This seems like an odd thing to want to shout from the rooftops about. Part of me thinks it is incredibly self-indulgent and no-one will really be interested. Another part (the English part I think) wants to stop all this fluffy, melodramatic nonsense about feelings, swallow it all back down and get on with pretending to be normal. But another part, the part that is shouting loudest, thinks that this sort of stuff isn’t talked about enough, and that a few years ago I would have found it really, really helpful to read something like this. So in the spirit of talking about mental health (see previous post), and on the off chance that there is someone out there who might benefit from reading about my wobbles and what I’ve learnt from them, here goes.
I am a really happy person, probably irritatingly so at times, and have been for a while now. I have my ups and downs, I am human after all, but for the last few years the ups have far outweighed the downs. Clearly this has a lot do with having a lovely husband, two wonderful children, a nice house, etc. But during the first half of my twenties my life was pretty wonderful too – I certainly had nothing to complain about, yet I spent a large chunk of those five years suffering with various forms of depression and anxiety.
As mental illness goes, I have definitely gotten off lightly. Some people will read this and think it sounds like a walk in the park compared to their own experiences. But I do feel like I have had a few small glimpses into what depression and anxiety are like, and those glimpses were so awful that I would go so far as to say I would choose a serious longterm physical condition over a serious longterm mental illness any day. No contest. However, I would also say that I am genuinely grateful to have had those experiences as they have taught me so much about how my mind works, and how a lot of the time it can’t be trusted. Left to its own devices I’m pretty sure my mind would make me utterly miserable. Over the last eight years I feel like I have learnt to recognise when my mind is playing nasty tricks on me, and a lot of the time I am now able to stop it in its tracks.
In my next few posts I will explain some really simple, seemingly obvious and yet profoundly effective principles that have dramatically changed my life, and taught me that it actually is possible to be happy no matter what life brings. To begin with I will set the scene by telling the story of my most significant wobbles to date, and what they felt like.
My First Big Wobble
When I was 20 and in my first year of university, I had “depression” for about 3 months. This is a retrospective self-diagnosis, as I never saw a doctor and at the time was too terrified of that label to accept it. But having done a fair amount of Googling recently I am almost certain that if I had gone to a doctor at the time they would have said I was depressed. Thankfully this lifted gradually of its own accord, and being depressed in those few months is by far and away the worst I have ever felt. Since then it has returned at various times and in various disguises, but has never been quite as bad as that first time.
I kept detailed journals between the ages of about fifteen and twenty-four (something I would definitely recommend doing). Looking back over my journal from my first year of university I can see now how my habit of over-thinking things led to my mood spiralling dramatically downwards. Embarrassingly, it was to do with my being single. This sounds really silly and it is. I had never had a boyfriend, and in the back of my mind had always assumed I would meet my husband at university like how my mum met my dad. After a few months of university and no obvious boyfriend material, I began to wonder what would happen if I didn’t find a husband at university. Looking back on it now it seems so ridiculous to even be thinking that aged 20, but back then that prospect was terrifying. I began to try and be OK with the possibility of longterm singleness, and kept imagining future scenarios without a husband and family, hoping to get to a point where I was happy either way. It was this obsessive thinking about an imaginary future that really started to knock my already very shaky self-confidence and lower my mood.
Within just a few days of starting this obsessive future contingency-planning, I was deep in the worst depression I’ve ever experienced. I felt like I was carrying around rocks in my chest. I tried to go out, hang out with friends, do work, but wouldn’t last long at all before I’d give up and go back to bed. I couldn’t eat, crying felt like a release so I did that a lot. Sleep was an escape once I finally got there, but waking up the rocks would immediately come slamming back down. My head was swarming with tortured thoughts, the world seemed a grim and horrifying place. I felt so emotionally detached that I forgot how to laugh, and often found myself sat in my bedroom longing to be able to cry so at least I was feeling something. I actually think that sort of pain is worse than physical pain, because it is incredibly real but invisible; you don’t know why it’s there but it’s inescapable, and makes you lose all perspective and meaning in life. I never once had thoughts of harming myself (probably because I was lucky enough that the depression didn’t last very long) but I can totally see how those feelings can lead to that. My mind was convincing me that there was no escape – any happiness I had felt before was an illusion, this was reality.
