What being depressed is like, and how to overcome it.
I was debating for a very long time whether to write this article or not. I didn’t want to write it because I didn’t want to air such an abhorrent issue as depression in public, and I worried that talking about my experiences would leave me branded as someone with ‘problems’. The irony is that the biggest problem people have with problems is that we hide them. This article has been teased out of me by the sheer numbers of people I have spoken to with some experience of mental illness; every single last person I have spoken to has either suffered themselves or has a very close acquaintance who has. In fact, noticing the ubiquity of mental illness has been one of the most heart-breaking things I have ever encountered.
We are living in an age when 1 in 4 of us will have a mental illness at any one time. The WHO have even predicted depression will become the single biggest health problem in the entire world by 2030. It is stupid and irreconcilable to allow the thumb of silence to press down on you when you could be doing so much good by speaking. So here it is: I have had depression, and although it has not totally passed yet, I have begun to overcome it. I am well enough now to confront what has happened. This is an explanation of exactly what I and millions and millions of other people have experienced.
My depression was triggered by very severe anxiety, which came from seemingly nowhere. I had suffered from anxiety before – I used to have panic attacks as a child and worried myself to the ground over everything from my appearance to global warming – but I had not expected it to return like this.
It started in the middle of May, and I can remember the exact moment I first felt anxiety burst in my chest. It was like a lightning bolt. I was sitting with my brother and sister-in-law outside their flat in Crete after eating lunch, when suddenly the table seemed to be moving away from me. My chest tightened, and my breath stopped filling my lungs. From the peace and sunshine that continued to be all around us, there was suddenly the dread of panic seizing my consciousness.
There seemed to be nothing to say; I knew I had experienced this feeling of panic before, but not since I was about 12 years old. Still, I had been here before. The feeling did not last more than a few minutes, and I returned back to the world. I wasn’t sure what to think of it, so I let it hang in the past like a wrong turning you quickly backtracked from, and forgot about it.
But then it happened the next day as well, again at lunch; and then the day after that; and then it happened twice the day after that. The feeling of anxiety was creeping into my life more and more, and I had no idea what to do about it. I seemed to be totally powerless in its continuous approach, like all I could do was watch as this monstrous thing grew and grew within me like an alien nest. It was horrible, but in that week when it first started it seemed to be manageable. I didn’t know why it was happening, but I expected it to pass.
That was the middle of May. I returned to beautiful Bristol for the last few weeks of term expecting a familiar setting and the presence of my friends to quell the sensation of panic – but, my God, I was wrong. The feeling began to escalate in both severity and frequency. I would be eating dinner, walking down the street, drinking a beer, reading a book, watching a film, and suddenly all the lights would go out in my head. There was no explanation, and there was no escape. The anxiety would explode within me and grip everything – everything – as if all hope had been sucked from the world. Suddenly there was no safe place; there was no one, no where, no thing that could possibly comfort me. All there was in the world was total and absolute panic, the feeling that everything is useless, that nowhere is sacred, the dread that shuts your mind to even the slightest possibility of hope and tells you that even if you run, you cannot escape.
I had experienced panic before, but I had never experienced it like this. And I can quite honestly tell you that, before it got worse, it was the single worst sensation I have ever experienced in my life.
As the weeks began to reel away, my escalating fear turned deeply existential. This, I realised, was depression. Any psychologist will tell you that anxiety and depression are two sides of the same coin. It is impossible to describe accurately – it is only possible to understand if you are, in this very moment, experiencing the horrific sensation of depression. Nothing is ever known until it is felt. I have never known anything more terrible.
So how to explain the feeling? First of all it must be understood that by anxiety, I don’t mean the habit of worrying about the details of life as most of us do. I am talking about an astoundingly powerful and very clearly defined emotion that explodes in your chest like a terrifyingly unpredictable monster. Winston Churchill, a famous depressive, called it the Black Dog. It can be triggered by anything and nothing. Sometimes I will be in mid-conversation and my mind will stray the slightest bit and the anxiety will pang in my chest like a demonic child reminding me it is still there. It seizes all your cognitive faculties and ceases your ability to think. I suppose I’d liken it to someone thrusting your head under water in an attempt to drown you. Where only seconds before the world was warm, hopeful and full of endless inspiration, within the snap of a finger it is hopeless, horrible, terrifying and inescapable. The feeling of severe anxiety is the feeling of despair – the pain is greater, deeper and more all-consuming than any other sensation in humanity’s emotional palate.
