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What does depression feel like for me?

Adventures with the black dog.

One of the first times the word depression got thrown around in our house was when my wife gently asked me back in 2012 if I thought I might be depressed. Not a totally bonkers suggestion you might think, given that I was miserable, stressed, angry and crying a lot. However I responded by bursting into tears and angrily remonstrating with her that she was way off track! Who do you think I am?! Absolutely definitely zero depression to see here madam, move along please!

But eventually (belatedly) the penny did drop and with the help of many wonderful GPs and therapists I did indeed twig that I was suffering from depression. And over the years, as I’ve had more episodes, I’ve got better at recognising the warning signs that I was so completely blind to early on in my illness.

I now see that for me, there will normally be some sort of trigger which will start a depressive episode. Often it will be something where I feel like I’ve let people down – for example, while working in recruitment, if a candidate’s move to my client fell through, I’d feel racked by guilt that I hadn’t done my job properly and that I was uniquely culpable for this unfortunate situation. I’d convince myself that the client in question would devote a lot of time to thinking about what an awful recruiter I was and how I’d really let them down. That would cause me to go into a bit of a spiral of self-loathing and recriminations. (One of the reasons I stopped working in recruitment was that what is predominantly a sales environment with its associated highs and lows was quite a bad fit for my own psychological make up – after 13 years doing it, the highs of doing a deal had largely worn off but the lows of deals dropping out etc kept getting lower!)

At the start of a depressive episode, the changes are so subtle that they’re almost imperceptible to me. I’ll feel unusually pissed off about specific things – a certain person has annoyed me or I’ll think they’ve behaved like a dick etc. It might be that my wife having once again failed to put her coffee cup in the dishwasher suddenly feels like a massive betrayal or something equally irrational.

It’s only recently that I realised that in these instances it’s the depression manifesting itself rather than genuine grievances with that individual. That sounds like a simple point but the ramifications for me were huge and helped me to stop blaming others for how I was feeling and instead to look to myself (with the help of fantastic professionals) for how I could work towards managing my emotions in a healthier way, rather than lashing out emotionally and blaming others.

As the depression starts to take hold of me, it feels like small tendrils beginning to wrap themselves around my legs and then progressively climb higher up my body. The sky will feel like it’s getting lower, greyer, more oppressive. Things that I normally enjoy will start to lose their sheen. In particular, music that I love won’t sound quite right when I’m feeling depressed. I’ll feel so tired and devoid of energy. Limbs are heavy. It’ll take an enormous amount of mental and physical effort (read: helpful badgering from my wife) to do the things which I now know will make me feel a bit better. The negative voices will get louder in my head. I’ll start to feel more fragile. If ever there’s a small setback when I’m depressed my mind will quickly start deliberating whether suicide is a good option.

During my worst periods, I’d interpret almost anything as a sign that I’m an absolutely awful human being. Slightly awkward interaction with a stranger on the tube? That must mean I’m scum and worthless and it would be best if I killed myself sharpish.

Then cue the feelings of guilt about how selfish it would be to put my wife and family through that. I’d feel so guilty about that that I’d go back to thinking I should kill myself. So I’d get stuck in a massive mental loop. Other times, the thoughts would pop into my head unexpectedly. I’d be driving along and think what it would be like to crash into another vehicle and end it all.

The self-loathing would grow and take on other dimensions. I’d convince myself that I was making up the depression and using it as an excuse because I was so extraordinarily weak that I couldn’t cope with life like other people could. I’d feel physically repulsive (often not helped by the large amounts of comfort eating I’d be doing during depressive periods, of which more later). I’d feel pathetic that I felt so awful, especially when so many people had it much worse than me (my mind at this point would normally lead me to think of starving children in Africa or people living in war ravaged parts of Syria who I imagined were all heroically coping with whatever hardships life threw at them, not snivelling on their therapist’s sofa like I was). At the same time, there’d also be a part of me that wanted the depression to get so bad that people could see that I wasn’t making it up.

