It’s time for me to own the term ‘depression’
I wrote about my personal experience of mental illness and shared some diary entries here. The feedback I received through comments, but mainly personal messages, made it feel worthwhile even though I’m new to blogging and have a small readership. It reinforced to me that ‘depression’ is not a dirty word.
Thank you, sincerely, to everybody who did respond.
So I’m going to publish some further posts around that subject, with similar intentions: to try to alleviate – even a tiny bit – the stigma attached to suffering from mental illness which can so compound it, and to reach out to anybody who may relate to how I was feeling or who may know somebody else who might.
I can only write about my own experience. Everyone is different – and there is no judgement from me here.
If you are depressed, if you are anxious, you’re not weak, you’re not crazy, you’re not a machine with broken parts. You’re a human being with unmet needs. Your pain makes sense.Johann Hari (talking to Dr Chatterjee)
It’s taken me a long time to own the term ‘depression’. There is so much guilt and shame linked to the word. Although I was off work for ages with mental illness, I couldn’t bear to say I was ‘depressed’.
I could cope with ‘burnout’. In fact, it seemed almost fashionable, bandied around left, right and centre. But I began to suspect it was used far too much as I listened more than once to somebody describing their own highly stressful work and far-too-busy life which had ended in their temporary collapse and a few days when they couldn’t rise from their beds.
Extreme exhaustion – yup, that applied to me (and to those above, who had ‘temporarily collapsed’), definitely, although surely a good long sleep would cure that one so it had to be more than that.
I could relate to many symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, trauma… but depression… No!
Depression was a dirty, shameful word.
But I’ve had enough of that.
We are living in a culture where happiness is valued above all else, and is a pretty close relative of success, yet it is a natural, human reaction to feel pain. If there are good reasons for you to feel pain (and maybe you don’t know what they are – and that is perfectly okay too), but you suppress it for too long, pretend everything is okay, and plaster that fake smile on to your face then you will stay in pain. A huge step towards healing is to acknowledge how you feel. Feeling pain does not mean that you have failed somehow.
I’m saying it out loud.
‘I had depression.’
My GP first said ‘burnout’. After a couple of weeks off work he sent me to see a psychiatrist. She agreed with ‘burnout’ and might have mentioned ‘depression’. She wrote me a sick note for three months and told me it would probably take more time than that.
‘How long?’ I wanted to know.
But she didn’t have the answers. She was eager to prescribe anti-depressants – to adjust the chemical imbalance in my brain – and shook her head at me when I said ‘no’.
What chemical imbalance?
It didn’t make sense to me. Even when I was feeling confused and utterly desperate, I still knew that I didn’t used to feel like that, that ‘stuff’ had happened in my life, a lot of stuff, that had built up, put huge amounts of pressure on me, and contributed to my mental ‘illbeing’ (if ‘illbeing’ is the opposite of wellbeing). So why would the chemicals suddenly go out of sync in my brain, now? Or were those chemicals controlled by our emotions? It didn’t add up, even in my muddled state.
I wanted to feel better so much. But I needed to treat the infected root rather than put a plaster on my wound (or something along those lines). So we compromised on herbal meds and she sent me for talk therapy with a psychologist.
(Some months later she prescribed me sleeping pills which I didn’t take either, as I wanted to be able to wake up if the kids needed me, and pills to reduce anxiety – which I did take in small doses, four or five times.)
Is burnout work-related depression?
I have wondered what the difference is between burnout and depression. I read somewhere that burnout is simply work-related depression. It seems to me that there could be some truth in that.
‘It can’t be burnout’, I thought. ‘My job is anything but stressful. It’s the exact opposite – mind-numbing’ (to such an extent that I now think fondly back to it as ‘soul-destroying’).
I read up on ‘burnout’ being a term first used mostly for people in the care industry with highly-stressful jobs working unreasonably long shifts. But I was doing a repetitive job that I found easy. When I delved a bit deeper, I was relieved (we all want to know what is ‘wrong’ with us) to tentatively discover that you can also become burned out if your job isn’t aligned with your values. If you find no point to it, can’t grow, and – importantly – have no control over what you do.
Let’s imagine… (and this is just an example), your job description has been updated to include checking work that you used to do yourself, but which has now been outsourced (in an attempt for your company to save money), to try and get ‘points’ by finding other people’s mistakes (‘how absurd,’ you think, ‘when I could be doing the original work in almost the same amount of time’). It gives you an uncomfortable yet constant uneasy feeling, a nagging weight. Pair that with sharing a stuffy, dark office with unhappy colleagues. Let’s say you aren’t able to open the windows due to the noise and dust of a building site outside (again, just an example). If your complaints to the boss about headaches are then ignored, the feeling of discontent and helplessness could increase to pretty high levels.
There is more and more research to align mental wellbeing with job satisfaction.
Lost Connections – Hope for depression thanks to Johann Hari
I am reading Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections – Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope. As a slow reader, I only manage a few pages each evening. I’m only on page 65 but it is fitting into place like a jigsaw. I knew it would make sense after a brief encounter with his theory on addiction (‘the opposite of addiction is connection’) and then a year or so later listening to his interview on a podcast with Dr Chatterjee.
After years of research, thousands of miles of travel, and intense personal investment, Hari has identified nine causes for depression and anxiety.
