While most people can enjoy pleasant afternoons, I live in constant fear of the approaching storms.
Since I’ve began writing about my experiences, I’ve had many people ask me questions about it. The one question I get asked the most is this: How do you get over depression?
The truth is simply this—I don’t know.
Depression isn’t some sort of puzzle, where if you put the pieces in the correct order, you’ll be cured. It is a serious illness, one that changes the fundamental basics of who you are as a person. Trying to be the person you were beforehand is futile, and attempting to do so will just lead to frustration. You can’t go back to being who you were before depression, because, like any major experience in life, you can’t just erase it from your memory. It’s always going to be there. What you have to do is learn how to manage it.
Winston Churchill famously referred to depression as his “Black Dog”, but personally, I’m not a fan of this metaphor. I prefer to compare it to a sunny day. Whereas most people can relax and enjoy the sunshine, my focus is on the dark raincloud looming on the horizon. Most people can accept that it might rain in the future, but the thought of the raincloud is terrifying to me. Sometimes it’s far away; other times it fills the sky to the point where a storm seems inevitable.
The key to living with depression is not to avoid the storm, but learning how to manage it. The rain will come, you can’t control that. What you can do is influence your reaction to it. Medication, therapy, family and friends can be the overcoat you wrap around yourself until the rain eases off, and you feel you can go without it.
Developing an understanding of what works for you isn’t easy. It has been two years since my most severe depressive episode, and I’m still learning now. Some days, my anxiety almost overwhelms me. There are still days when I’m drenched in sweat when I get to work, because of what seems like an irrational fear. There are still times when I get overwhelmed, when I feel like the weight of the world is too much. Those are the days where having a support network is crucial. That is why talking is so important.
The hardest part of it all is the fear. Every day, I have to deal with the fear of the depression coming back stronger, more severe and more damaging than ever. It isn’t easy, not by any means. Every time my energy levels are low, I worry it is because of depression, not because I’m tired. Normal nervousness doesn’t exist for me anymore, because suffering from panic attacks has left me hyper-sensitive to nerves. At work, when I have a bad day, it’s not because it was a stressful situation, it’s because I can’t cope with my job anymore. If my girlfriend is quiet or moody, it’s not that she’s having a bad day, it’s that she’s realised how f**ked-up I truly am, and she wants to run a million miles from me. My every emotion is magnified; every change I feel in my body is over-analysed.
My depression still impacts on me every day, in every aspect of my life. People say “I’m so glad you got through it”, but I haven’t. It may not be as severe as it was two years ago, but it’s always there. It’s been there since I was a child. It’s all I know, but I’m learning to manage it.
On the occasions I stopped taking my medication, the depression and anxiety came flooding back. Every now and then, I’ll have a week or so where I really struggle; where I’m on the verge of tears all the time, for no reason, and where everything seems so pointless. I had a week in August where I got so anxious I had to take time off work, even with my medication. This last fortnight, I’ve fluttered between tearfulness and full-on apathy, which isn’t ideal when I’ve just started a degree and the first assignment is due next week. In three weeks, I’ve done exactly one hour and 15 minutes of studying, because of apathy.
In many ways, apathy can be the hardest part of depression. When you are having extreme emotions, suicidal thoughts and suchlike, part of you can still grasp that they are extreme, and as such, unusual emotions. The subtlety of apathy is much more difficult to overcome. It’s not so dramatic an emotion that you are aware something is wrong; it’s just a loss of interest, a feeling that things aren’t worth doing. Things get put off until tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes.
I’ve said this before, but it can’t be said enough: Depression isn’t a mood. It isn’t something you “snap out of.” It’s a very dangerous illness, one that changes the very core of who you are. It’s like the ocean; sometimes the tide is out, far in the distance. Other times it’s lapping at your feet, teasing you with its wetness, yet almost comforting. But if you aren’t careful, the tide can come rushing in, enveloping you completely. It sucks you under, you can’t breathe. The shore seems so far away, you feel like you could never reach it. Some give up, and let the water take them down, some try their best, but run out of energy before the lifeboat arrives.
Me? I’m swimming for my life. I hope to reach the shore. Sometimes the tide goes out, and I’m closer to the beach. Then the tide comes in, and it seems as far away as ever. All I can do is keep swimming, keep fighting. That’s all anybody can do.
If your lifeboat comes along, please get on it. It may come as medication, or as a loved one. It could be anything, everybody is different. But please keep swimming.
The ocean is vast, but there are millions of us in it. We can keep each other afloat. We are never alone.
Photo credit: Flickr / mattcameasarat