At what point does being sad become depression? At what point does a pessimistic point of view become a problem? When does apathy about your very existence become dangerous? These are questions that far too many people have to ask themselves nowadays, hidden by a cloud of their own guilt and shame, unable to find help, left to flounder, seeking solace in silence.
I know because I’ve been there, and all the time I was struggling with my own mind, those around me were finding it very difficult to deal with me too. Depression is seen as an issue to be swept under the carpet, and yet it is an illness which affects around one in four people each year. It is thus more prevalent than many other conditions which are equally as devastating, but clearly something distinguishes it in our minds. Is it fear? A lack of understanding or ability to empathize? The fact that the long-standing silent struggle of depression sufferers has rendered the issue inaccessible to the average (I use this word loosely) person?
A few months ago, just before leaving for a year abroad, I decided I’d had enough of hiding away in the shadows of my own mind. I suddenly needed to expel the negativity I felt, to show people I was no longer afraid, and I wrote it all down. I published a blog, which I now use just so people know I haven’t got lost somewhere on the continent, and I told a bit of my story. Not all of it, because sometimes some things do need to be left unsaid, but enough so that I hoped people might understand.
The response I received was astounding; people I would never have imagined struggling with anything told me how my words echoed with how they had felt at some point in their life, and people who had never been depressed said they had gained some insight into what it can do to someone. I realised that the reason I had received these responses was because what I had done was so out of the blue, and so rare. This is the problem: those who have it are so quiet and ashamed that they leave everyone else blocked out from their pain, and that evolves into a fear and uncertainty surrounding the entire issue.
It becomes easier to describe each time I try now. Things happen, life pushes you along, throwing all sorts of things at you which you must try and bat right back, and it just isn’t always possible. Sometimes you miss, and those things start to knock you down, and eventually you end up on your knees, struggling to keep going. But that isn’t depression, although it is different for everyone. I think I would describe it as it is an emotional and physical manifestation of an unbearable, draining, chronic sadness which is so deep rooted you cannot escape it. It’s there, living in your mind, and no matter what you do, it will always outrun you.
Depression crept up on me. At first I was convinced I hadn’t changed, but now I see that I had. I became irrationally worried about the tiniest of things, I stopped going out, leaving the house, leaving my room. I cried at anything, everything and nothing. I was tired all of the time but couldn’t sleep, my work as good as stopped. At that point, tutors got involved (of course), they encouraged me to get help. I rejected it. I didn’t want help, because this was all my fault, I didn’t deserve help, no one could help me anyway; this was just how I was. Things got worse, I became so caught up in my own mind that I felt that the only way to stop feeling so disconnected from anything physical was to hurt myself, to use pain to bring me back to some semblance of the real, physical world. I was lost, and sure I would never find myself or a way out of what was happening to me and so I started considering ‘a way out’ in another sense. Soon after I realised that this was not normal and that I had changed far more than I ever thought I could.
It was at the point that I realised I had become dangerous to myself that I went back to my tutors, tried counselling (and absolutely hated it), went to doctors. The medication I was on made me sick, dizzy and constantly tired. I was so ill at the start I felt worse, but something was different. I had regained some motivation. I started venturing out again, but this wasn’t easy at first. Feeling ready for the world only lasted for short bursts of time, resulting, for example, in one hideously embarrassing incident where a tutor happened across me crying under a sink in my faculty library. But once the physical reaction to the drugs had stopped, I was simply being. I certainly didn’t feel any better. But I also didn’t feel worse. I was just tired. I was sleeping for most of the hours of the day. I was allowed to miss essay after essay; it was a weird limbo.
However, slowly but surely I started achieving more. Not necessarily feeling happier, although I did sometimes, but coping and doing things in spite of how I felt was a big step. What I have realised is that the medication is not there to fix your brain for you: that’s your job. It’s about working out how your own brain works; all the while it is trying to trip you up. A battle of the same will, one might say. I guess my point here is that it isn’t easy. In fact, it is the exact opposite, but it’s probably going to be worth it, because you’re guaranteed to get somewhere, as long as you are willing to fight through how you feel. It isn’t a question of being able to do it; it’s a question of wanting to.
What is easy for me to see is that my year abroad could not have come at a better time. Although I was devastated to have to leave so many people in Oxford who I loved, and who had been all of the support I had needed over the past year, an escape from the pressure here was a breath of fresh air. Of course, I had new battles to fight, and I had to learn all over again how to cope – because now I really was alone. I couldn’t just call someone to come and sit with me for some time until the feelings had started to pass.
However, this has been good for me. I could never have managed it straight away but I have come far enough in my recovery that time was now all I needed. Being in France has given me that; I don’t have essays to write every week, or numerous lengthy commitments every day. If I ever feel that I just can’t cope with something, lying down and closing my eyes until it goes away is a real possibility now. Of course that has made a huge difference; it hasn’t made me better, but it’s given me the chance to help myself.
Telling people you are struggling is never easy, it’s like admitting to all your personal faults and weaknesses at once. And asking for help is even worse, especially if you are as stubborn as I am! But it’s worth it, because suffering from depression is so unbelievably hard. I found it nigh on impossible to help myself when I felt I was doing it alone, and even though those you love may not understand why or how, or what to do to help, at the very least talking can help. Plus, they might surprise you, and themselves, with what they can do to help you.
I’m still not on a clear track to being completely better: on the whole I cope now, and am generally happier on a day to day basis. I’m becoming the person I remember again. But I am wary, because depression has this sneaky way of tricking you. It can make you believe anything is true because it is your own mind talking to you, but it is a warped version of reality or fantasy that you are being fed, and it is so important to remember that. For me, the most important point I’ve drawn from this is that you have to talk about it, to those close to you, to others who feel the same, whether you know them or not. Because they are the people who can stop you from losing yourself. So tell someone, and talk, make them or let them understand, because in the end, I bet what you are most afraid of is yourself. And believe me, if you’ve got the courage to talk to someone properly, there is nothing to be afraid of.