This next guest post is written by JC Stephenson, author of ‘A Murder in Auschwitz‘. Here he shares his experiences with depression: its randomness, its creeping intrusiveness, its all consuming nature, and the hope there is for overcoming and living beyond it.
I did not see it myself. It took someone else to tell me I needed help.
Looking back, of course, the signs were all there. I worked in a stressful job and I found homelife just as stressful; one fed off the other – but I will come back to that. I used to start work very early in the morning and the traffic had not had a chance to build up, so my drive to work was normally pretty smooth. I would arrive, always the first in my department, and get down to dealing with the various deadlines and tasks that were required. And this is how the day went; tasks followed by deadlines, interrupted by problems, and so on. Over and over, until it was time to go home.
There was a bridge between where I worked and where I lived and often there would be a breakdown or maintenance on the bridge causing huge tailbacks. I used to pray for these to happen. When the traffic was at a standstill, I would switch off my engine and the radio and just sit there, knowing that there was nothing I could do about it. It was something entirely out of my control – it was the only peaceful time in my day. I never told anyone my feelings at the time; everyone else was racing to get home – they could not wait – and I just wanted to sit in my car in a traffic jam in peace.
I suffer from depression and severe anxiety. My job did not cause this, or my family, nor anything or anyone else externally, or an event, or anything which ‘switched this on’. It is just me. It is how I am made. It is the chemicals in my brain. It is how I am wired. After a day at work I would find even the slightest thing out of the ordinary in the family home too much to deal with. They thought it was them, or that I was ‘bringing my job home’ but they were wrong; it was just me.
I have heard depression described as various animate things; a dark cloud, a shadow, but probably most famously as Churchill’s black dog. Although I understand why these descriptions are used, for me, it is like a fog. It is always just there, just out of sight, almost like it is following me, waiting to engulf me. And now that I know that it lurks there, I can attempt to keep it at bay. When it creeps around and into my vision, I can try to push it back before it overwhelms me. Normally, I can manage this; I have things I can do that will make the fog dissipate, however, sometimes it just appears too quickly – I don’t expect it and I can’t stop it.
For me, whatever the trigger, this is how it feels; probably most unusually, considering the types of work I do, I lose the ability to make decisions. It is like a rapid brain freeze, I struggle with what may be a simple binary question – do this or do that. I can feel the panic rise as I try to process the rather simple information but here is what I think is going on; there is a safe option – go home, or do not go out, or do not meet those new people – and there is a less safe option – pop into the pub, go to the party, smile and say hello to those new people. Nothing devastating can happen if I do the less safe option, but the safe option is just SO safe. It is not that I cannot make up my mind, it is more complex than that but essentially that is what is going on, the decision process just stops. It is infuriating for other people, even those who understand, and I know this, which makes it worse, and I stop talking. I cannot describe what is going on because at that moment I cannot process the information. This makes things worse and I imagine that the frustration that the other person is feeling is escalating which, in turn, increases my anxiety, meaning I become non-communicating altogether and entirely unable to even contemplate the original decision-making process.
This is when fight-or-flight kicks in. And in almost every case, the only real option open is flight; I just want to get to a safe place – alone. It might be to go home, it might be to get into a room, it might be to go and sit in the car. Everything else becomes entirely unimportant, no matter the consequences – that can all be sorted later – I need to get to that safe space.
Once I am there I still can’t concentrate. I feel a physical pain in my gut. My anxiety is heightened. And I feel incredible guilt. But I do not need to communicate with anyone – I have removed that from the mix. I cannot go over what has just happened or run the events through my mind; it all seems too jumbled and I feel guilty that I have hurt the person I was with. That is the absolute worst feeling of all.
I am not sure what clears the fog is these situations. Perhaps it is a night of sleep, perhaps something else – I really am not sure – but it takes at least half a day to clear enough for me to get control over it again. I can then push the fog back until all is back to normal. Or, rather, not quite normal. For days afterwards I am on a hair trigger. The fog is ready to consume me at a moment’s notice. Finally, I am back on an even keel, as if nothing had ever happened.
It was my wife who initially told me to go to the doctor. She had noticed my behaviour. It seems extraordinary that I could not see this for myself, but she was the one who got me to the doctor and looked after me. As kind as she was, as understanding as she was through all of this, it was so very difficult for her and we caused each other just too much pain.
This was around 5 years ago, but looking back beyond that time, I can see when this has affected me throughout my entire life. I recognise events that are now clearly a manifestation of anxiety or depression from my childhood, my teens, into adult life.
I now realise that the fog has always been with me and always will be. I will continue to try to control it and will do everything I can to ensure it does not affect those around me. As much as can be in my control, anyway. The good news is that I mostly can. It does not affect my job. It rarely affects my family. And, on the whole, I am a pretty happy guy.
I have simplified and distilled this complex issue down to a short blog – but I hope that just reading that simplified version of me and my fog will help some understand those who struggle to communicate what is happening to them. Everyone’s fog, cloud, shadow, or black dog will visit them from time to time, some more than others, and above all, the support they need during this visit is our understanding.
JC Stephenson’s day job is in the Third Sector in Scotland. But in his free time he occasionally writes poetry, blogs about history, tweets about politics, and has written a book. He is currently working on his new novel. You can find more of him and his work on his blog and social media platforms:
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If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.
The Samaritans: http://www.samaritans.org
Young Minds: http://www.youngminds.org.uk
Papyrus (prevention of young suicide): https://www.papyrus-uk.org
Self Harm UK: https://www.selfharm.co.uk
Time to Change: http://www.time-to-change.org.uk
Rethink Mental Illness: http://www.rethink.org
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: https://www.afsp.org
Please do not struggle alone.