This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. It’s a week that is hugely important, as we still have such a long way to go before we’ve broken the stigma that surrounds mental ill health. Last year, I wrote a post for Mental Health Awareness Week claiming that I was going to start sharing my story of living with depression, beginning with my nervous breakdown and diagnosis.
Yet, these posts never materialised. Writing your own tale of living with depression is actually much more difficult than I’d imagined. However, it isn’t painful to look back on the days when I was really ill. In many ways, I feel as though I’m recalling the plot of a film or a book. Not my life. Not my plotline.
The difficult thing is, it isn’t just my story. It affects all the people who were there at the time. My friends and my family. Because there were times when I was very depressed and I did horrible, toxic things. And I hurt those that I love. For everyone’s sake, I don’t want to remember those times. Yet, there are parts of the story that can’t be told without recalling those dark days. So as I recount my tale of living with depression, there may be times when I gloss over all the facts. This is to protect those that I love and care about because I would never want to hurt them.
But this is still my truth. This is still my story of living with depression. And like all stories, there needs to be a beginning.
Living With Depression
The Road To Depression
When I went to university, depression was not an illness I knew much about. My knowledge extended to the TV I watched or my teenage tantrums where I announced to my parents
“I’m soooooooooooo depressed!”
I’d no idea what the word depressed really meant. And I could never have envisioned that, by the time I’d graduated, depression would have taken over my life.
My first year at university – 1997/ 1998
I turned 19 on the day that I started my first year at university. A day of nerves and excitement.
I loved being at university. It was everything I had imagined and more. My course was interesting and all my lecturers were fantastic. I made friends easily. Also, I’d never had a boyfriend before, yet suddenly, at university, I discovered that the opposite sex found me attractive.
I dated a few guys in my first year, but one of these relationships ended badly and I was left devastated. My world crumbled but I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone how I was truly feeling. Instead, I began to retreat into myself and smile even though I was breaking inside. And gradually, all the insecurities and self-hatred that I’d tried to put a lid on at school, came to the surface.
I began to become unstable and my mood was erratic. I was often tearful and unable to calm down. And I started to get terrible nightmares. I’ve always suffered from nightmares, ever since I was a child, but these were particularly horrific. So I stopped sleeping. Believing that the nightmares would stay away if I didn’t sleep. But I was exhausted and this exhaustion only led to my mental ill health getting worse.
Somehow, I managed to pass my first year at university and I headed into the summer holidays with a lovely new boyfriend. And despite my deteriorating mental health, I managed to enjoy my summer. I also started to see a counsellor. But I announced that I was cured after only a few appointments.
My second year at university – 1998/1999
Of course, I wasn’t cured. Instead, I was lying to myself and my family.
I pushed my feelings deep down inside and went back to university for my second year.
And at first, everything seemed fine. I was going out with a great guy, I had some lovely friends, my course was amazing and I was having a ball.
But then I started to become physically ill. I couldn’t sleep or eat. As a result, I was exhausted and I’d lost lots of weight. Things I normally took in my stride made me nervous and anxious. And I was plagued by nausea and terrible migraines. All I wanted to do was lie in bed and hide from the world.
At Christmas, my Mum became worried about my poor physical health and took me to the doctors. We were worried that I was severely anaemic or had a thyroid problem.
A number of blood tests were taken and the results showed that I was in good physical health. Yet, there was clearly something not quite right. The GP declared that I could be mildly depressed and that this was making me physically ill. I was also given a prescription for a low dose of antidepressants.
I returned to university after the Christmas holidays. And a week later I had a nervous breakdown.
My Nervous Breakdown
It was a Saturday. I’d gone shopping and for lunch with my boyfriend. I then went home to the house that I shared with three other girls. We were going out to the Student Union that evening. But before getting ready to go out I had some chores that I needed to do.
It was my turn to clean the bathroom. I was in the room for hours. Scrubbing and dismantling every part in order to get it clean. But it just wasn’t possible for the room to be clean enough. The more I cleaned, the grimier the room became. And the more intent I became on my mission to clean.
Eventually after hours attacking the bathroom, one of my housemates told me that I probably needed to start getting ready as we were due out.
I went to ask one of my housemates if I could borrow her hair straighteners. She said something to make me laugh. But after a while, I stopped laughing and I began to cry. And I couldn’t stop. Tears poured down my cheeks. And my whole body began shaking with the ferocity of the sobs.
My housemates decided to stay at home with me as it was clear that I couldn’t be left alone. I wasn’t able to calm down. And I felt like I would never stop crying.
I eventually asked one of my housemates to phone my parents as I wanted to go home. A few hours later, my Mum and Dad arrived and bundled me into the car for the drive home.
Seeing My GP
I don’t remember much about what happened over the next few days. It was a blur of tears and exhaustion.
But I do have a clear memory of going to see the doctor. My Mum and I explained everything that had been happening and the doctor listened carefully.
He then began to scribble on a scrap of paper. He asked me to look at the list and tell him if anything sounded familiar.
- Feeling upset and tearful,
- restless and agitated,
- worthless, ashamed and guilt-ridden,
- and lacking in self-confidence and self-esteem.
He then asked me if I’d been feeling any of the following:
- empty and numb,
- isolated and unable to relate to others,
- a sense of unreality,
- a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem,
- hopeless and despairing,
- and unable to find pleasure in objects or activities that I’d normally enjoy.
He then wanted to know if I’d been acting out of character and if I recognised any of the following behaviours:
- avoiding events and activities I usually enjoy,
- thoughts of self-harm or suicide,
- difficulty in thinking clearly,
- losing interest in sex,
- difficulty in remembering or concentrating on things,
- difficulty sleeping,
- feeling tired all the time,
- no appetite and losing weight, or eating too much and gaining weight,
- physical aches and pains with no obvious physical cause,
- and moving very slowly, or being restless and agitated.
(This list of symptoms comes from Mind’s website. And you can also download this list from their site.)
I began to cry. He’d described exactly how I was feeling. Hearing those words and seeing them written on a piece of paper was like looking through a window on my life. And until that point, I hadn’t realised how unusual it was to be feeling as I was. I hadn’t noticed how much I’d been falling apart.
After listening to everything I had to say, the doctor, in a soft voice, told me that I had severe depression and anxiety. He told me that he wanted to make sure I got help as soon as possible. And so before we left the GP surgery, he’d booked me an appointment to see a psychiatrist the next day.
The Start Of Living With Depression
I remember walking out of that doctor’s surgery and feeling relieved and sad at the same time. It was a relief to have found out what was wrong with me. I had an illness and I could get better. And I was pleased to have been given a diagnosis.
Yet, as I walked out of that doctor’s surgery, I knew that something profound and life-altering had just occurred. During that appointment, I’d learnt that whatever I was going through wasn’t going to get better after a good night’s sleep. It would take time and could and would change my life forever.
And from that day on I’ve been living with depression. Some days I’m fine and other days the depression and anxiety floor me. But whether I’ve had a good day or not, depression and anxiety are still a part of my life. And it all began on that day.