With the support of therapists, a kind GP, a couple of sessions with a psychiatrist and a lot of soul-searching, self reflection and painful introspection, I know that I have been living with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember.
My bed-wetting as a child (which went on for a lot longer than for most children); my quiet days growing up, sitting alone for hours at a time, sometimes in near darkness; my jumpiness at any unexpected noises and constant, nervy fiddling with car radios, windscreen wipers and other buttons and switches on the dashboard (which were the source of much light-hearted derision amongst some of my mates); the periods of feeling sad, lonely, unheard and not understood; and the worrying – the at times, constant, crippling worrying – about being on time, of flying, about my health and the health of others and any impending events. There were fall-outs with friends that were unnecessary but felt the only way of surviving fears of abandonment or rejection – adding further to my isolation and aloneness. These were all signs. Big signs. Signs I missed and nobody ever pointed out to me until many years later.
The eventual, unravelling of my mental health followed in my mid thirties – helped, if that’s the right word – by the pressure and stress of work, demanding corporate structures and cultures and complicated by demands of sharing my life with a little person I adore, whilst still trying to make sense of a failing and ultimately failed relationship with my own father. More feelings of abandonment. More rejection. More isolation. More worries.
Looking back it is easy to see where the seeds of my 2014/15 breakdown were sowed and, in many ways, it feels like a miracle it took that long for the wheels to eventually come off my wellbeing wagon. They were kept on for so long by the love of my amazing wife – who has helped me back on feet many, many times – and by a keep going, head down, don’t talk about it, ignore it, get on with it mentality which so many of us are gifted by our families, our society, our role models and our survival instincts. That approach works for some for the whole of their lives; it works for many for a long time; and for some, like me, it only works until it stops working, with huge consequences.
I write of this today – early on a Sunday morning – as despite all of my hard work, self care, healthy life changes, supportive structures and so many blessings that mean I live a very happy, fortunate and comfortable life, I am in the midst of a prolonged (for me) depressive episode. This is a bad one. A long one. We are around three weeks into a dark spell, which has been intense and very painful.
I am lucky – well, not really lucky – by it is a fact, that my depressive episodes tend to be nasty but short-lived. They are mostly short intense episodes that last for a week, or a few days, in which the darkness lifts often as soon as it arrives and normal service is resumed. In truth it is never fully resumed as every episode chips away at my confidence and leave an indelible mark on my soul, but my life returns to its regular patterns after the clouds clear and the mental health sun comes out again.
This time it has been a deeper, longer darkness. I am often asked – I was asked by someone yesterday – how does it feel, what is it like to be feeling depressed? I always give the same answer: I can only tell you how it feels for me, about my experience. And that’s what I do.
- I feel tired – at times exhausted or drained – low energy, even for things I love like running or golf
- I have nausea and at times a headache
- My teeth and gums ache a little
- I sweat more than normal
- My toilet output changes – sometimes less, sometimes more
- I don’t sleep well – hard to get off, waking through the night, tossing and turning; all of the above
- I have bad dreams – nightmares that wake me and leave me feeling distressed
- I don’t really want to talk
- I want to be on my own
- I seek quietness, calm, safety
- I want to be at home
- I am irritable, tense, edgy
- I feel alone even when I am with the people I love the most in the world
- I need to be hugged but then I doubt the love behind those hugs – I feel I don’t deserve them even though I need them
- I am sad – at times excruciating sad
- I am emotional – not necessity crying, although they are sometimes tears – but a lump in my throat when hearing some music, seeing something on TV that wouldn’t normally evoke that reaction, thinking about people who are important to me
- I can’t get going with my work or with things I would normally be able to do happily – especially in the morning (although interestingly I am writing this in the morning and it is coming easily – I know I write better when in pain but also this may be the light at the end of this tunnel and perhaps the bad weather is about to lift)
- I am less responsive to friends on WhatsApp or on the phone – I often ignore their calls – I don’t have the energy to be ‘normal’
- I have an overall feeling of heaviness, of everything being a bit darker (like I was wearing sunglasses all the time)
It’s raw as I write this. It is sad to put the words on the page. And yet it helps me. It helps to remove the mystic of it, the hidden, unspoken, shameful part of it that colludes with me into silence.
I have written a lot before about things I do to help me out of these moments and I turn to these for a lifeline. They help. But the biggest help is just time. Time ticking around until the end of this moment.
I have been in this hole, covered by these dark clouds, before, and I know I will clamber out soon. Maybe later today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the day after. But I know there will be an end.
For the moment, it is tough. It hurts. It drains me of my me-ness. That’s ultimately how it feels, like someone or something has stolen the real me – taken him hostage for a short while. But there is an irony here – something I have realised recently. There is not a kidnapping, nor hostage-taking. This is me. This is the real me and has been since I was a boy. As each day passes, I am learning to accept that, live with that and trying to love that. One day at a time.