05 August, 2011


Although I have never been diagnosed, I’ve been certain for years that I have some kind of depressive condition.  The reasons I’ve never sought a diagnosis, or “got help” as so many glibly say as if it means anything useful, are several.  Part of the reason is that getting help for depression is a bit like washing your summer clothes; the best time to do it is the best time not to do it.  The best day to do some washing is when it’s warm and sunny, which is when you’d rather be wearing your summer clothes than washing them.  When you’re not wearing your summer gear, it’s not such a good washing day and what do you need it for anyway?  Depression effects different people in different ways.  When I’m in a down phase, I just want to hide and the last thing I want to do is be a burden to anyone or have people fussing over me.  In fact, when I’m on a downer, it actually annoys me when people try to help me in any way.  And when I’m not on a downer, then why would I go to a doctor to say, “I’m feeling good now, but I’ve been depressed in the past,” - especially when there will be people in the waiting room with more immediate, more definable ailments?

The other reason I’ve never sought medical intervention is the old guy-thing of possibly not wanting to know the answer.  I’ve no idea what level my condition is - or if I even have one at all - but I have seen people who I know are on anti-depressants and they are so messed up by the medication that it prompted me to say to my dearest, “Whatever happens, please don’t let them do that to me.”  Having said that, I also know people who say their medication has been the best thing that ever happened to them.  But everyone’s experiences are different. 

Another thing I don’t want to do is look like I’m using depression as an excuse for anything.  While I fully accept that there are hidden diseases like Asperger’s or chronic fatigue syndrome that are every bit as serious as conditions that are obvious, like a stroke or a missing limb, we have to be honest and recognise that some of these conditions are easier to imitate as well.  A few years ago, I taught a course where we had to interview all the enrollees to check that they were eligible and appropriate for the course.  There was one who said right at the beginning, “You might have some trouble with me because I’ve got depression.”  I don’t doubt for a moment that she had the condition and I may be doing her a grave injustice here, but to announce that in your opening statement suggests to me that she might have been using it as a bit of an excuse.  Again, that may be an extremely unfair and unworthy observation, but what I know is that I don’t want to come across like that.  In a way, I’m a closet depressive.  I’m not ashamed or embarrassed.  I just don’t want people making allowances for it.  I don’t want it factored into the way people talk to me or deal with me.  I don’t want people being careful around me. 

So I haven’t been diagnosed, but I know how I feel.  I saw a documentary on depression once that talked about how to possibly identify it.  They suggested that if you think you might have depression then you probably do.  I don’t know if I believe that.  There are some people who read a medical book and catch the index - I sometimes feel that way with psychology.  However, when I hear people who have been diagnosed describe their conditions, depression is the one I can relate to the most, in the same way as I could when I first realised I needed glasses as a teenager.  Equally, I’m wary of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  At high school, I used to joke about being a manic depressive just because it seemed like a cool and artistic thing to be.  The Peanuts character I related to the most was Charlie Brown.  Neil was always my favourite of The Young Ones.  I think it’s an open question as to which of these is cause and which is effect.  For all that, it’s only in the last few years that I’ve begun to think it’s an actual condition, rather than just my personality or what’s going on around me.

While depression is something that must be recognised as a real and serious condition, it should also be recognised that depression can also be a perfectly natural and normal feeling depending on the circumstances. I’ve spent most of the last 25 years or so trying to work out which is which.  I have a friend who was recovering from a very serious operation and a marriage breakup at the same time and asked her doctor to give her something for the depression she was feeling at the time.  He refused.  His reply was, “You’ve had a brain tumour and your husband has just left you. Of course you’re depressed. I would be too.”  He was a smart doctor.  In a similar way, I always felt I had pretty good grounds for my depression in the past.  Whether it was loneliness, isolation, unemployment or a relationship breakup, I thought - and still think - that these were things worth being depressed about.  It wasn’t until a big crash in 2008 that I seriously began to wonder if my depression was some kind of condition rather than a natural and appropriate reaction to the world around me. 

At this time, life was good.  I had a good job which I enjoyed and I had the love of an amazing person.  The absence of these two things - especially the latter - was the most common cause of mood crashes before.  Although I wasn’t unhappy, I could barely lift my head when I didn’t have to.  Even my father began to notice.  This is significant because I usually try to hide how I’m feeling from those closest to me.  Actually, “hide” is the wrong word.  I want to spare them from it - I don’t want to drag them along.  It’s not a universal truth that misery loves company.  For me, it’s a measure of the crash when I don’t even have the energy to spare my parents from what’s happening.  And at that time, I really didn’t know what was happening because this time, there was not a good reason for it.  It actually came as something of a relief when I realised several weeks into it that I must be depressed. It went some way to explaining the lack of energy, the thoughts of death, the anxiety and panic attacks, and the return of a nervous twitch when I’m stressed.

I’m not entirely sure I’ve recovered from that phase.  For a couple of years prior to that, I was relatively content and although wonderful things have happened since, most of the time it feels like the monsters are still just around the corner.

I should explain that expression:
A lot of people describe depression by quoting Churchill’s description of it as the black dog.  I choose not to.  I like black dogs.  My description comes from the song by Something For Kate.  I have no idea if this is what Paul Dempsey was referring to when he wrote this song, but it describes perfectly what a depressive phase feels like to me:
And I don’t want to slide into apathy
And I don’t want to die in captivity
But these monsters follow me around
Hunting me down, try to wipe me out.
Yep.  That’s how it feels.

