I've had depression on and off for 10 years and I've hidden it from just about everyone.
This might come as a surprise to those I have hidden it from. I act up for laughs. I pull stupid faces. I sing in a theatrical broadway voice. I've got a good job, partner, family, flat. On the outside looking in, I'm thriving.
And yet I've hidden my depression for as long as I can remember, carrying it around like a shameful secret that reveals a deformed, rotten part of my personality that I am not willing to accept.
Before I carried it around, I outright refused to acknowledge it. I didn't have depression, there just wasn't enough natural light in my flat. I didn't have depression, I just didn't like my job. I didn't have depression, I was just lost after graduation. I was just stressed out by my dissertation, just missing home, just grieving, just lonely, just skint, just fat, just A-levels, friends, family, puberty. But now I've run out of excuses.
When I was 15 I booked myself an appointment at the doctors without telling my parents. I was worried because I couldn't stop crying. I was always tired. I'd isolated myself from my friends. I felt hopeless, like I was being swallowed up by a big black hole that I was never going to crawl out of.
In the waiting room, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire. 'Have you found little pleasure or interest in doing things?' 'Have you found yourself feeling down, depressed or hopeless?' 'Have you thought that you'd be better off dead or hurting yourself in some way?' It went on like that for about 20 questions. I scored highly and by the time I sat opposite the doctor, I was inconsolable.
I can't carry on like this, I said. I'm sick of pretending, I said. I don't know who I am any more, I said. She handed me a box of tissues with a well-worn roll of the wrist and waited for me to compose myself.
"I know what you need," she replied after a time. "You need to play squash."
And that was the beginning of my 10 year journey through the uncertain quagmires of mental health care.
If, perhaps, that doctor hadn't dismissed my condition as teenage angst, I might not be where I am today. If she hadn't made me feel silly and small and girlish for weeping into her Kleenex when all I needed was some good old fashioned exercise (never mind the fact that I was a track runner at the time), it might not have planted the seed in my head that grew into the ugly tree that still tells me that I'm not allowed to talk about these things.
After that, it took me six years to seek treatment again and it would be another four until I saw a mental health specialist. Instead, I internalised it, hid from it and watched it grow into my biggest secret. I know now how much that inept entry into the mental health care system impacted my recovery. However, I've also come to realise how much my own prejudice has influenced this secrecy, and how my belief that depression is something to be ashamed of is contributing to the very stigma that stops people from seeking treatment in the first place. So the buck stops with me. If I want to normalise conversations about mental health, I have to start talking.
And yet on the handful of occasions when I have been open about my condition, I've lived to regret it. Like when I got close to a guy at uni and told him I was unwell, only for him to call me a "pathetic mess." Or when I bought a book called How to Deal With Depression and had it delivered to work, only for a colleague to pick it up and drop it in the same breath, as if she'd discovered that I was reading Mein Kampf. Or when an employer described my symptoms as a "duvet day." Or that classic line delivered by a concerned relative who doesn't know how to process the information and somehow thinks that your depression is a reflection on how they've treated you, so they say "but... you don't have anything to be depressed about."
The language that we choose to talk about this illness needs to change. If a friend tells you they've been diagnosed with diabetes, you don't respond by saying "I'm sorry to hear that you're unhappy." So why should depression be any different?
I'm not unhappy, I'm sick. Depression is not a feeling, it's not a way of describing a shit day or a low mood, it's a serious mental illness and when people confuse it for a emotional response to a bad situation, it compounds the belief that I'm weak, a failure, unable to cope with the realities of human existence. And that gives me more impetus to pretend.
Sadly, the NHS doesn't make it easy either. I've been prescribed prozac, sertraline and citalopram by the bucket load and have been left to fend off panic attacks, crippling sexual dysfunction and something that I now know to be called depersonalisation disorder - without any forewarning of the risks. People talk about feeling fluffy and detached on antidepressants, but depersonalisation disorder is total detachment from your sense of self. You become a fly on the wall of your experiences, like watching scenes from a movie of your life rather than actively participating. It's scary and the flippancy with which the NHS prescribe antidepressants without equipping patients with coping mechanisms is astounding. For me, going to the GP is like standing in a never-ending queue on a giant conveyor belt as a white coat shoves a funnel down my throat, fills it up with pills and shouts "NEXT!"
Don't misunderstand me. I cherish the NHS and know that it is the best thing about this country. But the reality is that mental health care is failing. New NHS figures show that the number of deaths annually among mental health patients in England has risen 21% over the last three years. Tellingly, the number of people in contact with mental health services has jumped by more than 40% over the past decade whilst the number of antidepressant prescriptions have surged by more than 100% in the same period. And this is not only affecting those with mental health issues. According to a recent Guardian investigation, there has been a 33% rise in criminal cases linked to mental health over three years, with UK police spending as much as 40% of their time dealing with incidents triggered by some kind of mental health issue. And all of this against a backdrop of severe cuts to social and healthcare services.
This is typified by the fact it's taken me 10 years to get an appointment with a psychiatrist. To access CBT. To go beyond the GP's office. And I've lived in three different counties in that time so it's a failure of the system, not the surgery.
There are, however, those that are trying to improve things. Last year, Jeremy Corbyn appointed the first ever shadow minister for mental health to work directly on mental health issues and prioritise them in a Labour government. Then there's the recent #imnotashamed, #sicknotweak and #itaffectsme campaigns that encourage people to share their personal stories online and open up the conversation around mental health.
And yet despite that invitation to share, I'm scared of publishing this. It fills me with dread. How can I post this on Facebook when it will lift the veil on the artificial lifestyle I've curated? I'm scared of the judgement and the awkward conversations in the kitchen at work tomorrow morning. I'm scared this article will appear when someone Google's my name. I'm scared this could affect my career. But I've been scared of things before and I'll be scared of things again. And it's high time I gave the real reason why I cancel plans. It's time I stopped using humour as a sticking plaster. It's time I addressed my own bias in order to address the wider stigma that has forced my illness into the shadows for so many years. It's time.
So there, I have depression. Deal with it.
Originally published on Medium.
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