The worst thing about depression – when it has you by the balls / boobs and is holding your head underneath the pillow, when it’s at its most debilitating and downright exhausting – is the guilt. There is guilt about the fact that this might all be your fault. The guilt that you lack normal amounts of energy because you’ve been worrying too much. The guilt about feeling like a big fat lazy sloth whilst everyone else is whistling along cheerily to the sound of their 7am alarm. The guilt that your brain isn’t working properly and it might be your fault because of that time you got absolutely shit-faced on ecstasy and didn’t sleep for two days. That your life choice and your lifestyle may have some how had an adverse effect on your brain and therefore this depression is most definitely YOUR fault. There is also the very unhelpful thought chewing away at the back of your mind that you might be making this all up and that you’re actually OK because you managed to laugh at Deliciously Stella’s Instagram earlier so you can’t be that sad. Therefore you feel very, very guilty about it all.
Then there is the guilt experienced by those closest to you. Your Mum, your Dad, your Dad’s Dad, your best friend, your dog, your spider plant. In my experience, they too feel guilty. They think that perhaps they could have done something differently, and they should have tried to program your brain not to feel anxious about speaking in meetings or cripplingly worried about the fact that you have to do a speech at your best friends wedding and you are festering at the thought of fucking it all up. Maybe it was something they said to you when you were three that made you feel like you should be worried about life. This might absolutely be the case for some, but from my experience and from listening to lots of other people, it isn’t always. I would like to say now that even though there are certain behavioural patterns learnt from our parents and those around us in our early years, depression is not necessarily any bodies fault. The worst feeling I have felt when opening up about my anxiety and depression to my parents has been the reaction that they are worried they did something wrong and it made me like this. For me to experience my parents hurting because of me is incredibly painful, and, you guessed it, makes me feel VERY VERY GUILTY. So I would like to expel the idea from everybody’s minds and let them know that none of this is any ones fault.
The thing that makes the guilt extra horrible, is the idea that we can’t be open to people in our daily lives about what we are going through for fear of not getting that promotion, or not being trusted in our decisions or appearing weak. It breeds a feeling of shame, that there is something to hide. I can wholeheartedly say, that this lack of discussion and understanding about depression is stiflingly unhealthy to everyone, and actually if people felt comfortable to discuss the fact that they are having a bad time mentally as freely as they feel discussing their head cold, then things would be much easier for everyone.
Recently I spent 5 weeks off sick from work after suffering from a nervous breakdown (my therapist doesn’t like this phrase but I’m going with it.) Prior to this, I had developed a shiny exterior of lovely bubbliness in the office. I was positively bouyant around all of my colleagues and I undertook my work with gusto. This meant that because I was pretending that I was doing brilliantly, my brain was trapped in a pressure cooker and I would cry in the mornings at the sight of a very small needy pooch on the tube, or be overly empathatic to anyone expressing any kind of emotion. Basically, I packed my emotions into a tiny tiny box for work, and I wouldn’t let them out all day. Of course the emotions eventually out grew the box and the box would be forced open, resulting in me crying in meetings or having to vacate my desk to sob in the park (there are many small needy dogs there so you can imagine my state.) I’m telling you this because I feel that if I had allowed myself to be more honest with my colleagues about my mental health, then I might not have ended up in such a ball of pickle.
During this period of ‘sick leave,’ I made the decision to be honest with everyone and I sent an email to my colleagues explaining what had happened to me. I told them frankly that I had been suffering with anxiety for a long time which had resulted in a nervous breakdown, and that I missed them very much. I had to tell them that last bit because I felt guilty (that old chestnut) about not being able to do my job and for leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces. After I sent that email, a steady stream of messages began trickling into my inbox from colleagues offering genuine support and incredibly kind words. They too had each been through their own mental pickles, and it was clear that they valued my openness.
I know of course, that this is a very sensitive and personal subject to discuss in public, and I know it isn’t practical for everyone to be this open. But what I’m saying is that if one person opens up, then five others might feel better about doing so too, and by discussing what it is like to experience depression will no doubt enable others to understand and therefore help break a taboo that is exceptionally unhelpful and therefore help to dispel THE GUILT.
So, I stick to my decision to go forth boldly, and when someone asks me where I’ve been or what I’ve been up to, I’ll tell them. Unashamedly, just like Deliciously Stella does about how she’s just eaten 10 donuts in a row. I can already tell you that this has not been as painful or awkward as you might imagine. Instead it has been an empowering exercise, and I haven’t felt guilty or ashamed once.