Probably worse than running out of milk when you live on a farm is running out of the chemicals your brain produces to cope with stress. Worse than depleted water tanks is depleted resilience.
Last month I had what they would have once called ‘a nervous breakdown’.
In an era unwilling to openly discuss mental illness, that was the term used to cover a variety of mental disorders. It has since been stamped out.
But have we really moved past that era?
I’ve always shared happy days and good moods, celebrated our successes and joys. Sometimes I’ve turned a failure or bad day into a learning experience and shared that.
But today I want to share a different story. I don’t want to lock it away and consider it wrong, unpleasant or shameful.
For me, it started with being a bit sad. There was a casserole night in town for the netball club and Maeve and Elsie wanted to go.
‘I don’t want to go,’ I told them as they got in the car watching others arrive with their casseroles. ‘I’m too sad.’
‘Why, Mum? Why are you sad?’
‘I don’t know.’ I looked back at their concerned faces in the backseat. ‘I’m okay. I have no reason to be sad,’ I reassured them with the weakest of smiles.
That’s the thing—I couldn’t explain my sadness. Even less so to our girls aged 9 and 7. Children know sadness as circumstantial. They know it to pass. I’d known that too. I couldn’t tell them that I’d felt sad all week. And not only was I unable to explain my sadness, I was unable to get away from it.
I couldn’t wait to get into bed at the same time as the girls each day that week, to dodge my life and escape my mind. Over that weekend, I realised that my reactions were out of proportion to the normal life stresses. I wasn’t coping. I was spiralling helplessly down a familiar plughole, down, down, and down into the sewer of depression.
I knew because I experienced it when I was pregnant with Maeve. With two miscarriages, a delivery at 18-weeks gestation and another at 24-weeks, I only knew pregnancies to end early and assumed the same would happen. A psychiatrist told me that I had post-traumatic stress disorder and was so anxious it was giving me the symptoms of depression.
He gave me antidepressants and I lay in bed for weeks wondering how I could have had everything I ever wanted and still not be happy. The antidepressants worked after three weeks and finally I could imagine a future. When Maeve was born at full-term, I knew my smile was genuine and I stopped taking any medication.
Fast forward seven years to last month.
I’m not pregnant.
But I knew that weekend where my mind was headed so I made an appointment with our GP and one with that same psychiatrist for the following day.
Once again, I got a prescription filled for antidepressants and went to bed for two weeks. But it wasn’t sadness anymore. Sadness involves crying and feeling. Depression is the feeling of complete numbness. The absence of all emotions and senses. It’s feeling nothing at all. Depression robs you of the ability to see that you will ever be happy again and leaves you not wanting to be alive any more.
It’s the reverse of a nightmare; you wake up into it. And there is nothing to say to anyone. It’s impossible to answer the question ‘What’s wrong?’ when you can think of nothing that’s right. There is only silence and your own unbearable presence and the questions you’re asking yourself about how you will live. Why you should go on.
There’s a desperate yearning to change the emptiness. You think of things you could do that would make you feel something, anything, rather than nothing.
I am pleased to report that the antidepressants started working after three weeks. Not only am I upright and feeling better, but another week or two on and I’m feeling good. I’m back.
Once again I have the ability to find pleasure in the present and hope for the future. I missed that. I feel like my resilience is restored, like water tanks after a rain, so that I can again enjoy life and cope with the normal stresses it brings.
I can rub my child’s back and mean it.
I’m sharing my story to inspire you to consider your own mental health. Most of us would comfortably talk about physical fitness and would seek help to get fit if we needed it, or we’d speak with a GP about a medical condition that concerned us, but many people have difficulty seeking help for their mind and emotions. Why is mental health taboo for so many people when it is such an important aspect of our overall health, wellbeing and total fitness? If your mood is interfering with your personal, social and work lives; if you’re fighting to go to work, take care of your family or act ’normal’ because you’re battling unimaginable pain, I urge you to be honest, ask for help and take it. There are effective solutions available.
I’m also sharing my story so that you’ll investigate your own feelings about mental illness. There is no shame in having a disease like cancer, or a disorder like cystic fibrosis. Nor is there any judgement around them. Mental illness is exactly the same. There is no shame in having a mental illness. Nor should there be any judgement around it. I don’t wish depression on anyone. But I’m sure that if people knew how it felt, there wouldn’t be the stigma (the mark of disgrace that sets a person apart from others) attached. I hope that my story has helped you to understand the reality, pain and complexity of depression. Let’s work together to get rid of the stigma. Let’s raise awareness of what depression is like so that we can understand and support those around us, the same as we would if they were unwell with any other illness.
Finally, I’m sharing my story to inspire you to ask those around you if they’re okay. Since one in four adults experience a mental health condition in any year, it is highly likely that we all know someone who has or is experiencing mental illness. By reaching out, you may just save a life.