On April 20th I connected with a Recruitment Leader on LinkedIn. He told me in confidence that he had his own experience of depression and anxiety and that he was still working through telling people. At that point, he'd only told six people - his closest family and friends.
I believe there is great power in sharing our lived experiences and challenges because it gives other permission to do the same, however, I am also aware that quite often, doing so takes a great deal of courage and bravery. Anyone sharing something so personal and intimate also has to factor in whether or not they are in the right space to be so openly vulnerable. It isn’t always a straightforward decision.
On the first day of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, I couldn’t have been happier to see this Recruitment Leader's post pop up in my LinkedIn feed.
I asked him what it was that made him decide to share; he told me he wants people to know how this illness looks and feels. How effortlessly it can take over. He wanted to share the kind of article he wished he could have read a few years ago in the belief it would have spared a lot of pain. He said: "So many people don't realise it is affecting them until it's too late; I had the opportunity to impact that by sharing my experience and the only thing stopping me from doing so was a little bit of fear or personal discomfort. It was the right thing to do."
It’s real, it’s raw and it’s powerful. That sounds like a cliché – it really isn’t. It’s written from his soul and if it resonates with you or helps you support someone you love then it will be worth a few minutes of your time.
This is Elliott’s story.
After a bit of a breakdown in February 2020, I went to go and see a GP. I was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. That diagnosis was a long time coming and the first step towards recovering. It was without doubt and continues to be the hardest thing I have ever done. Along the way there have been many lapses but more importantly heaps of things that are helping, writing for one, as are my therapy sessions with Bronwen. I was asked if I would be happy to write about my experience of depression and anxiety. I am aware that my experience of depression will almost certainly not match everyone else’s. With hindsight I think I was really unwell for quite a long time before I saw help. Hopefully this piece may help someone seek help sooner, a partner or loved one of someone struggling to understand what they are going through a little better. I hope it does. There aren’t many worse feelings than feeling alone, scared and utterly hopeless.
There is plenty written on depression, lots of well-meaning corporate slogans, high profile opinion pieces, everyone parroting the line “it’s ok to not be ok”. None of that helped me. None of that helps if you don’t think it applies to you. It can’t, how can it? You are not unwell, you are just having a bit of a bad patch and not being ok doesn’t quite cover it.
There is plenty written on depression, lots of well-meaning corporate slogans, high profile opinion pieces, everyone parroting the line “it’s ok to not be ok”. None of that helped me.
If you don’t know what depression feels like, how can you know you have it? Why on earth are you going to do something about fixing it? To those that haven’t suffered with it, comprehending what depression feels like is the same as imagining a new colour or flavour. You can’t, your best effort is made up of guesses based on things you know or have experienced and it isn’t the same. Too often it is conflated with just feeling sad, being a bit down or flat. Labelling it depression is an incredibly cruel trick. Too close to depressed. Who doesn’t occasionally feel depressed, if everyone feels it, why can’t you just snap out of it? Especially in a time of constant hyperbole where we are all “literally starving” or “absolutely in love with that new car/dress/song.” The wording cheapens the pain and all-encompassing futility of the illness. The truth is depression is a gut-wrenchingly lonely feeling of pointlessness. Numbness. Beyond sad, beyond lethargy, beyond trying. Like you have drilled down further than that. To nothingness. You can’t imagine nothing. You don’t wake up one day and feel nothingness. It takes over slowly, like watching a plant die. Impossible to witness the exact moment it happens. Eventually, you know you aren’t feeling good anymore but it can’t be anything too serious as you aren’t really that much worse than yesterday or last week.
Since seeking help, I have kept a diary. This is the first entry I made. It still makes me cry to read, remembering feeling this way and how truly awful I must have been to be around. The negative impact I must have had on those that love me the most. Something for which I will be eternally sorry.
Not sure how long I have felt like this, kind of like feeling old. I know I haven’t always felt old but can’t remember a time when I didn’t.
Even being aware of the symptoms or red flags doesn’t stop me from thinking there wasn’t anything wrong, it can’t happen to me. I am just having a rough day and it will get better. It increases, slowly, so slowly you don’t see/feel it getting worse, just think it is normal.
Knowing that talking and exercise will help but starting neither as there isn’t anything wrong with me, just having a bad day. Everyone has them, I will start those things tomorrow.
Times I feel so irritated by the smallest thing that I am totally consumed with rage and anger offset by the feeling of being scared by everything.
