Shadow dwellers

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‘Ah that’s rough mate,’ Dave scratched his stubbled chin thoughtfully. ‘My brother-in-law went through that last year…he’s still struggling, you know.’

‘I honestly had no idea, wish you’d told me, Kit-Kat…’

When Katie had to tell her friends and family she’d been diagnosed with depression, she had no idea that she was joining a secret club.

All those absences at work, the dizzy spells and the gradual, more or less complete withdrawal from a once jam-packed social life – she’d had to say something. I mean, people would figure it out for themselves eventually, and they’d talk. People always talk.

And talk they did. When Katie finally summoned enough courage to speak up about the dark cloud that had crept across her brain, she was bowled over by the number of people who told her they’d been through something similar, or knew someone that had. It seemed that the whole planet was sick, and by falling ill she had somehow gained an all-access pass into a world that nobody discusses. A hidden community living in the shadows of their own sorrow and shame.

‘I have depression’. Three small words that were so hard to say. Yet they opened a huge door. A door to an ever-expanding room crammed with family, friends and acquaintances clamouring to talk to her about their experiences of mental illness.

People she knew. Or at least thought she knew.

First cousin Marta had dropped round for a cup of tea, and a chat. Depression doesn’t mean the end of the world, she’d said softly, as Katie gazed vacantly at her designer glasses. She could get better; lots of people go through it. Marta had.

Then Katya from work, Ben from school, Mrs Roper’s daughter, and even one of her closest friends, Elisa. They had all been hiding something.

And now Dave had a story. The number just kept growing.

As he sank back into the moth-eaten sofa and recounted how Stuart had resorted to taking antidepressants for his panic attacks, Katie felt numb. All these people, all this suffering. And she’d had no idea. If Stuart had been in a car pile-up, or been through cancer, she’d have known about it. She’d have sent flowers. Or maybe just a card, flowers are pretty girly…

As if feeling as though all the colour has been sucked out of your world wasn’t horrific enough, how awful to have to go it alone. The injustice of it all rose up inside; a searing, rage-fuelled flame.

Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Dammit. She furiously wiped a solitary tear from the corner of her right eye.

Dave looked uncomfortable, shifting his trainer-clad feet back and forth nervously.

‘Uhh…’ He thought quickly. ‘Do you want me to go?’

Katie shook her head. She didn’t dare tell Dave that a few tears didn’t even scratch the surface. There’s nothing like telling a friend that just a month ago you entertained the idea of dragging a cold, sharp blade over your skin just so you could feel something, to stop a conversation in its tracks. Dave was such a dear friend. But he couldn’t realistically understand what she had been through over the last year, and she felt alone sitting right next to him. The people she loved the most couldn’t really help her.

It was the ones harbouring this secret membership card who would have really been able to reach Katie, like Raymond the bipolar florist, on Melrose Street, who she barely knew. Or her old primary school teacher Mr Parsons, whose elixir of choice for numbing his pain was a very particular, very potent brand of whiskey.

Katie and Dave brewed another pot of tea, and talked some more about Stuart, and how he’d felt too ashamed to share his problems with anyone. Tea’s good for talking about this kind of thing. The sun laughed through the window, as if nothing was wrong in the world.

It had been about ten months since Katie had her first panic attack. She’d felt so terrified and alone, not knowing where to turn or get help. As if she was the only person in the world to be feeling like that. She remembered the impotent frustration like it was yesterday, feeling as if she was screaming at the top of her lungs in a crowded restaurant where no-one so much as looks up from their chardonnay.

Katie learned about the perils of drugs, sex and crime at school. There was a hell of a lot of talk about the importance of exams. But no-one warned of what could happen if she stopped looking after her mind, or forgot what happiness looked like.

She wondered who would be next. Who was already part of her club, she just didn’t know it yet. Perhaps Mrs Beaumont from next door, always so cheery in the mornings? Too cheery for 8am, maybe. Or what about Karl Erikson from her writers’ group, with the smile that never quite managed to reach his eyes.

Katie wondered who was to join her ever-growing brigade of sufferers, and why they had to wait so long to step out of the shadows and realise they weren’t alone. Dave leaned over and poured her another cup of tea.

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Are you calling me crazy?

