Trigger warning! This post discusses depression and includes details of attempted suicide that some readers may find triggering. Please do not read if you think it will affect you.
It’s that time of year again. The clocks go back, the nights get darker and darker, and my brain starts to withdraw into itself. My motivation begins to slide, and all I want to do is eat and drink and curl up on the sofa. The self doubt and disappointment in myself is overwhelming. I feel like such a failure. I feel like I am bad at everything I do. I take everything personally. I’m unhappy. I’m tired. I’m cold. I’m numb.
Above all, I am bored. This has happened so many times before. Over and over again I descend into a dark abyss, only to desperately claw my way back out again. That deep sense of dread in the pit of my stomach, like I’ve committed some unforgivable crime, is so god damn predictable now. The sense of failure never ceases to blindside me, though. I always seem to find something new to be disappointed about.
My depression first began when I was eleven or twelve. I’m not sure exactly because I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a dark sky up ahead. However, I recently rediscovered a diary I began writing in when I was eleven. I used to write bad poetry, my teenaged self desperate for an outlet for all I was feeling. Here’s a poem written by eleven or twelve year old me. I didn’t date it so I’m not sure exactly. Apologies if it makes you cringe as much as I do.
When the rain just keeps on falling, And it’s doing in my head, I feel that life is so boring; That there’s no good times left. When I’m not excited at Christmas anymore, I’ve done it too many times before. Fun times seem so far away, As if I’ll never see a bright day. No one is listening to me, They don’t care what I’m saying, I’m losing touch with so many good friends I wish I’d talk to them some more. But the problem must be deeper, And only I am affected. Everyone else is still laughing, Even when the rain pours on. I’m very young, so why do I feel like I’m dead inside? The world has been drained of fun, So scared I want to run and hide. But I still don’t know what I’m running from, I just have a feeling something is not right. I’m so bored I don’t have the urge to fight.
It reads immature and child like in the simplicity of its language and poor attempt at rhyme. I’ve never had a good vocabulary. When I read this back as a 28 year old adult, I knew exactly how 12 year old me was feeling. I think I was experiencing long lasting anhedonia perhaps for the first time in my life, and I was scared, trying to make sense of it. It reads of apathy and frustration; of wanting to feel good again, but of not having the energy or motivation to fight the sadness. In that sense not much has changed in 17 years or so.
I tried to kill myself a couple of times. I was very young. Fourteen or fifteen perhaps. I didn’t have a bad life. Nothing awful had happened to me yet. I’d just lost any sense of joy. I didn’t feel any despair about it at all. If anything, I just couldn’t think of another solution. It just felt practical to me. I didn’t believed I would be missed. Now I think that was very self centred of me. I’ve never told anyone about it. Not my closest friends. Not any of my partners or my husband. Not my family.
My method was flawed, and perhaps I didn’t truly mean it. I just took all the pain killers I could find and washed it down with half a bottle of whisky. My dad had broken his leg and arm a few years previously and there were always a lot of pain medication around. The whiskey was probably my downfall. I was sick, throwing up most of the poison.
The weird thing, looking back, is how cold I was about it all. I attempted suicide because I could not think of what else to do. I felt nothing. When I failed, I still didn’t feel anything. Not relief or despair. The mental state that had lead me to take fistfuls of painkiller hadn’t changed, except that I lacked the motivation to try again. I’m alive today because of apathy. Sometimes that thought terrifies me.
I grew up somewhat, I moved out of my parent’s house and in to Student housing. I’d started University, and was full of enthusiasm for my new found independence. I built up new relationships with people I felt I had a connection with. I drank a lot and danced a lot and did all the normal young person things. But that feeling of despair snuck in, weaving its way through all my good times like a dark undertone in a pop song. I ignored it, forcing myself to get up and show up, laughing just that bit too loud, drinking just that bit too much.
It was this time of year. The darkness outside seemed to reflect the dark clouds in my mind. I just couldn’t fake it anymore. I broke down, I started blaming the people around me for the way I was feeling. I felt that there must be an explanation for why I was feeling so low, sick and sad. I looked for one everywhere. In the people I lived with. In the people I’d had sex with. In the people who cared about me, in the work I was doing, in my own body and abilities.
I became desperate to label my sadness with anything that could stick. I felt that if only I could find the reason for it, I could figure out how to make it go away. I was a pretty horrible person to be around. I was awful to my ex partner, who I happened to be living with along with several other people. He had upset me when we broke up, and my mind latched on to him with a vengeance, due to no fault of his own. I would leave that house for days, sleeping on the floors of other friends. My search to become free of depression had turned in to a sick paranoia that was hurting people around me and destroying my support network.
I also turned on my body. I thought I’d be happier if I looked better. I think I also wanted to punish myself in some way. I stopped eating entirely for a while, just living off drinks. I also hated my excessive body hair, I felt ugly all the time. I began to withdraw, staying in bed more and more, making tired excuses not to go out.
Unsurprisingly, my search for a reason behind my depression lead to no relief. In fact it made my life actively worse, to the point where I considered quitting University all together. But then something changed. I began to notice a pattern. I knew I could feel really low, sad and apathetic whilst everything was seemingly going well in my life. I started to wonder if perhaps the reason for my depression was internal, not external. I began to document my sadness, and pay attention to my mood, health, and general emotions, without trying to explain them.