I had this constantly for probably about three days, and then for the next three months I was feeling OK and able to function about half the time, but the other half my mood would swing back down and all those horrible thoughts and feelings would come flooding back. Looking back now I can see that it was an illness – self-inflicted by my over-active brain but still definitely an illness. I should have gone to the doctor, who would probably have recommended I talk to someone regularly and maybe try something like CBT. I didn’t even come close to going to the doctor because I was absolutely terrified of being told I had depression. I didn’t know anything much about depression except that it was really hard to get out of, you had to take medication and it meant you were crazy. So instead I spoke to my friends (who probably thought I was crazy but hid it well), and tried to pray and read the Bible to regain some sense of security and peace. These things undoubtedly helped, but in my mind the issue was still my singleness, and how I either needed to get a boyfriend or be confident enough in myself to survive being single. I can see now that the issue definitely wasn’t my singleness, it was that I was depressed and my mind was constantly playing tricks on me.
The Next Few Wobbles
In my second year of university I was much more confident and my singleness didn’t bother me any more. I had lots of friends and was enjoying the student life. So my next big wobble was about something totally different, but equally embarrassing. I can’t remember why I started thinking about this, but I became absolutely terrified about global warming. Now global warming is a very real and terrifying thing and in some ways this was not an irrational fear. I am a natural-born worrier anyway, but this anxiety became crippling – I couldn’t stop thinking about end-of-the-world scenarios and it seemed to me like they were imminent. I stopped enjoying things, couldn’t concentrate on anything and it was affecting me physically. I suspect this was in a way part of the growing up process – the realisation after my lovely cosy upbringing that I wasn’t immortal and that bad things could happen. That lasted a month or so.
Fast forward two years and I have just got engaged to my dream man. We’d met in my third year of university, he was incredible and I was completely besotted. We started going out about a month after we first met, and getting to know each other in those first few months was a wonderful, exciting, romantic whirlwind. When we started talking about getting engaged, my mind started going into meltdown. I became fixated on tiny things about our relationship that are so ridiculous I am too embarrassed to be specific. I would have extreme mood swings where one minute all was fine, and the next minute the tiniest thing triggered a huge crisis, everything felt wrong and I was in turmoil and blind panic. When we got engaged I was utterly miserable, and this was made worse by the guilt of not feeling what I felt like I ought to be feeling. Strangely, at the time I knew I was being silly. I knew that there was actually nothing wrong, and for that reason the thought never crossed my mind that maybe the relationship wouldn’t work and we should break up. But this didn’t stop me from feeling really, really low a lot of the time. I told my fiancé everything I was feeling, and he would have been fully justified to walk out then on the grounds of me being unstable and completely bonkers a lot of the time. But credit to him, he stayed. I remember really hoping that once we were married this craziness would stop, and thank goodness – I was right. Almost the minute we walked down the aisle all those huge “problems” mysteriously disappeared, and in the years since our relationship has been wonderful.
Since then I have noticed that the times when I feel lowest are when I’m not doing very much. When I was working as a secondary school teacher, almost every holiday and even at weekends, my mood would come crashing down. I started to be able to predict it but it was still horrible, every time I would feel those rocks in my chest and the world would seem like a bleak and hopeless place. I remember walking around a supermarket during one half term thinking how lucky the people around me were to be able to feel normal. Not even happy, just free from the invisible turmoil and pain I was in.
When we first moved to Plymouth I had six months of being in a new place with no job and very little to do, and predictably my mood swings returned. Generally I would feel fine in the morning, then feel really depressed for a few hours in the afternoon, and feel OK again in the evening. I have no idea what caused this but it became a part of life – not fun but manageable. Sometimes I’d feel so low I was unable to do anything except try to sleep until the bad feelings went away. I began seeing these low moods as similar to a headache or a cold – something that I had to endure but that would eventually pass.
That was nearly three years ago, and since I’ve had children I’ve had no major wobbles.
So that’s the story of my mental health thus far. I hope anyone reading this who is going through anything similar can be encouraged that it’s probably not as bad as it seems, and that there are ways out.
I’ll be referring back to these experiences in my next few posts, where I will talk about a few basic principles I’ve learned that have had a profound impact on my life. I promise they won’t be depressing at all!
Image via Pixabay