Coming back

Emily Hunka shares her experience of clinical depression

Autumn leaf and drops from summer rain | Photo: Brittany G/flickr CC:BY

I loved autumn last year. I loved red and gold caught in sparkling sunshine, crisp air laced with bonfire smoke and frost, wellies and crackling leaves, whirling birds against a sharp blue sky. It felt like one of those perfect autumns from poetry, from childhood. Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness. We plough the fields and scatter. When I walked through it breathing it in, I felt completely alive. Nothing so peculiar in that. It’s the stuff of age-old literature, hymn and agriculture after all. Except for me it feels very important, because it happened after a period of time in which I was dying.

Even now my tendency is to make excuses for my illness: by dying I don’t mean dying like cancer or a car crash, of course it’s not like really actually dying. But, in fact, what I went through was a slow and painful process of dying, which – had it not been for extremely good medical intervention at a crucial point – would have resulted in my death.

Clinical depression. There are plenty of easily accessible statistics associated with mental illness. The World Health Organisation estimates that there are 450 million people throughout the world struggling with a mental health problem, whilst in Britain statistics show that one in four of us will be hit in any given year. An estimated £13bn a year is spent on sick pay benefits related to mental health conditions. Depression is prevalent and it’s common. Millions of people have been through a variant of my own experience. Millions are going through it right now.

But although the evidence would seem to point to this as being significant, depression is still shrouded in confusion and dogged by stigma. With everyone a depressed person talks to, she runs the risk of misunderstanding: ‘put on some nice cheerful music’, ‘try and stop moping and see the bright side of things’, ‘count your blessings’ are all common advice. It’s not uncommon for people to lose their job or be sidelined in work.

But why is something so widespread and serious still met with such confusion, ridicule and even hostility? Theories abound. Perhaps it’s our cultural inheritance – the stiff upper lip and bearing our ills with fortitude – extended low moods are just not British. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it is a so-called invisible disease; people find it hard to believe what they can’t physically see. But perhaps it is also because the experience of depression is subjective and unique. Its causes and its triggers are wildly unpredictable. For one person it might have clear roots in trauma or be triggered by a major life event. For others, its onset will be sudden and ‘out of the blue’. Treatment is equally unpredictable. There is medication that helps balance the chemical reactions that entrench depressive illness but there is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’. The same applies to therapy. A plethora of therapeutic techniques, schools of thought and individual therapists all offer different outcomes, many of which are incredibly helpful and important, but none of which are guaranteed.

My descent into depression lasted a year and it was, without doubt, the hardest year of my life. Initially, I struggled on. It felt like there was a screen between me and the rest of the world – that I didn’t belong any more. After two months, I went ‘off sick’ from work. I did my best to beat the feelings that I woke with each morning. I exercised frantically, I tried to rest and recover. I wrote lists of what I wanted my life to be and how I thought I would get there. But I knew honestly that I was no better. But I was terrified of letting my colleagues down, of not being able to pay my mortgage, of losing my grip on life, so I went back to work. The following months were far worse. Nothing registered with me except how hopeless things had become and how I needed to find a way out. Then one day, when I found myself contemplating the very worst, I had a moment of coming to my senses. Somehow, I went to see my GP.

This for me was the moment that things changed. It will not be the same for everyone. But I was lucky in that the GP I went to see was a compassionate individual who cared and listened. She took me seriously, realised the danger I was in, reassured me, gave me medication and referred me appropriately. But it was more the fact that, after months of floundering and drowning, I suddenly felt I wasn’t alone with my suffering any more. This doctor probably saved my life.

I was also given an article by Tim Cantopher, ‘Depressive Illness: the Curse of the Strong’. I had believed that depression was somehow my fault. I had subconsciously absorbed ‘advice’ that I was deliberately dwelling on things and that my inability to lift myself out of the darkness just meant I wasn’t trying hard enough. Tim Cantopher states: ‘The trouble is that on the whole the people who develop this condition have overcome every problem they have encountered in the past with extra effort… Yet you wouldn’t try and overcome pneumonia with exercise or resourcefulness. Neither can you with clinical depression’. He also offers a useful medical explanation: ‘A depressive illness happens when one part of the brain called the limbic system malfunctions… like any other physical system, the limbic system has a limit and if it is stressed beyond this point it will break’. The feeling of brokenness, of something having snapped inside me really chimed. Suddenly here was an experienced practitioner who was telling me I was not lazy, or weak – just very ill.

The terrifying thing about depression is that there are no absolutes. Everyone has to find their own way to the bottom and their own way up again. When you are in a place so dark and frightening, it is difficult to imagine there is any hope or peace. Advice is difficult to swallow. Even ministries can provoke feelings of intense loneliness. Hearing from someone who appears to be in the light, when you are so much in the dark, can be painful.

I started to heal. Medication helped, so did some other psychiatric intervention. But perhaps it has been less obvious things that have been a crucial part of recovery: walking, swimming, going to the cinema, doughnuts. I have been extraordinarily blessed by my friends and family, who have been supportive and understanding, even when I must have been almost unbearable to live with. And my cat Minnie-May who, when I sobbed hysterically in my flat, would crawl out from her sleepy hollow, curl up next to me and purr.

‘As refreshing as summer rain.’ Photo: TheBusyBrain/flickr CC:BY
It isn’t easy. But I have realised through my own struggle that it is possible. It will have to be an individual journey, because it is an individual disease. But, if you are going through this, you will find what works for you, and life will slowly start to make sense. Recently, my strength returned quietly and unexpectedly. I am having better days, times when the world feels good. Pockets of hope as refreshing as summer rain. I’m coming back.

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