The first cause he writes about is (drumroll) ‘Disconnection from Meaningful Work’.
Feeling as though I had no control whatsoever over my job was absolutely not the only reason for my own breakdown. But I do believe it was a contributing factor.
Disempowerment never leads to a healthy place. It’s a shortcut to frustration and despair. And the path to that place can be misleadingly well paved. If we are conditioned to be ‘grateful’ to have a ‘good’ (i.e. it pays the mortgage) job, if we have been taught that we ‘shouldn’t complain’, then we could be treading this path for a very long time. And it’s a difficult road to stray from of our own accord. Even when we know that we don’t like our job (or worse).
Fear in the driving seat
We are driven by fear – The unknown is scary.
But what is worse – doing something you hate for most of your waking life so you can buy stuff you don’t need or being in charge of how you spend your own time but having the means to buy less stuff (that you don’t need)? I know ‘it’s not as simple as that’. I have been in a position where I could see absolutely no other option than to stay in ‘the job’.
I am not trying to point the finger at anybody in my particular case. If you don’t tell people how you feel, how can they know? How can anything change?
Perhaps if I had communicated better with colleagues and my hierarchy things could have taken a different turn. Maybe if I had not left it too late, we could have worked something out together. I assume my part: I was too afraid to make waves.
Finally, I learnt the hard way that there are other options. But I’d got to the stage where there had to be. At least I learnt the lesson eventually.
Psychotherapy is for other people
Even just a few months before my general practitioner sent me to a psychiatrist who referred me for therapy with a psychologist, I would never have imagined myself ever having psychotherapy. I didn’t discount the work of a psychologist at all. Indeed, I have always been interested in their work (I even wanted to be one). But psychotherapy was for other people. People with real problems. People who have been raped, lost children, survived war, been bullied, or have been through other traumatic events to a greater or ‘lesser’ extent (but who I am to judge?) in their lives. Oh, and it was very fashionable for those who could afford it in certain circles, particularly in the United States.
Maybe a small (in both senses of the word) part of me thought it was for weak people, people who didn’t cope very well. Perhaps I believed I was strong. I was whole.
Admitting there is a problem – I almost caught myself in time
I was running on empty for quite some time and beginning to recognise that I couldn’t go on for much longer pretending that I was able to cope with life at that speed, with life so out of sync with being on my own terms. It was becoming harder to hide the fact (from myself) that I was heading for collapse. I didn’t have a minute to sit down, I was always over-tired and on edge but couldn’t rest or sleep, I was beginning to feel confused, and having inexplicable mood swings.
I remember popping in to see a friend around that time. She asked me how I was, and I surprised her, but more so, myself, by responding, ‘I’m not sure. I think I’m heading for a nervous breakdown.’
I decided to take summer off to reassess my life so that I didn’t break.
But the proverbial last straw appeared as a tree trunk. G was rushed in to Intensive Care. I looked after him and helped him to survive. Then I broke…
…and I visited my GP for that first sick note.
Reading Johann Hari has reinforced what I’d already come to understand as the reasons why I did, indeed, have depression and anxiety.
Hari studied research carried out by George Brown and Tirril Harris and presents us with these findings: ‘…when these factors were added together (having a severe negative event, and having long-term sources of stress and insecurity)… Your chances of becoming depressed… exploded.’
In my case, there were long-term factors such as a job which I felt I had no control over nor could see an end to, which took me away from my children; no network of people I knew near home – we’d moved to a rural Belgian location and I’d almost immediately begun to commute – so I’d had no time to form and nurture new friendships; and being constantly ridiculously exhausted.
But there were also serious, distressing life events. The fact that close family members (mother, young son, sister, nephew) had been in near-death situations for independent reasons is just one example (or rather, four examples) of these events, but there were others. And when I finally realised that I had to reassess my life fast or I was going over the edge, my partner was rushed to Intensive Care with a 5% chance of survival (he survived, but is still termed as ‘chronically ill’ nearly four years later).
No chemical imbalance then (as Johann Hari might point out). Just life that went wrong.
I have no medical background, and I am in no way judging anybody who takes anti-depressants, but I’m so glad that I didn’t, even though I considered it very seriously, a few times.
However, I did drink wine (arguably the most socially accepted ‘pain killer’) to numb the pain, and only when I stopped doing that could I truly begin to face my pain, to own it, and then… to let it go.
I was wrong about mental illness. Nobody is immune.
Depression is nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to feel guilty about. It can be a natural reaction to something or some things which are not right in your life and your environment. Life events which have taken a turn in the wrong direction. We’re not robots. We’re human beings.
I had depression. I no longer feel ashamed nor guilty.
After writing this post I am afraid it reads a little like a list of ‘reasons’ for my depression, the excuses. I hope not, as to justify my ‘why’s would help nobody. My intention is to try to show that until you admit you have a problem, you can’t heal. Depression is something that nobody wants to admit to, but it can come up behind you and grab you by surprise.
If anybody else is suffering, please… be kind to yourself.
The following resources are taken directly from the website of mental health and social equality writer, speaker and campaigner, Natasha Devon.
Young Minds, The Samaritans, CALM, The Mix, The Self-Harm Network, Beat, Mind.