Depression – A lesson in what it means to be happy (Part 1)

What makes someone depressed? Is there a cure, or does a sufferer just have to find ways to cope? Is a depressed person destined to be unhappy, or is it just an opportunity to learn what happiness really is? To what extent do society’s troubles stem back to mental illness? I have given these questions a lot of thought throughout my life. Unfortunately, it isn’t intellectual curiosity that makes these such pressing questions for me – it is more personal than that.

I know I’m not the only one who is consumed by the quest for happiness, or even just to have an idea of what it is. But I know I’m one of the people for who the difficulty to succeed on this quest is enhanced by what is still a greatly misunderstood condition.

When looking at the path I could quite easily have gone down without a combination of supportive friends and my own will to get better, I feel endlessly grateful. But I also feel a huge sadness to know that there are people who aren’t as lucky as I was to have access to the knowledge or support they need to find a better path.

Many of these end up strewn across the streets of the world’s cities, shunned by society, stepped over by passer-by’s. At best they are dismissed as lost causes, at worst they are accused of laziness. And this is merely where depression is at its most visible.

Depression rumbles quietly in the psyche of society’s more integrated members too, and that is where it vanishes from sight. Those people feel they cannot dare expose this illness to the world – it could cost them their jobs, their friends and most importantly, their pride.

Because in this society, emotions have become a sign of weakness, particularly if you are a man. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. The role this emotional repression plays in some of society’s bigger problems shouldn’t be underestimated.

I don’t really know how to help all sufferers to the extent I’d like to, but I hope even writing about my own experience in depth and how I have learned not only to cope, but to thrive, will provide comfort.

I want what I’m going to write to be words of support to all those who experience this struggle, and reassurance that there is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how dim it may seem on the darkest days. To me, depression has become the greatest lesson in what it means to be happy.

 

My backstory:

I have suffered with depression for as long as I can remember, and have almost lost everything in the past as the thought of having to just be awake each day filled me with despair to the point where I was unable to work, socialise or express how I felt even to those closest to me.

My mother has also been depressed for as long as I can remember, and as a result of her being the only parent who was around with no siblings, I was exposed to an unfiltered darkness – moments that no child should be exposed to.

My first experience of this was at the age of five. I would awake to the sound of my mother crying desperately into her pillow each morning. Her depression reached a point where it was not safe for her to be alone, so we temporarily moved into my Grandmother’s. From that point, she gradually got better and life returned to normal, although the ring of her illness bounced off the walls of my childhood.

Skip forward to when I was 22, fresh out of university. Life’s stresses had got on top of my Mother once again, this time more severely. Whilst I was back staying with her, she would regularly come into my room flooded with panic, unable to articulate what was wrong, incoherently sobbing and begging me for help I did not know how to provide.

A sense of dread lingered in my thoughts that this would get worse before it got better, and I was right. On my way home from work one day, I received a call from my Uncle, “I don’t want you to panic, but your Mum has done something silly.” My mother had overdosed, and I came home to find a broken down door and a paramedic by my mother’s bed where she lay wailing hysterically.

In the ambulance to the hospital, my mother’s incoherent panic was amplified by the combination of straight vodka and huge doses of whatever medication she could find in the cupboard coursing through her veins. “I’m sorry, just leave me, everyone is better off without me”, she cried repeatedly.

In the hospital, she slowly became more lucid. She was put into intensive care. She only survived because she had mixed the medication with alcohol, which had caused her to vomit most of the medication she took. At the time I was not only worried for her, but angry. How could she expect me to have found her like that? But I am grateful to be telling this story from the angle I am, from one where she recovered and became stronger – I could have been telling a very different story.

Once she was firmly on the road to recovery later that year, I used my savings to go travelling, as many people that age do. Whether I was running away from my problems or using my time to confront them still isn’t clear to me today, but distancing myself from the familiar helped me grow regardless.

Since then, I have come to understand how the darkest depths of depression can leave you blinded to how others feel and rob you of your hopes for recovery. I have gained an understanding of what she did, and have forgiven her.

It was just over a year after my mother’s suicide attempt that I experienced my own breakdown when I returned from my travels. I found myself back living with her – this time I was the problem. Holes were punched in my walls. Sleepless night after sleepless night left me hollow and disorientated. The doctor’s soulless examinations and referrals to waiting lists that extended for months left me hopeless. The medication I was prescribed made me worse. My friends and family seemed like aliens to me, unable to understand the intricate reasons for my ordeal. No one could possibly understand what I was going through – or so I thought. I was alone and on the edge.

At the request of my whole family, I was told to move out because my instability could cause my Mum to relapse just as she had returned to good health. Having no savings left to fall back on and being in too poor health to keep a job, I found myself without a home.

This is the pivotal moment in stories like these where things can go one way or the other for the individual concerned. In my case, I was lucky enough to have friends who offered to let me stay with them while I found my feet again, and to this day I owe them everything for that. If only all those who are suffering had this option.

I used this opportunity to start from scratch. It was far from perfect – for months I was in and out of jobs, unable to hold anything down. My friends became increasingly impatient with me as my desperate anxiety gradually fizzled into a dull apathy and a lack of motivation to move forward. Wounds now healed into scars.

Those scars to this day are a constant reminder of how fragile not just me, but all humans are in their weakest moments. They help me feel compassion for other people and serve as a constant motivation to do everything in my power to never revisit that place, and to be there for anyone I encounter who feels this way.

Since then, I have tried everything in the pursuit of a cure, spent hours on the internet self-diagnosing, trawling forums and experimenting with myself. Drugs (legal and illegal), diets, supplements, self-help books and lifestyle alterations to name a few, with each of these areas opening up a world of new knowledge and understanding of this illness. Some of it was successful, some of it wasn’t.

What I have found most troubling is of everything I tried, the most conventional methods prescribed by the doctor happened to be the least successful, at least if you’re like me and don’t have access to the funds needed for private therapy. I never felt comfortable with how these medicines suppress symptoms rather than deal with the root cause, and huge waiting lists made suitable therapy a distant dream. In other cultures, symptoms of this kind are treated very differently and arguably more successfully (something I will discuss in later articles.)

In my case, the more successful methods were the more holistic ones, meaning the methods that take the whole person in to account rather than separate parts in isolation. I’m no scientist, but as it’s clear that the body and mind are connected in ways more complex than we currently understand, in which minor alterations can create knock on effects felt elsewhere. To treat each symptom in isolation seems counter-productive, and I have found methods with multiple benefits to be the most rewarding.

I now exercise every day, practice yoga and have a daily meditation practice. I have developed a wide set of interests, an ever expanding social circle of like minded people and have found an area of work I feel passionate about, which continues to open new doors for me. I have a rounded sense of spirituality and purpose. I have friends I have never valued more dearly, and have rebuilt a relationship with my Mother. I give no energy to things that don’t serve me and I pay attention to every aspect of my well-being and to that of others.

In short, I have become better and stronger, and I think everyone who suffers with depression has the same opportunity, even though many do not realise it and pursue harmful medication. It starts with being kind to yourself, learning the things that are good for you and cultivating them whilst confronting your demons and making peace with them.

Just to make it clear I am not cured of depression –  days where I wish there was an easy way out are more frequent than I’d like, but I have got it under control, and those days are less frequent than ever. I feel like one day, they may be gone completely.

In the next parts, I will begin to be more specific about my methods. Each coping mechanism I have integrated into my life deserves an article of its own, and they will be covered – the successful and the unsuccessful ones. Depressed or not, I think anyone can benefit from this knowledge.

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