When I was 19, I was diagnosed with depression. At the time I didn’t know much about mental illness. It wasn’t something I’d heard people speak about and I didn’t know anyone who’d had depression. And even now at 37 I’ve rarely shared what I went through with anyone other than the very few people who supported me throughout that time.
But as its Mental Health Awareness week, I wanted to talk about depression and what it felt like for me. In the hope that it might go in some small way towards raising a bit more understanding around mental illness. Because everyone who struggles deserves visibility, love and empathy, not judgement.
Depression can affect anyone. I was happy, loved life, enjoyed time with my family, laughed a lot, was always out and about doing different things. Motivated, driven, enthusiastic, passionate, just the complete opposite of what I became for a time. So I don’t think anyone – including myself – would have thought depression was waiting down the line for me. But it was.
And this article isn’t about sympathy for my own personal situation of going through depression. It’s just a reminder that we never know what’s going on behind closed doors, and the happiest of people with the biggest smiles can be suffering in silence. There’s that saying that you never know what’s going on with people, and it’s just entirely accurate.
My Depression came out of nowhere
So I had just arrived at Nottingham Trent University at the age of 19. Happy, confident, self-assured, fun loving, excitedly drawn to experience the ‘time of my life’, driven to succeed as the first member of my family to reach higher education. I was in a good place. Little did I know what that first year would bring. Depression was a gradual thing for me. I didn’t wake up one day and decide that life was hopeless and empty, that nothing felt good anymore. It took time to fall into that ghost like place.
This is what depression felt like for me; I didn’t know how to go forward. I felt stuck. Every day was like walking through a foggy thick swamp. I had no hope, or energy, no lust for life. Everything seemed blank. It was also like watching this all unfold without feeling part of it, like a third person perspective. I spent nearly a year like this. Struggling to get out of bed. Wanting to sleep for longer and longer periods so I could avoid what was going on in my head.
I started drinking, partying late, doing anything to ignore the negative thoughts. Making bad decisions. Feeling more and more isolated. But all whilst pretending to be Amy before all this happened. Putting on a mask to hide what was going on inside my head. Everything about my depression at first was on the inside. No one but me knew. Nothing would have highlighted, ‘This girl has depression.’ I’m pretty sure that mask made it harder to handle, but I clung to it regardless throughout that time.
Depression Avoidance Mode
It was like slowly drowning, but keeping my head just enough above water that I could pretend it was some form of swimming. I had all these negative thoughts and feelings. But they were so far removed from who I had been before, that I tried my damn best to pretend they didn’t exist at all. For me, depression and everything that came with it was something I actively tried to avoid.
Hypothetically, where my depression came from
There are a number of reasons that I think I became depressed. My whole life changed in a short space of time. I went to University, a major difference living in a big city, far from the small village in Lincolnshire I’d spent nearly my entire life prior – a village where I’d felt safe and secure, I knew people, where I had deep connections with friends and family.
I realised fairly early on that the course I’d taken on, I didn’t enjoy at all. IT wasn’t something I was passionate about and I didn’t feel sure it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It made sense at 16 – IT was something my Dad had suggested as an up and coming career choice, at a time when I had literally no idea where or what I wanted to do. And I think the friendships I had formed along the way at College meant I would have enjoyed whatever course I’d chosen. But at 18, when the reality of that career choice really hit home, when all of the friendships I’d formed were removed and I was left just with the course itself, it didn’t feel right. And I didn’t know what to do about that.
I really struggled connecting with new people and social situations
I’d been fortunate enough to have friends who’d known me since primary school and secondary school. Even at College, there had always been at least one of these friends there with me, a safety net of someone I knew. So I’d only ever expanded my friendship group. But suddenly you’re at Uni trying to make entirely new friends. And I’d never found myself in a situation of literally knowing no-one until then. That was really overwhelming.
I was plagued with doubts and insecurities; how do you make friends from scratch? Will these people like me, maybe they don’t like me, do I just not fit in? Because I didn’t feel like I had a place in that world at all. So the only way I felt I could build connections was to spend more time with the people I lived with, who were partying and drinking. Putting myself in situations where I felt more comfortable – because alcohol helped with the doubts. You then feel as if then you’re bonding with people, so you do it more. You go out every night. Stay out later. Drink a lot. But they weren’t real connections. They revolved around drugs and alcohol, and really they were the moments where I could forget about all the negative feelings because I was taking substances to do that. And then you start to struggle with your course.
