The first time I saw a doctor about my depression, I hadn’t slept for 3 nights straight. I sat in the waiting room as a 7am walk-in, with a heavy guilt and overbearing shame, rehearsing my apologies for wasting their time and accepting that it was indeed an over reaction, and all in my head.
I lost a family member to suicide, so all I understood and knew of depression at the time was that it was when you wanted to take your own life. Except I didn’t. I certainly felt hopeless, worthless, unlovable and as if I was moving through quicksand in life; slowly ruining everything. But I had never made plans to take my own life. I was always aware that the pain I would leave behind would be far greater than any pain I was enduring at the time. What about my mum, and who would look after my dog? I can’t say what would have happened if I didn’t seek help, but I was petrified that one day I’d wake up and decide ‘this is it’. I’ve since lost a friend to suicide and had people close to me attempt suicide, several times. I know it’s real. I know it doesn’t care about your wealth, success or how loved or important in the world you’re perceived to be. You only have to look at the list of successful people who openly discuss(ed) their struggle with depression to acknowledge that; Robin Williams, Beyonce, Dwayne Johnson, Owen Wilson, Michael Phelps, Gwyneth Paltrow, J.K.Rowling, Brad Pitt, Jim Carey.
Depression is the predominant mental health problem worldwide, followed by anxiety, more often than not, they co-exist. Depression, anxiety and suicide rates continue to climb, with men being at 3x the risk of suicide in both the UK and Australia.
1 in 5 young people have a diagnosable mental health disorder, with 75% of them manifesting by the age of 24. I was 23 and for about two years, these waves of what I now understand to be depression would come creeping up and crashing over. At first they’d be a subtle grey fog and I’d quietly blame it on my stressful job, my lack of sleep or relationship. Externally, these factors would change and often progress; a bigger salary, a fancier car. But the undercurrent of my internal world grew stronger and the waves would get heavier, longer and darker until everywhere I went, there was this looming, suffocating yet invisible shadow ball-and-chained to me.
I had concluded that perhaps, I was just a horrible human. That this feeling of persistent sadness must be because I am ungrateful for everything I had, all this ‘stuff’. Insecure, like my unfaithful boyfriend kept telling me. Negative. Didn’t want it enough, as my boss would suggest, despite consistently overachieving. I remember smiling in a sad admittance to myself when I woke up in what felt like cement one day, acknowledging the ‘So this is what it’s like to not be able to get out of bed in the morning’ – my ignorant, fast paced and egocentric-self had never understood that before, so illiterate to depression’s power.
I had an enviable childhood, incredible parents, a good education and I was accomplished in my own right. I lived in my own house, with a spare bedroom filled with clothes, shoes, ‘stuff’. A nice car, great career, great friends and an active social life. I was miserable and disconnected, but I wasn’t a miserable person? I just couldn’t make sense of it. It petrified me and I took every opportunity given to run from it.
Eventually, when it got too exhausting to hide or to dodge social scenarios, when even my own four-walls didn’t feel like a safe place to hide from the accumulating waves, I confided in my best friend. I knew she would tell me that I was overreacting, over-worrying, over-thinking, just anxiety – the usual. “I feel shit Steph, and I don’t know why… but, like..all the time. I just have to let you know. Sorry. I feel like such a burden. Please don’t tell anyone. Do you think I’m nuts?”
But she didn’t tell me what I hoped to hear, that it was just in my head. So with her gentle but firm advice, I finally went to see a doctor (…though not until a week or so had passed of more sleepless nights and being tossed about in the depressive tumble dryer, waiting and hoping to ‘snap out of it’ – just to be sure it was real).
I walked out of the doctor’s surgery after my logical and mentally well-researched articulation of how I ‘just wasn’t feeling myself’ went out the window. As soon as she invited me to take a seat and the door closed, I broke down and cried in a way that I hadn’t done before and I haven’t done since. She referred to depression as ‘The Black Dog’ and gave me a list of resources and suggestions alongside a prescription of citalopram, an SSRI anti-depressant drug. I felt like a fraud picking it up at the chemist. I’d been collecting sleep prescriptions like a kid in a candy store there for nearly a year, pretending not to notice how quickly my body became accustomed to and dependant on them, but that never felt like an issue. I ‘just don’t sleep well’, ‘stressed over work’, ‘have a busy mind’ and I rather enjoyed the heavy sedation, the safety blanket of clawing at least 5 hours sleep.
