Being depressed isn’t about being skint or having a bad week. Here, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Claire Goodwin discusses the crushing, physical anguish of clinical depression and explains why there needs to be a greater understanding of – and compassion for – those suffering with this life-altering illness.
I have atypical clinical depression. Alongside this, I have generalised anxiety disorder and hyperacusis. These conditions affect my life from the moment I wake up to the intermittent times I go to sleep. I have a therapist, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, medication and family support. I am going to get better.
The hardest battle, however, is that there is nothing physical that demonstrates how ill I am or have been.
If you break your leg, you immediately incur sympathy and support from others. If you break your mind, the support is not so forthcoming. It’s sad that we have to ask for compassion and understanding, but this is a day-to-day battle for many people like me, with a hidden disability.
When the word is said out loud – depression – at best, it is met with confusion and embarrassment. At worst, it is met with flippancy and dismissal.
Depression? I had a bit of that last week.
“Are you OK? Look a bit down.”
“I’m feeling a bit depressed today.”
“Oh no. Why, what’s up?”
“We haven’t any money till payday and the shower is broken.”
“Yup. Anyway, it’ll all be better on Friday, get paid.”
Discussions such as these happen on a regular basis. At work, within circles of friends, between drinkers at the pub, in the aisles of the supermarket. And those words slip in, freely, easily. Used to describe the feeling one has after a short run of bad luck, or sadness at a string of events, or loneliness when a loved one is not near. Big words to describe small events. Big words to give gravity to how crap this week has been.
Depression. Depressed. Depressing.
Life can be crap. We may have weeks where the world appears to be against us; the rain starts as the last sock is pegged on the line and the toast falls jam side down. We have weeks where life leaves us knackered. Days when motivating ourselves to wash is practically impossible, though it is easy to switch on Netflix. We have hormonal days and angry days, irritable days and fed up days. Low days and in-need-of-a holiday days, days where the milk is spilt and the cry seems necessary.
“Clinical depression is an insidious being, enveloping the many parts of you, shrouding your world with darkness, turning the light to a dim flicker.”
But the fug soon lifts and life becomes good again. We don’t have those dispirited feelings for long, and they don’t appear again for ages. And a week later the milk, the wet washing, the broken shower and ruined toast are but a distant memory.
However, stress and sadness is generally caused by greater woes than broken-down washing machines. There are more significant events that can make us unhappy, sleepless and vacant. Our jobs or stress at work, relationship breakdowns or worry about family. Friendship fall-outs and close ones moving away. Fertility problems, money issues, illness and loss. These events are life-changing. They make us unhappy. They impress great stress upon us. They depress our mood: they can affect the way we function.
But what if we were to remove or alleviate those stresses: change our luck, take away the worry. Would our mood lift? And if yes, were we ever really, truly depressed?
Things get a bit on top of us all at some point. You need to go for a walk, pull yourself together.
Clinical depression is an illness that is so very difficult to explain. Indeed, the many lists of symptoms catalogued in books and on websites often only make sense to those that are in the grips of it. Even then, the symptoms are but a screen grab of what lurks further, beyond the blackness and the fog.
It is so much more than sadness and negativity. It’s not greasy hair and laziness.
Clinical depression carves itself a niche in your head, in your personality, in the very essence of what it is to be you. It’s an insidious being, enveloping the many parts of you, shrouding your world with darkness, turning the light to a dim flicker. Life moves away from you and you’re abandoned on the periphery of time and motion, knocking on the door, desperate to get back in.
Going for a walk is like wading through tar. And when I try to pull myself together I realise the strings are snapped, weakened and torn from grasping together the different parts of my life that are becoming fractured and drifting away. And I’m desperately trying to grab them back, but each time I catch one part, the others float away into the void.
You should be thankful for what you have. What have you got to be miserable about?
Clinical depression is not about being miserable. It’s not about not having the things you want.
Clinical depression is a break in the limbic system, caused by the reduction in release of the neurotransmitters serotonin and noradrenaline in the brain. This can be triggered by any number of things, but the effects it has are far reaching – from cognitive and emotional debilitation to crippling physical symptoms that chain you to a very small world. It causes your body to break down, with everyday function declining, relationships suffering and your sense of self-worth disappearing into the abyss.
“This isn’t about being skint, or disliking their job, or having a run of bad luck. This is about their brain not working properly and their body breaking down.”
Clinical depression is as much a physical condition as it is a mental one. As the mind breaks, so too does the body.
So when you see a friend that has the ligature of depression, tightening on every cell, every fibre of their being, please be the person that is there for them. Know that this isn’t about being skint, or disliking their job, or having a run of bad luck. Know that this is about their brain not working properly and their body breaking down. Talk to your friend. No judgment, just kind words and support.
We need to talk about it to understand it. Only then can we fight it.
Claire is a speech therapist, baker, cake decorator, sometime radio guest and writer. She writes about food, being fat and living with mental health problems @bake_therapist; www.baketherapy.co.uk; www.facebook.com/CakeChemistryUK