A little over two years ago, I was off work with depression.
One day or night, I sat and watched 8 Mile, the Eminem movie, and took some kind of small hope from the underdog rapper’s never-say-die determination and ultimate triumph over adversity. My own determination wasn’t putting in an appearance at the time, and triumphs seemed in short supply.
Here in the present, it’s more than a month since I took my last antidepressant and there’s a part of 8 Mile that now seems particularly significant.
The film’s climax is a rap battle between Eminem’s character, Rabbit, and his enemy, Papa Doc. Now, I am no battle rapper or gangsta MC – I’m more Yorkshire Tea than Ice T – but I do know that the basic gist of such battles is to brag about your own greatness and insult your opponent as wittily as possible.
Except in this contest, Rabbit catches his opponent off-guard by confessing to all his own flaws and secrets – all the things Doc was about to hurl at him. It leaves his nemesis impotently lacking ammunition. And then he exposes him for the coward and fraud that he is. You can read the full lyrics here.
So, what’s this got to do with me and depression?
- Depression is a cowardly bully that skulks in the shadows and messes up your head – and it thrives on the shame and stigma that comes with it. It knows everything about you – all your flaws and weaknesses – and uses them against you. By talking to someone about what you’re going through, you expose it and weaken its power.
- You can also get to know your enemy, through counselling, talking to others (either in person or online) or reading about it. This helps to arm you against its dirty tricks. Stopping my antidepressants has been like taking down my shield. At times in the last few weeks, members of depression’s gang have roughed me up – stress, anxiety and insomnia have all had a go – but I am better able to fend them off than I used to be, because I know what they’re up to.
I’m not naïve about this, and will have to keep a look-out for future attacks, but for now this underdog has triumphed. I celebrated my first medication-free month with a glass of bubbly that had been at the back of a cupboard since before I started taking Citalopram.
Recovery from depression is slow. Even when you feel well, coming off the medication is tough. For an impatient patient, it seems like a never-ending war. But liberation from depression is possible.
When you ask most people “What are the magic words?” they’ll answer “Please” or “Abracadabra!”
Not me. I’d say “I’ve come off my antidepressants!” Those are the magic words I’ve wanted to say for three-and-a-half years. Now, at last, I can – and the more I say it, the better it feels.
This is the Promised Land I’ve been trying to reach for a long time. So what’s it like? Am I spending every waking moment skipping carefree through sunlit meadows, revelling in the trill of singing larks?
Well, no. There’s been no great revelation. Life has not changed immediately for the better. In fact, the first couple of days free of the tablets have been rather underwhelming. Life carries on being busy in its usual way.
But what I have to try to remember is what has already changed.
It’s hard now to recall exactly what depression felt like at its very worst – perhaps because I don’t want to recall it because it’s just too upsetting, and perhaps because my memory is one of the things that was most affected.
What I do remember is that three-and-a-half years ago I was feeling beaten up by life and was picking up my first packet of Citalopram to try and help me cope with it. Since then, I’ve increased and reduced my dose a few times, but never come off the medication. I’ve had a second major bout of depression and two rounds of counselling.
If I try a bit harder to remember, these things come to mind:
- a deadening feeling of wanting to do nothing – just drifting around like a zombie, feeling shrunken, grey and old, gaining no pleasure from my life
- a brain full of negative thoughts, anger and worries that destroyed my concentration and memory and kept me awake at night
- a demolition of my confidence and self-esteem
You can see why I don’t want to remember those things.
The combination of medication, counselling, the kindness and support of my family, friends and colleagues, learning about depression through books and other people, and writing about it myself, has finally come together to get me through it.
Recovery from depression is, I’ve found, grindingly slow, and full of twists and turns. Just coming off the medication can take months or even years, but you simply can’t rush it. I have found this to my cost a couple of times, where I’ve decreased the dose by slightly too much too quickly and been overcome with an urge to scream and smash things.
… I have recovered. I’ve done it. My mind is sharper again – most of the time. I feel better about myself. I enjoy and look forward to things.
My hope is that depression’s occupation of my life is over, and I’ve emerged stronger and a better, more self-aware and compassionate person.
I will probably always have to be on my guard against my old nemesis, Paul Brookes, who will occasionally peek out from a shadowy recess to see if he can get at me.
But I am arming myself against him by constantly learning ways of handling stress, frustration and worry and preventing them from becoming anything more sinister and destructive.
