Friday, September 12, 2014

Living with depression: update

A few months ago, I wrote about my experience of living with depression.

It was the first time I had made a public, explicit statement about it. It wasn't really a secret before, but neither had it been something that I had owned publicly and unequivocally.

Since then, Robin Williams - a fellow sufferer - has taken his own life, and many more people have begun to speak very openly about depression. About their own experiences with it, or about watching someone they loved dealing with it.

I took that death hard. So hard that my line manager even commented on it. I don't know if I can explain it without sounding melodramatic, but I guess when yet another sufferer decides to call time, it increases that sense that (a) my future might well hold a period of darkness deeper and blacker than any I've known before, which is really, really daunting and (b) how can I be sure that I might not one day wind up putting my own family through the same wringer?

I'm not sure if that was the trigger, but around that time, I found myself battling yet another bout of depression. It seemed so unfair. I still hadn't completely recovered from the last one (last year), so this was kicking me while I was down. Also, my husband is due to go away for a couple of weeks this month, and it heightens his anxiety to know that he is leaving a depressed wife behind.

I opted to be very open about it.
  • I made an appointment with my GP.
  • I told my manager at work.
  • I made it known on Facebook.
And the level of support has been astonishing.

I discussed my concerns with my GP. He asked me the usual questions and didn't adopt that overly solicitous attitude that some GPs adopt when posing the scripted questions they are obliged to ask about suicidal thoughts and other deeply personal issues.

I told him about my reluctance to become reliant on chemical assistance, but acknowledged that, under the circumstances, I might need to accept that it was the best thing to do. He prescribed Citalopram, which I started immediately.

I am still struggling with the side-effects, but hopefully those will fade in time. I discovered that my sister is taking them, too (for different reasons) and she was able to give me some tips (which I'll happily share if anyone is interested).

My manager was open and sympathetic - totally unfazed. She spoke to HR and found out about support services available through the company I work for. She checks in with me from time to time and maintains an open line of communication. If I feel unable to handle my workload, I know that she's got my back and will make a plan to ensure that the projects don't fail as a result.

As a result of her enquiries, I had a phone consultation with a counselor, who arranged for me to have six sessions with a local counselor, the first within 5 days of our phone call.

Somehow word got out at the office and initially, people walked on eggshells around me. But one or two staff members adopted a very matter of fact approach and chatted easily to me - not in hushed tones. I guess that openness and easiness caught on, and everyone has more or less relaxed. People have a short attention span after all, and more interesting things demand their attention.

The biggest surprise has been the response on Facebook. There are those who demand that Facebook should be like Lala land - all happy and funny and lighthearted and skip to my lou my darling. Occasionally one of my contact will wail about being exposed to negativity on Facebook ("this is not what I signed up for!!"). Some of those have chosen not to respond to my openness. Some of those have opted to express their support privately, through my Inbox. But the most pleasant response of all has been from those who have publicly (well, sort of) responded with their own experiences and expressions of support and understanding.

Of course, there has been the inevitable 'chin up' and 'listen to some happy music' type of response from people who clearly haven't got the remotest idea how depression works, and I'm happy for them that this is the case. I wouldn't wish the darkness on anyone.

I have better days and worse days. On both kinds of day, getting out of bed is tough. As you can imagine, it's tougher on the worse days. I've discovered from interactions on Facebook that bed is the safe place for many sufferers.

There have been two very helpful pieces for me, which I come back to, time after time and which I hope will help other sufferers, too, as we plod through this dark valley. The first is this one called Black Dog.

The second is this TED talk by the inspirational Andrew Solomon, which for some reason, refuses to be embedded here.

Oddly enough, my experiment with boycotting the 'like' button has also had a role to play. The common thread through both the links above is that depression is not the opposite of joy. It is in fact the opposite of vitality. I find myself disengaged, going through the motions. And I see clicking the 'like' button as symptomatic of that. So, unless I actually have something to say, I don't engage with a post at all. If I want to engage, I take the trouble to put that into words. It has meant that my interactions online have become fewer, but deeper. And I can't help but see this as a good thing.

I sincerely trust that my journey will encourage others to become more open about their own battles. It's time to shake off the stigma. In fact, as a fellow sufferer (someone I've known for well over 30 years) pointed out, perhaps it's time to stop talking about depression as a mental illness. After all, it's physiological in nature, being caused as it is by a chemical imbalance. In that way at least, it is no different from diabetes.