I was 14 years old when I was first diagnosed with clinical depression. When I tell people this, there's usually a fairly standard reaction: "What on earth does a 14-year-old have to be depressed about?" I used to wish I knew. There are the classic factors; a spate of bullying in my first year of secondary school, my parents rather messy divorce, but I've never been too quick to place too much blame on either of these. I was fortunate to attend a school that was very good at dealing with bullying, and I had a great circle of friends, many of whom I'm still close with to this day. Though I've never really spoken about my depression with them, they've always been spectacularly supportive of me when things have been rough.
And although for a time my home life was unpleasant, my Dad moving out was actually the best thing that ever happened to our family. He didn't understand my illness, and from when I first started to get ill at 12 years old, he actively denied there was anything wrong with me, calling me a brat, frogmarching me, often screaming and crying, to the school bus stop where I'd promptly run home and lock myself in the bathroom until my mum could coax me out again. At the time I was devastated by his leaving, particularly his refusal to tell us where he was going. In the years since I've seen him a handful of times.
At the time I thought there was something wrong with me. It is now seven years since I was officially diagnosed, and the stigma around mental illness has changed a lot in this time through campaigns such as Time to Change and with the help of charities such as Mind Matters, though when I was growing up, the visibility of mental health, particularly in adolescents, was at all-time low. I used to wait months for an appointment to see a psychologist at the time when every day I was thinking about killing myself. I was visualising how I could hang myself from the bunk beds in my bedroom. I was wondering how many painkillers you had to take before you died. On one occasion my mum rang every psychiatric unit in Yorkshire only to be told there were no available beds and they'd have to admit on to an adult ward. I was 14. As a result my mum refused to leave me even in a room on my own, which was particularly hard considering she was also single-handedly raising my brother and sister, both recently diagnosed as autistic. When she had to take them to hospital appointments, she left me with my grandparents, she was so worried I'd hurt myself.
And I often did hurt myself. Self-harm was a way of coping, of controlling something about my life when everything else was spiralling out of sight. I worried constantly about everything, from things in the immediate to things that I dreamt up in my head late at night when sleep eluded me. I only really felt safe to sleep during the day. For four years school was a sporadic occurrence, teachers sending home work with my older brother, my head of year threatening to call social services because of my poor attendance, despite my GP's note and my mum's daily pleas on the phone. There was a sea of highly unpleasant meetings where I was taken into the school and asked to tell them why I didn't feel I could attend. These were battles fought on a daily basis.
Throughout my first two years of university I spent a good deal of time at the office of the campus mental health advisor, who was instrumental in finding the support I needed and helping defend me against academia which in my experience is incredibly reluctant to provide support for mentally ill students. I've struggled with explaining my illness to others, including employers and friends. Despite my long-standing determination to not let my illness stand in the way of me doing anything I want to, it's inevitable that it has an impact. Anyone that suffers from depression will tell you it's impossible to vocalise the illness, and the relatively invisible nature and horrible inconsistency mean one day to the next you can't possibly know how you're going to feel. You become an excellent actor, able to fool just about anyone into thinking everything's fine, until inevitably, you collapse in on yourself, and as I've done so many times in the past, end up doing something stupid.
I've been in and out of therapy sessions for over eight years, trying everything from the good old fashioned 'sit down and have a chat' method to art therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy aimed at teaching coping strategies and modifying behavioural patterns symptomatic of depression. I started taking medication at 16 and four different dosages and two different prescriptions later I have some sort of stability, but by no means is medication a cure. I still wake up some days feeling like there's nothing left on the earth for me. That's part and parcel of the illness.
I'm 21 now and half way through my Erasmus year studying in Berlin. I live alone with two cats, I've just started an internship that's perfect for me, and I'm having quite possibly the best year of my life here despite being hundreds of miles from home. In some ways the distance makes my illness easier to manage; there's only so much you can do when you're so far away. One of the keys to coping with depression is perspective, which is something I've always struggled with due to my intense neuroticism.
But if I could give the 14-year-old me, or indeed every other 14-year-old out there who's suffered similar, any advice?
- Do things that make you happy. To this day I cannot advocate this enough. In the depths of despair it's important to find something- just one thing- that makes you feel better. An escape plan is essential.
- Surround yourself with positive people. People that understand you, people that love you, people that will not judge you, because there's enough of that in the world anyway without having it in your immediate life. Do not be afraid to cut out the people who make you feel bad. They're not worth your time.
- Create daily goals. It's important to see the big picture, but for me, there's nothing as important as taking it one step at a time. Depression is an illness that you can only really treat on a day to day basis. Daily goals, as simple as getting out of bed and eating a proper meal, provide purpose, and when you feel you're adrift, it's essential to anchor yourself. And if you fail, it's not the end of the world.
It's never the end of the world.