And, starting with this blog, I will reflect on what I’ve achieved and celebrate my triumph over an evil adversary. Starting with my first beer since the pre-Citalopram era…
First published by Time to Change
I’m really glad Asda and Tesco stocked those ‘mental patient’ and ‘psycho ward’ fancy dress outfits.
Let me explain myself. I like horror films, but that’s not the reason I’m glad. I like fancy dress, but that’s not the reason either. I like a laugh, and Halloween costumes are meant to be funny as well as scary, aren’t they? But that’s not the reason either.
No, I’m glad those outfits were made and sold for one reason – they have made a lot of people angry. And when that many people get angry about something, things change. People speak out, loudly and publicly. Their views get into the mainstream media. And suddenly, there is a powerful movement in society, united in anger and in a desire for change.
Things have changed today. Tesco and Asda have acted and removed the products from stock. How did they come to be stocked in the first place? I don’t know. Who made and marketed the appalling things in the first place? I don’t know that either.
What I do know is that no amount of positive blogs about mental health or courageous spokespeople have the same impact as collective fury, and today that fury made two of the biggest names in British retail change their actions – and you can bet they won’t let it happen again in a hurry.
There’s unquestionably a stigma to mental illness that lives on and manifests in unlikely ways and places – like a Halloween costume. The outpouring of anger at these costumes is not the same thing as ‘political correctness gone mad’ or ‘not being able to take a joke’. It’s a response to the belittling or stigmatising of people who are ill through no fault of their own. It’s an insult to one in four members of our population.
As someone who’s had counselling for depression and taken antidepressants for more than three years, I could be very upset about the demonization and stereotyping of people who need treatment for mental illness. But I’m not upset.
I’m glad that something high-profile and relatively easy to resolve has happened that shakes people up a bit and makes mental health a little bit easier for people to talk about.
Faith is like depression – it is very hard to understand or appreciate until you have experienced it for yourself.
Since having depression and counselling for it I have learned some very important lessons from Christianity that are a big help whether you believe in God or not:
1) Accept what you can’t change, and, if you can change something, do it. Don’t dwell on it; don’t have imaginary arguments about it. This has been a tough lesson for me, and has taken months and years to get to grips with, but it is crucial. The Serenity Prayer puts this perfectly:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
2) I am an expert worrier, so this verse (Matthew 6:27) calls out at me loud and clear. Worrying is normal, but excessive worrying hurts you – and achieves nothing.
Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
3) Forgiveness – the Bible says a lot about forgiveness. The overall message for me is not to hold grudges. Forgive people and let go. Move on. I stayed angry for years at the kids who picked on me at school, but they didn’t know I was angry with them so what good was it doing me?
4) If you’re someone who’s used to achieving and ‘going the extra mile’, give yourself a break from the stress and remember you don’t have to do it all at once – see Ecclesiastes 3:1.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens
I have talked often and honestly about the reality of depression and how it is a very personal thing – different for each person who experiences it. Faith is the same. Just as people with mental health problems can be vilified and demonized, there is a special hatred and mistrust set aside in the public psyche for those who dare to believe in God.
And, as depression gets muddled up with feeling depressed – bad moods that you can snap out of – faith gets confused with religion. Faith is what you believe. Religion is a way of formalising what groups of people believe in. So actually, you can’t blame my faith for war, for intolerance, for individual cases of abuse or for brainwashing children, or any of the other things that I hear. I believe in forgiveness, love, humility and hope, not in judgement. If someone else with faith, or a group of people from a religion, does or thinks something disgusting or appalling, why come to the conclusion that everyone does or thinks that? I know my faith doesn’t make sense to everyone but to make sweeping generalisations about millions of people – that’s OK, is it?
Just as there is a stigma to depression, because there is so much cynicism and misunderstanding about it, I am wary of being open about my faith, because even people close to me pour scorn on what I believe. It’s fine to mock a Christian as much as you like, as openly as you like, as often as you like, and to stereotype and generalise who a Christian is, what he or she does, how he or she behaves and what he or she believes in. But talk about faith for a second and you are ‘ramming it down someone’s throat’.
I don’t want to provoke a discussion about faith, religion, atheism or whatever on this blog. I got into a Facebook spat about those subjects the weekend I plunged into my second bout of depression two years ago. It did me no good. I have not talked publicly about it since, apart from with supportive people who share my faith.
