Mental health, a subject we all talk about, hear about and think about. In many ways, it is a lot like grief – we see it happening over there, to someone else, not part of our life. And then all of a sudden it is. It can creep up on you when you least expect it, arrive without warning and stay indefinitely. For many people, they may not even know that they are depressed. Depression disguises itself in many forms, the symptoms can come and go and seemingly have no rhyme or reason – or do they?
I have a hypothesis that the rise of mental health related illnesses is directly related to the loss of ourselves. Depression, in its simplest form is the brain’s way of shutting down when it becomes overwhelmed or unable to process the environment around it. Now this can be driven by circumstances, experiences, by the way we are made or a combination of them all. It’s a lottery and that’s an important point to realise. People aren’t ‘mad’ because they get ill, sometimes you just get a shit deal. Having depression does not make you mad, it just means you got ill too.
Now I digress here a little but please bear with me as all will become clear. In our society, the level of freedom we are experiencing right now is huge, greater than we have ever had. The digital age is well and truly upon us. This has opened up the world of social media and most importantly what people can say and do and how they connect with you. We have invited the world, their wisdom but also their judgements into our lives. Our healthcare and life expectancy is better than ever so our ability to cope with death, when it comes, is not great. We are so busy engaging and managing all of the ‘man made’ things in the world that we don’t have any time left to engage with the real stuff that exists beyond the bright lights and Wi-Fi. We believe that we can manage and forecast everything. We plan our lives with minute detail from a young age. When things don’t go to plan people often respond with “OMG, what will you do now”. It’s all a scam – there is no certainty, ‘man-made’ stuff is just that, it will come and go. Our bodies will get old and they will die. But who we really are, our core soul, our inner factory of love and kindness does not bio-degrade or go out of fashion. It will not be forgotten or left at the back of a cupboard. It will be imprinted on the very core of us and those that we have touched. Of course, it’s fine and necessary to interact with the ‘man made’ world but let’s not get too caught up in this optical illusion. None of it is real, we are what is real and what matters is the stuff that cannot be manufactured, shared on social media or used to advise and lead you down someone else’s path. The thing that we all really need to find and be accepted for is ourselves and that is priceless and requires no cash at all.
So, the key question for me is how does the way we are living today impact on our mental health and why? There is so much going on out there, that sometimes, I just get really confused, overwhelmed and lost. In all honesty, most of the time, I have no idea whether I am a feminist or not, whether I should work or stay at home with the children, whether I should be thinner or fatter, what diet I should follow, how should I parent my children, what should I do to prolong my life, what charities should I support, what job should I do, what faith should I follow, what kind of a person should I be, how am I meant to cope with grief, the menopause and getting older? In amongst of all of the noise that makes up life, I can get well and truly lost. And that is why sometimes, I get depressed.
I don’t believe that I am on my own here – despite the fact many people are still too fearful or embarrassed to talk about the subject. You see depression in so many different forms – anger, resentment, fear, isolation, sensitivity, desperation, sadness. There are many suits of armour worn by people to hide their vulnerability. We hide our vulnerability because that’s what we are taught to do, to survive and theoretically stay safe. The tragedy is, that this is without doubt, the biggest mistake we humans can ever make. We think that by hiding our vulnerability we are protected when in fact it weakens us, makes us more fearful and leads us further away from being who we are met to be – very often without a map to get back. If we could all be brave enough to step out from the shadows and show our vulnerability, offer empathy and spend as much time on giving kindness as we do on covering the cracks, I believe that we can create a level of safety and stability in our society, that we have never seen before.
Sadly, I cannot change the world alone, nor would I want to. But I can be part of the change that I want to see. I can step out from the shadows and tell my story in the hope that it will encourage empathy, understanding and ultimately change. So here is my story, told in the hope that it will help someone, somewhere see that they are not on their own with their mental illness and that there can be hope as you go through the journey.
I have experienced 4 bouts of depression during my life to date. Each experience has been different but all initiated by a loss of control and direction in my life.
