For those who don’t know, this is the second of a three post series describing what it was for me before, during, and after depression. You can find the first part, My Dark Days: Before, here. You will also see through this the progress of my artwork which is being exhibited in the Piece Of Mind Exhibition in St Andrews, Scotland.
During: The Year of Medically Diagnosed Depression
I was nervous to go and see a doctor, despite my own mother being a GP, because I felt stupid. Everything that was happening felt irrational and silly. Some days I would be completely fine so I didn’t understand what could make my mind flip so randomly. I didn’t even know how to explain how I was feeling and most of the time it felt as if I was reciting a history of gradual mood shifts. While describing it like that it would seem as if it was someone else, as if it was distant from myself; my mind was just being a bit stupid, like an awkward friend who keeps getting drunk leaving you to pick them up and put them to bed.
By the time I sat in the doctor’s surgery, facing a smiling, welcoming woman, it was no longer a history. I could repeat it as a string of events but my body language and voice was betraying me in its tremors and hesitations. Tears were leaking out of me and I couldn’t quite get all my words out. My doctor was kind and suggested a visit in a few days to the mental health nurse who could walk me through my options and really start to work out what was the best treatment option (especially with my concern over pills). Her kindness helped but waiting outside for my dad to pick me up was hard – there was an odd fear that I might bump into someone and have to explain, and I was not sure I could do that.
There were moments with my family that really scared me over the summer; on the other hand, there were moments which gave me a great closeness with my family and boyfriend. One particular event was a weekend where my boyfriend’s parents were visiting my parents’ for the first time; it was also around my mum’s birthday and a party was being held at a friend’s house. I had been a little nervous and been trying to make it all run as smoothly as possible and all in all it was a great weekend.
However, it got to about 5pm (we were all meant to be leaving at 7) on the Saturday night and I was sitting on the sofa feeling tired and a little low (irrationally). I started to try to explain to my boyfriend that I wasn’t sure I was up for going, but it was mum’s birthday and his parents were visiting, and I was torn. That was difficult to explain but it was when he asked me what I wanted to do that my mind froze.. well, actually it went into overdrive, but all in all I couldn’t say a word. I was screaming in my head, screaming as if trapped within myself, as if stuck in a mental cage, dumbstruck. I ended up pushing a few words out: “Get Dad”.
My Dad had wanted to know as much as possible about how I felt, so I tried to explain that it sometimes got to points where I couldn’t say a word or explain anything. He has suffered with mental blocks, of a different nature, but similar scenarios and had told me to try to get him, and he would understand. So that’s what I did. He came and sat with me, my boyfriend explained a little of what I’d managed to get out to him, and I sat and cried. It took 45 minutes to be able to make any kind of decision, or more to have someone make it for me and be ok with that. I felt ashamed to be acting this way, both missing my mums birthday, and not spending time with those I had invited for the weekend, but it was OK. All of them tried to understand and went off to celebrate the night whilst I had a night out with a drive around the countryside.
Time spent with the mental health nurse was good. I was surprised she wasn’t like the counsellors I had come to expect (and normally out-maneuvered). We talked about normal stuff, what had happened to me, what changes I noticed, and discussed things I could do that might help my moods. Exercise and diet were big options and things I had hoped to do that summer anyway so I tried my best. Both my dad and boyfriend were also on diets and I had become the one to convince them to stick to it. The problems with this plan began when I realised I hadn’t lost any weight at all despite huge amounts of exercise and healthy eating, whereas the men had lost huge amounts of weight healthily. I ended up in tears in a swimming pool with my muscles aching from me pushing myself so hard. It was a month before I was due to go back to university (where I knew with a dissertation to write I could not keep up the hours of exercise each day even if it had worked for me), when I folded and accepted the suggestion, finally, of pills.
The pills suggested to me were a mixture between anti-anxiety and anti-depressant. I was personally not sure I was anxious as a symptom, I just tended to get anxious when the frustration of my depression got too much. Even so I knew I needed to give it a go and I was not the medical professional so I gave it a try. It is honestly the first time I’ve read every word of the information in prescription packets, twice, and the first time I’ve ever been nervous about collecting something from a pharmacy.
The first two weeks of any anti-depressant is the worst. To those going through this now – I feel for you! It does, however, get better. Those first two weeks had me extremely tired all the time. I would wake up tired, lie on the sofa wanting desperately to either fall asleep or feel more awake, then I would go to bed still not really being able to sleep and lie there in a stupor until I realised I must’ve slept as I woke up the next morning.
After the initial startup I realised something: that weight in my mind, that heavy thing pulling me down, that creature playing with me, it was gone. I didn’t feel as if I couldn’t feel things: I had the ability to be angry at my boyfriend if he’d made a joke at my expense, I could laugh and smile at a comedy on TV, and I could be calm as well. It had been a big fear that I would be numbed, but instead the thing stopping me feeling good had been plucked off the grey matter within me. It was such a wonderful realisation it gave me a wider variety of words to describe to my friends and family what had been happening, what had held me captive for so long.
I went back to university feeling like I really had a decent chance of being normal again, instead of the weak anti-social version of my former self. For awhile it was great, I got to explain to people what had been going on, apologise for my behaviour, and try to explain that I’d missed them and they didn’t need to give me space or worry. My dissertation started off well and it was going to be a good year. I gradually (slow progress was important because I didn’t want to push too hard) got used to life again.
2 months later I came of the medication, with my doctor’s blessing, to see if they had done their job in kicking my system back to normal. I had started to feel that my work was suffering because the pills were having the side effect of drowsiness which wasn’t great with mountains of books to read. Within 6 weeks I was starting to feel the familiar heaviness again and it worried me. This time it wasn’t so much the depression making me fear things, but the fear of depression itself. I returned to my doctor and was put on a new anti-depressant, this time without the anti-anxiety which had made me sleepy and slow.
This one worked fine and slowly I felt more myself. I still had small relapses, mainly caused by the fact I was having to push myself so slowly, and I missed the active social life I had once led, I missed what I had always managed to accomplish before. There were moments I struggled with whether I should try to come off them again but they always seemed to coincide with what could be a stupidly stressful time: graduation, getting married, etc.
The time came though. Mid-way through February my doctor, now in Dundee, suggested I come off the pills. It was both a scary time and a relief. I was finally at stable point in my life (relatively – is there ever a perfectly stable time?) to give it a go, to rely on my own body, chemicals, hormones, and mind to get me through hard times.
Piece of Mind: Progress
My image has come to represent most strongly the fight between the heaviness on my mind and myself, the medical professionals and eventually the pills. It often felt like a war ground, both sides taking a beating, and often seemed surreal that little capsules of chemicals were attempting to give my body the ammunition to get rid of the problem. When I started thinking of the anatomy of the brain, where the problem was, it reminded me of the trenches of the First and Second World War: men hiding in trenches shooting at an enemy they didn’t fully understand, trying to protect their home. That’s a little how it felt to me, I was going through the shell shock, so to speak, of my body betraying me, I was wounded both mentally and physically, and those around me were getting hurt.
This helped me focus on the art piece I am producing. It is a surreal self-portrait; there I will be in a normal everyday situation, a street maybe, a group of friends, a pub/bar. But inside my head a war will be being fought with pills as ammunition fighting a monster I am currently finding it had to put an image to. Here is the sketch so far.
If any of this has struck a chord, please do leave a comment. I strongly believe that the more people who talk about their own experience of mental health difficulties, the more of the stigma will be broken, and the more people will feel comfortable dealing with what is happening in their own lives, without fear of shame or perception.