How depression has affected me
University age crisis
During my last year of undergraduate studies, I was applying for jobs in a highly specialised field and had the unfortunate experience of being rejected from all of them. I didn’t know what to do with myself and I started obsessing over my career. I guess I went through that sort of university-age crisis that lots of people go through when you don’t know where you’re going to go; you’re not sure what kind of life you want to have; you don’t know if you’re doing the right thing.
No one understood
My friends and family tried to be supportive, but in the end it was too much for them to deal with. Their frustration with me certainly did not have a therapeutic effect, to say the least! I couldn’t seem to make them understand that it wasn’t just about getting rejected for jobs, but that my fundamental self-worth had crumbled out from under me.
Everything was a sign of failure
I have heard people say that when one is depressed nothing matters, but for me it was the opposite – everything mattered and was a sure sign of my impending failure not just as a student, but as a human being. I was a mess. I got so emotional, like every little thing mattered. Nobody could say anything to me – I’d just suddenly start crying. Or I would get violently angry, then cry and talk about how worthless I felt. The crying lasted hours and left me exhausted.
My boyfriend got scared
My boyfriend at first tried everything he knew to comfort me. But eventually he started getting really scared. He said after a while, during these outbursts, I started looking completely vacant and scary, with no emotion in my eyes. He was really worried that I was ready to jump off a bridge. There were times I thought maybe I was – I wasn’t sure.
Troubling intrusive thoughts
I used to get dreadful mental images of gruesome self-harm – not suicide, just self-inflicted pain, like stabbing my eye. Whenever something unexpectedly triggered my emotions I would get these horrible images, just like a flash. This again felt like something wrong with me – I would think, “Only crazy people have thoughts like this!” Because I couldn’t control the thoughts, I was petrified that they meant that I might suddenly become a danger to myself or other people.
I don’t think I ever had serious intentions of committing suicide, but my attitude toward self-harm and suicide definitely changed. Suddenly I could understand how a reasonable person might take such an action. Interestingly enough, I think in part anyway that my low self-esteem helped me stay away from that path. There was already so much wrong with me in my own mind, the last thing I wanted to do was add ‘extraordinarily self-centred’ to the list by doing something like hurting myself.
At its worst, it was like I had mentally and emotionally given up, even though I never stopped making job applications and looking for alternatives. I felt like I was suffocating, claustrophobic, like the walls of my room were caving in on me. I was really down on myself and depressed.
Not wanting others to know
At the same time, I didn’t really want anybody to know that I was feeling like this – it was just too personal. My brother and my boyfriend kept encouraging me to go and talk to people about it, but I couldn’t do that. I was afraid that if I went to talk to my academic advisors I would break down and I didn’t want them to see me crying about it, so that just wasn’t an option.
Every time someone said, “Oh just cheer up, it’ll get better!” I wanted to smack them. My brother tried the ‘tough love’ method, telling me that my life wasn’t over and what was happening wasn’t my fault. I tried to explain that rationally I agreed with him, but it didn’t matter because I couldn’t help the feelings I had.
I guess I was already quite low before I had the rejection for all these jobs. It probably started around my third year (in Canada we do four-year degrees). Life was very monotonous. I did the same old things – went to class during the week; had the same job I’d had for years which I no longer enjoyed; and had the same group of friends, doing the same old things every weekend. Nothing really bad, but I just sort of noticed that I wasn’t having as much fun as I used to. I interpreted it as I wasn’t as much fun as I used to be. I felt bored and sort of pointless.
Something wrong with me
It got to the point where I really had to talk myself into going out with my friends at night. I didn’t enjoy it any more. I hated being in these big loud crowds. All they did was drink. I thought that was what university was all about, so I should be enjoying it. I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t.
Then in the final year I started getting these job rejections. As I watched my friends and boyfriend getting accepted into good jobs or postgraduate programmes with full scholarships, I began to feel really inferior to them. These comparisons destroyed what was left of my fragile ego and sent me into a tailspin.
My parents started pushing for me to go and see a counsellor, and I went about three times. It felt like all she did was regurgitate the same obvious things my friends told me, that hadn’t helped. I also admit I was prejudiced. I’d already told myself it wasn’t going to help. It was a bit of an intellectual exercise for me – I just wasn’t willing to open up to her about anything. I guess I wouldn’t discourage people from going to see somebody, but give it a little while. Give it longer than I did.
I think if the counsellor hadn’t suggested trying medication right at the start, I would have trusted her a lot more. That was a big turn off for me. I have a couple of friends who’ve gone on various psychotropic drugs, without much obvious benefit, and I didn’t see it as something for me.
