In 2004 my life unravelled. Looking back on my story I am able to see that there were a number of significant changes in my behaviour.
For me the most significant change was a need to control everything about my immediate environment (i.e. my home).
This became extreme so that even a coffee cup out of place became a source of severe anxiety. My reactions to not being able to control something became extreme and quite unreasonable.
From that point onwards I became very ill, very quickly. I couldn’t stop crying, I couldn’t concentrate, I didn’t want to leave my home and I didn’t want to be with people.
I went to my GP who immediately recognised my symptoms and diagnosed me with depression. I had absolutely no idea of what was happening to me or why I was feeling this way. But it had a name and a treatment. I didn’t know anything about depression. I began trialling what became a long list of medications.
As I rapidly deteriorated and became unable to function and wasn’t able to get out of bed I was hospitalised. Here I was diagnosed with severe major clinical depression with psychotic features.
I spent several weeks in hospital where different medications were closely monitored, I was able to rest, I was assigned a psychiatrist and also participated in sessions with a psychologist.
This is where the team approach of support began. This is also where myself and my family and my close friends began to understand this illness and its effects. When I returned home I began counselling. I began to understand that I needed to deal with traumatic events from my childhood.
Growing up I had lived with two mantras in my head.
- Worse things happen to other people so I shouldn’t complain; and
- I’m really lucky because it didn’t affect me.
Well…apparently it did.
My strategy for coping with the childhood trauma I had experienced was that I controlled what I could. I had spent my whole life living in a very controlled manner, being a very ‘good’ girl, trying to make everyone happy and trying to ‘fix’ everyone whilst avoiding conflict and anger. Trying to be the ‘perfect’ daughter, wife, mother and friend. And it worked. Until it didn’t.
When there came a time where a number of very significant events occurred that I couldn’t control and I couldn’t ‘fix’, severe depression and anxiety resulted.
In counselling I was supported to make these connections. However, during this time it was also recognised by my treating doctors that I wasn’t responding to medication.
I was again hospitalised in an attempt to find the right combination and dosage of medication. Unfortunately I didn’t respond to the medications and deteriorated even further. At this point ECT (Electro Convulsive Treatment) was recommended in an attempt to stabilise my condition. It was able to alleviate some of my symptoms for the short term in order to allow the medications to take effect. After a combination of the ECT treatments, the medications and a third hospitalisation my condition was stabilised. And then the counselling really kicked in.
From then on, even though many times it was a case of two steps forward and one step back, I have always been moving in the right direction. Slowly I began to learn what helped and what didn’t.
Counselling and medication helped. Having a counsellor and psychiatrist who communicated helped. Having loving family and friends helped. Having private medical insurance helped. Having a good diet and exercise helped. Yoga has also been important as has developing regular sleep patterns.
Yoga has been a vital tool in my recovery. Moving and breathing in such a conscious way has allowed me to make links between my brain and my body which had not previously developed in the usual manner. It has also helped with the exhausting effects of hyper vigilance (an abnormal, heightened awareness of the environment and detection of threats). Living in this state is normal for me but I now understand the toll that it takes. This understanding makes me kinder to myself. It’s okay that I think a bit differently to some other people. It’s okay that I process things a bit differently. I am proud that I have such a clever brain!
Learning my triggers helped. My major trigger is a feeling of lack of safety. This can be a feeling, a smell, an environment, a person, or an incident. None of which are predictable. Being on holidays sometimes feels unsafe. Surprises, even good ones, sometimes feel unsafe. Secrets DEFINITELY feel unsafe.
Making sense of my past, the physiological and psychological damage that was caused as the result of the trauma has really, really helped.
Understanding this illness, its symptoms, causes and effects has been crucial to my recovery. I wish that I had known more about depression. It would have made a difference.
My lack of understanding was one of the things that didn’t help. It didn’t help that people thought my changes in behavior were caused by early menopause, or mid-life crisis, or the most hurtful of all- that I was ‘doing this’ for attention. Would anyone even think these things of someone with another chronic illness like asthma or epilepsy?
Can you imagine suggesting to someone with epilepsy to ‘try harder’ to get better? That would be like telling me to ‘try harder’ to grow 5cms taller. It didn’t help that friendships were lost because friends were uncomfortable coming to visit a psychiatric hospital.
All of these ‘unhelpful’ actions were the result of lack of knowledge, understanding and education. That’s why I am sharing my story.
It also didn’t help me that my therapist died. The loss of Carolyn was enormous to me. She was the first person that I felt safe to share my thoughts with. She always believed in me and cared about me. She was my ‘safe place’.
Finding another wonderful therapist who was able to help me deal with the grief over losing my first therapist and then to help me continue to make progress was an amazing support and huge help. Therapy has been critical to my recover. It is impossible for me to put into words how thankful I am to the two therapists who have supported me, taught me so much, comforted me and genuinely cared about me. They have literally been my life savers. It can take some time to find the ‘right’ person but it is time well spent and can be life changing and life-saving.
Along with understanding this illness I was taught to challenge some of my beliefs. I learnt that I could stop striving to be perfect because I was ‘enough’ just as I am.
I learnt that I was NOT a burden on my family and friends (this was a tough belief to challenge!), and I accept that there are always going to be some things that affect me greatly (conflict, anger, feeling unsafe, guilt).
The important thing is that I recognise these things now, I understand why they happen, and I am getting pretty good at putting things in place to deal with them.
I have learnt what ‘boundaries’ are and that it’s okay and appropriate for me to have them. Sometimes my learning is at a very basic level. But learning all these things has really helped.
I have been told though that the biggest factor that has helped me is that I was willing to ask for help.
I got to a point where I could no longer ‘put on the mask’. I could no longer keep ‘stuffing down’ my feelings. It became impossible to continue to struggle and live this way. The battle became bigger than me. Too big. But I always asked for help. Sometimes I begged for help. I truly, truly begged.
The help is there. Just like with any other illness we need to feel comfortable to seek help and encourage others to do so. And the earlier the better. Just like with most other illnesses, the earlier the diagnosis-the earlier the treatment can begin and the better the outcome.
I have faced the stigma of having a mental illness, people chose to leave my life because of this illness. I faced discrimination in the workplace.
But for me the hardest thing by far, and the biggest blocker to my recovery was the guilt that I felt. I felt guilty about everything. Why couldn’t I be happy when I had the most wonderful husband, children and friends? I have learnt that this can be a very common symptom of depression.
For me the guilt was overwhelming and debilitating. I felt so guilty that I was putting my family and friends through so much. This was guilt that I would never have felt if I had some other chronic illness.
Depression has taught me so much.
I liken my story to the analogy of a vase.
Prior to 2004 I was like a glass vase, intact on the outside, no chips, no scratches. Very shiny and clean.
In 2004 the glass vase was dropped and shattered. It shattered into a million pieces.
Since 2004 myself and my support team (family, friends and professionals) have been working hard to put the pieces back together.
We have used lots and lots of glue. And just like anything else that is reinforced with glue it becomes much stronger. A sledgehammer couldn’t break that glass now. The vase is not the same any more. There are gaps where the pieces wouldn’t fit and the surface is uneven. But it stands strong and proud and true.
I am the strongest person I know. I am resilient beyond measure. I have a level of understanding and empathy for others that I would not otherwise have known.
For some people it is a long, hard fight with many twists and turns.
But it is a fight that can be won.
And remember, depression is not a sign of weakness, it is an illness that can be treated and managed.
Thank you for listening to my story.
Tell us, do you have a similar story?