I’m writing this in bed, propped up on a couple of pillows, the dog resting over my feet, the wind blowing the trees outside the window. My daughter is making pancakes, my son is playing Minecraft and my husband is emptying the dishwasher. To a casual observer, it’s a picture of a normal, happy family Sunday morning. Except for me, it isn’t. It’s happening from the perspective of a long lens. It’s as if I’m looking in on the scene – watching it, rather than being in it. Welcome to depression.
I knew it was coming, the clouds had been gathering for a few weeks. A combination of things have collided at the moment: major building works at home, issues with the kids, heavy workload, lack of exercise and healthy eating, have all been slowly, slowly eroding my reserves. Then this week, I worked in excess of fifty hours, as well as dealing with some challenging things with the kids, the house, the dog (his 4am sickness alarm call wasn’t ideal) and so I careened in to Friday a shelled-out husk of myself.
The headache began on Wednesday, so I should have known this was coming. A tight band, above my ears, extending to my forehead which painkillers didn’t touch. Paracetamol, ibruprofen, alternating the two, nothing worked: my body was telling me to fix the cause, not mask it. But I can’t just stop. I have lots of people and things that rely on me or need something from me: kids, clients, pets, partner, family, housework, garden, builders. It’s difficult to step away and find the one thing I need to recover: calmness. And so I keep on keeping on, hoping I can pilot around the clouds or the wind will blow them away before I reach them. But that’s a futile game: the skies aren’t always blue; at some point the clouds will be so heavy they’ll force me to stop. And so that’s where I find myself today: in bed, banging headache in the grips of depression. The clouds won.
When I feel well, I often think I must have imagined being depressed. I’ve spoken about being an ‘all or nothing’ person before and that’s absolutely true with depression. When I’m well, I’m so alive, so enthusiastic for life, its challenges, growth, learning – to continue the weather analogy, I’m a whirlwind. But contrast that with when I’m not well, and it’s hard to explain. Right now, the best way I can describe it is if I usually run on four AA batteries, it feels like someone has taken a couple out. It’s not that I’ve completely stopped working, it’s more that my energy levels are low, my enthusiasm chip has malfunctioned and everything (physically and mentally) feels heavy. My chest feels tight, I have a pain in between my shoulders, my eyes are small and sore from the tears, I’m tired from fitful sleep.
If today wasn’t Sunday, I would by now have got up, dressed, make-up on, sorted the kids, gone to work and performed in the way I do on any normal day. Whether people would have guessed what I was really feeling, I don’t know. Some that know me well perhaps would have done, but my reassuring replies to the enquiries after me of ‘I’m fine’ or ‘I’m just a bit tired’ would’ve meant that neither they nor I would have to endure the embarrassment of having to delve any deeper in to the truth. And then I’d get home and take the make-up off, but not entirely peel off the outside persona because I don’t want my kids to see the full extent of what this does to me. So I switch to Mum-mode and listen to their day, get things ready for tomorrow, cater to their physical and emotional needs until they go to bed. Only then can I stop. I fall in to bed, exhausted from both the physical demands of my day, and the mental. Because that’s the thing about depression: it’s exhausting having to keep up the pretence that everything is ‘fine’ whilst you battle to keep functioning, battle the negative thoughts swirling in your already banging head. It’s a battle that no one can see, or truly understand.
But today is Sunday and so, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I haven’t got up. I’m sat in bed writing. Because writing is the thing that brings me peace. And whether I should publish this, or whether anyone reads it doesn’t really matter; the act of sitting up, putting words on to a screen and ordering my thoughts is cathartic. I can feel a very low warmth in my belly, which I didn’t have before I started writing this. Words help me come to life again.
And I suppose that would be my one bit of advice to anyone that cares about someone going through a depressed patch: words help. Whether it’s a quick, ‘I love you’ or listening to someone offload, or sending a ‘hugs’ message over the ether, or reading a book (if your brain allows you to) – words make a difference. They break the spell of isolation, they make you see that you’re not on your own, they bring you outside of your own thoughts. And so, for me, writing this is more than just words. It’s therapy. It helps. It’s been an hour which has forced me to sit up, look out of the window, drink a coffee and smell the pancakes. And that’s better than passively lying in bed, ruminating on things that wouldn’t even cross my mind when I’m well.
So now I’m going to get up. But today I’m not going to fake it, I’m going to take it steady, eat all the nice food (if my appetite returns), get dressed (that’ll be a win), and maybe take the dog out. I have an amazing life, I certainly don’t have anything to be depressed about. And so, I guess, for me it stems not from physical issues (poverty, hunger, loss etc) but from day-to-day pressures, lack of time, spreading myself too thinly, running the batteries too low. Those black clouds visit me as a warning, forcing me to rest, to pause and to look after myself for a bit. It’s not about not being able to cope; I’m the consummate coper. No, it’s about the energy it takes to keep coping. And the price that I pay is the occasional black clouds.
I’ve just looked outside. The blue sky is peeping through and it’s not as gloomy as it was when I first opened my laptop. It’ll be alright. It’s only weather.