Guest post: Depression Awareness Week: ‘I didn’t know depression could happen so swiftly, and be so physically painful’
This week is Depression Awareness week. In this guest post, Rachel Kelly, author of the memoir Black Rainbow, describes her struggles with depression, and explains why she thinks women are particularly vulnerable to the illness.
Do read the post and share your experiences on the thread below.
Posted on: Wed 30-Apr-14 12:57:59
(40 comments )
My story began seventeen years ago, when I was a working mother and journalist. For no visible reason I went from feeling mildly anxious to being completely unable to function, in the space of three days. I was married with two children, ambitious, and thoroughly loved my career. I was blessed in many ways, with a nice house and a supportive, employed husband. I didn’t know that depression could happen so swiftly, least of all to someone like me who had a happy life, or that it could be so physically painful: I was in screaming agony. I was bed-ridden for six months.
Bone-tired, I would lie outwardly still, worn out by the effort of clinging on for dear life, but inside my body was furiously busy. I had a permanent headache, as though dozens of vicious, heat-maddened wasps were massed behind my eye sockets, stinging my soft, unprotected brain. My rancid stomach fiercely knotted and re-knotted itself, spinning like a sharp-pointed pirouette. Often I would throw up. It was as if I was on a plane which was about to crash. I had to have something to hang onto, either my mother or my husband. Their arms were livid with bruises, such was the fierceness of my grip.
After that first crisis subsided, I returned to working full-time until I became pregnant with our third child and left office life to become freelance. Years passed, twins arrived, and my anxiety levels remained high: I was pushing myself to be the best mother I could, while still trying to write, as well as being a wife, daughter and friend. The more I multi-tasked, the more I was multi-asked. In 2004, I succumbed to a second depressive episode even worse than the first – I was bed-ridden for a year, during which time the physical pain was so debilitating that I was often sedated. Ever since then I have been battling the Black Dog - and now, thank goodness, have him on a tight-ish leash.
When I officially ‘came out’ last week as someone with depression, the first reaction has been ‘You’re very brave’ in a ‘Yes-Minsterish-you-must-be-mad’ kind of way – which tells you a lot about the stigma that still exists around mental ill health.
Bone-tired, I would lie outwardly still, worn out by the effort of clinging on for dear life, but inside my body was furiously busy. I had a permanent headache, as though dozens of vicious, heat-maddened wasps were massed behind my eye sockets, stinging my soft, unprotected brain.
The second has really moved me. Friends, colleagues, relations, and mothers at the school gate have confided that they too suffer from high levels of anxiety and depression. They are hugely relieved to open up and find a fellow sufferer.
I say ‘mothers at the school gates’, because although the World Health Organisation assures us that “overall rates of psychiatric disorder are almost identical for men and women,” there’s no denying that it is largely women who have been sharing their experiences with me. Yes, this could well reflect men’s traditional reticence, but also that women may struggle more than men.
Certainly the numbers suggest this. January 2014 figures from the NHS show that in 2013 almost 475,000 women were referred for counselling or behavioural therapy compared to only 274,000 men.
There may be discrepancies in what the experts think, but the fact remains: an awful lot of women suffer the clinical illness of depression. We can, at least, be thankful that attitudes to women’s mental health have evolved over the years: Victorian psychiatrists thought there was a connection between reproduction and madness.
Now, experts like Professor Daniel Freeman, an Oxford clinical psychologist who has researched the topic, don't think it’s because of our genes (unlike schizophrenia and bipolar disorder which have high heritability). Rather, major life events such as bereavement and unemployment may trigger an underlying tendency to anxiety, or we might be overwhelmed by what Dr. Freeman calls ‘distinctive pressures’ – by which he means trying to type this article while putting the supper on, calling my mother, squeezing into some skinny jeans and bursting the zipper in the process. And wanting my husband to tell me how clever I am to be such a multi-tasker, of course.
Others can manage, and all credit to them. But I am a cautionary tale to those like me who have an underlying tendency to depression and anxiety, and whose life falls into the quicksand of modernity with its multiple demands. For me, the pressures of trying to have-it-all lead to having a breakdown – twice.
Now, in the words of George Herbert, my ‘shrivelled heart’ has ‘recovered greenness’ - but at huge cost in wasted years, especially when my children were young. I now manage by treating myself like a rather nervous pet who must eat well, be exercised, not do too much, and uses therapy and medication as and when. Oh, and loves learning a poem to calm down in the middle of the night.
In Black Rainbow I write about my slow climb to recovery through medication, prayer, my family’s love and - unusually - the healing power of poetry. Sounds odd, I know, but for me, poetry can be one answer to depression: it is free, has no side-effects and can provide words to describe what we cannot: an expression of our common humanity when faced with the extreme isolation of feeling depressed.
I can even, on occasion, be grateful for the blessings that depression has given me. For one, having therapy radically changed the way I mother our five children. I used to be as demanding of them as I was of myself. Therapy has taught me to develop a more compassionate, less judgmental voice, both to myself and to others. Now my heartfelt hope is that they will learn from my experience and avoid falling into the nightmare of mental illness - not experience the terror of that trapdoor opening inside them.
By Rachel Kelly
Thank you Rachel, I'm in the middle of a major depression and reading this was very comforting. Mine came on suddenly and has floored me.
Thanks for posting this - really helpful. I've also not come across people going downhill so fast. But am with you on the "aftercare" - I also seem to need 10 hours sleep a night and 45 mins exercise every day.. some weeks easier than others to motivate myself... though I do notice the difference when I get back "on the wagon". All the best
I have lived with depression all my adult life - though it is only in hindsight that I can see that. I had to be told, at the age of 45, that it was not normal for me to have felt suicidal, and to have thought about committing suicide when I was only 14. Now I can see that that was the start of problems that have lasted the rest of my life.
