Depression can be a slow ebb


I wrote this article in 2011, when suicide was - as it so often is - in the news, after I was diagnosed with depression and prescribed medication to deal with the diagnosis. Since then, I have come off antidepressants and, more recently, gone back on them again. It's been a tough slog. Going back on medication feels, very often, like something close to failure - but I keep reminding myself that any other recurring illness wouldn't bring with it this taboo. When, as an adult, my childhood asthma reappeared, I went back to using a Ventolin inhaler; why should this be any different?

Our current obsession with happiness is one stumbling block I frequently come up against. Yes, being happy is great - but there is a full spectrum of emotions worth experiencing, and there is nothing that says one "should" be happy, 24/7. Life is full of ups and downs, without which it would be a very mundane existence, don't you think?

The past week’s news has come back, again and again, to suicide. These are heartbreaking, tragic deaths, which resulted from depression, we are told. It is, without a doubt, crucial that we as a society speak about these events and that we shed some light on depression in order to encourage people to seek help, to speak up before it is too late.

But depression is more than the sum of those stories; it is not always the big bang of newspaper headlines. Instead, it can be a slow ebb, a disease with which “sufferers” – though I dislike the word – live their whole lives without falling victim to tragedy or being hospitalised.

I have suffered from depression for, I estimate, five years. During my college years, I experienced extended and frequent “low” periods. My mother recommended I go to the chemist for a pick-me-up; my college GP referred me to a therapist with whom I would talk about fights I’d had with my friends. There was nothing out of the ordinary except for the constant feeling of sadness beneath the surface.

It was only this year that a diagnosis was made, insofar as I was prescribed anti-depressants by my GP, for an indefinite period of time. Perhaps I will take these drugs forever; perhaps I will take them for nine months – the initial recommendation – and then return to an unmedicated state.

Whatever I do, I refuse to return to the way I was before, to where each day was lived mostly in order to get to the next and my emotional state – of sadness, of anxiety, of the verge right next to tears – was an accepted byproduct of my life.

The advertisements, the appeals, the news stories, each and every one urges “sufferers” to talk to a friend – but when your depression is of the slow-ebb variety, talking to friends is no easy task, not least because you’ll face a torrent of opposition. “You’re grand,” they’ll say. “Sure weren’t you out the other night and you had a great time?”

It’s true that I lived through my own “suffering”. I worked, I socialised, I celebrated birthdays and Christmas. I had relationships; I had ups and I had downs, but it was the constant feelings of anxiety and isolation and, at the lowest points, of paranoia and sheer panic, that indicated something was wrong.

My friends, it seemed, needed me to be seriously depressed in order to acknowledge a diagnosis. At one stage, I was asked: “Are you thinking of . . . hurting yourself?” No, I was not – and with that denial came instant dismissal as well as, to be fair, relief.

My parents, as concerned as they were – and continue to be – for my wellbeing, don’t understand how I can be depressed. I have a good job, I have friends – I am, to all intents and purposes, happy. But depression doesn’t always manifest in non-stop tears, in staying in bed all day and night, in being unable to eat, sleep, speak, laugh . . . it wields its power in myriad ways, none of which is more or less noteworthy than the next.

The fact that talk of depression turns, inevitably, to talk of suicide is somewhat disheartening; it narrows the definitions of a multi-faceted affliction into its own worst-case scenario.

At best, these definitions are a relief – to know that my depression isn’t that bad, that I’m not an extreme case. At worst, they are terrifying pictures of what is to come.

We need positive, honest depictions of varieties of depression – of a disease such as mine, which left me at a low ebb for a few years before deepening into a constant anxiety not unlike a constant job-interview fear, as well as a disease that can force people into seemingly impossible situations and can result in the ultimate desperation.

There are thousands of people going about their daily lives for whom laughter masks feelings of panic and sadness, however mild, and I would urge them to get help. Not before it’s too late, but before you wake up in 40 years’ time and realise you’ve spent half your life feeling more sad than happy. Life is short, but the way I see it, it’s the longest thing you’ll ever do – so it’s worth doing well.