The final confirming source that leads me to now believe I have some kind of condition is the fact that I have spoken to others who have been diagnosed and they get it.  And they recognise that I get it when they speak about their experiences.  There’s no point in telling someone who is depressed that things are going to be alright.  That doesn’t compute in the place where they are.  Don’t try to cheer them up.  You may get them to crack a smile but it’s not going to last.  Don’t bother complimenting them.  They won’t believe you.  And don’t give us that RUOK-Day nonsense.  If you’re asking because of an awareness campaign, a depressed person will see through that in a second.  But do understand that they’re not rejecting your efforts; it’s just a symptom of the condition.  There have been times when I have said, in all seriousness, “Don’t lie!” when someone has said they missed me or was thinking about me.  It’s a terrible thing to say to someone showing me friendship.  As I’ve come to recognise my condition a bit more, I’ve been able to manage it just a little bit better.

What follows should not in any way be considered advice.  It’s simply a description of my own experiences.

I am incredibly lucky to live with someone who understands and who I don’t have to hide my madness from.  I knew she was the one when, on a visit in 2009, I had a complete emotional meltdown, and she didn’t miss a beat.  Actually, I knew she was the one before that, but this helped confirm it.  Even so, I tell her not to indulge me too much.  I don’t hide things from her because she deserves to know the worst of me.  Beyond that, I can be a good actor.  A lot of people are under the impression that I’m a pretty smiley, happy person.  It wouldn’t help anyone, including me, for them to know what can go on in my head.  Despite the aversion to medication I mentioned earlier, I am in no way against anti-depressants, properly used.  However, treatment for any physical ailment includes exercise.  In a way, I’ve had to practise putting on a front for people who wouldn’t understand.  I don’t know if that has made things better or worse for myself.  While I would love it if more people understood, it wouldn’t help things if I were indulged to the point of not having to try to be... well... I hate to use this word, but... normal.  The fact that I have survived without any diagnosis or treatment might suggest I’m overstating my depression.  I allow for the possibility that I might be.  Truthfully though, I’ve survived because I didn’t know what else to do.

As wonderful and understanding as my dearest is, it’s frustrating for her too.  I really can talk to her about how I’m feeling – which is to say that I have the opportunity to, but even then, sometimes I can’t.  There are times when the thoughts are going through my head so fast that it’s impossible to describe them.  Then there are times when I want to shake those thoughts and talking about them would only keep them in there.  This can sometimes lead her to think that I’m not talking to her, but if I don’t tell her what’s going on in my mind, it’s because I can’t.  Not in the same way that I can’t talk to my parents about it, but in the way that it’s impossible to put it into coherent sentences and if I could, it would only make the monsters stronger.  Sometimes though, it doesn’t even get that far.  Sometimes, I’ll be curled up in a weeping mess, feeling all the sadness of the world and the only honest answer I can give to the question of what’s wrong is, “I don’t know.”

I had been planning to write this piece for a couple of years now.  Like the getting help or the summer laundry, it was all a question of getting the timing just right.  Talking about depression runs the risk of feeding it.  So does talking about happiness in my case.  When I was feeling well, I chose not to write about depression because it might trigger some for me.  When I’ve been in the darkest depths, I wouldn’t do anything so self indulgent.  Today seemed the right day.  I had a mood-swing last night.  I’m a bit better today, but I think it’s going to take a couple more days to dig myself out of it.  Since I’m mostly functional, it seemed like a good time to write.

My only reason in writing this is to try and explain from one person’s point of view, how depression feels.  I don’t speak for anyone else.  I have no advice to offer.  This is usually the part where you’re supposed to post links to places that can help.  Since I’ve never availed myself of such services, I’m in no position to comment, although I’m sure they do wonderful work.  What I can do is recommend a couple of excellent posts by Mike Stuchbery and Ben Pobjie describing their experiences.

Hold it in your head.


  1. Feel your pain! All sounds very familiar, very similar thought processes on the medications. What are the exercises that we can go through? My better half is on Lexapro and it works wonders for her, found out about it from her sis.
    Cheers from Indiana in California

  2. Thank you Bill. All I can offer in response is a snapshot of my journey.

    I went through the "I'm just jumping on a bandwagon"; "It is just an excuse for not performing"; "I just need to smile more and look on the bright side"; "others have it tougher than me"; etc. Some time ago, my brother described what he was going through and I thought, "that sounds a lot like me". 3 years later, after tumbling through the cycle again, which threatened to derail my family and my career, I took action. I checked out onsite resources and made sure I did all I could reasonably do myself. I then went to my GP and, without using the "D" word, described my feelings and behaviour. We went through the next available options and selected counselling.

    For me, it was very effective. It has been three years and I can say that the resilience I have acquired means I can respond to the cycle in ways I never could before. I see the world through different eyes.

    That being said, there is no one treatment that addresses everyone's needs.

    All the best in you journey.

  3. Anthony,
    Thank you. It's good to know you went through the "is it or isn't it?" questions too. I've received a bit of feedback today, most of it along the lines of, "Yeah, that's me," which is pretty similar to how I've felt reading others' experiences.

    That's an excellent idea to discuss only the feelings without using the word. It must be very frustrating for GPs in the age of easy access to information having patients coming in looking for confirmation of a self-diagnosis.

    I am in no position to give any advice. What I meant by exercise is that you can't lose weight just by pills and I'm hypothesising that perhaps the mind need to be exercised in trying to adjust rather than just being medicated. I came to that wild guess from my experiences in having to "act normal" to avoid having to explain myself but I must stress that I am only describing my own experiences. I make no comment on anyone else's and nothing I've said here should be taken as advice.

  4. That's the most person thing I've ever seen you write.

    Most people respond to things like this by telling their own story. So I'll say that what I know about depression can be written on a post-it note.

    But you've exposed one of the profound differences between women and men. Women do laundry before they want to wear something.

  5. "But you've exposed one of the profound differences between women and men. Women do laundry before they want to wear something."

    Good point!

    It's worth mentioning that things like confidence are as mysterious to some of us as depression is to others.