website offers excellent information on what to do if you feel you may be in the grip of this terrible – but extremely treatable – illness, including a questionnaire that will help indicate if you seeking medical advice would be useful.
Don’t suffer in silence – help and a brighter future are out there. And if you are one of the fortunate people yet to be affected, I beg that you take one thing from reading this and help break down the misjudgment and lack of understanding of this horrible mental illness. That black dog doesn’t discriminate and can appear to anyone at any time.
Depression Awareness Week April 22nd to 28th