How depression has affected me
On the wrong course
At the age of 19, whilst pursuing an undergraduate degree in Politics, I suffered a severe bout of depression that was largely due to a period in my late teens of low self-esteem and poor family relations. The illness resulted in me making the decision to leave university and retake my science A-levels in order to do what I had always really wanted to do…
When it started to go wrong
Although I’d had a difficult family life, on the whole I look back on my childhood as a very happy one. However, around the time of my GCSEs and into sixth form I began to lose confidence in myself and became increasingly unhappy.
Loss in status
In the atmosphere of the particular school I was at, the change in pressure from a situation where I was accepted as I did sport to suddenly being ‘bottom of the pile’ as I was not able to get loads of girls’ numbers on a night out and had not lost my virginity was extremely hard to adapt to.
No support network
The worst thing was that it felt like there was no way out and nobody to talk to. The supposed support network at the school was not interested, I had decided long before that I would never talk to my family about my problems and my ‘friends’ would have laughed and probably made up a new nickname for me.
I internalised everything and began to loath myself. I physically hated every part of my body and my personality; it was unbearable to look in a mirror. All these problems were amplified by the age I was at and the usual feelings any teenager has but without a vent for these emotions I just became more obsessed and more unhappy.
Taking criticism to heart
My reactions to the most offhand comments could be extreme. A chemistry teacher told me I would never even scrape a B in chemistry whilst at the same time a careers advisor told me I was not intelligent enough to take Engineering as a degree and I should do something I found easy. I believed these comments and others like them instantly because I hated myself so much and they were further proof of how pathetic and disgusting I was.
No self confidence
I eventually achieved average grades in my A-levels and went to university taking an undergraduate degree in something that I was good at but not passionate about. I went to the university with a group of my ‘friends’ from the school as I had no confidence to go out into the world on my own.
Perspective change at university
At university I met my first proper girlfriend and started to view the world in a different way. I did not like where my life had taken me and did not want to take a subject I was not passionate about. I could see the type of person I wanted to be but had no idea how to change the way I viewed myself or my life at that point and this increased my anxiety and self-loathing.
In my second year my relationship with my girlfriend broke down and I just gave up. Bottling up my emotions and carrying on was not working so I locked myself In my room and shut out the world. My sleep patterns were disordered I was surviving on junk food and watching film after film on my own.
Self harm and suicidal thoughts
I began to have thoughts of suicide, to stockpile drugs and to plan the best way to do it. Occasionally I would punch myself in the face, smash through the plaster board walls or go and stand in spots where I knew I could commit suicide. I never wanted to feel like this, I just wanted to be happy and liked but felt there was no way out and nobody to go to.
With hindsight the suicidal thoughts were never really serious but the very fact I was having them scared me even more. Eventually I plucked up the courage to see the GP and was told I would have to wait 3 months to see a professional. To somebody in my position they might have well have told me to go and jump off a bridge, 3 months felt like a lifetime. I never went to the university counseling services and had no idea they existed.
During this time not one of my ‘friends’ who I lived with asked, are you okay? Luckily after three months of not going to lectures and generally declining my ex-girlfriend told my dad what was happening and that she was worried about me.
I was fortunate because my dad instantly brought me home. I dropped out of my course at university and decided to re-take my A-levels this time in sciences and in a year so that I could apply to do Engineering.
My parents divorced when I was 4 years old. At the time and through my early years I did not feel it impacted on me a great deal. Looking back I believe it had more of an impact than I realised. My mum and dad failed to deal with the break up in a mature way, nothing was ever explained to myself or my other siblings as we were assumed to be too young to understand.
Children as pawns
They played out the divorce and its resulting issues such as money and their emotions in front of us and at times using us as pawns. In fact it is only relatively recently (approximately 20 years on) that they are able to stand in the same room together. Our feelings were never taken into account and I think we were all assumed to be fine.
Learnt to bottle up emotions
This led each of the children to react in their own individual way. My way of dealing with the confusing emotions was to keep them to myself as experience soon showed me that talking about them led to angry reactions from my parents. This was very much a coping strategy which I would continue into adult life. During this period in dealings with my parents I can remember often having feelings of shame and guilt at being an added burden on them.