I completely respect that for some people, anti-depressants can make a huge difference and I have no doubt that they have saved lives. I stayed on mine for nearly a year but found they only ever numbed the symptoms. I stopped feeling as miserable as before, but I also stopped being able to feeling as happy as before. Over the year I had accepted my depression, became to befriend the black dog and I grew curious about it, more aware of it. I’d read about it, write about it, try to understand it; what would make it worse, what would make it better? I curated a ‘toolbox’ of things that I could do when I could feel the waves starting to build. I’d recently got a dog and waking up in what once felt like cement, became easier to break through, because he needed and loved his morning walks, as did I, soon enough. One morning, I took the shoebox of hidden prescription pills in my room and binned them, abruptly stopping the medications (which I absolutely don’t suggest, unless you enjoy shivering, nausea, nightmares and sweating – simultaneously and profusely). I slipped seamlessly back in to my active social life, with only one or two friends knowing about my struggles. Although, I realised that I was no longer thriving in the live-for-the-weekend lifestyle. Smoking, binge drinking, partying or leaving the nightclub at 6am to claw and find people to stay up with and soften the inevitable drop back down to earth with a bump of anxiety and exhaustion that screamed complete disconnection with what the books I’d began to devour described as Eudaimonia (the Greek word for happiness, well-being, being in sync with our ideal self or a literal translation ‘good soul’). Somehow, even then and amidst the ashes of fun and recklessness, I knew that being sat on my front door step as the sun came up, wired but tired with a fag in one hand, kebab that I didn’t even fancy eating in the other, dry mouth and looming sense of self-hate, wasn’t exactly what I’d describe as my ideal state of Eudaimonia.
The biggest relief came from initially speaking out to my friend and subsequently a doctor, about how I was feeling. Something which I wish I had done sooner (as do 74% of people, according to a new study by Public Health England).
The waves didn’t disappear overnight and although I can’t remember the last time I felt one quite like they used to be, it wasn’t a linear journey here. The ongoing work, which has become engrained in my habits, stem from taking responsibility of what I could control. Sleep. Stress. How I spend my money. How I spend my time. How I spend my energy. For me, practices and daily habits which bring a sense of stillness have been an anchor in being able to remain still whenever there are internal undercurrents. Only in this slowing down have I become aware of the ‘red flags’ my mind, my ‘self’ or my body throw up when I’m feeling anxious or feeling down; this self-knowledge itself is power.
I have found social media to be both a blessing and a curse in which I can access at my fingertips like-minded people, uplifting and humorous accounts, people who phrase The Black Dog and the daily struggles we so often overlook and let accumulate, in such an eloquent way that I find myself often smiling with that connected sense of ‘me-too’ – ness. I also know it to be a whirlpool of comparison. My phone in general is a daily distraction (often from my own self, or that thing I really need to do). I frequently take hours without my phone, sometimes days. My notifications are off, nearly all my WhatsApps are muted and I don’t often apologise to friends when I’m an hour, day or a week late in replying. Those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.
The ‘toolbox’ I curated in the depression that I no longer recognise was filled with things that have become my habits. Going for a walk. Doing something for someone else, something without the expectation of getting anything in return (this is even more powerful, I have found, when it’s somebody you don’t even know). Bake. Swim. De-clutter and give as much as possible to charity.
I am by no means, a Saint. Sometimes I don’t make the time I should to meditate, go to yoga, read, or any of the things that bring me stillness. Sometimes I do make the time and I still don’t. I no longer smoke. I still occasionally drink (and I enjoy myself when I do) but not to the extent I used to. I occasionally go weeks or months without drinking. I don’t apologise or justify it when I do. My sleep is like comparing black-and-white to what it once was, but it’s not perfect. I am fortunate to still have a great career, great friends and supportive family, but I no longer acquire ‘stuff’. I sold and gave away most of my belongings so I could swiftly exit the whirlpool of life as I knew it, to travel, to work in a café, to pay off the debts my once vain-self used to value and tie an identity to. My bedroom is a 3m x 4.5m room in Bondi. I share a flat. I get my books from libraries. I can pack up my entire belongings into two suitcases and a backpack. I have the least ‘stuff’ I’ve ever had, yet I am the most ‘successful’ and happiest I’ve ever been.
The opposite of eudaimonia is hedonia, the belief that happiness is derived externally whereas eudaimonism expresses the idea that happiness comes from within. I love Stoic philosophy and Artisole’s depiction of eudaimonia as ‘doing and living well’. Often broken down into a triad of qualities, commonly detailed using a triangle; focusing on what you can control, taking responsibility and to live with Areté (expressing the highest version of yourself, moment to moment).
I have come to believe and understand first hand that happiness is homemade (just like the best bakes) and try as you want, you just can’t hate yourself happy.
Protecting my mental health, knowing and befriending The Black Dog has allowed me to find a sense of well-being, purpose and inner strength that I didn’t know existed previously. I am a better person, friend, daughter, sister and employee for it and I will continue to go out of my way to check in with myself, my friends and people who I might not ever meet by happily sharing my story in the chance that it may help somebody else feel solace in this often invisible struggle.
If you are concerned about your mental health, a friend or family member, it’s with compassion that I urge you to reach out and speak