I was failing at this course, one that I didn’t even want to be doing anymore
And I was racking up incredible debt to be there in order to fail, and do something I really didn’t enjoy, and just kind of feel shittier and shittier with each passing day. So I didn’t know where to go next. I’d been stuck in that self-destructive cycle for months. Pretending to my family and friends back home that University was everything we’d all imagined it would be. Hearing of other people’s situations at Uni where it absolutely was wonderful and soul discovering for them. Struggling to make connections with new people, drinking every night to dull the feelings of isolation and loneliness. No idea how to tackle the fact that I’d chosen a course I didn’t want to do, and was building up insane levels of debt to continue doing it.
And I was struggling with the complex, dark state that depression brings but not knowing that that’s what it was at the time. And I didn’t see the point of anything anymore. I was so stuck, I was lost. And I was so lost, that I didn’t know how to find a way out. And I thought; these feelings are forever, how can it ever get better? I ended up in a really dark place, but I didn’t know that the dark place had a name.
I didn’t know what depression was
The way I found out that I possibly had depression was on this one night, where I was speaking to a couple who lived in the house I shared with about thirty other people. It was late. I was really drunk and I just said, “I don’t think I want to be here anymore.” And he said, “What at University?” and I was like, “No, I mean life.” He asked me more about how I was feeling. They both nodded and took it in, and then he said frankly, “I’ve been where you are, you need to seek some help.”
I don’t know why after internalising all my thoughts for nearly a year, that it just came out of nowhere to these people I barely knew. And it was just one tiny moment, but it actually changed everything.
Because that’s how I ended up in a GPs office being told that what I was experiencing was depression
I didn’t instantly go after that night, I thought about it for a while. Every day I would think I’ll try and make the effort to get to my classes, to speak to people and make friends. But that thick foggy swamp of my anxieties and insecurities, my doubts, those feelings of failure and not fitting in, the negative thoughts, feelings of hopelessness, lack of motivation or seeing any reason to try, nothing got any easier. But there was also that one conversation I’d had with that couple, where for a moment I felt heard. Not judged, just listened too. That was also there in my mind. Was there a way to get help and not feel like that anymore?
My experience with anti-depressants
The Doctor diagnosed me with depression instantly. It was so long ago I honestly cannot tell you what medication I was given, but I do know that I may have not been as low, but I was also unable to feel any form of high on them. Zombie state is the only way I can describe it; devoid of any and all emotion entirely. For me, that wasn’t a total solution. I didn’t want to feel depression anymore, but I definitely didn’t want to feel zero happiness either.
I’m certainly not an advocate for how to resolve depression. Obviously I’m not a medical practitioner. But I think the thing that helped in the end for me was talking, time and support. That moment of talking about how I was feeling had definitely changed something. And I realised that the only way out of depression was to try different things and see what worked for me.
The Next Few Years Were Spent Handling And Getting Out Of Depression
I stayed on the anti-depressants for about a year. Because even though I didn’t love the zombie state, I also definitely didn’t heart depression. Slowly, I started seeing life from a more balanced perspective, and a less negative tone. I realised that I had to change the situation I was in because it wasn’t helping. Taking medication for my depression was one thing, but I hadn’t changed any of the external factors that I think, had led to my depressed state.
I couldn’t bare the thought of staying at Uni for three more years, especially feeling the way I did and thinking that in a lot of ways, my circumstances had created my depression. But I also couldn’t handle the thought of leaving and failing. In the end the thought of staying stuck was even worse, so I decided to make a change. I left University. Moved back home. Took a job at a limited stress 9-5pm and removed myself from the place that hadn’t made me feel good. I could worry about the debt, failing at Uni, what the heck I was going to do with my life – and feeling like it was worth thinking about that – later on. The next few years were spent handling and getting out of depression, and sort of figuring the rest out as I went along.
I did also begin to speak about how I was feeling with an extremely small group of people
The main person was my best friend, who is still that today. She listened and supported me every step of the way out of depression. And I’ll never be able to put into words how much it meant to me. I imagine therapy is a good alternative / addition to medication, and that’s what I think she provided me. A friendship therapy that slowly over those next couple of years, supported me in getting out of that fucking dark shitty hole.