Strict, bullying stepfather
After my parents’ divorce I lived with my mum and step father. My step father was quite an overbearing man who through his own upbringing felt children, especially boys, should be brought up strictly. He never physically beat us but was more of a mental bully.
Emotional repression and isolation
His attitude towards boys was that they should not show their emotions and should be toughened up for the real world. He was extremely generous in supporting me in sports and activities but was unwilling or unable to interact in any emotional way. The result was again isolation on an emotional level which taught me not to express my own feelings and to try and hide them for fear of being viewed as weak.
Learnt unhelpful behaviour patterns
I do not believe I was ever particularly unhappy or depressed during this period in a long term sense. I had some good friends and was involved in a number of sports and outdoor activities. I never experienced any significant problems at school with my peers or academically. I was not the most intelligent in the class but usually finished above average in most subject areas. But with hindsight I formed many of the behaviourally patterns which would be so destructive in the future.
In my early teens I moved from my local state school to a private school some distance away. Because I enjoyed sport and was relatively good at it I was quickly accepted into the school. For the first few years I enjoyed the opportunities the school gave me, I was constantly playing sport or camping or climbing or going on trips. There were no free days during a week and I loved it.
Okay at first
Although the usual problems still existed between my parents and there was the overbearing atmosphere my step dad created, I largely ignored these factors as I was just too busy to care. I managed to make friends and my school work was of a good standard. However, around the GCSE stage and into sixth form things changed.
My friends started to go out and try and get into clubs and get with girls. This created a lot of pressure for me to do the same. As quite a shy person and somebody who has always looked quite young for their age it was not an atmosphere I found easy to enjoy. I also simply did not enjoy that lifestyle and felt I had to join in to get along. I became increasingly conscious of my looks and stature as I was quite thin and young looking.
Dropped activities and interests
At the time my strategy was to ignore it and try and become more like the people I was surrounded by. I stopped doing all the sport and the out side interests I had previously taken part in and that I had enjoyed. I went out to clubs and pubs and tried weight lifting.
Trying to fit in
I hated every second of it and disliked the people who were around me but they were my ‘friends’ and so I thought eventually my problems would go away as long as I became more like them. After all they were happy, strong and confident people…
After I dropped out of uni, the next part of my life would be the hardest part, but at least I was finally talking to somebody. I was just desperate not to feel hopeless anymore and not to waste any more of my life. Over the next year I battled with depression whilst trying to take my A-levels and apply to engineering. It was not an easy period in any way as my thought patterns and view of myself was so deeply ingrained.
Psychiatrist and psychologist
I was extremely lucky in that when he brought me home from uni, my dad sent me to a very good private psychiatrist who soon referred me to an excellent psychologist. With the help of a weekly meeting with the psychologist I very slowly began to feel better.
I look back at this as quite a defining one as I essentially started from scratch – none of my supposed friends bothered with me in this period. Not one of the four ‘close friends’ I lived with at uni ever asked ‘are you okay?’ and really I only had my family for support. I have my family to thank for how supportive they were of me, without them I would not have had a chance.
Defining own values
But it was also an exciting period and was like beginning life again, finding out what I enjoyed doing, what I was good and bad at and trying to meet friends who I could value and valued me in return. In general I just tried to lose any judgements I had from my previous life about the world around me and experienced them instead and then made up my own mind, I became far more receptive to new ideas and people.
Building better relationships
I made sure I pushed myself to be social and took any opportunities to do things with new people. I hoped to find special people who really cared about me as a person. I was extremely lucky and have tried to carry this mantra through in the years since then.
Taking care of myself
I got fit again and started to eat healthily, it really made a difference.
I was lucky to have been given the opportunity and I did not want to waste it. I managed to get offers for Engineering at 3 universities and obtained AAB in my sciences. One lesson I learnt at this point was never to listen to people who tell you can’t achieve something as my previous teachers had done.
