Today, Friday 10th October is World Mental Health Day. A globally recognised day to talk more about mental health, to dispel stigma-feeding myths and to help those who don’t suffer with mental health problems to understand it.
But it’s not always just people who don’t suffer with mental health issues that need to understand it more. With depression, for instance, it is the sufferers who need to understand within themselves first of all. Maybe that’s you.
Depression is – for want of a far more appropriate word – a funny thing. There aren’t the same sorts of physical signs as a cut hand or a broken nose, so even if you do have it yourself, it can be really hard to know. At first.
I have a cat allergy and so I know if I don’t want to look like a grotesquely drawn Mr Men character, I’ll just stay away from cats. My cat allergy doesn’t spring up if there aren’t cats around. I can always predict when it’ll come. (It’ll be when there’s an annoying cat waiting to make me sneeze.)
Depression, on the other hand, frequently manifests itself entirely at random.
Imagine you were given the chance to joyously doggy paddle freely in Willy Wonka’s chocolate river until you had imbibed your fill of gooey deliciousness; depression doesn’t care. Imagine having a dream career where you’re indulging your passion completely, every waking hour, every working day; depression doesn’t care.
You could be in the midst of something truly wonderful, outwardly having the time of your life; whilst inwardly you feel empty, soulless and the sight of even your own shadow fills you with insecurity. That’s my depression. I recognise that now, but for about 20 years I didn’t even really recognise it in myself, let alone see a doctor about it.
For me, I assumed everyone felt the same way I did. I just believed everyone had indescribable lows without reason. I just thought it was part of human nature to want to escape the constantly dark confusion in your head, just as I presumed others must have days where they were unable to face the thought of human interaction without obvious cause.
I never thought to talk about it. How do you talk to someone about something you don’t know you have that you should maybe talk to someone about having?
If I go to a friend’s house and they have a cat, I’ll have to say that I can’t be near it. I know the cause and effect of my cat allergy.
That’s not the same with depression.
I remember my first ever radio breakfast show: the aforementioned dream job. Although it has never affected me on-air at all (bizarre how a microphone always created an escape, a façade of sorts), and it’s never been something that has been apparent to people I have worked with, one post-show meeting stands out where, looking back, it was obvious. I have always been fuelled by creating ideas but this one morning, about 15 years ago, the very thing that fuelled me couldn’t even get a spark, let alone a flame. My friend, the presenter, asked what was wrong. I managed a shrug. I didn’t know the answer. Yet.
As years went by the topic of depression appeared to become more open to me. Maybe it’s because I had started to notice it more. (A bit like when you buy a new car and suddenly see the same model flippin’ everywhere.) People I knew spoke of their depression and I listened with growing recognition. I secretly looked on the internet for facts about it. I downloaded apps and took tests on my phone as I lay in bed at night. The results said I rated highly on the scale and should see my GP as soon as possible. I didn’t.
Whether on the radio, on-stage or blogging, I have always talked openly about my life in order to engage with an audience. This, however, was the most guarded I’d ever been about anything. I felt… well, ashamed, I suppose.
Writing that now, I can see how irrational, ludicrous and wrong that way of thinking was; but it’s not an easy thing to confront. It’s a huge realisation and I was beholden to my own, self-imposed stigma.
One particularly dark day last year it came to the fore. My head was inwardly swirling with doubt and self-loathing, rumbling and swirling with black clouds of confusion. I couldn’t get out of bed (or my own head) and the thought of facing anyone filled me with dread. Out of sheer desperation and admittedly, fear I sought a local mental health group, trudged through the November rain, appeared at their doorway and mumbled, “I think I need help”. I felt as tiny as a mouse.
After three hours of talking, listening, and drinking really weak coffee with people who knew exactly this feeling, I began to feel a relief. It was the relief of 20 years or so of confusion and secrecy. It was the relief of recognition but, more so, it was the relief of acceptance.
The big thing about having depression is to know you’re not alone. There is always someone there to talk to. Family, friends, support groups. The not-so-wonderfully ironic thing with depression is that at the very times you probably should talk to someone, they’re the times you least want to. It’s like when your Mum used to tell you to tidy your room. You know it’s messy and you know it needs sorting out, but the mere thought of the task is so overwhelming. Maybe if you close your eyes then it will sort itself out; but it never does. The mind, like an 8-year-old’s bedroom, has to be tidied. Otherwise your toys will go to charity. (I went too far with the analogy there, didn’t I?)
I write this as someone who has since been to see a GP, been officially diagnosed with depression and been sent on my way with packets of pills. I am writing purely in terms of my own journey. I am not struck with it all the time, not every day of every week; I’m very fortunate. It has never affected my working relationships with others; I’m very lucky. But I have it enough to be a thing. I have it enough that it visits me more than I’d choose to invite it to. I also know it is a recognised thing and can be dealt with.
You may be reading this as someone who wants to understand more about other people’s depression. You may be reading it with the first dawning of suspicion that you have it yourself. I know from first hand that the realisation of having depression is a long journey of slow-burning discovery. But the discovery comes (as described here). If you’re not sure, maybe take a look at a website (Mind is a good place to look). Maybe it’ll help. It did for me.
World Mental Health Day is all about understanding mental health in others, but it’s maybe about understanding it in you too.
And don’t worry, you are not alone. There are plenty of companions travelling on the journey with you. In fact, we should all meet up and share some wine.
Just as long as there aren’t any cats about.