About five years ago, I was sad. Really sad. The reasons aren’t really important, but there was a break up, a death, and some fairly toxic relationships. I felt down, a lot of the time, and it didn’t go away. For a very long time.
At first, being sad seemed reasonable. Of course I felt sad: the world was an awful place. But I didn’t stop feeling that way. The things that I previously loved started to leave a sour taste in my mouth. I did a lot of lying around in bed, writing angsty things on the internet, and I listened to more Adele than is advisable for any human being. (In hindsight, that should probably have been the first sign I was on the verge of depression.)
Eventually, friends started to gently ask if I was OK. If I needed anything, if maybe what I was feeling wasn’t just sadness. If maybe I needed to see someone and talk about it. But I was adamant. This was sadness, not depression. What did I possibly have to be depressed about? I was young, employed, had great friends and family, and an excellent shoe collection.
But then I got sick. I had a throat infection, and I was exhausted because I hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in months. Sitting in the waiting room of my GP, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that it had taken me less than 24 hours to make an appointment for a throat infection, but I had crying myself to sleep for months, and I hadn’t asked anyone for help.
What followed was a course of mild antidepressants, and my GP made me promise to see a counsellor. I’m astonishingly lucky that I live in a place where both medical care and counselling is accessible and that I could afford to have both. I started to feel more like myself again.
After a handful of therapy sessions and a few months of meds, I decided I was better. I smiled and laughed and rejoined my life. Without discussing it with my GP or my counsellor, I stopped taking the meds. I’d already run out of my employer-paid counselling sessions.
For a few months, I kept on feeling better. But then it quickly became apparent that I was not better. I wasn’t even OK. I was a mess. And it got worse. There was a lot of sitting on the floor and wondering how to just not be here, how not to be in my life. I thought constantly about running away, thinking that the pain and awful thoughts wouldn’t come with me. Nothing was fun anymore. All the things I liked felt pointless.
Much later, the first time I read Allie Brosh’s description of depression, it felt like someone else telling my story:
It isn’t even something – it’s nothing. And you can’t combat nothing. You can’t fill it up. You can’t cover it. It’s just there, pulling the meaning out of everything... I somehow managed to convince myself that everything was still under my control right up until I noticed myself wishing that nothing loved me so I wouldn’t feel obligated to keep existing.
I convinced myself that no one could possibly love me, because I was worthless, horrible, awful to be around. Even now, my brain sometimes likes to tell me that I am ugly, unlovable, stupid, and talentless, and remind me of some of the awful things that people have said to me. On a good day, that voice is easy to shut up. But I wasn’t having any good days.
I pushed away friends, family members, and anyone who offered help, because life was easier if I didn’t have to see how much I was hurting them. And because I’d convinced myself that they all secretly hated me, and just pretended not to out of pity – or as part of some elaborate plot to make the pathetic girl hate herself even more.
Depression, at least in my case (which was mild), works like a spiral. Something bad happens and I feel bad about it. And then I feel bad about that, because I should be better than being hurt by the mean things some random person on the internet said about me. But I’m not. Therefore I’m a horrible person who doesn’t deserve nice things and is going to die alone in a house full of cats and overgrown pot plants.
I can remember one night, sitting on the side of my bed, terrified. Dressed up, lipstick applied, shoes on, bound for a friend’s birthday party. I was so convinced that everyone that would be there secretly hated me that I sat for 45 minutes trying to work up the courage to leave the house. Another time I attended a funeral, and spent much of it thinking about who would attend mine. No one, was what my brain told me. No one would miss me.
But I got better. It took a long time. It took a lot of work, and medication, and a lot of talking and crying and, ugh, feelings. For all the campaigns to de-stigmatise mental ill-health, people are still wary of sharing their stories. Mine is not an unusual one, nor a particularly severe one. Almost half of all New Zealanders will suffer from some sort of mental disorder in their lifetime. So it felt very strange to spend weeks convincing people to talk about their mental health for a feature and a documentary, and then not talk about my own.
When I interviewed Judi Clements from the Mental Health Foundation last week, she talked about positive psychology and things like “gratitude diaries”. The cynical journalist in me rolled my eyes. But I’ve been keeping a gratitude diary for two years; I just call it something different. Every day, I write in it good things that happened. Sometimes that’s as simple as being alive, and having had jam on toast. Some days there’s a list of 20 things. I do this, because some days, I need to read the lists of good things as a reminder.
I’m a better person now. I know how to cope better, and I am more conscious of protecting my own mental health – and that I might end up in that black hole again. I’m kinder, more empathetic, more enquiring, less quick to judgement. I’m probably a better journalist for my experience.
Because that spiral works both ways. Every time I manage to get over something, every time I don’t cry, every positive thing I do reinforces that it is possible I’m an OK human being. Not a perfect one. But after spending hours upon hours sitting on my bedroom floor convincing myself I was an awful person, I’ll take OK any day.
If you are struggling with depression and are seeking help you can call:
Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
Healthline - 0800 611 116
Samaritans - 0800 726 666 (for callers from the Lower North Island, Christchurch and West Coast) or 0800 211 211 / (04) 473 9739 (for callers from all other regions)
Suicide Crisis Helpline (aimed at those in distress, or those who are concerned about the wellbeing of someone else) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Youthline - 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email email@example.com