You are the star in the theatre production of your life; whether you're the extrovert lead in a high-octane, all-singing all-dancing performance, a stand-up comedian using humour as your armour or an autonomous one-man show: it's your gig. How you live it is entirely up to you.
For the most part, we get up and at 'em on a daily basis; like Groundhog Day, this repetitive show is a long-runner - it requires stamina. Day in, day out, you paint on your public persona - for women quite literally, using make-up as war paint - and step out onto the stage.
Some days, the spotlight's warmth feels good as you tap-dance out onto the well-trodden boards, all smiles and jazz-hands. On others it takes every ounce of strength to plaster on that grin and slip into your costume, drawing a deep breath as you step gingerly out to take centre stage, the bright lights blinding you.
We all experience ups and downs - basking in the glory of our achievements and good fortune, cursing when the universe seems to be conspiring against us.
But what happens when the rough days outweigh the smooth? When you lie awake at night, dreading tomorrow's performance? When your life really does feel like acting: you stutter along, feeling awkward, forgetting your lines? Sometimes what's going on backstage becomes distracting - how can you be the best version of yourself, head high and shoulders back, when there are problems with the set...or the other actors in your show are fooling about in the wings? In this production, you are the star - there is no understudy.
We are human; we all experience peaks and troughs in our daily moods, our performance. But how long does it take for an acute case of stage fright to develop into chronic depression?
Until I reached the age of about thirty, I was of the belief that depression was largely down to your genetic make-up, a chemical imbalance in the brain; an unwanted heirloom passed solemnly down the family line.
Like everyone else, I'd experienced things that had greatly saddened me - which affected my thoughts and feelings - but I don't recall being actually depressed. Even when I had stage three pre-cancer and subsequent treatment, which you can read about in my last blog post, I wasn't knocked by it - I was young, healthy and never for one moment thought I might die, or even suffer any repercussions from the treatment.
By and large, life had been kind to me and I saw no reason why that should change. I'd been lucky. Generally if I wanted something, I strived to make it happen. Like most ordinary working-class folk I've got a strong work ethic, instilled in me by my parents from a young age:
"You can be or have whatever you want in life, if you want it badly enough - you just have to work hard."
And I believed it; that's how naive I was.
So it took me by surprise when I decided that, having got the job, met the man, got married, bought the house (tick, tick, tick off my list of life goals) what I wanted next was a child...."worked" for it....and then didn't get it. Unfazed, I tried a bit harder. Doctors got involved, money was thrown at it, along with various quacks' wacky fertility-boosting ideas and hippy alternative therapies.
That was the point when the dark hands of depression began to squeeze my soul - his cold, bony fingers reaching into the dark recesses of my mind, taking my logical approach and tossing it aside with a derogatory sneer. Days passed...months...then years, and my usual upbeat approach began to slide, replaced with desperation, sadness...then deep despair, accompanied by an anger so incandescent it scared me, a white-hot ball of molten lava bubbling in the pit of my stomach. I wasn't asking for a private jet, a penthouse - I simply wanted what everyone else seemed to get almost by accident: a family.
When the doctors finally told me there was simply no point in having any more fertility treatment, I felt momentary relief at stepping off the medical merry-go-round.
Like a carcass picked apart by vultures, I was hollow inside - mentally as well as physically, having had the various treacherous organs that had betrayed me removed in the process.
Not only had I lost my chance of motherhood, I'd also lost something vital to my mental health: hope. It was like standing on the edge of a cliff, looking into the ravine. It took all my strength not to jump.
Of course, life goes on - you have to work, there are bills to be paid. The world doesn't stop turning because your life has unravelled. But how do you carry on when you've painstakingly laid the foundations and lovingly built the house....only for it to come crashing down around you, leaving you standing, bewildered, amongst the rubble wondering what the hell just happened?
Hence followed the hardest few years of my life. Everything felt heavy: my shoulders were stiff, my heart physically ached. Somehow I was excelling at work in spite of my personal problems and had recently been promoted, yet I'd start each day crying in the shower. My marriage collapsed like a deck of cards and I found myself living alone for the first time in 37 years. The silence in my new house was deafening.
I was now a Ms, which, as a mate reminded me with a wry grin, is "short for misery." I felt like a failure; my self-esteem plummeted. In my darkest hour I contemplated suicide. Eventually something had to give and I stepped down from the demanding role at work and took a three-month sabbatical during which I gradually got a grip on my life again.
This is what I've learnt from the experience. Everyone is different, I'm not saying this will definitely work for you if you're struggling with mental health issues, but I thought it might be worth sharing:
1. Are you surrounded by assholes? Avoid them!
I remember reading this quote:
"Before you diagnose yourself with depression make sure you're not, in fact, surrounded by assholes."
If you're feeling down, look around at the people in your life - is one or more of them the cause? Sometimes a simple cull of toxic friendships or relationships is all that's needed. There were a few people who inadvertently made me feel worse when I was down, so I actively avoided them.
2. It's Good To Talk
I was lucky in that my friends and family were extremely supportive. They often said they didn't know what to say to make me feel better; they felt helpless as they couldn't fix my problem. Let them know you don't expect them to have all the answers, just being there for you and listening is enough. My mum was my saviour. Men in particular tend to feel uncomfortable revealing their feelings - it's hardly surprising, then, that suicide is the leading cause of death in men under 45. Go to a counsellor if you don't feel able to talk to someone you know, or if you feel you need professional help.
