How depression has affected me
Bullying and father’s breakdown
The main factors influencing this were my relationship with my dad, whose behaviour was heavily influenced by his own breakdown and depression, and alienation at school where I was bullied and set apart from the other kids.
I had begun routinely self-harming as a way of coping, although my reasons for doing this are hard to identify now. Probably a mix of the usual motivations – a need for control, a way of punishing myself and others, a way of asking for help.
I was too young to have a strong identity to fall back on, and so became dependent on a victim mentality that it took years to overcome. I had no notion of the idea that I had the strength to build myself up, and looked for the answers in other people, always looking for someone to fix me.
Traumatic time in hospital
Although I obviously had enough problems originally to cause me to end up in hospital, I believe that my time spent there was at least equally traumatic. While I am aware that many sufferers of depression are helped by psychiatric intervention, the specific circumstances of my stay there, combined with my personality and way of thinking, left me with a new set of demons.
Staff changes and unstable management
While I was there the management of the unit in general, as well as my specific handling, was unstable to say the least. Over the course of two months I was passed between three different psychiatrists.
Misunderstood and misrepresented
My communication was sporadic and often misunderstood and misrepresented to other members of staff. The apparent difficulties I had with my dad were construed as allegations of abuse, and social services became involved.
I didn’t really know where to turn, as while my parents were constantly blaming me for what I said or wrote while in hospital, I reacted by becoming almost completely silent which meant the nurses and psychiatrists found it very hard to understand me, and ended up having divided opinions as to whether I was psychotic, or just manipulating everyone into believing I was sick.
Left without help
Consequently I didn’t get the help I needed, and was discharged two months later into a newly divided family, still in a mentally fragile state. The miscommunications that happened while I was in hospital destroyed my family life, and it took a long time before it started to heal so I kept my problems hidden.
Read hospital notes
Although I had some awareness of what was going on when I was in hospital, it wasn’t until I was discharged, supposedly safe, that I became fully informed. Following on from the suspicions I had been given by the snippets of information that were leaked to me, I requested my medical notes and when they were granted to me I tortured myself for a few days by reading through the considerable stack.
I couldn’t recognise myself in what had been written; I felt so betrayed. I hadn’t been easy to read, and as a result I was given endless condemnation as to my intentions. A twelve year old who plans to kill herself does not have ulterior motives. Nobody orchestrates a breakdown because she ‘likes being sad’ and ‘likes being in hospital’, especially not as a child.
I had always been exceptionally sensitive, and the people called upon to treat me didn’t seem to have the sensitivity to understand me. In addition to this, I had formed a strong attachment to my first psychiatrist who had always assured me in person that he believed me and took me seriously, and the realization afterwards that he had been saying the opposite to my family and to other staff devastated me.
Lost all faith in support available
I re-entered school and the pretence of normality, still depressed, but having lost all my trust in the support available to me.
My family dynamic had been strange for a long time – as I was growing up my dad suffered a mental breakdown which was never properly explained to me. When I came home from an after school club to find my dad lying rigid on the floor, it was conveyed to me as a bad back…
Anger and outbursts
There were outbursts of anger, triggered by telephone calls from his work, and he would often shout and swear, break things and throw them about. He started to lock himself up in the attic for hours or days at a time, and I would go to sleep ever conscious of footsteps and sounds from above, which had already begun to symbolise a threat to me.
Learnt to be cautious
The outbursts continued after he had left her job, triggered by various factors – mess, noise, something on the computer not working, what he perceived as someone looking at him the wrong way… At first these were usually unspecific bursts of frustration and anger, although I learnt to be quiet and cautious around him always.
As I grew older I started to resent him for making me afraid of him, for making my mum cry, for having us all revolve around her. He picked up on my anger towards him and the outbursts became more targeted. He began to be quite emotionally abusive towards me, and I got used to being criticised and sworn at.
Just before I completely lost control, we went on holiday to see my dad’s family in Turkey for a month, and for that time it seemed that there was no escape. At that point it was just too much for me, and after we returned home, it wasn’t long before I just felt that everything was unbearable.
Secrecy and lack of explanation
Although my dad’s anger and threatening behaviour had a great effect on me, what made it so much worse was the air of secrecy that it was surrounded by. Although I caught occasional parts of conversations and scenes that lead me to associate him with the word ‘sick’, no one ever explained what was wrong with him…
…so I came to internalise a lot of the anger he directed at us. After one of the episodes, everyone would soon pretend that everything was as normal, and it felt like I was expected to just get on with things as if nothing was wrong.
Denial of any problem
When I was referred to a psychiatrist after my school picked up on my difficulties my parents seemed completely shocked, and anything I said in hospital that pointed in an accusatory way towards my dad caused great divides within my family. I was accused of being selfish and making things up for attention, and I felt like I was being punished for trying to tell the truth.
Abandoned and alone
My mum must have been in a horrible position of being in the middle of me and my dad, and trying to keep everyone together, but at this crucial time she never admitted the scale of the problems at home, and so I felt abandoned and alone, and even demonised.