I have had two-and-a-half years of group psychotherapy, and I am having CBT at the moment - but it is a real uphill struggle, unlearning all the harmful behaviours and thought-patterns that I have had all my life. Sometimes I am not sure I will ever be well.
Yes, thanks Rachel. I experience my depression as physical pain also. Your description is brilliant. I have recovered some greennes in my heart too now, but a part of me will always live in fear of feeling like that again.
Wishing us all well.
Sometimes my depression makes my chest hurt.
Thanks everyone for your support and honesty! I'm so glad that you have found this blog consoling or useful. You are not alone, and I know things can only improve in terms of mental health perception. Until it does, you might find this forum helpful: https://friendsinneed.co.uk/
Great stuff rachel.
My depression first manifested itself in a concrete fashion after I went back to work after my second child was born. And was exacerbated by trying to function as normal throughout it all. I am now more or less permanently medicated which I resent hugely.
I hope your memoirs help to increase awareness of depression. It isn't just 'feeling low' or having a temporary sense of worry about your life, it's a mind-numbing unshiftable mental and emotional exhaustion that seems to put out all the lights including the one at the end of the tunnel.
Mine came out of the blue, I had felt 'low' for a while but then one day I called in sick to work, went for a walk and found mysefl hysterically crying at our local doctor's surgery. I hadnt even known that is where I would turn up when I left the house.
I remember feeling a huge urge to get into bed as soon as I saw my bed, I used to avoid going upstairs as I knew if I saw my bed I would get in a fall asleep. I slept a lot but always felt tired. I would have awful thought, I whave always been a worrier but this was awful I used to tell my girls I loved them all the time incase they died when they were out of the house.
I'm hoping that things do not get that bad again, the funny thing is I don't think many people knew, I was great at keeping a smile on my face.
Thanks for your blog, it is comforting to know that many other women have been through this and come out the other side.
I always remember that realisation an instant after waking up. I'm alive again and I still want to die. And the tears would start all over again.
Still battling a very mild depression 2 years later but nowhere as near as bad as the physically painful, insides in turmoil, holding yourself on the sofa type depression. The kind where nothing helps. Even for a second.
MaryShelley, yes the INTENSE irritability of sound is one of my big symptoms. I can't stand the radio or TV. With 3 children (twins too!), it's not easy to get away from noise. My depression manifests as very intense anger, hatred, fury. Suicide not because I am unworthy to live, but because it is just too painful emotionally to live with that level of intense negativity. Thankfully the really dreadful times have been brief - but I have managed to lose a few friends. Dh has stuck by me, for better or for worse, which I am grateful to him for,
I am so much better now, but I think it is good to acknowledge that it is something that doesn't just 'go away', needs constant management/ care and can be triggered. My triggers are any major life stressors and also winter time. It's helped me to accept that rather than fighting to be 'well'.
Oh yes, I still sleep as much as my children, approx 12 hours a night, which is a bit restricting, but nothing like the emotional rollercoaster ride.
Thanks for sharing your experiences everyone.
I think a milder on-going depression can also affect your life quite profoundly - I think it's known as dysthymia.
More like a slowly descending, all pervading fog.
I've not had a diagnosis for this, though my GP did refer me for some counselling at one time, and I have talked about my life/mood/mental health with them.
Like MerryMarigold I'm aware that I'm especially vulnerable to major life stressors. (Of course these things never easy for anyone)
A recent bereavement is making me wonder if I need to talk to my GP again. Can be hard to know what is within a "normal" response to a significant loss though.
I do tend to think our mental health, like our physical health, is on a spectrum. Those experiencing the milder end of things may be struggling on, and just managing to duck beneath the radar - quite possibly better not to try to.
Thankyou for your post. I'm only 22 but have had depression since I was 16. The past few months have been a car crash for me. Got sacked because I was signed off sick after I broke down, ended up in hospital because I tried to hurt myself (but can't remember doing so)
Therapy doesn't work for me, but meds are trial and error.
I'd like to read Black Rainbow
juggling - that is a good point. I find it hard to decide if what I am feeling at any one time is 'normal' or an overreaction due to depression.
Especially hard to know what to make of the strong feelings of sadness following a loss
Do you ever find you're constantly evaluating how you feel?
Yes, I think I do that a lot Tequila
I do too and it literally drives me crazy sometimes. I wish I could stop it, but it's always 'how am I feeling today' or like you mentioned before, 'am I reacting to this situation in this way because I'm depressed or is this normal'
Sorry to hear of your recent experiences T x
Thankyou Juggling I'm getting better slowly but surely. Just have the added pressure because I'm starting university in September so I really need to get 'better' or some sense of normality before then grr.
This is a great post; thank you for sharing. I'm extremely curious to find Black Rainbow.
I was trying to explain my depression, that I've lived with since I was 12, to my husband. The Black Dog is a great analogy-I often picture a mean, hungry Doberman. Lurking behind a gate that leads me somewhere nicer, happier, sunnier. Every time I try to get past him he hunts me down and bites me. That's what my worst days are like.
When he's not at the gate, I feel like I'm hiding behind the bushes, waiting for him to attack. I never actually cross the gate, and the bushes aren't where I want to be, but it's safer and I'm wary of something different. These are my normal days.
On good days, I jump over the gate and just run. It's spontaneous and freeing and amazing, and I just don't stop. But the lead up to those days are terrifying.
Silly, isn't it? But I've given it a lot of thought.
Your analogy and story is brilliant mummy.
I see mine as a dark fog - I'd try to make friends with the dog
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