‘Bubbly’, ‘positive’, ‘a breath of fresh air’ – words that others have used to describe me this month. Scroll through my instagram or twitter feeds (@raggedgeorge) and you’ll see mostly upbeat, go-get-em posts from someone that probably looks to have being a grown-up sussed. By any account, I’m a glass half full person, taking the world by the horns and riding it to within an inch of its life.
…And so it’s taken me a few years to come to terms with the other side of me. The side that I just can’t get my head round. The side that I’ve ignored and fought and railed against as it just so wasn’t ‘me’. What’s that side? Well, that’s the George that struggles with depression. There, I’ve said it. I SUFFER FROM DEPRESSION. Big, full-blown, can’t quite understand why, depression.
It’s taken me several years to admit. I don’t have a history of it, although I can pinpoint the event that initially triggered it. I knew I didn’t feel quite right, but I couldn’t get to grips with what was wrong. I wasn’t ill, I couldn’t justify taking myself off to bed, or being signed off from work. I got up each day and went through the motions of running a busy home and job and family. But it felt like someone had sprinkled talcum powder over everything, damping everything down, taking the shine off things, making it difficult to rouse enthusiasm for pretty much anything at all. I did what I guess most people do; I ignored it. I pretended I was fine (note – if someone with depression says they’re ‘fine’, they’re not. Give them a hug, trust me).
But then it got to the point that I really couldn’t ignore it, I had become so far from ‘me’ that even I didn’t recognise myself. So I went to the doctor.
You have no idea how much courage that took.
I don’t ‘do’ weakness. I don’t admit defeat. I am, in that typically stoic British way, someone that keeps on keeping on. And so to find myself in front of my doctor, dressed in my smartest work suit looking for all the world like a success, but with tears streaming down my face, was mortifying. I’d failed. I hadn’t been able to fix myself.
The doctor was wonderful. She told me it’s okay to not be okay. She pointed out that I’d been through a traumatic event, had a busy life, held myself to unreasonable expectations, yada yada yada. She prescribed anti-depressants and a course of CBT.
Anti-depressants and CBT. Two things I would never in a million years thought that I would need. Mrs ‘I can do it’, Mrs ‘no, no, it’s fine’, Mrs hardly-ever-sits-down-always-busy, reduced to taking pills and talking to a stranger to try to fix her.
That was three years ago. And I have continued on the slightly unfulfilling journey of trying to ‘cure’ myself because, if I’m honest, I still can’t believe that I’m the sort of person that gets depressed. Look at my life, what have I got to be depressed about? Absolutely nothing – a wonderful partner (thanks Matt, you’ve been a rock), fabulous kids, beautiful home, high-achieving job. It’s a joke that I should even be writing this. But the fact remains, I go through periods of absolute darkness. Periods when the tears don’t stop and each day becomes a momentous struggle from the initial getting out of bed through to the oh-so-welcome falling back into it. I have never taken a day off work because of it. I have never not been there for my kids because of it. I have shown up, stepped up and kept my chin up as best I can. But boy, it’s exhausting.
And so 2018 has been my year of self-care. Stay with me here, I’m not about to go all woo-woo and hippy shit on you. I realised I couldn’t keep pretending I was okay, when I knew (although I hated to admit it) that I really wasn’t. So, in my usual over-achieving perfectionist manner, I over-researched the topic and read anything I could find in order to find that miracle cure.
First, I stopped drinking alcohol. Readers will be aware of this ‘experiment’, but I haven’t been entirely honest about the reason for my alcohol-free year. In truth, it was to see if that was the secret to banishing the dark cloud. And guess what? It has really helped. They say alcohol is a depressant, but that’s hard to believe when the first glass relaxes you so well and unwinds that knot of tension as you sink into the sofa. And maybe if it was just the one glass, it would work its miracle, but who really stops at one? No, none is the answer. None is the panacea. None is the waking up refreshed and clear-headed, literally and figuratively speaking. But that alone wasn’t enough, I still had the cloud on my shoulder.
So secondly, I had more counselling. I delved in to past experiences to try to unlock why I suffer depression. You could say this was an exercise in ‘it gets worse before it gets better’ as raking up years of pent-up hurt, upset and injustices isn’t exactly conducive to feeling better. However, with it comes a certain lightness. A feeling of having parked the baggage on the carousel and not having to carry it around with you any more. I recommend it – and that’s coming from someone who’s taught herself to conceal emotion and hide any sign of weakness.
Thirdly, and as a result of the therapy, I’ve consciously tried to live more authentically in 2018. I know, I know, it’s the buzz-word of the year, right? But what does it really mean? Well, for me, it means not pretending any more. Putting it out there and saying, ‘this is me, take it or leave it’. Not being afraid to disagree with someone. Distancing myself from people that don’t share my values. Speaking out about things that please or annoy me. Put simply – not being afraid to express exactly who I am and what I stand for. Authentic. Genuine. Not fake. And my God, you can only imagine how liberating that has been! I’ve practised it at home, at work and on social media and – touch wood – there hasn’t been any significant back-lash. But aside from the practical impact it has had, the mental impact has been huge. It’s exhausting having to pretend to be someone you’re not day in, day out. Having to get up, plaster a smile on and fake it through the day. Switch to being properly yourself and you’ve suddenly got a whole lot more time and enthusiasm for life, believe me.
Finally, whilst I hate to contradict the great Richard Ashcroft, the drugs DO work. This is the thing that I’ve found hardest to come to terms with. Taking a tiny weeny pill once a day (metaphorically) kills me. I have been on them and off them and on them again. I’ve cried in front of the doctor (bless her, she deserves a medal) so many times as I’ve struggled to accept that I really do need to take them. All her, ‘but if you had a headache, you’d take a pill so what’s the difference?’ fell on deaf ears. I’m just not the sort of person that takes anti-depressants. Look at me, I’ve got life sorted! I shouldn’t need a pill to make me happy! But it’s taken me several on/off yo-yos to accept that actually, yes, at the moment, I do. That little white pill gives me whatever the Hell it is my brain is missing. And I suppose if taking that little white pill once a day is the difference between a happy, full and contented life and the flat, colourless, monotonous existence without, I guess it’s a small price to pay.
So why am I telling you all this? Well, I guess Christmas is a natural time to both reflect on the past year and to make plans for the next. I’m often told that I come across as evangelical or a bit too ‘good life’ (like that’s a bad thing??!). And I’ve been feeling that perception might be at odds with my being truly authentic because, whilst I am a naturally happy and positive person living a full and varied life, there is another side and I suppose I’ve decided that it’s important to show that too. No one squeezes 100% out of every day. Everyone has those days they’d rather forget. And if depression means that those days run into weeks or months, why hide it? I’d much rather we were able to stand up and say, ‘you know what? I feel a bit shit today’. Because I’ll bet that when you do, there’ll be someone that will hear you who feels the same and they’ll realise that they’re not on their own. So instead of hiding, faking and pretending, let’s embrace depression in 2019 – give it a great big hug and banish the toxic ‘I’m fine’ culture. Because let’s face it, ‘fine’ is only half the story.