I realised my depression comes and goes in cycles. For two weeks to a month before I have a period I get low. I have irregular, long cycles due to my PCOS (only recently diagnosed, so I didn’t know I had PCOS whilst I was figuring out all the depression shit), so I never thought “PMS” when I was suffering, because I never really expected a period. My depression was at its worst when I have been on any kind of hormonal medication. I tried a few different hormonal contraceptive out to try and regulate my periods, all of them left me more depressed and anxious than I usually am. I also noticed that the depression was deeper, longer lasting and more intense in the winter months. It would start in late October and last until the end of March. October happens to also be the anniversary of a traumatic event (TW: sexual assault).
I was studying Psychology at University, which I carried on to get a masters and then a PhD in (yes, the irony of being a Dr of Psychology with mental health issues is not lost on me). I think this background knowledge, particularly of Neurology, has helped me to understand what’s going on with my particular brand of depression.
Like many mental health issues, depression isn’t a one size fits all diagnosis. Depression describes a cluster of symptoms; in my case it’s apathy (lack of motivation), anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure), extreme fatigue, hypersomnia (sleeping too much), and depressed mood. Note you do not even have to have depressed mood to get a clinical diagnosis of depression. The cluster of symptoms we refer to as depression can have a wide range of causes, both external / environmental (such as a traumatic event) or internal (such as an hormonal imbalance). It’s usually a combination of different factors, not one triggering event though. Every single person with depression will be unique in both their symptoms and the cause.
By studying my own timeline, I think it is most likely I have Pre Menstrual Depressive Disorder, which is exaggerated by Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the anniversary effect of a traumatic event. I know the trauma is not the cause, because my depression began at least five years before any trauma. I’ve also had other upsetting life events happen since.
So how has this knowledge helped me? That is a complicated question. In short, it hasn’t. I’m just as depressed as ever. In broader terms though, it has made a huge amount of difference to my outlook and how I feel about myself and my depression. I stopped searching for answers and just accepted my depression as part of me. I don’t try to find reasons to explain it, or try to fight it when the darkness draws in around me. Instead, I say that I am depressed and I look after myself. I cosy up and binge watch TV, lying down. I don’t go out to meet people if I don’t have the energy for it. I communicate with my parter’s that I am feeling depressed, but that that is okay, and it will not last. Perhaps that’s the biggest achievement; knowing it will not last.
It’s amazing how one little change, acceptance, made such a huge difference in my life. In the past four years or so I have loved myself more than I ever have before. That is a big deal to me. I still have a lot of self doubt, and I question my capabilities constantly, but I have come such a long way from the desperate despise I used to feel for myself. I no longer think about killing myself, even when I feel like I may never feel pleasure or have energy again.
You know what? The less I stress about being depressed, and the more I look after myself the shorter my depressive periods seem to last. Yes, it’s still very frustrating to not be able to do anything for a while, when sometimes I really really want to, but I have to look out for myself. I still have these long periods where I get stuck. I can’t seem to muster up the motivation to do anything. My house gets filthy as I don’t have the energy to clean anything. I eat badly because I don’t want to cook, and I can even get really dehydrated because can’t get up off the sofa to get a glass of water. Getting stuck like this is very hard to explain to other people. They don’t seem to understand that it’s not that I don’t want to get up, it’s that I can’t. The amount of times people have told me I’d feel better if I got some exercise is uncountable.
Self care does have a price. I realised I cannot work full time. My depression just won’t let me. When I was a PhD student I could get away with staying in bed for days at a time. I was an expert lier and a quick learner, and I could get what I needed to do done in probably half the time I was contracted to. When I began a full job, after I had completed my studies, I was off sick all the time. I kept saying I had the flu. It was awful, I felt such guilt for not keeping up with my work and not being there, but I just could not do it. Now, I work a 3 days a week very simple office job. Sure, none the skills I have developed through years of post-graduate study are being used, but I can do it.
When I wake up on a Monday, even if I’m feeling bad, I can tell myself “just 3 days”. I force myself to get through those three days, using all the energy I can muster. Then I crash for my four days off. Some weeks are harder than others, but importantly it is manageable. Sometimes I really resent that the job takes all my energy away, leaving em with none for creative projects (like this blog), or time with friends. But I need an income.
So here I am, dreading the darker months that have only just began, but fierce in my belief that I can get through it. I’ve stopped thinking that I’ll find that magical cure that can suck out all my sadness and replace it with warm sunshine. I’m just not wired up that way, and I worry about what other parts of me I would lose along with it. What I have got is coping skills. When I look at how far I’ve come, I’d say they are damn good coping skills. I think that’s all anyone with a long term mental health issue can hope for.
*The image included in this piece is one of my scribblings.
I’m depressed right now and I’ve been trying to finish this post for a week. It was really tough and I’m still not happy with it. I wanted to run some hope through it though. I wanted to get across that my life is good, despite all this apathy and anhedonia. It is part of me, and at the end of the day it’s the lot I’m stuck with. Just like my battle with body hair, I am happier accepting it than living my life in a fight. I won’t apologize for it anymore.
Yes, I have been to doctors, multiple times, with my main focus always being on the fatigue and apathy, as those symptoms seriously impact my quality of life. I sometimes haven’t been treated in the best way, or found a medical solution, but that’s a story for another day. I think sometimes , given my psychology background, I feel such guilt for not doing all the things that can help ease depression, like exercising outdoor regularly, socialising and having a really good healthy diet. This guilt isn’t helpful. If I had the motivation to exercise outside, I wouldn’t have a problem. I’ve gone out socially when I was depressed before and it ended with me exhausted and a shivering wreck of anxiety for days afterwards.