I feel like it’s very hard to fully understand what a mental health disorder is until you experience one yourself. When people hear about depression, they just it means you’re ‘sad’ or ‘feeling low’. This trivial definition has been used more recently as, ironically, the number of people suffering from mental health disorders has increased.
I think this is one of the reasons why depression and other mental health disorders are passed off as ‘less significant’ or something that ‘everyone feels’. For me, and the other 300 million people who suffer, having depression is so much more than just feeling a bit down.
It’s been three years since I was first diagnosed with depression, but it took almost 2 years for that to happen because I refused to accept that I was struggling, and I refused help. And up until now, I’d still only told 8 people.
Why? I felt like I had done something wrong, like I was weak. I felt as though everyone around me was so strong and happy and, because I wasn’t, I had failed. I felt like I would be a burden to my family and my friends if they knew I was struggling. I felt I would be judged if I told people; treated differently because of it.
I was so used to putting on a blank face, so that I could avoid people asking me if I was okay, that I became worried that, if I did then tell people, they wouldn’t believe me. And, of course, if I told people, it would mean I had to accept it was really happening to me. By telling as few people as possible, I hoped that the whole thing would just blow over. I could avoid answering questions and giving explanations. I wanted no reminder that I had a problem.
These thoughts have stayed with me but aren’t quite as strong as they were around the time when I was diagnosed. Sharing my experience is a big step for me, but the right one. I hope that hearing my story will make people see mental health disorders in a different light. There are so many people who are hiding that they are suffering, and this whole experience has taught me how important it is to look after others around you because you never will completely know what they are going through.
In my worst years before and after being diagnosed, people would tell me to ‘cheer up’ or ‘stop being such a downer’. I felt guilty about the way I was feeling and this only made things worse. I hated myself and I hated the way I was feeling. I felt so alone, as though the person I love the most has passed away.
I felt the sadness and grief that accompanies death. I cried like I would never see that person again. I felt guilty like I’d not shown them how much they meant to me. I felt anxious like I’d have to face the world alone without them. I felt like I could no longer enjoy the things I used to without them by my side. I felt like giving up without them there. I got frustrated and angry at the world because life was unfair. And I avoided people to avoid the reminder of my loss.
But it’s only years later that I can see that this person who I was grieving for was me. I’d lost the me who people loved, who I was proud to be.
Before I was diagnosed I found it was easy to suffer in silence. With symptoms that can quickly be dismissed as ‘having a bad day’, I was able to slip through for longer than I should have. Although the symptoms are there, it’s very easy to hide them because they’re not physical. It was harder to tell something was wrong. I needed a coping mechanism given I was going through this alone; a way to distract myself.
My way of coping was through excessive exercise and eating little. It felt so much easier to not be noticed and I felt this way of coping was the only way of achieving that. A big part of my depression was never feeling like I was good enough. I felt constantly compared to everyone and constantly a disappointment. This helped to turn my coping mechanism into the start of an eating disorder.
Not only did the depression stop me from doing the things I loved, but my opinions of my body and how I looked made things worse. I could not socialise without the fear of people looking at me, and without my assuming what they were thinking. My life was controlled by food and I was too caught up on my negative mindset to think about what was happening.
Needless to say, both depression and an eating disorder had drastic changes on my behaviour. I would cry or get angry for no reason, or over the most minor, insignificant things that seemed so major to me. I would isolate myself because I had no energy to deal with people and their questions. I hated seeing my friends and family because they would always be so happy without me – even more of a reminder of how useless I was.
Being in crowds of people made me so anxious that I would refuse to leave the house. People’s opinions scared me to the point that I couldn’t cope being around anyone. I couldn’t hear a laugh without thinking it was a laugh at me, or hear a whisper without thinking I was the subject of it. I felt so far from normal, so stupid. Everything was wrong with me and everyone else was perfect.
And I felt like I deserved it. I felt as though everything I did was wrong, and it was always my fault. I couldn’t remember what happy felt like. Looking back on the worst days, before and just after I was diagnosed, it is clear what a strong effect negative cognitive bias had on me – my brain ignored anything good that happened and only remembered the bad things.
After 2 years of my mood deteriorating, and my health following close behind it, I was forced to get help. With the mental characteristics of depression being harder to detect, it was only when the physical signs started to show that people began asking questions. The memory of my sitting in the waiting room is so vivid, and seeking help was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.
I felt like it was too late and that I had already given up. I felt like it would be too difficult to make any sort of progress towards a normal life again. But I was wrong. Yes, it has been hard, and yes, I still have many days which are as bad as they were 3 years ago, but compared to then I have come a long way. Recovery is a frustrating and difficult process but it is 100% worth it.
I was able to come to university and meet some incredible people. I’ve been able to experience and achieve things I never thought I would. And, most importantly, I have hope for the future again. I’m still learning though – I’m discovering my trigger points and understanding what causes my issues to flare up. And I want people to learn from my mistakes too: talk about how you’re feeling, accept help, and don’t be ashamed if you feel like you’re struggling.
I have three tips which always help to make me feel better when I’m having a bad day:
- Get some fresh air. Go outside, have a walk, and let your mind wonder.
- Have some zone-alone time. Have a 15-minute zone out on your own. Put some music on and shut your eyes for a bit.
- Write down your thoughts. This will bring you some perspective, help you organize your thoughts, and clear your head.
For those interested, there is a short video on depression by TED: https://youtu.be/z-IR48Mb3W0?list=LLs4WnxFQRUx5Ze59XEMmmvA.
And for more information about mental health disorders, guidance, and support, Mind is an excellent charity: http://www.mind.org.uk.