There are so many questionnaires online about depression but few of them seem to get to the heart of the matter. This short yet self-indulgent approach I have selected may help redress the balance even if only to a very small degree. I hope you enjoy it.
Hello and welcome
Thanks – it’s a pleasure to be here.
So you’d like to talk about depression and what it’s like to have it?
Yeah, that’s the idea.
Some might regard interviewing yourself as a self-indulgent thing to do.
Yes, I imagine they would, but it’s not for them that I’m writing this.
Fair enough – let’s get down to it then. For how long have you had depression?
Since I was 18. I’m now in my mid-thirties (as of 2016).
Can you give us an idea of how it all started?
Of course. Things really began at university when I was an undergraduate. I’d always been quite a serious, introspective kind of person but I didn’t realise then that the things I was experiencing were not ‘normal’ in the sense that they were not simply a part of growing up, they were something altogether darker and more sinister if that doesn’t sound too melodramatic.
What kinds of things did you experience?
The classic checklist really. Low moods, feelings of social isolation, feeling alienated from my peers, having no confidence despite doing fairly well academically (I got a 2:1), and just generally feeling empty, like life was / is meaningless, joyless that kind of thing.
Sounds pretty heavy.
It was. You are reluctant I guess to discuss this stuff because it all sounds so trite, so Woody Allenish. Oh, he’s just going through a phase, that kind of thing. Except, if it was a phase, it’s been a bloody long one.
Did you get any help at all at that age?
No. When I was a student I didn’t see a counsellor or go and see the doctor or anything, it never occurred to me to do it. I just put my head down and ploughed on through. Usual story really. So many people think they can ‘go it alone’ as the Beach Boys song says. I was no different, I thought if I just ignored it, it would go away and of course that’s probably the worst thing you can possibly do.
Did anything influence that decision, the fact you decided not to get help?
I had a friend at university who had bipolar. He dropped out during the second year, but I saw first-hand what his condition did to him. He attempted suicide and it was terrifying to see this bright, sociable person nearly destroyed by his condition. I remember walking around campus with him in the early hours of the morning once, waiting for his mum to come and pick him up and take him back home. I felt angry at the university for not doing more to help him, although with the benefit of hindsight, he didn’t really make life easy for them. I didn’t go and get help myself because I didn’t think I was ‘bad’ enough to get help, which is a ridiculous idea when you think about it.
Okay, so fast-forward a few years. How did you come to accept that you had problems and that something needed to be done?
It’s a good question. It didn’t just come overnight, it took years to get to that stage. I think I gradually started to realise that the way I felt was awful, it just made me feel dead inside. I needed so badly to do something about it as I was just starting to fall apart at the seams.I had a friend on a course I was on who’d had problems with depression and knew what to look out for. One afternoon, we had a long, uncomfortable talk in which he told me he felt I had depression. He said something along the lines of ‘you may feel you’re doing okay, but you’re not. You’re ill, mate.’ At first I was upset, then angry and resistant to the idea. I guess it’s a bit like an alcoholic being confronted over their drinking – of course you’re not going to respond well to it. But if you’re really honest with yourself, you start to realise they are right and you do need help.
So you went to the doctors?
Yes. That was when I was in my mid-twenties, I can’t remember when exactly. I started to take anti-depressants and by the time I was in my late twenties I’d started counselling. I’ve seen a few therapists but the lady I saw at that age was the best I’ve met and it really helped me get things in focus.
What happened then?
Well, I’ve had ups and downs since then of course, like everyone does, regardless of whether they have a mental health problem or not. Interestingly, my original issue was depression but as I’ve hit my thirties I’ve started to have a problem with anxiety including panic attacks which can be very frightening. So I have had to change my medication to reflect that fact and deal with it.
How much support have you had from those around you?
My workplace has generally been pretty supportive, for which I am very grateful. You hear horror stories of unsympathetic bosses, but I have been quite lucky with most of mine although that hasn’t always been the case in the past. My parents genuinely love me, but I feel my condition has put a strain on our relationship. I don’t think they really understand what’s happening with me at times and it bemuses them. I can’t entirely blame them for this as they come from a generation when things such as depression and anxiety were not talked about and people just ‘put up’ and got on with it. The world has changed of course since then and people are increasingly less willing and able to do that. We talk about our problems more than we used to and to my mind, that’s all to the good. As someone said to me recently, this isn’t the 1970s any more. Also, I have had a supportive partner and friends for which I am also most grateful. A few good people in your life is certainly worth more than hoards of well-wishers, that’s what I have found.
If you don’t mind sharing, can you tell me about some of the worst things that have happened to you while you have been depressed or anxious?
Sure. I’ve vomited in public places, I’ve had panic attacks at parties and been shaking so badly I just have to go home from work. I’ve felt so lonely and unhappy I’ve wanted to kill myself. I’ve contemplated it, but never actually made any detailed plans. At my worst, I’ve had whole days where I’ve done nothing other than stay in bed and cry for what seems like forever or at least until you can’t any more. Depression really can be a desperate place to be.
I’m sorry to hear that – that’s a lot for anyone to deal with.
Thanks. I’m not talking about it to try to get sympathy, but I feel people deserve to know the truth of what it’s like. There’s plenty of clinical surveys online where you can assess yourself on a scale of one to five or one to 10 for this, that and the other, but it doesn’t really penetrate to the heart of things, tell you about what it’s like to live with this stuff every day. I’m just trying to be as truthful as I can be about it.