I found it increasingly difficult to live with. The most minor things would terrify me and leave me breathless, and as time went on I found it harder and harder to get out of bed. The thing that really got me, though, was the existentialism. This long and horrendous episode was really one almighty existential crisis.
When the feeling came, suddenly I would be confronted with the futility of my existence. There was me; then there was the world; then there was the universe.
‘What’s the point!?’ I would be made to think. ‘I’m going to die anyway… And someday everyone I know will die, and the world will die, and the universe will die… There is no point to anything!’
This is the feeling of mortal terror. It is the sensation of being so utterly out of control of your fear in the face of a random, pointless and hideously cruel universe that you cannot think what to do other than die.
(What I should note now, by the way, is that if I were writing this existential thought a few months ago, it would undoubtedly have induced another bout of panic. Now I am well enough to write it without fear – just about.)
This state of mind and body drove me into a deep depression. Suddenly I saw no point to anything. I could not concentrate on the most basic things. Relationships ceased to mean anything to me. As Hamlet, one of literature’s most famous depressives, opined, the world had become weary, stale, flat and unprofitable. Perhaps more than that, it had become terrifying. All I could think about was the overhanging truth of death. It underscored everything, because everything will die. There was no escape; there was no point. Being drunk often brought on my worst moments – the sensation of being so totally separate from the world and out of control of oneself. It was a terror that I could wish on nobody… It is something that no one should have to experience.
To the fantastic people who tried to make me better (and to whom I cannot express enough love), I could not explain that I saw no point in getting better. Why would I want to stay alive? This world is beyond horrible!
There is nothing rational about this feeling. It is the most irrational emotion you could imagine. When I tried to explain my existential terror to a friend, they remarked: ‘But, why? We’re alive for a bit and we’ve got to have as much fun as we can. What’s to worry about?’
Oh God! How to explain this feeling!?
It would visit me to greater and lesser degrees. During the worst stretch, when it was at its worst it would totally consume me in unimaginable ways, and when it was at its best it would make life constantly very unpleasant. Wherever I was, whatever I was doing, I was carrying with me the constant feeling that life was just not worth it. And the thing is that no one would ever have known it. To everyone else I seemed normal and happy, because I could still talk and smile. Everyone seems to expect a depressive to look sad, but I guarantee that they never do. I was on the verge of despair, and I looked like I was having fun.
I reasoned with myself that it was worth hanging on, however, because I knew there was a state of mind in which everything was lovely. I knew how irrational the feeling of despair was because of how violently my mood would oscillate from moment to moment. One second I would be feeling as if the world was actually not such a bad place, and there was a lot to live for; then the next I would be plunged into deep existential terror, and there was only death. So whenever the feeling came, I told myself to just hold on.
You tell yourself: Just hold on… It won’t last… It won’t last… I will feel good again…
Even though in the moment the feeling comes you cannot imagine ever feeling good again, I knew rationally that there was a state of mind in which everything was okay. In the bowels of the horror, I somehow managed to hold onto the slim thought that I could still be happy.
One Saturday afternoon I was at work at my job as a tour guide on the punts in Cambridge, when I experienced probably the worst moment of the entire episode. I was feeling increasingly anxious on this very busy and very hot day, and I asked my boss for a ten minute time-out. I went and sat down by the river, and I experienced something beyond what I had come to expect from my anxiety. It was like a mortal scream passing through nature. I can’t be much more precise than that. I held onto the sides of the boat and closed my eyes and waited for it to pass.
This was it: this was the thing that made people kill themselves. It had visited me. I had thought about suicide often – not seriously, necessarily, but in the same way you might consider booking a holiday after a long stretch of work. It was really that calmly presented in my mind. One evening I had discussed what was happening with my mother, and I had mentioned that I understood why people killed themselves. She simply looked at me and said, ‘If you kill yourself I will never forgive you.’ In my hardest moments I sometimes think that was the only thing holding me back – but just then, as I sat on that boat in terror, suicide seemed somehow more real. I stared into the river and wondered if I shouldn’t put my head beneath it.
And, odd though it seems to say it, it was the single best thing that has ever happened to me.
Something had to give, and although it was slow and awful, I began to bring myself back into the world in a way I had never done before.
I consider myself one of the luckiest people to have ever had depression, because I already knew how to help myself.
No more than a month before it began, I had gone to a bookshop in Bristol and emerged with three books that I owe my life to. They were ‘The Art of Happiness’ by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, ‘The Four Loves’ by C.S. Lewis, and ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ by Matt Haig (no really, I actually bought that before I knew I was going to be depressed. For real.)