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A cast iron shroud encircles the way we’re meant to talk about depression. Words like ‘mad’, ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ always garner such controversy in relation to mental illness because, obviously, this kind of sickness shouldn’t be equated with a loss of sanity. Depression isn’t tantamount to madness.

I vividly recall the uncomfortable silence and look of horror on a friend’s face after she once uttered the words ‘are you mental?!’, before realising that actually, maybe I was, a little bit. She’d been responding to something completely benign – like turning down free cheese – and around anyone else it would have been funny, but thanks to my illness things got awkward. It wasn’t the first or last time someone was overly sensitive and careful with the language used in my presence.

But is it so terrible? I quite frequently feel like I’m on the edge of my sanity, a little crazy, sometimes completely crackers, in fact. When my world becomes surreal and odd thoughts begin to circumnavigate my mind the best word I could use to sum up how I’m feeling would be ‘mad’. Mental comes a close second.

For me it’s just a very loose interpretation of a word – you can use basic logic to crush any lingering doubts concerning the state of your sanity. Everyone knows that a ‘mad’ person doesn’t actually know that they’re ‘mad’. This is a formula I have frequently used to remind myself I haven’t lost my mind when a panic attack has left me feeling as if I’m having a stroke and stepping into an unreal abyss at the same time.

I know that I’m technically sane. But when the excess adrenaline coursing through my veins leaves me feeling like I’m barely hanging onto the most tattered threads of reality, I really don’t mind being referred to as bonkers, nuts or round the bend, in fact I embrace it. At the moment they’re words I’d happily use to describe my behaviour on a daily basis – in everything from having an irrational argument with a family member to putting my handbag in the fridge.

If leaving your door keys in with the sprouts isn’t the work of a lunatic, I don’t know what is.

One in Four

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We all like to think we’re special. There’s no other in the world quite like us, no-one’s been through what we have in life. It’s particularly easy to feel like this if you’ve experienced a mental illness with all its mind bending twists and turns. Realistically how many people could possibly relate to a life that – despite being devoid of hallucinogenics, barring kit kats – mimics a permanent bad drugs trip?

The thing is, if – like me – you’ve suffered from depression and anxiety then you’re not actually very special at all.

A 2009 survey reported that 9.7 per cent of the English population was struggling with mixed anxiety and depression. That’s you plus somewhere close to a staggering five million other human beings within a 600 mile radius. Five million other people that might struggle with suicidal thoughts, leaving the house, being on their own for longer than ten minutes, or sleeping without the light on.

Still feeling ‘different’? The stark reality is that one in four people in the UK will experience some kind of mental health problem in the space of a year.

Is it that surprising that my fair island is sinking into the mental illness mire? It’s not just adults trapped under the crippling weight of rising bills, childcare and other responsibilities that are suffering – depression and anxiety are leaving their caustic mark on the young too. A recent study published by Public Health England linked excessive time in front of televisions, computers and other screens to lower self esteem and greater emotional problems in British children. You only have to step onto a train to see this travesty in motion across the ages. With row upon row of travellers favouring smart phones and tablets over eye contact and conversation, it’s no wonder that feeling isolated and anxious is becoming the norm.

However one of the benefits of being ordinary is that you’re very much not alone.

When I opened up about my mental illness experiences it seemed like the entire world, including my old primary school teacher, my friend’s neighbour, my flatmate’s boss, my Mum’s friend’s third cousin eight times removed and my colleague’s gerbil had been going through similar things. Without sounding too sadistic (revelling in the pain of others isn’t a great colour on anyone) I felt incredibly relieved that countless others had lived my nightmare. It encouraged me to speak up about my problems, douse those niggling embers of shame that often threatened to burst into flames and engulf me, and most of all to simply get furious about the fact that so many people  were needlessly suffering in silence. I also recognised a chance to do something useful in supporting those that had shared my path.

Nobody needs to suffer in silence. If you’re caught in the jaws of depression and anxiety you may feel like no-one else understands what you’re going through, but you’d be wrong. Talk to your loved ones or find a support group – Depression Alliance run a fantastic network of meetings all over the country – and get connecting with people that can really empathise with your situation. You can probably help them as much as they’ll be able to help you.

Once you reach out to the plethora of fellow depression and anxiety sufferers, you might be glad that you’re not so unique after all.