3. Visit your GP
For me, my problem was two-fold: a combination of situational depression brought about by my personal circumstances, combined with the hormonal imbalances created by gynae surgery and IVF. (I was not diagnosed with premature menopause until much later, despite having textbook symptoms). I visited my GP when it became evident the feelings weren't going to go away on their own. She was relatively sympathetic, despite refusing the CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) I requested and dismissing my menopause concerns. She prescribed an SSRI (a type of antidepressant) which I was reluctant to take, but I did for a year or so and they helped. When I was ready to stop taking them I did so easily with no adverse effects.
4. Remove yourself from the situation
When I announced I was taking 3 months off work and going to Thailand alone to recuperate, some implied I was running away from my problems. "Yeah, and...?"
I can honestly say the minute I landed in Koh Samui for my solo adventure I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. I know not everyone is able to do that, but try to reduce your everyday stress as much as possible. Take measures to simplify your life: don't be afraid to say no if you don't feel up to something, streamline financial affairs, de-clutter your home and your life wherever possible. It helps you feel more in control. If you can take a complete break, even just for a short time - do it. When all of my senses were stimulated by the exciting new sights, sounds and tastes of Thailand, I found myself dwelling less on my problems and thinking more positively about the future. It was an epiphany. (You can read that blog here, if you're ever really bored).
5. The drugs don't work
Well they do, obviously, but only in the short term. It's common for people who are depressed to use drugs and alcohol as a crutch, but these deplete the serotonin in your brain and ultimately leave you feeling worse. A hangover is hellish at the best of times, right? Try to eat serotonin-rich foods and take care of yourself as well as you can, even if you just want to curl up under the duvet with a giant vat of ice cream. Exercise may be the last thing on your mind, but the endorphins it produces will give you a much-needed buzz. Take brain-feeding high-strength omega oils, or eat plenty of oily fish. Most Brits are deficient in mood-enhancing Vitamin D since it comes largely from the sun, which, to our chagrin, is often in short supply. You could consider taking a multivitamin high in vitamin D as an insurance policy if your diet is lacking. Vitamins A, C & E are powerful anti-oxidants (which you also need to process the omega oils) and you're likely need extra B-vitamins, since these are used up particularly quickly by the body when you're stressed.
6. Change the things you can, accept those you can't.
They say time heals. This is true, to a certain extent. Take everything one day, and one pigeon step, at a time. Ask yourself, will this still matter to me in a year's time? If the answer is no, deal with it swiftly and move on. How about 5 years? Personally, my health issues are permanent, and yes, it will still matter to me in 5 years. I realised that I couldn't change the situation, only my attitude towards it. If you can't fix it, can you at least alleviate the burden? Life is constantly changing and evolving, who knows where you'll be in a year's time? Don't underestimate how much your mindset may have altered by then. The hardest part for me has been finding my place in the world, now that my planned life path has changed dramatically. What's my raison d'etre? It's a work in progress...
7. Do more of what makes you happy
Be kind to yourself. Take pleasure in the small things: a beautiful sunset, a well-made coffee, a long bath. Go for a run. I often felt guilty about feeling so sad when there were others in the world with much "bigger" problems. A few people told me as much, which is not helpful since we only know our own feelings. Everything is relative. Allow yourself time to feel sad: lick your wounds, then start to deal with it and move on. Later, when I felt better, I was able to acknowledge that yes, there are people with much bigger problems than my own, so I fund-raised and volunteered in Costa Rica, helping disadvantaged children in the city of San Jose (you can read my blog about it here). As well as helping those kids, it also helped give me a renewed sense of purpose and direction when I needed it most.
Some of the Costa Rican children who put the smile back on my face
8. Get out of your comfort zone
When you feel up to it, stop just existing and throw yourself headlong back into the land of the living. If someone invites you somewhere, go. Stop making excuses; start saying yes to everything. Be open to new experiences - you never know what might happen, which inspirational people you might meet. Life is about doing not having. It's about the memories held in your mind's eye, not the material objects held in your hand. You want your life to be a Hollywood blockbuster, not some low-budget play? Make it happen! This is not a dress rehearsal: you only get one take. Write a bucket list of things you'd like to do and work towards them. As I get older I ask myself how I want to be remembered, then challenge myself to be more like the person I want to be : bold, ballsy, adventurous, fun. Which adjectives would you like people to use when they describe you?
Hey, I'm not a doctor, don't take my advice as gospel. It's just my own experience - how I've grown as a person through overcoming some of life's challenges.
I guess this is how I'd sum it up:
You are a glass that has been smashed. You are broken. It happens to us all at some point. It takes time to glue all the little pieces back together. Occasionally you'll cut yourself on a jagged fragment and have to start over, but you'll gradually begin to take shape again. If you look closely, there'll always be imperfections, scars. You'll never be exactly the same as you were before, but that's ok. Because one day you'll look in your dressing-room mirror and notice that the sparkle in your eye has returned. As the curtain comes up on a new act in your life you'll realise with a smile that, finally, you've put yourself back together again...
My 'Eat, Pray, Love' moment whilst travelling solo in Thailand
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