A beginners guide to depression.
It has been said by many that depression is the black death of the 21st century, whilst this is a bit of an exaggeration (it doesn’t kill people directly, nor makes them come out in boils), I do understand where the comparison comes from, whilst not really infectious, it is a product of our society just as the bubonic plague was a product of theirs, it spreads silently through our world, feeding on the stresses caused by our daily, unfulfilling lives, those who suffer from it can go their entire lives without ever even knowing what is wrong with them, countless others fail to seek help and suffer in silence. Why does this happen?
Because depression is hugely misunderstood. It’s not something that everyone gets from time-to-time, it is a legitimate mental illness which can be just as crippling as a broken back.
In 2001 I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Frankly I did not believe it and refused the offer of antidepressants or therapy, I didn’t refuse to believe it out of pride; it was ignorance. I have always been a little bit sad, my life had always been difficult and I figured I had just grown used to feeling disappointed with life. In my mind, I wasn’t ill. I was just cynical.
It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I actually had a mental illness, my girlfriend at the time had to tell me that I’d stopped caring about anything before I even realised that anything was truly wrong with me. It eventually reached a point where the only thing that could elicit an emotional response from me at all was television.
At around the same time, my friend who we shall call ‘Steve’ (because that was his name) started to come over to my house a lot more, we would spend days at a time (neither of us had jobs) just watching Joss Whedon shows over and over again. We had nothing to do, nothing to live for and I didn’t care.
I’m sure it sounds to you that Steve was also depressed, however this is where the distinction must be drawn. Steve was not depressed, Steve had the blues.
Recently he had lost his job, it was a job he had loved and he earned a reasonable amount of money doing. Once that job had gone, he had nothing. This upset him and when you mix sadness with boredom it becomes almost indistinguishable from depression. He came to see me almost daily – often staying over on my sofa – and he started to behave like me because people who have the blues find people who suffer from depression to be easy company: We don’t care enough to try to snap you out of it.
I on the other had, had many jobs over the years and – with the exception of the first one which I was made redundant from in 1998 – I quit them all (or was fired), I had a girlfriend whom I loved dearly and who felt the same way about me; I treat her like a servant. I had a reasonably nice house which I constantly made a mess of and I had some money – granted it wasn’t much (job seekers allowance) but it was enough to live on – I blew it all on unhealthy food and DVD Box sets allowing my girlfriend to support my living expenses.
Steve was sad because the life he had worked hard on had been taken from him. My life was fine and I sabotaged it at every step of the way.
I look back on the person I used to be and I cannot identify with him, that guy wasn’t me, it was as though someone had locked my actual personality up and replaced me with an absolutely horrible excuse for a human being.
This is the part where people start to say ‘Oh you just want sympathy because you were lazy’ but here is the part that people don’t really get: I don’t want sympathy, I WAS being lazy, I didn’t care about my situation or the people I was hurting because of it, I don’t want sympathy because it wasn’t really me, it was an imposter. I have so much gratitude for my ex girlfriend (in fact I stayed with her for many years after our relationship went stale, out of guilt because I felt like I owed her so much) and my family as I have no idea how they coped with me, I never showered, I ate nothing but junk food and I rarely left the sofa, let alone the house. If it weren’t for my ex and my family actually forcing me into action, I may possibly still be in the same situation.
You may be asking yourself what happened to me to make me feel sad, but if you are then I’ve still not quite explained it well enough to you yet:
Depression isn’t about being sad, you aren’t. It’s not about being angry, you aren’t.
It’s about feeling nothing. That is the problem, nothing gets you down, nothing makes you angry, nothing makes you happy. You don’t care about anything.
In fact, in many ways; depression is wonderful, if the world was happy to provide you with everything you’d ever need without you making any effort; depression wouldn’t be a problem at all. Depression is basically your mind looking at the world and saying “Nope, this is too much to cope with, time to switch off”. The reason why depression is so bad is because it’s so easy to be depressed, the hard part comes when you decide to stop being depressed.
Try to imagine the feeling that you get on a cold winter’s day, the heating isn’t on and you are tucked up in bed next to the love of your life. You are so warm, so happy.
Suddenly your alarm goes off; it’s time to get up and go to work and it’s not a job you love, it’s a horrible job which you hate with a passion. Suddenly you feel like getting out of bed is the hardest thing anyone has ever had to do, you stare at the alarm clock, willing time to turn back so you can just stay warm for a little while longer.
That feeling that you all have experienced is how a depressed person feels all of the time, it’s safe, warm and cozy inside the little bubble we have created for ourselves. Leaving that bubble and entering the world isn’t a question of making the effort. We are not lazy for wanting to stay there. The outside world is terrifying, dangerous and if we take a wrong step, it will kill us.
Many people like to tell us to ‘get over it’, however there is no ‘it’ to get over, it’s like telling someone to get over the fact they have a head. It’s not something that will go away, it is a part of them and it always will be.
It’s been over a decade since my diagnosis and I still suffer from depression, I always will. Once you learn to accept depression as an actual illness, you learn that – like any chronic illness – you just have to learn how to manage it effectively and like anything that you put a lot of effort into, it becomes something you can tolerate. The urge to retreat inside myself and flip the switch to the ‘off’ position again is still there every single day of my life and most likely always will be but now my mind has trained itself to tell it one word every morning.
When I first started to manage my depression, it began with getting a job. It was an awful job that I did not enjoy at all, I stuck at it for a few months and then quit. That was fine though, everybody slips and I had people who would keep pushing me, realising that one of my major catalysts for depression was inactivity. Slowly but surely I managed to get myself to a stage where if I was at a job I couldn’t cope with, I’d find another one first before I left. Eventually I was in a position where I managed to remain in regular employment.
I started to treat my girlfriend like a person again, unfortunately our relationship was severely tarnished (and understandably so) by my actions (or lack thereof) in the past and although we had a good run we did eventually part ways in 2010, really it should have ended sooner but I did not have the strength of mind to see that.
The long term effects of depression are always there, my memory is now shockingly bad (although it is slowly improving) and my emotional response to things is still not what would be referred to as ‘normal’ (I smile when I should be shocked, I cannot cry over anything that isn’t fictional etc…) but you learn to live with these things after a while.
Today I have an amazing life, I have a job that I love, I have hobbies that keep my mind occupied and I am constantly finding ways to improve my life. Am I still depressed? Yes, of course I am.
Every morning I struggle to get out of bed, all day I fight the urge to quit my job and go home, eating right and exercising feels like a herculean task. However I am now aware of my mental issues and because of this, I DO fight. In fact, knowing that I am able to live my life as if I were a completely normal person every day makes me feel incredibly proud.
I’d be lying if I said it got easier, it never has done so far, however my ability to cope has grown stronger.
I’ll always have depression but that doesn’t mean I have to be depressed. Life is for living and I intend to do just that.
For more of an insight into depression, I highly recommend the book ‘I Had A Black Dog’ it explains the illness in a way so simplistic that even a child could understand it.