When I’m depressed, any successes I might be having either personally or professionally are completely invisible to me. All I can do is fixate on my perceived failures. I also have much less ability to function – I can’t think straight, can’t remember things, can’t summon up words like I normally can, can’t focus as easily on tasks that require concentration (for example, when I was depressed and making notes during candidate meetings, I’d often just be writing down any old nonsense to give the impression I was absorbing what was being said when I was just feeling completely gripped by panic and unable to take anything in). I constantly have a voice in my head belittling me or what I’ve just said, imagining how low other people’s opinions of me must be.

Often my mind will become like a third party directing how I should behave externally. When I’m really depressed, my exterior starts to feel more like a charade – I’m faking it to appear like I’m fine and everything is normal but inside I feel really bad. I’ll shy away from contacting people at work and socially. I become scared of the phone, preferring to stick to email / Whatsapp as it’s safer with less potential for me being tripped up by an unexpected question (plus I’ll always be thinking I’ve done something wrong and that people only want to speak to me on the phone to give me an enormous bollocking). I’ll be anxiously checking different apps on my phone a lot. I actually had to get rid of the voicemail function on my phone because seeing the red dot indicating I had a voicemail always made me feel like there was a message waiting for me to tell me I had messed up in some sort of way.) I’ll drift into ‘compare and despair’ mode, measuring myself against others, but only against people who are more successful / better off / seemingly happier, thereby creating a perfect way of guaranteeing to ALWAYS feel inferior. Everything feels a bit hopeless. Like there is no chance of everything working out and I don’t even have the energy to try and do so. Best idea is just to give up and curl into a ball.

Then there’s all the BAD coping mechanisms that I’d try and use in the face of depression. At the beginning I thought that booze might be the way to get through feeling so monumentally awful but even in my cognitively-impaired state it didn’t take me that long to see that depression plus being permanently hungover was a pretty bad combination.

So I just defaulted to overeating. I’d always loved food (and came to realise with extensive therapy that I had always had a bit of an unhealthy relationship with it and used it as a crutch throughout my life). Now, feeling so low, all I wanted to do was eat stodgy comfort food and hibernate. Before I’d fill my face, it always felt like eating would fill the void and make me happier but it never really did. Instead it just left me feeling guilty and disgusted with myself afterwards for having gorged myself. I became a bit like a secret drinker but with food, carefully hiding my tracks. I didn’t want my wife to come home and find a 400g Dairy Milk wrapper sitting at the top of the bin, so I hid that fucker (and the rest) all the way down the bottom. Or put it in the bin over the road from the house. Or kept it in my bag and then threw it out miles from home the next day if I was feeling particularly paranoid.

Because I was putting on weight from overeating so much, I’d take to wearing lots of loose-fitting dark jumpers to try and hide how fat I felt, plus it was comforting hiding in a big cozy jumper. It was kind of like being given a hug and shielding myself from the outside world at the same time.

So yeah, reading back over these recollections, it sounds pretty bad and it reminds me that I really was all over the place when going through my lowest moments. But as I’ve got more experienced with depression (and, in the spirit of absolute candour, have now been taking antidepressants since 2012), I know that I CAN do things to snap myself out of the downward spiral. A few days ago I started to notice the all-too-familiar feeling of rising depression. All the usual symptoms starting to bubble to the surface. But these days I know what I need to do: be honest with my wife about how I’m feeling. Don’t drink any booze while feeling like this. Write my gratitude list. Go for a bike ride while listening to some uplifting music. And I come back feeling better.

I know that depression is almost certainly going to be something that will rear its ugly head many times throughout my life. But I also know that even if it gets really bad, I now have a much better toolkit for dealing with it and to minimise the time I have to spend feeling really awful. 

Those dark clouds do always eventually clear for me. And if you’re suffering from depression, it’s so important that you know they will clear for you too. 

There is loads of amazing help out there and ideas you can implement on your own (as detailed on dprsd.co.uk) in order to feel better.

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