Never again got sustained professional help
In the time since my experience in hospital I never again had sustained medical assistance – occasionally I weakened in my resolve and saw a counsellor a couple of times, but this never lasted long, as I never felt that I gained any particular benefit from doing this.
Support from an adult friend
After I left hospital I got support from an adult friend, my old flute teacher, who put in a lot of time with me. While this didn’t help me get any better on its own, it kept me afloat while I gradually began to heal myself. This took a very long time, and while on the outside it seemed like I was getting on with things I was really just getting through.
It wasn’t until I was about sixteen and started to get more independence that the way I felt on the inside began to change, and at eighteen when I took a gap year and learned to speak Spanish, whilst doing paid work at the same time, I was the happiest I’d ever been.
Greater independence and sense of identity
This was due partly to my new environment, where I was treated as an adult, allowed to make my own decisions and have a certain amount of freedom.
Stronger identity and more resilience
It was also due to the way my mind had developed – whereas in my childhood I had a very weak sense of identity that was constantly undermined by external factors, at this point I had a very strong idea of who I was, and had learnt to be much more resilient.
Seeing the illness as separate from me
Although I still struggle to some degree with depression, especially in winter, the major difference is that I am in myself a happy person, and no longer see myself as synonymous with my illness. I try to see myself as a person who sometimes is depressed, rather than as someone who is essentially sick and broken inside.
This makes me feel a lot more able to deal with it when I lose some of my other capabilities to inherent feelings of misery and gloom. Taking control was what made the huge difference to me, as it helped prove to myself that I had a lot of things in my life that had nothing to do with the way I felt sometimes.
Combining self-discipline with self-compassion
The way I’ve learnt to deal with depression when I’m in a particularly bad period is by a combination of discipline and self-compassion. I try always to push myself rather than just giving in to the way I’m feeling, although the degree to which I can do this depends on the level of my current depression.
Building up from small goals
By seeing things even as small as going for a run when all I want to do was stay in bed, or even just washing my hair as victories, I feel like I’m in control, not my illness. I have set myself goals like not self-harming for a year, and achieved them.
Knowing when to give myself a break
At times I can be quite hard on myself in my attempts to be self-disciplined, but at other times what helps is to give myself a break, and let myself know that it’s okay not to be perfect all of the time.
Self as greatest source of support
All of this helps build up the idea that I have the inherent power to stay in control, rather than being helpless and throwing myself at the mercy of doctors and counsellors – it has built up my awareness of myself as my greatest source of support.
Creative outlets for feelings
I’ve always been committed to writing, so a lot of the time this is how I harness feelings that could otherwise become destructive. Sometimes through writing a diary, other times by writing poetry, if I saw these negative feelings as inspiration, they became less of a threat, even a positive as I used them to create things that I could see as beautiful. This helps me work through destructive feelings naturally and to resolve them without letting them gain unnecessary control.
For me, taking part in martial arts has helped for a number of reasons: a physical release, a goal, and access into a group that becomes like a second family.
Building self-respect through self-care
Finally, I try to respect myself. This began in action rather than an inner conviction, and through this became something I actually believed in. Initially I made myself physically take care of myself, and keep myself safe, and this grew into an awareness that I was actually worth taking care of.
What I’ve learnt
See depression as separate from who you are
I think it’s always important to focus on what you care about or what you’re working towards rather than seeing depression as your whole life, even though it can often feel like it. The way you feel about yourself when you’re depressed is not a true picture, so it’s important to be conscious that your self and your depression-influenced self-perception are two separate things.
Learn to treat yourself with respect
The problem with depression is the way it tends to erode your self worth, so you often feel like you’re not worth fighting for, or that you don’t have the strength. This is never true. At first it will be a battle to change the way you treat yourself, but by trying to respect yourself in your actions, you will find that it becomes something you actually have conviction in.
Build a strong identity
The greatest tool we have against depression is a strong identity which we see as worth fighting for, and if we can develop this, it is harder and harder for an illness to take control by destroying our self-esteem and replacing our understanding of ourselves with pathology.
Your greatest source of support is yourself
Although I have not personally had good experiences I would never discourage somebody from seeking help, but it’s important to remember that none of these people are able to fix you; they can only offer you tools with which you can help yourself. Ultimately it is you that has the inherent power to overturn your situation. Until you accept this, I don’t think that outside help can actually make that much of a difference, because you become reliant on the person rather than benefiting in the long term from their support.
But support networks are also very important
When you are younger it can be hard to find people who understand, as peers often haven’t had the experience to relate to your point of view, and you can find that you have outgrown in some ways the people around you, and are therefore quite isolated. But at this age, I can guarantee that there are good people out there who you can get to know and who can provide a certain measure of friendship and support.
Being at university is an amazing way to break out of the former patterns of relationships you were in, and actually meet likeminded people, who you can talk to and who actually hear what you’re saying.
This in itself can be invaluable.