Depression has always been with me. Even as a child I was prone to black moods, rumination, weeping for hours, refusing to get out of bed and preferring to hide away in my bedroom rather than joining in group activities.
My mother often reminded me that as a child one of my favourite refrains was ‘I want to be alone’ - much like Greta Garbo.
On reaching adolescence my depressive tendencies really took hold in earnest. Both my parents were depressives and my biological predisposition was compounded by a double whammy of tragedy: the death of my father Norman when I was an awkward and withdrawn 11-year-old and the death of my mother Nora when I was an acne-ridden nightmare of a hormonal teenager.
Most of us become narky and morose when we hit our teens and a double dose of untimely bereavement would send most people into a spiral of intense grief and depression, but even two, three years later I was still functioning with real difficulty: my insomnia was so bad I often went to school after just two hours sleep, and spent most of my day thinking about how I was worthless and life was entirely pointless - one of my favourite quotes furnished from hours spent alone in my room reading was that gloomy appraisal from Shakespeare’s Macbeth describing human existence as a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. That is exactly how the world seems to you when you are depressed: you feel so low, so isolated, so unable to experience true pleasure or even any kind of real relaxation or proper uplift in the connection you get from others when you are fully able to understand each other; you feel like you can’t properly connect with those close to you because the psychological and emotional pain you are in is so difficult to communicate effectively and most of the little energy you have goes into pretending to yourself and others that you don’t in fact feel like it’s the end of the world or that all you want to do is get into bed, fall asleep and never wake up again; life just seems like too much trouble for too little return when you are right in the grip of clinical despair. Not that there were never moments of reprieve- of course there were, and I have always found like-minded friends and the right books and music as important weapons against depression - but overall I was living under a cloud and lacked the understanding of the condition to overcome it. I wore only black when not at school, painted my bedroom dark purple, listened only to grunge and developed an unhealthy obsession with Sylvia Plath, the novelist and poet who committed suicide at the age of 33 and gave a generation of young women the iconic narrative of a mental breakdown so poignantly rendered in The Bell Jar.
The trouble really began when my depression became accompanied by debilitating panic attacks. I had always been anxious, but panic attacks make you feel as though you are about to die and that there are bats trapped under your ribcage because your heart is beating so wildly and you feel the amount of terror that would only be appropriate if someone had just pushed you off the end of a cliff while blindfolded.
There were several occasions when my panic attacks became so severe I asked my aunt to call an ambulance and honestly believed that I was about to have a fatal heart attack.
Depression feeds anxiety and pathological, intense anxiety can lead to depression so when you suffer from both of them it is hard to even understand where the depression ends and the anxiety begins. For me they have always come together along with crippling insomnia, decrease in appetite when things are at their worst and a totally nihilistic inability to conceive of the future as likely to lead to anything other than an infinite loop of depression, panic attacks, insomnia and tears.
But some relief came when I began weekly psychotherapy sessions, first with a kindly bereavement counsellor and then with another psychotherapist; talking about your feelings and trying to challenge negative patterns of thinking really, really helps when a massive cause of your depression is the feeling that nobody else understands you and that you are trapped on your own with a whole ream of apprently insurmountable problems you feel unable to tell friends and family about because of how their opinions of you might change. The anonymity therapy affords can be so liberating and it’s the opportunity to have someone else reassure you that what you are suffering from is transient and can be treated and addressed and talked through until you begin to see a different way through - is just so vital in battling a depressive episode.
Since the age of 17 I have been on antidepressant medication as well as having intermittently attended therapy sessions with counsellors and on several occasions with psychiatrists - although because of a real lack of proper mental health care provision here in Northern Ireland waiting lists to see the latter can take months and even then the appointments are uselessly short unless you can afford to see a psychiatrist privately and this is often too expensive to do regularly.
Because I suffer from clinical depression as well as an anxiety disorder and have done so since my teens, my battle with depression is something that is and always will be a part of my everyday life. Once a major depressive, always a depressive, as I see it anyway - there may be periods when you have it so under control, through medication, therapy or important lifestyle changes so that you can barely remember why you felt so full of misery that the thought of suicide was a relief rather than a horror, but you always know that there is the likelihood that the doom and gloom will return the next time life gives you lemons and you just can’t find the energy or vim to make lemonade and take it all in your stride.
At 34 I am a seasoned depressive and many of those close to me don’t fully appreciate the kind of seriously miserable pathological thinking I often have going on inside my cranium because you do get better at learning to manage this illness. I have always been medication compliant and have found that anti-depressants have always made such a significant improvement in my symptoms that I continue to take them. When things reach a nadir I go back to therapy but I have found over the years that the best friends are those whom you can honestly confide in and the more people who admit to suffering from depression and talk freely about it the more we liberate others to do the same and help smash what most frustrates me about this form of illness which is the massive taboo around it as well as the unfair sense of shame associated with it and the totally false idea that if you suffer from depression then you must be some kind of pathetic weakling who somehow can’t manage to just pull yourself together. The taboo has to go because it leads to suicide and needless amounts of elongated suffering in silence. When you look at the statistics they clearly show that the number of those suffering from depression is at crisis levels across Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. Women are far more likely to suffer than men, but men who suffer with depression are far more likely to commit suicide not least because they are culturally conditioned to feel that they cannot express feelings such as sadness or despair, must never cry and are clearly just weak if they don’t just shut up and carry on. This is the kind of entirely stupid and unfounded reasoning that is so lethal. Instead of being weak, most of the people I know - men and women - who suffer with depression and battle upwards and onwards each day have the kind of Herculean psychological strength and iron will power that non-depressed people rarely need to cultivate; fighting depression is like facing down the most fearsome and hideous kind of foe and when you are in that dark night of the soul, battling the beast that is mental ill-health, you need almost superhuman strength to prevail. So ignore anyone who tells you mid-breakdown that you should just stop worrying and get your act together: such people are cretins and understand nothing. Depression is the most intense kind of hidden battle: fight it in the knowledge that you are not alone - just look at the illustrious list of all those who have battled it too and at the statistics that clarify its prevalence today. Fight it in the certainty that however bad you feel, this too shall pass, because everything does, even the worst kind of debilitating despair. Fight it because there will be times when you will feel positive again, happy even, when you will find things funny and feel loved and laugh at jokes and experience the joy the world has in abundance. You can’t see the joy in life when the pall of depression hangs over you, but when that darkness lifts - and it must of necessity - you’ll feel proud you kept going and kept going until you made it back into the magic circle of wellbeing once more.