Dealing with relapse
Despite my improving mood and confidence when it came to the exam period I had another relapse. I convinced myself I would fail and did not take some of my A2 exams meaning I did not gain entry to Engineering after all. The one A-level I was convinced by an amazing college lecturer to complete I got an A in and realise now how stupid I was.
Taking it slow
However I completed my A2s the following January, got a job full time in a nursing home which was inspirational and met my current girlfriend in this period. Therefore I do not look back with regret. I was still not ready at that point to go to university and may have ended up crashing all over again.
Dealing with setbacks and building on success
I applied the following year to Engineering and on failing to gain entry decided to take a course in another science related course that seemed interesting. I went to university that year, a stronger and happier person than I had left my previous course.
Awareness of relapse possibility
Apart from the usual anxieties and stresses that university present I found the first two years fantastic. I did well in my courses and was passionate about them, made new friends and tried new things. I enjoyed my undergraduate degree and did not suffer particularly from depression during this period, although I was always acutely aware that I could slip back at any moment and I have always had a feeling since suffering initially that things are never quite right.
Recognising vulnerability to stress
In the final year of my degree I did come close again to depression due to a number of factors. As a mature student I self funded and working 25 hours a week in my second and third years combined with the stress of the final exams led me to being close to breaking down. I convinced myself that I was going to fail and that everything I had worked so hard for was a waste of time.
Building a support network
I believe it my mantra of building better relationships that stopped me from completely relapsing. At university and college I did find good friends and worked on being more communicative with certain members of my family. This meant that during the exam period instead of completely losing it my friends did ask ‘are you ok?’ I had more people to talk with and tell me to put the books down when it was clear I was anxious. I could contact my family and talk to them and my girlfriend who was fantastic, I guess I had a support network.
Learning not to over-pressurise myself
I was very close to not taking my exams, however this time I did and I got a 1st class degree and now realise that I put far too much pressure on myself. However this period did weaken me a great deal and it took me a long period over the summer to get close to fighting fit again.
Facing further challenges
I am currently studying for a PHD which has given me an opportunity to pursue areas of interest but probably my most significant challenge was the break-up of my relationship with my girlfriend. From my point of view the break-up was unexpected as we had been considering marriage and moving in together.
Knowing warning signs and using tools
Unlike the previous relationship however I had the tools to deal with this break-up. I have good friends who I could talk to, interests that I can focus on and a PhD that I am passionate about. I knew the warning signs from being depressed previously and was determined not to go back to that place and as I see it waste more of my life focusing on the negatives.
It was not easy doing all of these things when a lot of the time I felt like getting in to bed and not getting up but I knew by forcing myself, once I was in the pub or out walking or at work I could just focus and actually achieve something. I reached a point where I knew I could go forward without my girlfriend.
Consciously boosting mental strength
I have actively sought to boost my mental strength. Again I had a great support network that made sure I talked about my problems and got me out of the house but I have also taken on some challenges. In a way the whole experience has been a positive one because it made me realise how important it is to have a broad range of things in your life and not to completely rely on one person.
Exercise and new pursuits
I have been teaching on a number of undergraduate courses, and channelled energy into my work which has given me a sense on control over my own life and renewed confidence, at times. I have exercised far more to keep fit but also discovered old hobbies such as pot holing. During my degree having to work part-time meant I largely gave this up but I have joined the university club and it not only makes me feel physically healthier but interacting with new people doing something I enjoy is challenging but In the long term beneficial. I have taken on some more challenges such as a marathon and a iron man since Christmas also.
What I’ve learnt
You are not alone
I know especially in the early stages of my initial bout of depression it would have been extremely helpful for me to have known of other people experiencing what I was. Instead I assumed everybody else had perfect lives and not aggressive vile thoughts that plagued them everyday. It made me feel shameful and embarrassed that I was so weak and that meant I did not talk to anybody which ultimately made things a lot worse.
Find what makes meaning in your life
I set out to find out what I really enjoyed in life and hoped to find special people who really cared about me as a person. I believe it is this mantra is the key to me recovering fully from the serious bout of depression and what has stopped me from ever completely relapsing since then.