Last November, I was diagnosed with depression. Depression is an illness which provokes a wide range of reactions in people, depending on their own experiences. It is, to me, something intangible- just when I think I’ve understood its impact on my life and those around me, it slips away and mutates into something else. Some days I am able to brush it aside, other days it lies on me like a hot, heavy, suffocating blanket, preventing me from doing anything and leaving me tearful with frustration. I think for sufferers and for those who deal with them, be it friends, family or colleagues, depression is the most frustrating illness of them all.
When I was diagnosed, my doctor suggested anti-depressants and that I be signed off work for a few months. I was, after some initial hesitation, happy to try the anti-depressants, but signing off work was an impossibility due to the meagreness of statutory sick pay. However, after a few months of continuing with work, everything had changed. I was so tired and my attention span was so woefully short that I was making more and more mistakes by the day. After a particular crisis at work, I went to my doctor and was finally signed off. I struggled hugely with taking time off. Those who are sympathetic say ‘you must think of it as having a broken leg. Nobody would expect you to go to work with a broken leg, so don’t feel bad about it.’ But obviously one of the hardest and most frustrating things about depression is that you cannot see it. You cannot put a pin in it, do a test, take an x-ray and say ‘Yes! You have depression!’ Even to myself, I often wondered if I was truly ill or not. The general impression of depression is that you must be utterly incapable of doing anything, ever, constantly weeping, preferably with scars lacing your arms and a couple of suicide notes in your back pocket. One of my colleagues said after I’d left, ‘But she always seemed so happy.’ There are no set markers, only what you feel, and getting the full grasp of the shape of your own emotions can be astonishingly difficult.
This doubt surrounding depression diagnoses isn’t helped by the attitudes you encounter from some people. Most of the people I told (and I made a point of telling many people, after seeing from the experience of others that not talking about it only serves to isolate you further) were absolutely wonderful, hugely supportive, and told me to do whatever I needed to do to get better- including leaving work and taking some time off. However, from some people I received no support at all. One told me that I needed to be sure I ‘really was ill, and you don’t just need someone to tell you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.’ I was told that people my age had no reason to be depressed, that people left university and suddenly had to deal with grown-up things like bills and so on, and found it difficult to cope with (interesting, seeing as I’d left university for nearly four years and had been paying bills when I was there in any case), but that this wasn’t proper depression. I was told that depression was massively overdiagnosed, and that this particular person doubted its existence. It’s difficult if not impossible to imagine someone denying the existence of a broken leg, to the face of someone who has just been diagnosed with it (although one doctor did try it with my brother, despite his bone being at a very odd angle). Unfortunately the situations I was in when all this was said to me meant I couldn’t slap these people and tell them to bugger off, which was unfortunate. It is these kinds of attitudes which get people into a lot of trouble these days if they are voiced publicly, but you can hear the undercurrent of grumbling and scoffing even now.
For one of the main reasons depression is so intensely frustrating is that unless you have experienced it for yourself, it is incredibly difficult to understand it in somebody else. When a close friend of mine was diagnosed with depression at university, it was at a time when we were all struggling with dissertations and final exams and there was a lot of bad feeling. We were all worried, all stressed, all fed up- what was so different about them? Why can’t they get on with it? And it’s only when you have suffered from it yourself that you understand- with depression, you just can’t. You can’t ‘just get on with it.’ There are days when you are against an invisible wall, and all you can do is stare blankly into space. Or cry. Or curl up on the bed. Many days at work it was all I could do not to curl up under the desk in a ball. You are filled with a total, immovable weight, sunk deep into your chest and stomach, dragging your head down to your chest. Small wonder I wasn’t terribly productive in my last weeks at my job. But without having the experience in your own mind, recognising it as something other in somebody else is incredibly hard.
For partners of people with depression, I have the greatest sympathy and empathy. For them, I’d say depression is 99% as frustrating as it is for the sufferer themselves. So much of the time, there is nothing you can do. Someone you love is sat there, tears streaming down their face, telling you they’re desperate and scared and sad and can’t see a way out. They don’t know why they feel like this, and it is the absence of why that is the worst part of all. Some partners sit and stare helplessly, others cry too, others get frustrated and angry and tell you to ‘just cheer up.’ I understand the anger inside out and back to front, but in nearly all cases, getting angry is the most destructive thing you can do. Someone once told me that depression is anger turned inwards on itself. The person suffering is angry too, as angry as their partner is that they cannot defeat this cloying, dragging, desperate illness which is making them both miserable. In my experience, the best thing to do is to hug, and reassure. For me, putting something easy and cheerful on the television and offering to cook dinner are the next good steps. Then, because partners are frustrated and angry too, they should tell someone else what they are going through. Maybe not right away, although if they have a supportive friend at the end of a text that would be helpful, but arrange an outlet for themselves so their anger doesn’t clog them up too.
The last utterly frustrating thing about depression is that the person who is suffering is the best person to help themselves, even if they find it nigh on impossible to do so. Good support is worth its weight in gold, but ultimately, the person who is suffering has to be the one to get up and go to the doctor. To take the pills. To talk to a counsellor. To face the days when you can’t get up, and find the energy to do it anyway. A friend of mine said to me that just because I have all these negative thoughts, doesn’t mean I have to give in to them. You have to fight the battle for yourself, and keep putting one foot in front of the other on the days when it doesn’t seem possible. Of course, this is desperately frustrating because depression will keep throwing up moments or hours or days when you want to sink like a stone. I am still fighting, and trying to find more and more things to help me through the dark days. Reading children’s pony books can help lift the fog for a while. Getting outside. Talking to the dog. Going for a walk. Any little thing that makes you feel more like yourself, and less like a plaything for a killer disease.