Winston Churchill suffered from depression. He called it ‘The Black Dog’.
I want my blog to be uplifting, but I have also vowed to produce an honest narrative of our experience, rather than an “It was all sunshine and rainbows!” account. As such, although it is a tough admission to make, I have something that I want to bring to group;
Mark and I suffer from depression.
“Oh my GOODNESS!” I hear you say. “What is uplifting about depression?” Well for us, the uplifting bit was that it drove us to do something positive. It was always our dream to travel, but we WERE FORCED to make a brave decision on what to do with our lives, partly because we were simply too ill to go back to work.
Is there an End in Sight?
Four years from diagnosis, we are still taking anti-depressant pills; our doctors advised that we needed to feel fully well for a year before we start trying to reduce our dosages and we’re not there yet. We feel very much better, but have become sanguine about accepting that a full recovery could take years. Depression is a long-term condition. I am not sure that we are the same people that we were. I am not sure that we ever will be again. But I am also not sure that we want to be.
We don’t want to revisit being so driven that our hobbies were like work; every windsurfing session was striving to improve; every walk or cycle ride was about beating our best time and getting fitter. Now, we still work at it a bit because getting better is fun and gives us a sense of achievement, but we also take time to enjoy the sun glistening on the water or admire the views.
I have shared our experience because I want anyone who is suffering from depression to know that it is not the end of the road. In your darkest hours, you might not feel that there is hope. However, among many others, we are proof that there is a way back into the light. Not only that, the light at the end of the tunnel might actually be much brighter.
You Are Not Alone
You can also know from our experience that you are not alone, although it may feel that way. One in four adults will suffer from depression at some time in their lives. When we stood up and made the embarrassing and painful admission that we were suffering from a mental illness, we were amazed by the number of friends and colleagues who came forward and admitted that they too had experienced the same, or were suffering at the time.
Common Myths About Depression
Although two British Princes, William and Harry, are championing awareness with their Heads Together campaign, the taboos and shame associated with mental ill health are lifting only slowly. We encountered these taboos, but it was born only out of ignorance. Let me dispel some myths about depression.
Myth 1 – Weak People Suffer from Depression
“I thought you were strong!” our colleagues said to us when the wheels finally came off and we reluctantly had to take sick leave from work.
Would you call Winston Churchill weak?
Depression is the curse of the strong. It is those who fight, who keep trying and who won’t give in who suffer from depression. It is those who take on more, try to get everything done and cope, whatever the odds.
People who know when they’re beaten are wise. They cease fighting well before they reach breaking point. Their wisdom is the safety valve that protects them from becoming ill.
Myth 2 – You Don’t Look Depressed!
“You don’t look very depressed” a friend, who later abandoned us, said to us when we explained to her why we were on sick leave. Highly qualified medical professionals had given us both a diagnosis of severe depression, but our friend just knew by looking at us that we did not have a chemical imbalance in our brains. It was like telling us “You don’t look like you have a fractured femur, cancer or diabetes.”
We understand that people have their own problems. We didn’t want to trouble them, so we put a brave face on things. We saw friends only when we were feeling a little better and could cope. Like most people suffering from mental health issues, we hid it from the world. Maybe that was another reason why we ‘didn’t look depressed.’
People don’t fake depression; they fake being well.
Myth 3 – You’re just trying to get time off work – or you’re simply not up to the job
“Ah, you’re playing the stress card, are you?” Yes, that was another ‘friend’. Many thought our ‘illness’ was a ploy to get a nice, long, paid holiday. If only they had any idea what we were going through. Mark is a strapping 6’6” bloke and by the time he finally agreed to take sick leave (and I had to push him) he was crying every day. “When will you give in?” I had to ask. “When you have a heart attack or a stroke?”
We both suffered from extreme fatigue. No matter how long we slept (and it was usually at least 14-hours a night) we still woke up feeling bone-wearily exhausted.
Looking back, I find it hard even to believe myself that I didn’t have the motivation to straighten the duvet when I got up, never mind the energy to do it. We were not out doing the things we loved – cycling, windsurfing, walking. We needed a lie down even if we expended the energy required to make a cup of tea.
As far as ‘having a holiday’ went, I could not go windsurfing because I was unable to leave the house. I have always been a gregarious person and my 25-year field sales and training career had all been public-facing. The girl who was once asked to deliver an impromptu presentation to 200 people at an international sales meeting couldn’t bear the thought of anyone looking at her, never mind speaking if she went outside. Our days consisted of dragging ourselves from bed to the sofa, where we sat and dozed like couch potatoes in front of mind-numbing, daytime TV.