Just as I came out about my depression on this blog, I am now opening up about my faith. If you disagree with me, I am fine with that. We will not change each other’s minds so let’s not use this forum to try. If you get what I’m talking about, that’s great too.
As for how I came to faith, that is another story for another time. But there is another analogy to depression – I was a cynic until I had it myself, and it changed my life.
It’s 50 years since Dr Martin Luther King Jr gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington, but another of his speeches has stuck in my mind as a beacon of hope as I’ve fought depression.
Here’s an excerpt from it:
“… I’ve been to the mountaintop … And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land… I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”
I’ve often referred to life beyond depression as my Promised Land – a place it’s been a struggle to reach, but which I’ve never lost hope of discovering.
Here’s something I wrote in May 2012, as I was emerging from depression and starting to feel better:
“I haven’t reached my Promised Land yet, but I am hopeful that I will, and that it will be flowing with milk and honey. And maybe a cool beer. If your boat is still lurching about on the high seas, and the pirates have hijacked it, hold firm and set your course for the coast. We will be the winners in this swashbuckling adventure, and the riches shall be ours, me hearties.”
Like Dr King, I feel like I have seen the Promised Land. In fact, I’ve marched down the other side of the mountain and have one foot on the green pastures. One obstacle remains for me – coming off my antidepressants. After a failed attempt earlier this year, I’ve gone from strength to strength and have reduced my dose almost – but not quite – as low as it can go. It feels good, and, to paraphrase Dr King, I’m not fearing anything. I feel sharp, alert, and back in control of what my brain is doing. I can enjoy my life again, and will never again take that feeling of enjoyment and happiness for granted.
When you’re in the deep trough of depression, you feel like you will never get out. Even when you manage to take a few steps out of it, the path gets rocky, and you can easily stumble and fall. It seems never-ending. The sides of the trough are just too steep and treacherous. The light feels too far away.
All I can say is don’t give up hope. I think one of my favourite singers, Sam Cooke, put it perfectly in his incredible song A Change Is Gonna Come. Written five years before Dr King’s death, the song was about civil rights, but Cooke’s words bring comfort and hope whatever your battle:
There’ve been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, long time coming
But I know a change gonna come
For me, yes, it’s been a long time coming, but that change has come. Next stop: the Promised Land.
I billed my 10K run on Sunday as a clash of the titans – me against my arch-enemy, Paul Brookes, the name I’ve used for the depression that plagued me from 2010–2012.
I was full of fighting talk before the run. “You’re going down,” I told Brookes. This was personal – my first 10K since 2010. Every step I took, every penny I raised for the Blurt Foundation, would be a hearty kick up his miserable backside.
Only Brookes didn’t turn up.
There was no sign of him when I walked from the car to the race with my wife and children, my head held high – not like last time, when I numbly dragged myself there with slumped shoulders.
There was no sign of him as I warmed up for the run. No doubts or lingering fears.
There was no sign of him as I ran round York, taking in the cheers of the crowd and enjoying the sights and atmosphere.
There was no sign of him as I increased my speed near the end, feeling fit and well.
There was no sign of him as I sprinted to the finish, waving at my cheering family.
He didn’t even dare show his face at the end, as I put my medal round my neck.
I turned the tables on depression.
I won. It lost.
I succeeded. It failed.
I ran. It ran away.
Like the bully he always has been, Paul Brookes showed his true colours – a weak, pathetic little coward.
My time was a very pleasing 59 minutes and 15 seconds. I can’t remember what my time was last time, which is a sign of my improved mental wellbeing.
In 2010, I compared my time to 2009, saw it was a few seconds slower, and beat myself up over the complete waste of time I’d pointlessly put myself through, ignoring how well I’d done to even take part.
I’m not a professional runner, or even a competitive one. The time was of no great consequence. I did this to lay ghosts to rest; to exorcise my demons.
It turns out this run wasn’t my victory over depression. It didn’t have to be. I realised that there have been many victories:
Every time I went running when I didn’t feel like it.
Every time I wrote something positive in my notebook.
Every time I posted a blog, exposing depression’s wily ways.
Each small thought or act that stood in its way.
This 10K run has given me the chance to reflect on what I have achieved, to celebrate each of these triumphs, and to feel like a winner.
Depression, you failed.
- I’m taking donations for the Blurt Foundation until the end of August. There’s more than £500 heading their way, but the more we raise, the more they can do to help people with depression. Please donate here.