The first bout of depression was many years ago when I was only 21 years old. The support network and understanding in those days was very limited. I was given medication by a doctor but didn’t take it. No-one explained what depression was, why I was suffering from it or how the tablets would help. I felt like a leper, I told no-one in my peer group and went off to live with my Aunt and Uncle to ‘get over it’. It was a truly awful time and is firmly etched in my memory. It took at least a year to get over the depression, most of which was spent either asleep, locked inside my own head or crying with a rawness I had never experienced before. Looking back, it is clear that the onset of this depression was the breakdown of my first ‘grown up’ relationship and the subsequent loss of structure and direction in my life. Time did eventually heal me and I put this behind me as simply ‘having a broken heart’. I didn’t even register it as depression at the time.
The second bout of depression came many years later, after I had given birth to our third child. In all honestly, I think that it probably started after our second child but I was so busy running a business I simply carried on regardless. It came to a head when I started working part-time. I truly, truly believed that I was a ‘bad’ parent. I woke up every morning dreading the day ahead of me. It just got worse and worse. I would cry all of the time, in the middle of supermarkets, walking the dogs, cooking dinner -and I had no idea why. I actually believed, at one point, that the children would be better off with someone else, as I was such a rubbish mum and everything I did would ruin their life later down the line. Having children turned my life upside down and hit every emotional trigger, from my own child hood that it was possible to hit.
The low point came one morning when my husband got ready to leave for work for the week (he worked away). I simply could not face getting out of bed. He stayed home and took me to the doctors. He made me come clean to the doctor about how I had been feeling and the level of emotional turmoil that I was constantly in. This experience with this doctor was so very different from before. He was caring, sensitive and made me feel safe. He told me that I had a classic case of post-natal depression and that I was not a bad mother at all. He carefully explained what post-natal depression is and the best way to treat it. He basically described it as helping my hormones to normalise after having three children in five years and allowing my brain to catch up with my vastly changed circumstances. I took anti-depressants for 6 months, as he suggested. At 6 months precisely I stopped taking them (not cold turkey but dropping one day per week until I was off them). For me, they were a life line when I needed a break and some help to adapt to my new circumstances. I had a supportive and caring GP, who I saw regularly. We were lucky enough to be able to afford a mothers help to give me a hand and ease the workload. It was such a relief to know that, I was actually being a good mum and that lots of people suffered from post-natal depression, I wasn’t completely barking mad. I remember at the time deciding that, for me, it was important not to hide the fact that I had post-natal depression nor that I was taking medication to help me through. Amazingly quite a number of other mums were also in the same boat, I just didn’t know.
Just a note here, I know medication is not for everyone. It is a decision to be taken between you and your GP. I have no opinion either way on whether people should or should not take it. I can only make my own decision based on my circumstances and I am happy with the one that I made at the time.
My third bout of depression came 18 months ago, shrouded in the mask of grief when I lost my father. My grief turned into a deep, deep depression that I was simply unable to shake. My core foundations had been taken away and it has taken the unwavering support of my wonderful GP, family, professional grief counselling and time. This has probably been my longest and deepest period of depression but one that I have had amazing support with. I am now slowly coming out the other side but I would be lying if I said that I was over it – I will never get over losing my dad who I loved so deeply that there was simply no end to it, I will simply learn to live with the grief. I have written extensively about my experience with grief in separate posts so I don’t think I need to add much more here except to say, please don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it, grief is not simply a passing phase but one we need to learn to live with throughout our life.
The fourth bout of depression that I have included is actually the menopause. Now we could argue that this is not depression. However, it often feels like it, it’s a sensitive subject that isn’t talked about enough, the support network is not quite there within the NHS and many women are mis-diagnosed with depression when it happens. Therefore, I have included it in this list, if for no other reason, than to make sure we don’t under estimate the impact it can have on our lives.
I do not know what the future holds for me and whether more bouts of depression will come. I am not afraid if they do. I understand the triggers and symptoms and have created my own plan to avoid the cracks in life, where possible. Failing that, as you would imagine, I have my disaster recovery plan – tried, tested and proven.
My advice, don’t be afraid, look depression straight in the face, get to its root cause, seek professional help, tell your nearest and dearest, allow yourself time to heal and find a map to get back to you.