What did help
What did help was my boyfriend saying, “You know what? You’re right. It really sucks this situation you’re in. You’re smart, you’re charismatic and you deserve a lot better than what’s happened to you this year. You are handling this with much more grace than I probably would and I respect you for being as strong as you’ve been.” This understanding and recognition meant a lot.
Making an effort
It made me feel better that the huge effort I was making to be personable and ‘sane’ in public was appreciated. He recognised that I wasn’t being entirely selfish and was trying to be healthy for my friends and family around me, trying to live a normal life.
I needed to fill every minute of my day with something to do and didn’t like being alone in my room. On days when it was particularly bad, I would drive to the beach or to another town for lunch or something. It was very helpful to just not be in the same place sometimes – a good temporary fix.
Looking for options
Another ritual which did actually help and soothe me was spending a couple of hours every day on the internet looking for alternatives for the future. I just made lists and lists of the options. It really helped me to know that even though I had messed up in the present, moves and other options were possible for the future. I wasn’t stuck forever.
Realising it was up to me
Although I did feel abandoned by my friend and family when they became frustrated that their advice wasn’t helping, it did mean that I finally took to heart something my boyfriend had said – that it was really up to me. At first, I thought that even if I couldn’t fix myself, I could just cope until something miraculously happened. I just focused on each day at a time.
Taking small steps
The first step was the most difficult, but once I accepted that I would just have to trust myself, I was able to take a small action. This small action helped me gain confidence in my ability to heal, which in turn led me to take more actions, and so on. Initially it was a positive step just to recognise that there was a problem, and to start to build up determination that I was going to somehow find a way to deal with it.
Letting feelings out
Sometimes, when I had a couple of hours where I didn’t have anything to do, my feelings would build up. I would get really tense, jittery and upset. When this happened, I willed myself to let it all out. I’d cry for an hour or two, and once I was finished I was somehow more okay with being alone with nothing to do. I did lots of reading on those nights – good light-hearted fiction for escape. It worked quite well.
Going to see an academic advisor
I used that technique of forcing my feelings out to make it possible to finally go and see my academic advisor. I concentrated all morning on getting my emotions in check so I wouldn’t break down when I went to talk to her. I sort of let all my barriers down alone in my room, cried and cried and kicked my pillow, until I was too exhausted to feel anything and then I felt ready to go. She was very honest with me and helped me look at the practical options, which included coming to the UK for a postgraduate course. It really helped, but it certainly felt like a huge effort to do it.
Some of the small steps were just about letting time fix me. I held out until graduation, and that was a milestone. I’d done something right, at least – I’d got through university, and I’d done well, even though I still had no job to go to and still didn’t feel very good about myself.
Change of environment
I started to get better over the summer when I went to stay with my aunt, who is a really positive person in my life. I still felt like crap about the fact that I felt I had wasted my education, but I noticed things were a bit better because the violent images started going away. I still felt very, very inferior, but it didn’t feel dangerous any more because I was removed from that situation where it was all about competitive academics. I was in a place where that wasn’t everything any more.
Better social interactions
I still had trouble feeling bad about myself, but it wasn’t crippling depression any more. I could interact with people and have a good time. This helped me recognise that there was nothing really wrong with me socially, as I had previously thought. I learned a lot about myself, that maybe I was just a ‘homebody’ rather than someone who liked big stupid parties – and that was okay.
Being true to myself
The real clincher in how I got better was the move to the UK. It gave me a clean slate, and I could just learn how to be myself. I felt really intellectually stimulated and started to get my confidence back academically. I also made friends so easily, just talking to others on my course and starting to feel more on an equal footing with others, even though we are from very diverse backgrounds. I am now so much more comfortable with myself.
What I’ve learnt
Comparisons aren’t helpful
I realise more and more that this habit of comparing myself to other people thing was the root of a lot of my problems. I wish I had good advice to help people who can’t stop comparing themselves to other people, because it’s awful and gives you so many more problems that it’s worth.
Different things work for different people
Likewise, what worked for me in shifting my depression won’t necessarily work for someone else. I had to force myself to spend time on my own to realise that I wasn’t really a ‘big crowd’ person. Someone else might need to work on being more sociable.
Ironically, now that I’m happier and more confident with myself, I really want to go back to my old university town to settle. It was so difficult to be there when I felt so low and inferior, but now I feel drawn to making a home there. I’ve come a long way.
We are stronger than we think we are
For me, getting on top of depression is about learning that you are stronger than you think you are. You probably can’t do it quickly, and may not be able to do it alone, but it can be done.