I was in my early forties when an episode of debilitating stress-induced depression lead me to seek help. A colleague noticed I was frantically cleaning the office and said, with her typically northern directness, ‘Oh no, you’re not going nutty are you? My friend did that frantic cleaning thing before she went nutty.’ I certainly didn’t feel ‘nutty’. Cleaning the keyboard enabled me to have some measure of control over my unfocused energy. I did, however, feel like I was watching myself, an actor in a nightmare struggling to cope. At that time I was simultaneously detached and deeply engaged with my job, not wanting to let anyone down but feeling unable to handle the nature and quantity of my work. I was losing a grip on the numerous projects under my care. Some weeks before I’d had my first ever migraine, getting double vision in the corridor and stopping a passing Dr who checked me out. Now I was starting to stutter, something that had never affected me before. My thought processes were alternately syrup-slow or speedy . Several times I had tried to flag up my difficulty in dealing with the amount of work I had with my manager, ironically a consultant Dr. He believed that ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’, and although a brilliant man, I later realised he had no concept of the amount of work our clinical trials were generating. I’d get a certain way into a task only to find I had no idea how to continue.
For some time I felt I’d been running up an endless sand dune, sometimes making good progress but inevitably sliding back. I could explain further but ultimately, the exact circumstances are not important. Suffice it to say that it is recognised that stress overload can make humans ill. I don’t have a very clear recollection of the events that lead up to me being sent home by a caring colleague, but I know I went to see my GP who asked me to fill out a questionnaire that indicated I was severely depressed. Anyone who has filled in one of these forms will know that it is difficult to be objective and that it is frightening and perhaps shaming to confront the truth of the situation. There is the temptation to underplay the symptoms in an attempt to appear ‘normal’. Some might suffer from’imposter syndrome’, and, for various reasons, be incapable of admitting that they are really unwell. Many people who suffer depression will have become ill after denying that there is anything wrong. I suspect that those people of my generation will also be prone to feeling that there is a stigma surrounding mental un-wellness and so avoid admitting that they are unwell for as long as possible, thus worsening the situation for themselves.
Signed off as sick and desperately worried and guilty about my workload (I believed I was the only person in the world who could do my work) – I had no team to take over and the administration was incredibly complicated, so in a way I was)- I initially refused the GP’ s suggestion of medication, frightened perhaps of what drugs might do to me in my fragile state. I was referred for CBT but during the assessment I felt It wasn’t what I needed at that time. Given the severity of my depression and inability to concentrate, it seemed as if the offer of CBT was as appropriate as the offer of a bicycle to a drowning person. I turned it down. A while later I sought counselling via the organisation Mind, which was incredibly helpful, and, after realising that I had suffered on and off with varying degrees of severity for most of my adult life, I began an undulating journey to recovery. Swimming helped. Cycling helped. Writing helped – a lot. There were many days when nothing helped. Talking to a counsellor helped. A change in work patterns and lifestyle helped. Walking across the fields helped. Talking to friends helped. Understanding my illness and knowing that others also suffered helped. Being able to identify symptoms and recognise their onset helped. Letting go of the shame at being ill with an invisible illness helped. Above all, time helped. No two people’s circumstances are the same, so there is no set prescription for depression. But I was fortunate to find a few ways back to strength and health.
A friend asked me how I felt during my darkest days. I said I felt as if I was trapped at the bottom of a black well with sheer sides. Even this doesn’t really come close. It is very difficult to explain depression to those who haven’t experienced it.
To those who are experiencing depression I want to say that after seeking help and entering a period of healing, I am well and not afraid to talk about my own experience.
Here is a poem I wrote after getting a little better. I’ve never sent it out for publication but I’m publishing it here in the hope that it may help in a small way. It is not a poem of hope unless it is viewed in the context of the fact that this is where I have been, not where I am now.
Year of the Black Dog
Neither love earthly or divine
will chase this dog out.
Reach for any medicine
it will curdle in the mouth,
drip through skin,
turn to metal in the bowel.
Look for the strength
to grasp its neck.
The vibrato of a snarl
trembles in your chest