It took me writing this blog post to finally realise that I am depressed. All week I had been wrestling and avoiding having to sit and write blogs to promote World Mental Health day happening on Monday the 10th October. I wanted to do my own little campaign and drum up awareness. I finally sat down on Friday night to write this post which I planned on titling “How to spot the signs of depression” Reading through the list of symptoms, it hit me “This is me”……”I am depressed” Woah..
I felt my inner critic rising up to tell me what a hypocrite and fraud I am. “You should know better, how can you be depressed?” I was in no mood to entertain her and her goading. So I shut down my laptop and headed straight for bed. Lying in bed I decided I had to listen… to God and to me. I had been avoiding this conversation because I wanted to believe that I could cope on my own. I didn’t want to be vulnerable, I wanted to be strong. I am coping. Of course I am coping! I have just completed the final draft of my second book. Work is going well, I am getting more clients. Nah… I am good. But deep down I knew I couldn’t ignore the tell-tale signs. Extreme irritability and discontent; being on edge; full of criticism; not sleeping well at all; feeling tired and lacking energy; restlessness; not feeling joyful and being very insular. And a deep sadness that I couldn’t shift. These symptoms have persisted for months. On the outside, I am highly functioning, and seemingly able to balance the demands and stresses of being a wife, mother, employee, business owner, daughter, sister and friend. My symptoms are not debilitating in so far as I am able to motivate myself to get out of bed in the morning. But I find I wake up tired, lacking energy to do the simple things I would usually do, like spending time in prayer and meditation, or working out to my afro beats dance video, or just sitting and enjoying my morning coffee. Instead I would be more inclined to drown myself in work, struggling but forcing myself to concentrate and keep on top of things.
Is this depression or just a mood dip? Clinical depression is described as lasting for at least 2 weeks and affects the person physically, emotionally, cognitively and behaviourally. It interferes with the person’s ability to carry out his or her work or to have satisfying personal relationships. My symptoms have certainly surpassed two weeks.
I am self-aware enough to know that all is not well and I have been ignoring the signs and instead trying even harder to push past the feelings, until now. And as I listen to God, and to me, I can see the cracks, caused by the blows of life: in the space of a year I had two traumatic experiences, the greater being the death of my father. I totally underestimated the impact of the loss of my dad on my mental health. Yes life goes on, and time doesn’t stand still until you feel ready to get back to normality. Somehow, perhaps unconsciously, I equated the absence of time standing still with being recovered, healed and my emotions intact. But clearly not… And that is the thing with depression. Its symptoms are more invisible than visible. The sufferer is not always prone to floods of tears, crying spells, looking dishevelled, uninterested and unable. I read a recent article that explained the difference between high functioning and low functioning depression.
High-functioning depression is when someone seems to have it all together on the outside, but on the inside, they are severely sad. Carol Landau, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry and human behaviour and medicine at Brown University, says she primarily sees this in women with a penchant for perfectionism—AKA the same people who are likely your colleagues and friends with enviable lives and a long list of personal achievements.
Depression has many faces and not just attributable to people who present as low functioning or incapacitated. Perhaps it is because of the stigma or lack of knowledge, but I see clients who are presenting signs of depression say “I’m fine, I am not depressed, it’s not like I am unable to get out of bed in the morning or lying in my pyjamas all day sobbing my heart out… I just feel sad”. For some they have felt severely sad for so many years, that it’s become a way of life. They have become accustomed to feeling low, not functioning at optimal levels, but just getting by. Keeping head above water. Present but not fully…. Quietly desperate and discontent with life. Think of a poorly lit house, constantly dim and shadowy. Your eyes will naturally adjust to the poor lighting, allowing you find your way around. But in a house with bright lights, you see much clearer, more focused and able to walk without feeling your way around, or stumbling into things.