Myth 4 – It’s All In Your Head – Pull Yourself Together!
That it is all in your head is absolutely true. The brain is an organ; the same as your liver, heart and kidneys. All organs can malfunction or become diseased. Depression is simply an illness of the brain.
That you’re “making it all up” and should “just pull your socks up” IS a myth, however. Let’s get this straight. Depression is the result of a chemical change in the brain. It’s not ‘feeling a bit down’ for a day – it is a long-term condition in which chemical connections in the brain break down and cease to function. You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to “pull your socks up” or “think your way out it!” so why would you believe that anyone could think their way out of a broken connection in the brain?
Why is Depression So Common?
It is a sad fact that in life – and particularly the modern workplace – the expectation is always to produce more. Mark was once told off for hitting his challenging targets. “It’s not good enough! Why haven’t you surpassed them?” I was once hauled before the MD and told that I wasn’t working hard enough. I was perplexed and asked “Why?” The MD told me “You go home on time!” I asked for clarification; “What work have I failed to deliver? Which deadlines have I missed?” The answer was “Er. Can’t think of any…” Apparently, I just gave the impression of being a slacker because I got my work done efficiently and had a life, so I wasn’t still hanging around the office at 10pm.
Depression can hit at any age. Modern life applies pressure to every generation, but the 50’s can be a particularly difficult time. The worry of ageing parents, bereavement, ’empty nest’ syndrome, accepting your own decline in health and fitness and for ladies, the hormonal hootenanny of the menopause.
Your view of yourself might change. When you are young, everything seems possible. I had to accept that I was never going to be an aerial stunt woman. Youngsters might also start to view you as ‘irrelevant’. Men and women who were once witty and sexy feel like they’re becoming invisible. This, I think, is the ‘Mid Life Crisis’.
Although illegal, age discrimination in the workplace is sadly very real. Bright young managers might consider more mature workmates as ‘old fashioned’ and want to introduce new blood and new ideas (usually old ideas that have been tried – and failed – before!) Experience also comes at a cost. A new graduate will command a fraction of the salary and will not have the potentially generous retained terms and pension rights of their more experienced colleagues.
Stress is a Good Thing
Surprisingly, some stress is a good thing. Humans have evolved over millions of years with a coping mechanism for acute stress – a sudden life or death situation that requires a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. You see a lion coming towards you. Your body releases the hormone adrenaline, which increases your breathing and heart rate to pump oxygen and fuel (sugar) via the blood to your muscles. This will give you the superhuman strength you need to either stab the lion with your spear or run from it like Usain Bolt. Then the situation is over. The adrenaline switches off, breathing and heart rate return to normal. You go and sit around a campfire with your fellows, relax and share your tale of derring do.
A controlled amount of stress keeps you on the ball; adrenaline makes you perform at your very best. Pre-match nerves can give a sportsperson an edge. Those sweaty palms before an important meeting or presentation will keep you sharp. Adrenaline also feels good – ‘Adrenaline Junkies’ seek out situations with an element of risk or danger to give them a thrill. From Alpine Skiing to Zip-lining, you will hear them say “It’s when I feel most alive!”
As a Biochemist, I also wonder why mental illness has been tolerated in human evolution. I think that the answer to that lies in the phrases ‘Tortured Genius’ or ‘Mad Scientist’. Genius and mental illness are opposite sides of the same coin. Mental illnesses alter perception and facilitate ‘thinking outside the box’. This can give rise to incredible creativity and inventiveness, which has got to be an evolutionary plus.
When Stress Goes Bad
The problem with modern life is that there is no ‘off’ button. There is so much pressure on us all to perform – at work, at home, in every aspect of our lives – that we spend our lives stressed. Adrenaline is released but there is no come down. Eventually, a constant state of red alert just becomes our state of being.
Prevention is Better Than a Cure
The sneaky thing about depression is that it recurs. If you have suffered from depression once, you are 50% more likely to suffer again. If you have suffered twice, the odds go up to 80%.
You can’t solve any problem unless you first recognise that there is a problem. It is easy to continue as you are; “I have to. I can’t let the kids/my colleagues down. I have to earn a living. There’s the mortgage to pay.” You will cope and cope and it will be fine – until you can’t any more. And trust me, everyone has a limit.