I think, therefore I’m depressed

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On the dangers of wading into the murky waters of philosophy, my dear old Dad once quipped: “Aristotle spent all day pondering life, death and the universe but I bet he didn’t let any of it put him off his tea.”

He was of course right, but I was in the throes of severe depression at the time and couldn’t even cope with the basic tenets of existence. Try talking to me about the infinite nature of the cosmos and you would have had the misfortune of witnessing my brain cave in on itself.

I did a joint degree in English literature and Philosophy and spent many an hour debating the deep questions of the universe with my fellow students and teachers. Why were we here? What happens when we die? How can we know we’re not just dreaming? If a tree falls in the forest and the only one to hear it is a lonely stoat, did it really happen? It was scintillating, wonderful and generally a weird experience but that’s why we all loved it so much. After all as the man Socrates said himself, a life unexamined isn’t one worth living, and if we’d examined our space in the world any harder we might have rubbed it out entirely.

So it’s safe to say I was comfortable navigating the Big Questions. Until severe depression arrived at my door a couple of years ago. The sheer vastness of the universe terrified me, I simply couldn’t handle the fact that one day everyone I loved would perish and my fear of the unknown threatened to consume me. I can vividly recall a conversation with my brother about the possibility that nothing was real and we were all living in the matrix.  It suffices to say his response that it would be ‘awesome because we’d get to wear capes and jump about like Keanu Reeves’ didn’t lift my spirits. I then went on to ask what would happen if I went blind, then deaf, then somehow lost my arms and legs…and he slapped me upside my head. And I deserved it.

Because that’s what depression does – it makes you project all sorts of potential terrible situations and fixate on them until you’re so far gone you’re scared of a bowl of porridge. Rational thought leaves the building. I remember being terrified every time the phone rang because I assumed someone had died. The telephone handset, to me, was a doomed harbinger of all kinds of awful news. I had absolutely no reason to feel like this, it was just my warped, poorly brain telling me to fear the worst in everything around me.

I can happily chat about philosophy now. Of course there are still things that frighten me, I’m vulnerable as every other human being on the planet is vulnerable. Life can be difficult. But my less depressed brain is much better placed to cope with what the world throws at me, and I’m aware that when things get tough I’ll probably have at least most of my arms and legs to help me get through it.

Depression or apathy – where do we draw the line?

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Where does depression end and a person begin?

I find myself dwelling on this a lot lately. As my anxiety has grown quieter I’ve been blessed with greater clarity of thought – and with clearer thinking comes a painful amount of honesty. I’m excruciatingly aware that I’m not nearly as interested in the world around me as I should be. The things that anxiety and exhaustion were physically preventing me from doing just don’t seem appealing even now the barriers have come down and I’m capable of being more active.

Go for a walk on a sunny day? I’d rather stay indoors. Spend time with my friends? Could do, but I’d rather watch something mindless on the TV by myself.

Diminished interest in life is a hallmark depression symptom, I know this. Only my apathy doesn’t feel like an illness, it feels like me. I don’t feel like mental illness aliens have hijacked my brain, it feels very much like I’m in the driving seat. I just don’t seem to want to shift beyond first gear.

Forcing yourself to repeatedly do something that you not only don’t want to do, but can’t see the point in doing, is the most un-natural thing. With depression even the simplest daily activities become challenging and meaningless. But just how much of my current idleness stems from mental illness, as opposed to plain laziness and dissatisfaction, is often unclear. When I’m having an existential crisis over the point in buying a bag of apples, I know that the spectre of depression looms nearby. When I don’t want to walk to the shop because…I don’t want to walk to the shop, it’s possible I just need slapping in the face with a wet kipper and sending on my way.

When not wanting to do things becomes a habit, you have to make a real effort to step out of your comfort zone. Einstein defined doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results as insanity. Well, Albert, I’ll give you gravity and the whole theory of relativity business, but I have to disagree with these pearls of wisdom. I’m not deluded enough to expect that repeatedly nailing a smile to my face and forcing myself out of the house will fix my problems, but it has to be a start.

It’s time to stop using my illness as a crutch every time I don’t want to engage with the outside world, and get back to a vague semblance of normal, active life. And who knows, if I keep pushing myself to go through the motions, perhaps one day I’ll actually enjoy interacting with society again.

Stranger things have happened.