How depression has affected me
Stressful move to secondary school
The stark contrast between my small primary school and a bigger, academically-oriented secondary school led to both academic and social stress, and a rapid loss of confidence. Having never been aware of such an illness as depression, I struggled with a severely low mood for over two years which rapidly progressed into thoughts of suicide and endless periods of self harm.
I knew what was happening wasn’t normal, but I’d had so little exposure to mental health issues that I assumed it was an innate flaw in my character, just like everything else I seemed to fail at. The nature of the school meant a pressurised environment, and trying to keep up with work was an endless nightmare.
The constant stress had triggered a bout of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, otherwise known as ME, which also went undiagnosed for over two years. I had become so tired that even getting dressed in the mornings and walking to the bus stop felt like climbing Everest. I could barely walk up the staircases and PE was my personal living hell. All I wanted to do is sleep and dream of dying.
Not realising that I was suffering a valid medical condition, I struggled through each day believing that my symptoms were down to pure laziness; I was just a fat, inadequate failure.
Deteriorating mental health
As I was too frightened and confused to tell anyone, my situation became so intense that I slowly developed symptoms of psychosis and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). At this point I believed that everything I was thinking was real, and developed a deep-set paranoia and many irrational compulsive rituals. I spent weeks completely absorbed in my own world, tormented by voices, disturbing images and the burning desire to be dead.
After some time, I managed to confide in a friend who had observed my changed behaviour. She persuaded me to tell my mum; the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. It was also the best. Over the next few months, I saw several GP’s and a team of Psychiatrists who eventually diagnosed me with Schizo-affective disorder; a combination of deep-set depression and psychosis.
In-patient psychiatric care
I then remained in an adolescent psychiatric ward for many months to follow, which was both terrifying, but admittedly, extremely beneficial. It was certainly not without its moments of fear and isolation, and many times I kicked and screamed to leave and be left alone with my own thoughts; the only way I was used to coping.
Struggling to trust
It took a very long time to be able to trust and open up to the people there to help, mostly because I hadn’t had the hindsight and maturity to realise how badly I had been suffering. I would insist that I was fine and plaster on a fake smile, even when I’d secretly be plotting how I was going to die. The happy facade is something I still struggle with today, as I find it impossible not to feel like a burden to my friends and family.
After about two years, many of my psychotic symptoms had died down thanks to some brilliant CBT style work and many other therapies. My depression had lifted significantly, although very slowly.
Adult services less helpful
At 18 I was discharged, no longer coming under the criteria of the adolescent system, and have since drifted between many vague doctors and psychiatric teams unable to offer me treatment due to a lack of resources. At the time of writing I am 21, and since leaving the adolescent service have largely had to find my own therapy and comfort in ways that the adult service cannot offer.
Isolated and vulnerable
This has been an infuriating and very difficult experience, as like many other young people, I have been left feeling very much isolated and vulnerable, always conscious that my symptoms may return. This is something I hope can be changed in the future.
Ongoing low moods
Although I have made a significant recovery from the depths of my illness, I continue to suffer from severe low moods and intrusive thoughts.
Student life helps a bit…
As a student, I am passionate about my work and love my degree and consider myself very lucky to be in a place which I once thought was unobtainable. Whilst this is true, it is almost impossible to overlook the experiences which I have been through and which remain present every second of my life as a student.
…but still down moments
Whilst there are days where I am able to concentrate well and feel positive and uplifted about my situation, there are also the inevitable dreaded down moments in which my mood plummets and the chains of depression fully overwhelm my mind and body. I become tired, withdrawn, hating the world and musing on death.
Sudden academic pressure
After moving to a very academically orientated secondary school at the age of 12, I instantly found myself struggling to keep up. The academic standards and expectations of the other girls were very high, and coming from a friendly and intimate primary school as a good student, I was suddenly made to feel painfully aware of my own inferiority.
I was teased for not looking right, wearing unfashionable clothes and for coming from a smaller and less exciting town. Being at a sensitive and impressionable age, I found it difficult to just shrug off the many subtle digs and comments…
Loss of confidence
…and soon found my self-confidence chipped away until I was constantly anxious and unhappy. I was always made to feel aware of what a failure was, and felt like a letdown and a joke to everyone I knew.
Post traumatic stress disorder
Due to the highly distressing nature of my experiences as a child, I have recently been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and so continue to be bombarded with an array of confusing and tormenting anxieties.
Managing to tell someone else, and then my mum, about what was going on, was very hard, but a turning point.
The therapy I had when I was in the care of the adolescent psychiatric team included some brilliant CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) work that really helped me to challenge the cycle of pessimistic and self-deprecating thoughts I was automatically having without even realising.
I was also introduced to both art and sport therapies which really helped by giving me a both a restored confidence in my capabilities and also a creative outlet. Other therapies included group discussions, which helped to challenge the fear of admitting my problems and finding solace in the struggles of others.
Learning to enjoy simple human pleasures
Some days were even just dedicated to baking big chocolate cakes or watching Harry Potter with fish and chips. This helped to bring everything back down to a basic human level and reminded me how to enjoy a few simple luxuries that everyone deserves. This is a belief I certainly maintain today!
I have always found a great relief in my degree subject in its broadest sense. Studying History has been extremely therapeutic as it has allowed me to open up myself creatively as well as giving me goals to work towards achieving – something I missed out on in school life.
Alternatives to medication
I have never taken to the use of medication in controlling my depression, but I have found many Eastern traditions, for instance Tai Chi, extremely beneficial. (I do however recognise the importance of medication to other people and would by no means suggest it was not necessary)
One of the most beneficial things I have rediscovered is humour. Having the ability to make light of my situation (whilst not ignoring its significance) has made the world of difference to my experience.
Insights from literature and philosophy
The biggest help in my move forward has been various extracts of literature and philosophies of life that I have been exposed to through my studies. Whilst I recognise these are not of interest to everyone, I genuinely feel they have contributed extensively to the recovery of my illness, as they have very much restored my faith in humanity and the meaning one can attribute to their own life.
What I’ve learnt
I can absolutely empathise with any student suffering from similar difficulties and know all too well the constant fatigue of trying to keep up with a life corrupted with mental health problems. Whilst I will never for a second underestimate the monstrous feeling of depression, I am a firm optimist and largely survive driven by the will not to give up.
Depression can be beaten
A life defeated by depression is a terrible loss, and so it is a passionate desire of mine to encourage those suffering that the cycle of fear, unhappiness and self-loathing can absolutely be beaten with the right guidance.
Both acceptance and resistance are important
I despise the illness with every inch of my body and am so eager to defeat it that I would love the opportunity to press other students to do the same. However, I have also learnt to accept it, and this has been a key strategy in being able to cope.
Hold on to your humour
By regarding depression with a sense of humour and light-hearted attitude (not always easy), the entire situation can seem that much more bearable.
Find solace in academic work
I would like to be able to recommend students to find solace in their academic work rather than seeing it as a burden or struggle as I have slowly learnt to do, and to encourage them on their success rather than feeling like a constant failure.
Seek out the meaning in life
In my blog I want to share some of the gems from literature and philosophy that have helped restore my faith in humanity and find meaning in my life – hopefully show that comfort outside the grim and material world does indeed exist, without sounding like a far-out hippy!