Assuming the worst or most dangerous possible outcome in every situation. Not leaving the house, or getting a cab home because I am certain something bad would happen. Not accepting this is a depression issue but assuming it’s down to me being cowardly or weak.
Overthinking everything to such a degree I do nothing.
Feeling numb, struggling to enjoy things. Even the most simple and beautiful things, can’t bring myself to start them. Always tired. Too tired to start things. When I do, they never get finished so why start them.
Drinking more than I should, don’t think it’s a problem but knowing I sometimes do it to force myself to be more talkative. Knowing even the fog of a hangover is better than feeling nothing.
Cannot sleep even when exhausted, lie for hours worrying about everything.
Relationships, work, the future, fitness, the house, my Son, my Wife. Relive every time I’ve felt embarrassed, let someone down or done something wrong. Make plans for how to fix everything, only then can I drift off to sleep, once I have solved everything. Then don’t want to wake up. Struggle to get up because I’m certain something bad will happen. Plans don’t happen, too tired to execute them. Feel exhausted all day then cannot get to sleep again.
Feel like I’m inside a box. Know I am part of a normal life but not really feeling part of it. Floating along.
Wonder if I had acknowledged this problem sooner, would I be better now? Of course you didn’t acknowledge it. You don’t get anything right.
Not understanding why anyone would love me. Feeling like a failure and burden or hanger-on that persistently lets people down.
Think any compliment is someone taking the piss or lying.
Dropping out of things at the last minute because I don’t want people to have a worse time because I am there.
Worry that I have passed all this shit way of thinking on to my Son. I want so much for him to be confident, calm and free from worry. For him to have fun and feel totally and utterly loved.
Impatient and shout too much with my Son. Not knowing how to help him. Knowing this helps contribute directly to the point above. I am causing the thing I am most worried about.
Not there enough/at all for my Wife. Too focussed on worrying about how much I let people down to acknowledge that I am letting her down by not trying, or not even being present.
Checked into hotels and gone places to think about if things got too much what would I do, would anyone’s life be worse without me in it? Would it improve without me weighing them down?
Don’t think I have got genuinely close to doing it but accept going places specifically to think about doing it is probably a further step along than just thinking about it. Thought about the consequences, a lot.
Not being brave enough to say this to anyone. Coward.
Constant feeling of worthlessness and pointlessness. Hard to see anything ever changing. Dug a hole so deep I don’t know how to get out of it.
I will though.
I saw the GP the day after writing this. I then cried for about two weeks. It was the hardest thing I have done. Hated it. Hated the fact I wasn’t normal, hated the fact I had allowed this to happen and hated the fact recovering was going to hurt and I would have to tell people how I had been feeling. The select few I did tell I claimed I wasn’t ashamed. I was, deeply. I was worried that they would all think less of me, or even worse pity me. I still haven’t told anyone beyond those 6 people. It did however turn my depression into something real and tangible. An illness, a problem, a challenge. Illnesses can be cured, problems can be solved and challenges overcome.
“You don’t have to talk to everybody but you do need to talk to somebody”
Depression presents you with a series of negative outcomes for every situation and the anxiety makes you agonise over the certainty of the very worst of those options being realised. A hideous double act. My response was to withdraw, blame myself, give up, no longer be present in any situation. Damage limitation. Get through everyday life but at a distance, without authenticity. I was good at acting like nothing was wrong, a shrug of the shoulders, self-deprecation, laugh it off, ``I’m fine, what about you?”, deflect, move, change. Anything other than show people who I had really become. Focus lost, total apathy towards everything, even the things you love, sometimes even the people you love. Too tired to enjoy anything, attempt anything or respond to anything.
In the right situation and in most people’s eyes I could still be engaging, normal. It was exhausting. Acting. Playing a character, constantly, for weeks, months, maybe even years on end. Majority will buy it, even those closest to you may do. Although they will probably know you aren’t yourself. I knew though, deep down. It never gets discussed, life goes on and your behaviour certainly doesn’t get attributed to depression because you don’t know what it is and it doesn’t happen to someone like you.
Depression is an illness of your thoughts, understanding that simple statement was vital for me. “Reasons to stay alive” by Matt Haig, a great book in which he writes far more eloquently on depression than I can. Matt makes the crucial point if you break your leg “you” aren’t broken, your leg is. You aren’t your leg. You are your thoughts though. In essence that is all we are. Our soul, the decisions we make, the part of us people respond to and love. When the very core of you has been corrupted how do you come back? Is it even worth coming back? The cherry on top of this unwanted cake is the competitiveness that comes with depression. Constantly comparing yourself to others, if I am not as bad as them then I can’t complain, I can’t actually have anything wrong, soldier on. Anything to avoid looking in the mirror and facing down the vacant shell staring back.