You almost make it sound like depression and anxiety are ‘alive’ in some way.
Yes. That’s something a lot of depressives and those with anxiety do, they talk about it in terms of it being some kind of ‘monster’ or ‘demon’ or similar. The analogy I have used is that you can’t kill the beast, but you can lock it up in a cage so it can’t get at you. Every now and then it will escape and go on the rampage and you just have to be ready for it when it does. That’s if you subscribe to the philosophy that depression simply equals ‘bad’ and that it serves no function at all. Some people believe there is no depression without oppression, so if you are feeling shit it’s because there are unresolved issues in your psyche which is where the therapy comes in. I don’t want to get too much into that at this stage as it’s a bit outside our remit, but it’s worth bearing in mind.
In philosophy, there’s the idea of the ‘Ghost in the Machine….’
Yes! A wonderful phrase, coined by Gilbert Ryle. Nothing to do with depression of course, but it’s evocative all the same as sometimes you feel almost as if you have been turned into some kind of ghost or phantom, in that life becomes very tasteless, odourless even senseless. I remember at the age of about 20 or so telling my bemused parents that my life had no meaning and they simply didn’t know how to respond to me. This was before I’d even assimilated Camus or Sartre or anyone like that. Many young people if they’ve a mind for that sort of thing end up devouring books of existential angst and people just dismiss it as a phase, but for some of us it becomes a lifelong preoccupation of sorts.
Okay, so let’s get practical. What kinds of things have you found to be helpful?
A number of things. Firstly, the support of good friends is vital. People have different definitions of what constitutes a good friend, but to me, a true friend is someone you could ring up at 2am in a crisis and they would help you. They may not like the fact they’ve been pulled out of bed, but they would be sufficiently concerned about your welfare to do something to help you. You don’t meet too many people like that in your life. Most people have ‘mates’ – I have plenty of those. But true friends in the way I describe? That’s rarer. When you find those people, hang on to them – they are more important than money or possessions or anything else you could imagine.
Knowledge. Information. You can’t get enough of it. I have found reading widely around the subject is very useful. There’s plenty of books available out there on depression and anxiety. I have found the ones which spoke loudest to me are the ones written by people in a similar circumstance to me who have stories to share and whose experiences chimed in with mine, in some way. That doesn’t mean you’ll read the whole book and think ‘Yeah – that’s me!’ Rather, it means you will take something away with you and the insights it will give you will be very useful. Sometimes you have to dig around for it a bit but it will come.
I’ve heard some people talk about the importance of humour in dealing with it
There’s a cliche of the sad clown but if you look at some of the funniest people western society has produced in the last 70 years or so – Woody Allen, Spike Milligan, Tony Hancock, these are all people with a sense of the sadness of the world, yet who also managed to make people laugh again and again. Having a good sense of humour won’t get you through everything, but it can help. My own sense of humour can be quite dark sometimes and equally, quite silly. I think both of those things are a healthy response to the bleakness of it all especially when it all gets a bit much.
And how about hobbies and interests?
Yes, I was getting to that. I love reading, watching films and music. The latter has been a huge boon to me, as I enjoy all kinds of music be it classical, jazz, rock, you name it. And there are few things in life which take the edge of quite as well as good music. I find writing helps me enormously as well which is why I began my blog. It’s a way for me to share my ideas about the world, not just about my mental illness, but about lots of things which keep my mind young and energised. If I knew just one person had got something from my scribblings it would make it all worthwhile. Getting out and about in the ‘real’ world can help a lot as can joining a support group, online or otherwise. You’d be surprised how often you find yourself not wanting to mix with others or just go for a walk somewhere or a drive out and about and yet once you’ve gone and come back, you do feel better.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given about depression?
It’s hard to say as I have been told and read so much which has been of use. One thing my therapist told me was that the human mind is the most powerful thing in the world. It can be a force for creativity and joy or destruction and misery. That stuck with me, because my brain has created all the words on this site and yet at times it has also tried to persuade me I am useless and to end it all. It has a great capacity for both telling the truth and for lying to you and should never be underestimated.
Are there any writers you’d recommend?
Yes. The late, great Sally Brampton’s book called ‘Shoot the Damned Dog’ is a wonderful book about her courageous struggle with depression and other issues. I also liked Jan Wong’s ‘Out of the Blue’ and Gwyneth Lewis’s ‘Sunbathing in the Rain.’ There’s plenty of others I am sure but those three stand out for me of the ones I’ve read so far. Sometimes it can be reassuring just knowing there are so many great minds both living and dead who have experienced the same or similar things to you and have written about their experiences. Poetry as well as prose has always helped me get a handle on these things. Great writers such as Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, TS Eliot, Thomas Hardy – these were people who understood what life under the cloud of depression was like and yet they turned their insight into great art. We should be very grateful to them for having the courage and the insight to do it.
And finally, if you could pass on one piece of advice to anyone reading this, what would it be?
I’m going to cheat and have two. The first is practical – if you feel you are struggling, don’t just sit there and do nothing. Seek help. Talk to your GP and see what they recommend. There’s nothing heroic about struggling and suffering. Life is to be enjoyed as fully as you are able. The second thing is this. There’s an old legend in which King Solomon supposedly asked his magicians to make him something which would make him sad when he was happy and happy when he was sad. They made him a ring with the words ‘all this will pass’ engraved on it. Remember that. No matter how awful it feels, how painful, recovery is always possible and you will get better. All my love to you.
Thanks for talking to me
You’re very welcome!