In a lot of ways, even though I have tried to ignore the fact that I struggled with depression for a good few years of my late teens and early twenties, depression was and has been a huge part of my life. Even years later when I felt more like myself again, there was still a lot of shame; depression lead to my drop out of University and I’ve always seen that as a huge failure. I made incredibly bad decisions throughout a period of three to four years after leaving University because of the dark place I was in; one of which lead to a drug addiction that I battled for most of that time. I fell out with family. Started toxic relationships. Struggled to hold down a job and generally, did a whole heap of things I’d rather forget. So I’ve rarely dredged up the past to think about how that all came to be.
When you’re going through depression, hope feels like a distant and unbelievable thing
But this is really important, there is hope. I wouldn’t be here today writing about it if there wasn’t. I’m not saying it’s easy, or the same in every situation, but there is an after depression. There is value, importance, meaning and happiness after depression. The fog lifts.
Being honest, even though today I am okay, that fear of depression returning has never quite left. And sometimes when I’ve felt a little low – covid times didn’t help anyone, let’s be honest – I’ve sort of panicked that I’m heading in that direction again. Because it is such a difficult place to get out of, but it’s so worth it when you finally do. And again, just like depression wasn’t something that happened instantaneously for me, the getting better was just the same. It was slow. Day by day. Little step by little step. And then one day you realise you had a good day for the whole 24 hours. That day becomes a whole week. And it just goes on and on.
On paper, what the fuck did I have to be depressed about?
I vividly recall someone saying to me, “What do you have to be depressed about?”. That was the moment I stopped speaking about it other than with a very few close family and friends. And I get where their misguided comment came from in a way. Because I’d had a good life. There were things that had happened sure but I’d had a great life to that point. I was the first in my family to get the opportunity to go to University. I should have been having the time of life, like all the hype around Uni life suggests it will be. All having the best fucking time. But the problem was, I wasn’t.
And even though I can hypothesis and give you reasons, realistically, they are just guesses about why I might have got depressed. In reality I haven’t got a fucking clue why it happened either. Aside from the conditions and environment were maybe just right at that time to expose all these things in a way that lead to my negative thoughts far outweighing the positive ones I’d had throughout my life to that date. So all I know is, that depression is not a choice. I didn’t choose to go from okay to depressed. And I didn’t want life to have other ideas for me and entirely alter my mental state, but it did.
I do know that you can be confident, happy, positive, motivated and still reach a point where you aren’t okay or need a little help. And what I know for sure is, that that comment didn’t help one little fucking bit. The people who listened helped. The people who showed care, support, empathy and understanding – even though they might not have been able to resonate with my thoughts or feelings – those guys did a sterling bang up job. Words have a powerful effect, so we should be really careful about what we say, especially to somebody struggling with mental illness and even more especially when we don’t understand it.
That’s why I’m writing this article today, because so many of us struggle
And feel like they’d be judged if they open up. It’s fucking hard to talk about it and explain all these thoughts that go on in your head that deep down, you know aren’t right, but you can’t seem to find a way to change them yourself at the time. And I want to highlight what mental illness has been for me for anyone who hasn’t struggled this battle. To try and decrease the stigma and change any toxic narrative attached to mental illness. And also highlight for those that have struggled with their mental health that there is probably always going to be that one dick who says something stupid. But when you find that one that’s awesome, who listens and supports, its everything.
Depression can make you feel quite isolated but speaking about it, you hear how many others put on a brave face and an exterior mask to hide what’s under the surface. We are definitely not alone. Mental health needs to be taken more seriously and one step in the right direction towards that is being open about my pain and not masking it. Or the fact that at times in life, I have struggled.
Mental Health Struggles Aren’t Always Obvious
Every person will have a different experience of depression and I’m not in any way insinuating that my own is the only way depression can be. But as a friend who was struggling with his own mental health said to me last year, “Talking really does help.” And from my own experience, I completely agree. I’ve seen so many people opening up about their mental health struggles and it’s given me the confidence to do to the same with this article. All I can offer you in return is a chance to raise more awareness, understanding and to talk about what you’re going through if you’re experiencing mental health problems.
It’s probably pretty obvious but just to clarify, I’m not a medial professional, – I’m absolutely not qualified. But writing has become a form of therapy for me. A way to get everything out there and sort out my thoughts. So my hope is that we can create more awareness and understanding of how vast, impacting and varied mental health problems can be for each of us. And I hope that by offering you a chance to write about your own story, it also goes towards helping you feel a little lighter.