But even before I had begun to consult these books, I had started the main thing that has changed my life more than anything else, which is meditation. People around me will know how much I go on about it, but I honestly feel that mindfulness meditation is one of the best things you can do if you are under any kind of emotional stress (i.e. if you are a sentient being you ought to do it). I’ll write elsewhere about exactly what it is and why it is such an outstanding skill, but I’ll lay out in brief what happened to me over those summer months when I was confronted with this absurd difficulty.
A friend of mine had recommended the Headspace app to me as a way of getting to sleep (Hettie when I see you next I will give you the biggest hug of your life), so I already had it on my phone when the anxiety first struck. I hadn’t used it seriously up til that point, but as soon as the feeling came I instinctively thought it would be a good place to go.
I pored over the books and began meditating every day, at first for just 10 minutes, then 15, and now between 20-40 minutes a day. In particular I looked closely at ‘The Art of Happiness’, in which the Dalai Lama made the simple points that true happiness lies in acceptance of oneself and in the love of other people and the world. It became true for me then and is even more true for me now that no one is happy without other people. With the skills of emotional and mental regulation I learned from meditation and the advice that these books gave me, I slowly started to form a picture of what a truly happy person was. An unhappy person is one who is disconnected from the world, and a happy person is one who is connected.
Of course it was not immediate. For a long time I was unsure about exactly where I was going with the meditation and the philosophy I was attempting to bring into my life, and I was stuck in this hideous existential rut. From May until August I spent long periods totally lost in my own depressive thoughts and feelings, and not knowing what to do about it. But then, to put it briefly, it all started to come together.
When I was in that place of despair and horror, I held on to the thought that there are people in the world who are totally happy. I wondered how they had got to that place: they didn’t let anything bother them; they loved everything and everyone; they smiled in the face of death. They had a philosophy that laid bare the facts of the universe – birth, death, suffering – and made those things lovely. So what was that thing? What was the thing that made life like a song?
Everything I read about happiness – and I read quite a lot of stuff – all seemed to be saying the same things about acceptance and love. It all pointed back to the philosophy that the Dalai Lama had laid out in ‘The Art of Happiness’. Essentially, that philosophy was Buddhism. Every time I read another commentator saying something about self-compassion, or letting go, or acceptance of death, I would think: ‘That’s Buddhism!’
I don’t want to go into too much detail about exactly what this philosophy is, but I can tell you that I have begun to experience life in entirely new ways. Mindfulness helped me free myself from those thoughts and feelings. Where I used to do everything with a constant monologue distracting me in my head, I can now appreciate the moment – just looking, listening and feeling. Obviously this sounds incredibly trite, but this is in brief the beginning of my recovery. I am now experiencing joys I had never contemplated before, and I have entered back into the world in a way I never thought I would.
It’s not like I’ve become some kind of ‘born again’ spirit – and I’m pretty wary of the clichéd drivel I’ve just written – but I have got better, and I have promised myself I will never go back to where I was again, and this is how I am doing it.
This has been too brief a summary of the depression I have experienced to really be accurate. The sensation of the dog biting is too horrific to sum up in just one short collection of words. What needs to be taken away here is the fact that I have seen this as an immense opportunity: I have been forced to confront the things I need most in this world, and to embrace new ways of understanding the universe, and to change myself from the inside out. This bout of severe depression has been the greatest period of thought and change in my life, and I have emerged out of it a much calmer, much more accepting, and, ultimately I believe, a much happier individual.
Why should it seem so strange to say that? In the darkest moments when the dog had gripped me, I knew what I was most afraid of in the universe. I realised that I had never confronted the concept of death; I had never confronted my own unwillingness to accept myself; I had never thought hard enough about what life is, rather than is not. I became much more understanding about religion in particular, and about ways of living that had previously seemed too distant for me to understand. I even like to think I have become kinder and more tolerant (we’ll see how true that one is as time goes on…)
For the first time I saw the whole swansong of existence in the palm of my hand – there was birth, there was a brief period of life on this planet, and then there was death. I had never seen the whole charade like that before, and although at first it was terrifying, I now see it as an absolute miracle. I realised that I did not have to have been born – there is no reason why I should not have remained in the ether of pre-conception – and I have been given some time to be alive on this planet. What an incredible gift, the chance to be alive. As mindfulness also began to teach me, every single moment is a chance to gape in awe at what is here. So although at first I could not free myself from what seemed like the overhanging horror of eternity, I began to appreciate the world in a wholly new way. And now eternity has become something good, but that’s for another time…!