It feels particularly self-aggrandizing and uncomfortable to say this as I am not a boastful person but I was pretty sure depression shouldn’t happen to me. It couldn’t. I am incredibly fortunate; I have a beautiful family, own a business, incredible friends, nice house, have had a good career and earned well. Sadly, none of those things makes you immune. If anything, all those things made me more certain I couldn’t possibly have depression and took longer to seek help because surely there had to be a cause. I’m still working my way through identifying that, I don’t think for me there was any one cause. It’s a combination of how I deal with stress, how comfortable I was being honest, truly honest. How open I am about my fears, the worst things I have done, feeling good enough, feeling successful enough, childhood events, relationships, dealing with failure. A million and one things that have shaped, not caused my depression.
It can and will improve, quickly. If someone told me that in February I wouldn’t have believed them but improving requires acceptance. Acceptance is not the same as allowing yourself to do nothing about a problem. A leaking pipe doesn’t fix itself with acceptance. It is fixed with action. Failure to act results 100% of the time in that pipe either bursting or drying up. Any success I have had in improving is down to owning that action. Nobody else can.
Within 2 months I had built up an understanding of my illness and a desire to beat it. 6 weeks after initially seeing the GP and only 4 weeks after I stopped crying every day I wrote this. The hypothetical advice I would offer a friend or anyone concerned they may be suffering….
GO AND SEE YOUR GP. It will be private, non-judgemental and the single most useful thing you can do. Not of any of the specific outputs or actions necessarily from that appointment but the mindset you will be in to deal with things afterwards. Knowing and accepting you have a problem is absolutely paramount. Problems get fixed.
You are not alone. This happens to millions of people. It almost certainly has happened to someone close to you before without you being aware.
“It’s ok to not be ok” is a fairly unhelpful statement, it promotes inaction. Of course it is ok to not be ok, but that alone will not change anything; “You don’t have to talk to everybody but you do need to talk to somebody” is a far more powerful mantra. Just a shame it’s not as snazzy as a hashtag for people to latch on to.
Identify your core team, who are the most trusted and loved people in your life. This will almost certainly not be the people you spend a lot of time with socially down the pub or when you think you are “at your best” it will be a handful of people that you know would lie down in traffic for you. Tell them you have a problem and will need their help to get better.
Medication and therapy help, particularly in the short term so don’t be afraid of trying them or new things but beyond that, you need to work out a process that is effective long term. Not to say either of those things cannot be part of that armoury but pills and therapy alone may not be enough. The more strings you have to this bow the less reliant you will be on any one thing. Create a tapestry, not a noose!
With your therapist and your core team (not necessarily all of them but certainly one) know you will have to be totally honest, about everything, the worst very parts of you. This is absolutely terrifying. It doesn’t even have to be immediately, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that you can begin to get better until you get everything on the table all the hardest, deepest fears, most shameful things. All of it. If that means you lose relationships then you have to cop that, be brave. People do love you and they can forgive you. Continuing those relationships without that honesty is unsustainable, pointless and inauthentic. You will be trying to preserve something that isn’t real and cause more pain down the line. Step up and go there, with it all. When you are ready but do not talk yourself out of doing it.
Not being ready to go there with it all on day one isn’t a reason to not seek help and start the process. Know that you will have to at one point though. Don’t fight it.
Get a good night’s sleep.
Don’t lose your shit if you don’t get a good night’s sleep.
Routine and goals are important. Probably more so for the type of people that don’t like to make goals or set routine as they are too rigid. Just 3 things you want to do/achieve today. Let your captain/team hold you to account on this.
Quit drinking, even for a short period. Using it as Dutch courage to open up isn’t a good enough answer. It’s the same as not being totally honest. You need to be prepared to go over the top when that whistle blows without anything else giving you a step up. It will also amplify the negative voices and allow the depression to talk you out of the small things you know that are good for you.
Remember the wins. Writing helps for me, knowing there are and will continue to be shit days doesn’t have the same world-ending dread when you have an account of other awful ones you have got through and equally a way of identifying and remembering the good days you have.