It is important to recognise this and practice self-care. Eat healthily, get enough sleep. Cut down on caffeine (a stimulant which will add to anxiety) and alcohol (a natural depressant). Exercise is very beneficial, since it releases endorphins, the body’s own ‘feel good’ chemicals. Give yourself permission to take time out every day. Relax; take a bath; go for a walk; join a class; meditate; read; take your lunch break. Learn to say “No”…
I think of it like being on a ‘plane – you always put on your oxygen mask first, so that you can help others. If you don’t look after yourself, you won’t be there for family and friends.
In the 1990s, I set up my own business. My brother asked me; “What are your criteria for success?” What a stupid question! I replied without hesitation; “To make loads of money!”
Wisely, he brought up things like work-life balance and how I might feel if I ended up doing all the work when my partners were slacking. It opened my eyes to the fact that success is much more than financial – and in the end, he was right. I ended up working all hours God sent and picking up the pieces for my colleagues. I resigned my directorship and by way of thanks, they tried to trick me out of my shares.
A big house, swanky car, fancy holidays and all the trappings of wealth – is that success if you are not happy? And what if you squander your health in the process?
Here, I shall hand over to wordsmith and poet John Lennon; “When I was 5-years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
The Road to Recovery
While things are not perfect, there is greater understanding and more help available than ever. At work, you do at least have some protection in law. Employers have a duty of care for the well being of their employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Employers are obliged to conduct risk-assessments for work-related stress. Whether your depression is work-related or not, you have protection. Long-term impairment due to mental health issues is covered under Disability Legislation.
If you are unable to work, there are a number of financial benefits that you may be able to claim. Your local Citizens’ Advice Bureau will be able to advise.
Every treatment does not work for everyone, but here are a few of the more common therapies available for depression. I strongly recommend that you visit your doctor who is best placed to advise you on the most appropriate course of action. If you self-diagnose, then both the doctor and the patient is a fool.
Like most illnesses, early intervention will yield a better outcome.
- Medication – your GP will advise on whether or not medication might help. There are over 30 different anti-depressant formulations on the market and not all work for everyone. Anti-depressants are not ‘happy pills’; they may take a week or more to have any effect and they work by bolstering up your brain’s depleted chemistry to normal levels. We were absolutely against taking medication at first; it seemed like admitting that we couldn’t cope. We were also wary of side effects and becoming addicted. Antidepressants are not strictly ‘addictive’ but coming off them can have side-effects. Undoubtedly, coming off will be a long process but we are now quite sanguine about the medication. If a small, white pill is what it takes to keep us well, then so what? If we had a heart condition or high blood pressure, we wouldn’t complain about taking long-term medication – and one of the most important side-effects of any medication is that makes you feel better.
- Mindfulness – this is the practice of ‘living in the moment’ rather than worrying about the past or what might happen in the future. Mindfulness has been used medically in the control of chronic pain. Demonstrable benefits in the treatment of depression and anxiety and reduction in recurrence were observed. I found mindfulness very helpful and still use the techniques that I learned. Even if you do not suffer from depression, Mindfulness could bring benefits into your life.
- Talking Therapies – there are a variety of counselling and other therapies available, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). These are available through the NHS or online. Your doctor will be able to advise the most appropriate therapy for your situation.
- Natural Therapies
- St John’s Wort is a natural remedy for mild depression, but can react very adversely with some medications, so seek professional advice. It can also reduce the effectiveness of the contraceptive pill and is not recommended if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Exercise – as mentioned above, physical exertion can give you a lift due to the release of the body’s natural opiates in your brain.
- The Outdoors – the benefits of the natural environment on mental well being are well recognised.
- Try to have fun and do something new – depression stripped us of our sense of fun, but it’s important to do your best to find pleasure in things. Trying something new, however trivial (read a different book, visit a museum) also helps to lift you out of the depression rut. Forcing yourself do this will actually help to alter the biochemistry of your brain, since it will release dopamine, the chemical associated with pleasure and learning.
Ironically, we found that the most effective treatment for The Black Dog was A Black Dog – although dogs of other colours also work. The fun, love, cuteness and excuse to get out of the house into nature every day worked instant miracles on our well being.
It might take time to find what works for you, but I assure you that there is hope. And you never know, as it did for us, your cloud might well have a most unexpected silver lining. Keep the faith!
I would rather not have gone on the depression journey. However, it made us re-evaluate our lives before we got even more ill. Without it, we may never have realised our dream of travel. Without travel, I certainly would not have started my blog nor written my books, which has been the achievement of a life-long ambition for me.
It might seem like a strange thing to say, but Depression is not all bad news.
The NHS Website has comprehensive information on depression and its treatments.
Click here for advice on how to beat stress at work.