Of all the things I learnt in the midst of the chaos, these are the most important:
- All we have in this life are relationships. We have relationships not just with the people around us, but also with the world, with death, with animals, with plants, and, most importantly, with ourselves. We must make all these relationships as strong as they can possibly be.
- The most profound relationship you will ever have is with yourself. To have a positive relationship with the world, you must first have a positive relationship with yourself. This means you must learn to love yourself.
- All suffering is caused by desire; end your desire, and you will end your suffering.
So why have I written this? Reading it over, it could be misconstrued as a short, self-congratulatory lecture on my own enlightenment in the face of adversity. This is definitely not what this article is for!
I have written this both for people who are suffering, and for the friends of people who are suffering. You need to know that you are not alone, that there are many, many people around you who are experiencing the same thing, and that there are ways of becoming happy again – or, if you were never happy before, of becoming happy for the first time. As someone who has at times almost completely lost value in my own life, believe me when I say that there will be a moment when you breathe in deeply, smile, and say to yourself that you are glad you stayed alive.
If you are someone who is either currently suffering, or has previously suffered and is worrying about it happening again, here is what I would recommend you do right now:
- Start mindfulness meditation. It is the single best thing you can do. You learn to be aware of your body and treat your thoughts and feelings as separate to yourself, so you let depressive thoughts slide rather than indulge in them. You also learn to appreciate the beauty of the moment. I would recommend Headspace for this, as it is hugely informative and you can do it consistently every day. Google mindfulness right now and look at the science behind it!
- Read about happiness and Buddhism. ‘The Art of Happiness’ by the Dalai Lama is a good place to start, but I would also recommend ‘Peace is in Every Step’ and ‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’ by Thich Nhat Hahn, ‘The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion’ by Christopher K. Germer, and any basic introduction to Buddhism, e.g. the ‘Very Short Introduction to’. I’m not saying become a Buddhist, but I am saying you should pay attention to its philosophy on life. The Buddha was probably the greatest psychologist who ever lived.
(Whether your issue is philosophical or not, appreciate that you may need to wait for your emotional state to improve before you confront the problems. Do not attempt to confront things that trigger real distress. For this reason I recommend Buddhism as a starting point for emotional wellbeing.)
- TELL PEOPLE YOU ARE UNWELL. Just go and do it. Lose all your inhibitions about it and tell your parents, your friends, your siblings, your cat, your dog, your garden flowers, whatever. It is vitally important that people know what you are going through, and I suspect you will be shocked at how many people you know with experiences of the same thing.
- Eat healthily. In particular cut out wheat and sugar, because these things can cause inflammations in the stomach that affect the brain (can’t remember the exact science behind it, but there’s a very close link between the stomach and the brain. Look after your stomach and you’ll notice your mood lifting significantly!). Caffeine is bad for anxiety and should be avoided. Eat lots of fruit and veg.
- Start exercising. I started running and have recently taken up yoga, both of which are fantastic for shaking off the blues. I would particularly recommend yoga as a way of both looking after the mind as well as the body – meditation and yoga are part of the same practice.
- Sleep more. Having anxiety is exhausting. If you are tired, sleep.
- If you can be outside, be outside!
- Stop worrying. If you meditate for a number of months, you will begin to realise the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is the initial sensation of discomfort – whether from anxiety, fear, physical pain or something else – but suffering is the thing we inflict on ourselves by worrying. Free yourself from this burden, and you will begin to grow into yourself.
This has been a very difficult thing to write. I don’t know if it has said what I needed it to say, or whether it has engaged anyone in the way I wanted it to. Whatever the case may be, I will continue to state the belief that people need to tell others that they are mentally unwell. For the people around me, perhaps the scariest thing about my illness is that, even when I was practically suicidal, they would never have been able to tell I was unwell. That is a truly sorry state of affairs. We must let out our emotions. When someone asks you how you are, tell them you are depressed. Do not say what is appropriate: say what is necessary. I was smiling and chatting, but behind that face was utter chaos. No one could ever have known.
Although I personally am getting better now because I have corrected some of the philosophical and emotional issues I was facing, we are currently sliding into a mental health crisis in this country. You the reader will undoubtedly know at least one person suffering from depression, anxiety, insomnia, anorexia, bulimia, OCD or some other illness. In fact, you will be lucky to know less than five. I hope to be one of many rising voices providing an answer to everyone in need. I am planning to write about the causes of mental illness and the things we must do to save ourselves.
Please remember that this is not about me, it is about you. Happiness exists if we are willing to help others, so please take something away from what I have written here and use it to help other people. The problem is closer than it appears.