Keep a diary, reread it regularly. You will be surprised how far you have come, even relatively quickly.
Try and win your week. 3 shit days is fucking awful but if the other 4 aren’t then you are up for the week. Take that positive.
Identify a list of things that make you happy.
Identify a list of things that help you.
Shop from both these lists regularly. It helps. MOOD FOLLOWS ACTION. Depressive thoughts are fucking stubborn, just thinking positively is not enough to beat them. For me writing, exercising and therapy are the method. The list of things that make me happy is the ingredients. If you have days without either you will 100% slip.
This is going to be fucking hard. Hardest thing you have ever done. Accept that. Taking action is also fucking hard. Pretending everything’s ok is easy and is what got me here, as is complaining or wallowing. Suck it up and go with the hard route there is no other path.
Accept that you need to enjoy process rather than outcome. This could well take the rest of your life to keep in check. Nothing good is ever made overnight. Learn to love the art of rebuilding yourself more than your perceived, utopian finished article.
Identify your triggers/red flags. Share them with your team. If you can’t feel yourself slipping others will. Trust them and take action, particularly when you don’t want to. Short term fixes like calling a friend, listening to a song, cooking something or whatever works for you. Get out of that lull even for 5 mins and you can still turn that bad day into a good one.
Because all this works for me, doesn’t mean it will work for you. Try it then rule it out. Not trying something because you don’t think it will work is fucking moronic. If it doesn’t you are in no worse place.
You don’t need to feel good to get started on something but you do need to get started on something to feel good.
Put new photos up around the house. Good to have a mini project but also good to have constant triggers to make you smile.
Want to do this, whatever it takes. Unless you are prepared to jump in and get wet. Don’t bother.
I didn’t want to include those bullet points, I still might take them out. Last thing I want is to appear up on my soapbox preaching about how I have solved depression or the ease with which it can be diluted. I haven’t and any dilution realised has been hard work. I still have plenty of bad days and know I will continue to have many more. I am in no way qualified to offer any guidance to anyone on how they start to recover. I regularly fail to follow my own advice, turn my nose up at the things that I know help me and far too regularly question whether I have actually made any progress at all but it was a start. It is a combination of things that work for me and something I can fall back on when I need to refocus my efforts. Above all I would like to think it offers hope. A catalyst that was sorely missing for me when I was at my worst.
Acceptance is not the same as allowing yourself to do nothing about a problem.
For anyone wondering how best to support a loved one that may be in a similar position to the one I was in here is something that really resonated with me (apologies I cannot remember who initially wrote it); If depression feels like sitting alone in a dark room, then even the best intentions of those offering help is the equivalent of opening the door to that room and showing you how light it is outside if only you would just come with them. Only problem is sometimes you don’t need to be shown it is light out there, just knowing that they are ok to come and sit in the dark with you can be way more powerful.
I cannot begin to imagine how difficult I have been to be around, before and since that meeting with the GP. If you are reading this and figuring out how you can help someone close to you struggling with depression I can’t offer any solution. I would say that it is almost certainly not something you have caused, it is likely to be a vast combination of events, behaviours and coping mechanisms embedded and rotted over time that have got them into this position. The fact you are reading this and care enough to still be there at this stage is beyond anything I could say. Support, non-judgemental presence and instilling accountability, flexibility, holding me when I needed it, pushing me when I wasn’t doing the things I had committed to and love is getting me through this. A team effort in restoring a better version of me than the impostor that has hijacked my life recently. Not a reinvention or becoming someone new. Just back to being me.
Little over 5 months after my first diary entry (and about 25,000 words later) I wrote this a few weeks back…
I feel like I want to see people, talk, socialise, be present. All the things that when at my worst I would find excuses not to do. As I write this the sun is shining, my Wife and Son are playing in the garden with our dog, we have haircuts booked in this afternoon, test cricket is back and I am feeling fucking happy. Life is sweet. Really happy. It is awesome.
There have been and will continue to be slip-ups, low moments, embarrassment, shame, guilt, self-discovery and impossibly hard conversations. I am still not brave enough to tell anyone beyond the 6 people I initially confided in that I have depression, nor put my actual name to this piece knowing it could be shared publicly. I have a huge task ahead of me but I am now positive knowing It can improve. It will improve. Feeling alive again, pride, excited about the future, laughing, being silly, playing, caring, trying, turning up, feeling loved, feeling in love. All those things are now my new colours and flavours. It is utterly beautiful.