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Black Dog

Winston Churchill named it Black Dog and it tormented him throughout his life.  Caroline Aherne and Frank Bruno are both sufferers. Johnny Depp, Stephen Fry, Tony Hancock, John Keats, Morrissey, Spike Milligan … I could go on and on and on. The list seems endless and these are just the famous names.  There are countless millions of ‘ordinary’ people who share this disability with them.  And this week we learnt that Robin Williams battled against (and may have lost to) depression.

I have no way of knowing how any of those people felt when in the depths of their depression. Some of them have spoken publicly to try and explain so it is easy to Google it if you want to read their words.  I can only speak for myself.

I have ‘suffered’ from depression.  I consider myself recovered in that I haven’t had a depressive episode for many years.  However I know that at any time I could fall into a depressive state again.  Luckily I recognise the signs so can ask for help early on but I am aware that I am susceptible to depressive moods.

My depression seemed to be triggered by a change at work.  A new member of staff, who was in a position of seniority over me, made my life very difficult.  I don’t know if it was deliberate and aimed at me but that’s how it felt.  I was undermined, demeaned, bullied.  I felt that nothing I did was good enough, I was inadequate and I didn’t know what to do about it.  I didn’t know where to turn for help or even that I needed help.  This person was successful and therefore represented power; I was further down the ladder and felt powerless.  Over the course of a month or so I became overly anxious of my interactions with this person – I could do nothing right for them and ‘knew’ that our encounters would leave me feeling drained, small and useless.  Eventually I wasn’t able to function at all in the workplace, suffered several panic attacks and was signed off work with depression.

I was shocked by the sudden and overwhelming way depression made me feel.  I had very little energy, everything was an effort and, to be honest, I didn’t feel able to make much of an effort.  I managed the basics but anything extra was too much.  I didn’t want to leave the house, this was  my sanctuary and I was safe here. I forced myself to go to the local supermarket so that at least I felt I was functioning ‘normally’.  However it felt like a huge effort and was not without its own problems.  I was hypersensitive to people around me when I was on my way to the supermarket, I had to keep my finger tips in contact with a wall or fence while walking along and I had to take the same route and do the journey as fast as possible. I have no idea what would happen to me if I didn’t do it this way but it made the task manageable. 

I saw no point in any activity.  There was no pleasure to be had in anything and I spent hour after hour sitting staring at a TV that I wasn’t really watching. I certainly saw no value in me doing anything.  After all, a person in a position of power had told me that by how they treated me so it must be true.  I had no value in the world and the world was better off without me.  Now that doesn’t mean I felt suicidal.  That was never part of my depression.  I often felt like running away, just taking off and trying to run away from the way I was feeling.  I don’t understand the logic of thinking that running away would stop me feeling the way I did but maybe there was no logic in play. I formulated a plan, my escape plan. It was a detailed plan; I knew where I was going, I had a new name picked, I had an idea of what I’d do when I got there.  Of course I was never going to act on it – it would hurt those I love too much but I took comfort from knowing I had a plan.

Those same people also had to go through it with me.  The hardest part was trying to explain the depression to them.  In fact I don’t think I ever successfully did.  Depression is so illogical, so hidden, so all encompassing that only another sufferer can truly understand how you feel.  My family were supportive but there were times when they really struggled to understand how I felt or how I could manage to do something one day but find it too overwhelming the next; how I could be chatty and relaxed one minute yet tearful the next for no apparent reason.

The road back from depression was a long and hard one.  I had help, some good, some not so good and I came out of the depression.  I have had brief lapses back but nothing as debilitating as that first attack.  Plus I now know when things are getting ‘depressive’ and can act quickly.  I don’t worry about asking for help, I know I need it and asking isn’t weakness, it’s my greatest strength.

So while everyone is talking and thinking about depression in the aftermath of Robin Williams suicide spare a thought for anyone who is going through their own personal nightmare. Tell your loved ones you love them, hug them tight and hope that they never feel the depth of despair that can make life unbearable.

I think Stephen Fry said it best here:

If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.
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