Melancholy, the darkness, the blue funk… just a small selection of the ways to describe depression but for me, the most appropriate is how Winston Churchill related depression to that of a black dog. Although he wasn’t the first person to describe the mental illness in this way, it is certainly something which I can relate to. Much like a dog, depression can be brought to heel and controlled. Other times you feel like it’s running rings around you.
I know when the dog has one up on me when I feel completely and utterly drained, almost devoid of energy. I feel like I am walking around in mud, and the harder I try to move the faster it holds. The most challenging aspect to grasp is that I genuinely don’t know how to feel, or how I should feel during these times – as I struggle to feel much.
Roughly five years ago, I went to see a doctor during one of my darker times. I had felt down before, sad even but I assumed that like all of our emotions they ebb and flow depending on our current situation, our experiences with those around us and our hormones. However, at this point in my life something felt different. The mud was thicker, the rings being run around me were created faster, and I simply kept falling over.
So I made the call and booked myself in.
My experience however wasn’t wholly positive; upon describing the reason for my visit the doctor asked me some standard questions about my recent medical history and emotional state and then recommended… doing more exercise.
Yes, exercise certainly can help. I know.
I enjoy exercising and it was something that I did quite a fair bit of at the time. Working in the field of psychology, I was already familiar with the symptoms of depression, which include prolonged periods (at least more than two weeks) of low mood, tearful, lacking motivation, change in appetite, lack of energy and sleeplessness (or conversely, sleeping a lot more). And I was also aware of the things that could help alleviate these symptoms such as exercise, spending time with loved ones, getting outside, taking up a hobby and so on.
I left the doctor’s practice feeling misunderstood and a little angry. Had I not explained myself sufficiently? Perhaps my symptoms weren’t ‘severe’ enough to be anything significant? Simply, I doubted that there was a problem in the first place and so I tried to put it to the back of my mind and tried to get on with my life.
At the time I was coming out of an emotionally challenging relationship and with few other choices I had moved back into my parent’s house (in my late-20’s, not fun). Initially, it provided familiar comforts but at this point, I had turned inward and aside from going to work and seeing friends, I shut myself away and therefore I shut my parents out. My mother had always been fond of my ex (I truly believe that she thought we’d get married, live ‘happily ever after’ that sort of thing) and she couldn’t understand what had happened. She wanted to know more, demanded even at various stages. I knew her questions were only out of concern, but I couldn’t even muster the energy to retrace the steps in my mind to address my unhappiness.
At its worst, I broke down at work. Initially behind the closed door of a toilet cubicle and then it became larger and I was holding back tears whilst in the office. I knew at this point I needed to do something more. Doing more exercise wasn’t going to cut it.
I revisited the doctor (the same one in fact due to no-one else being available) and this time, he recommended speaking to a therapist. He provided me with a few numbers, but it transpired that all but one no longer practised in the area. The remaining one had a full client list for the foreseeable future. It could have been easy to retreat further at this point. However, something pushed me on and a Google search provided me with some contact details for another private practice in the city and I managed to get an introductory appointment for the following week.
In all, I attended only a handful of sessions with the therapist. Unfortunately, they ended due to the therapist moving to another area of the city. At the time I couldn’t afford the additional transport costs on a regular basis. Looking back, I wish I had made more of an effort to continue to see her. She did more for me in those few months than she probably ever realised.
So why is now familiar to my experiences five years ago?
With the benefit of hindsight, I have been able to pinpoint one of the main reasons for my current state and that it relates to a degree of burnout regarding work. I feel utterly uninspired by my job for a variety of reasons and have done for some time, although it was in a recent training session with colleagues (which coincidently focused on motivation and importantly understanding how to stay motivated) that was my wake-up call. So although the time and situations were very different, I was experiencing similar symptoms as to before.
However, unlike five years ago where I kept a large part of myself hidden away, this time I reached out and spoke to a couple of close friends to let them know what was going on. Their support was invaluable as has help from a local therapist whom I connected with through Facebook.
Like depression, burnout has some similar characteristics such as loss of appetite, anxiety, lacking energy, forgetfulness and so on. Researchers from the US and Switzerland led a piece of research to address the link between symptoms of depression and traits of burnout through a study on teachers. In short, the researchers found a pattern between the two, with women more likely than men to experience both*.
This doesn’t come as much as a surprise. Whether you are burnt out by your job, family commitments or money worries, for instance, the result is the same – you are not able to ‘function’ at a level you were at an earlier period. Therefore, some things have to give.
One of my first steps to regaining a better sense of myself was to get back into writing (i.e., spend more time doing it!) Writing is perhaps one thing that provides the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, where I am able to express and explore aspects of myself and my environment. Furthermore, the support that I have received since speaking out to close friends and a therapist have reminded me that I am not alone. Although both not panaceas in themselves, I am becoming more aware of what I ‘experience’ and so I can address the symptoms in a healthier way.
I am not in no way out of the woods yet, but I am now in the position of considering how to address my burnout and other symptoms. And I have also slowly accepted that the black dog may follow me around for the rest of my life. It’s how I deal with it that makes the difference.
* A greater proportion of women were surveyed 75%.