I want my bright lights back again. To be joyful, positive and hopeful. I remember the feeling of waking up to a new day, excited and expectant, even in the face of challenges which will always be there. It is called life. So what do I do? As a counsellor and mental health practitioner, I believe recovery is possible but it is a journey. However, recovery differs for everyone and there is no straight cut, definitive path to overcoming depression. But my reflections and meditations point to the following path:
Depression thrives on isolation and feasts on pessimism, despair and hopelessness. There becomes only one perspective. Gloom. Magnified by the pessimistic glasses worn.
So I open up and have a heart to heart about how I have been feeling with my husband. We have a three hour honest chat, well into the night. Talking helped to unburden myself of the load. Everything seems hard and overwhelming and I feel very resistant. It helps to have someone who understands me, coming alongside me, offering support and encouragement.
I realise how disconnected I have become, from friends and family. There’s been no socialising, or leisurely activities or fun. I work from home, so I spend a lot of time in my own company. I agree with my husband to reach out to one or two friends for a coffee or cinema date.
Getting connected extends to seeking professional help such as counselling, seeing your GP, Psychiatrist or pastor or vicar. In my case, I recognise I need to start with bereavement counselling. It is about reaching out to people you can trust to support you in finding answers. As a Christian, a big part of my getting connected means reconnecting with God and leaning into my brokenness, resting and surrendering to Him. I’m done trying to figure it out on my own.
Get Active: It feels like a catch 22 situation. I am tired and low in energy, so it makes sense to sleep and sleep some more. The more I do that, the more lethargic I feel.
I know I need to become more active to build up my energy and oxytocin levels. I used to love taking long walks, and doing dance inspired workouts. In the last few months I have done very little exercise. I decide that I need to be intentional about being more physically active, starting with a 20 minute walk or exercise. Nothing too overwhelming, so I can commit and not talk myself out it.
Get Creative: Taking the time to do something out of the ordinary.
I love writing and in the last year this has remained steadfast. If I didn’t have it, I know I would be in an even worse place. But I could try something else. Cooking has become a chore in my house, something I do because we have to eat. My husband reminds me of how I used to try out new recipes, and invite friends over for dinner. The last time I did this was late 2014! It is a revelation to think back to how different our lifestyle has become. Everything seems rushed; cooking, eating, living…… I know it is time for a change.
I once heard the story of a vicar who advised a very depressed member of his parish to take up voluntary work, caring for sick people. After a period time, he met up with the lady and she was a completely different person, much happier and buzzing with life and energy. Had her problems necessarily gone away? I’m guessing she wasn’t any wealthier than before. What had changed was her perspective and outlook. There is something powerful about giving of ourselves to others, investing our hearts and our time to help people. Research has shown that giving selflessly releases happy hormones, oxytocin. We feel happier and good about ourselves.
As a counsellor, my work involves supporting others through their journey. It has been the most satisfying and enriching work I have ever done. At the same time I sense that I could invest in others as an individual and not just as a professional who is sought out for help.
We moved to our new home nearly two years ago and whilst we moved for all the right reasons – bigger space, a better catchment for schools for our daughter- we lost the relationships we had built with our neighbours. With the busyness of life, and perhaps adjusting to a new environment, we kept putting off getting to know our new neighbours and investing time in developing friendships with them. We are courteous with our neighbours, but they have never been into our homes and vice versa. My father lived with us for six months last year. And I am not even sure any of them noticed he lived with us, let alone that he passed away. So I am purposing in my heart to be intentional about investing in my neighbours, hoping it is not too late.
I am writing this update on Sunday night. I am so glad I opened up and had the conversation with my husband. This weekend has been immensely positive and I feel so much better. Saturday after seeing two clients, I came home and spent time with family. Hubby encouraged me to do something spontaneous – like going to the movies with a friend. I called my friend who is an avid cinema goer, and an hour later we were at the movies watching Deep Water Horizon. After that we had hot chocolate in Starbucks and caught up. All through Saturday I had bouts of laughter with my siblings on our WhatsApp group posting silly audios of us singing. I haven’t laughed this much since my Dad died. It was good to be silly and to connect with my siblings.
I am smiling again and life feels good… I know there is hope.