Friday, June 07, 2013

Living with a black dog

There are a great many things in life that are difficult to comprehend unless you've experienced them yourself. Bereavement and Morris Dancing spring immediately to mind. Depression is like that too.

I’ll be honest and admit that I didn't understand depression. Everybody gets grumpy and sad every once in a while, yeah? And then we take a deep breath, pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again – also known as the “For fucks sake, stop whining and just pull yourself together” approach. If there is something making you sad, or unhappy, or anxious - just deal with it. Avoid it altogether (if at all possible) or just get on with it.

And this was the approach I took when my wife Tara was first diagnosed with depression several years ago. I couldn't feel any genuine sympathy for her plight because I just didn't understand it. I went through the motions of appearing sympathetic, saying all the right things and being nice - but it felt ultimately hollow, disingenuous even. With hindsight this was so utterly selfish of me, but I can only appreciate that due to my own later experiences.

For fucks sake, stop whining and just pull yourself together.

And then the same thing happened to me.

Paralysing anxiety attacks that floored me in my attempts to leave the house – my ribs tightening with every step I took away from home until I didn't dare go any further in case the pain crushed me. My dreams were obsessed with illness – I could feel this cancer, or whatever it was that was making me feel so awful, growing inside me, tendrils and shoots wrapping around my bones. Lying awake at night clutching at my chest, convinced that my heart was about to stop – all of this accompanied by the unending misery that you will feel like this all of the time and that you will always feel like this and you don’t know why this is happening to you.

And you realise that you can’t avoid the things that are making you anxious, because there isn't a definitive cause. You can’t follow your own advice, because it simply does not work. You don’t know how this was triggered, so you can’t make it stop. You’re miserable and you don’t know why.

And this is accompanied by the guilt and shame that you’re a burden on those around you. And the awful feeling that you are wasting the time of the doctors – none of whom can find anything wrong with you. People around you – good friends, family – start asking you whether you've considered speaking to somebody about the way you feel, but you won’t accept that – the problem you have is physical and it’s not just in your head and For Gods sake this pain can’t just be in my imagination.

There’s still an underlying shame to admitting you think you’re suffering from mental issues, and this is terribly unfair. There is no shame in seeking medical help for suffering from a thyroid imbalance, or a blood sugar imbalance – but you feel there is for depression, which is only ultimately a chemical imbalance in your brain.

But eventually after they've exhausted all possibilities, the problem can only be in your head – and then eventually after much trial and error, the right mix of medication is found and after they've kicked in, you don’t feel so bad any more.

But the problem is – you don’t feel so good any more either.

Your emotional range becomes muted. You don’t get upset about things like you used to, but you can’t bring yourself to get that excited or happy about things either. The chemical imbalance in your brain is being sorted, but it’s at the expense of your emotional spectrum. For a lot of things in life it just feels like going through the motions.

My mum died and I couldn’t grieve properly over it at the time. Of course I was sad, but it felt forced – I felt guilty that I wasn’t grieving enough. I was simply going through the motions.

But over time, if you're lucky, this improves. The fog in your head that you've lived with for so very long begins to dissipate. You have the odd day where, do you know what? Life is good. You forget that there is anything wrong with you. And this becomes the odd two days, and then the odd week.

And you come out of it with a greater understanding of the condition, and you will from that day onwards never ever tell anybody with depression to snap out of it.


  1. Preach. I've been guilty in the past of trying to 'solve' other people's depression, but know better now.

  2. The only person that can tell you to snap out of it is you, and having been there and done that, for me it did work, but only cos everything i needed to get me out of my slump happened at once. I needed work, and work appeared. I needed good weather (me being an outdoors person) and good weather appeared. I needed love and .... oh well that will appear some day.

    I was lucky I didnt need chemicals or drugs, but I was too scared of the doctor telling me this was due to brain cancer or something like that. So all in all, I get you. I know what you mean, and I will say thank you for saying this better than I ever could

    May the force be with you



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