It’s not a secret, exactly, but it’s not common knowledge among the people I see day-to-day that I have depression.
I don’t mind people knowing about it and I don’t mind answering questions. I don’t think it’s something that ought to define me, but there’s a stigma attached to it and it’s definitely not a glamorous quirk, so I tend not to drop that side of my life into general conversation when someone asks me about myself.
And I find it awkward to talk about. Thing is, if someone says they ‘suffer from depression’, it’s difficult to say, “Oh, me too!” and then discuss it because the term is such a catch-all for a range of moods these days. I’m not discrediting anyone’s experience, but someone who deals with social anxiety and manic episodes is not necessarily going to have had the same experience as someone who spends days curled up in a ball in the bathroom forgetting to eat. It’s something that is unique, but still horribly familiar to other depressives. When you’re in the midst of a bad spell, though, I promise it feels as though no one else has ever felt as bad as you have at that moment.
And describing the form your depression takes? Well, that makes me feel like a pretentious arse. I prefer to play it down and shrug it off as ‘I get a bit low sometimes’– even to CM, who lives with me and is the only person privy to just how bad things have, on occasion, been. I’m continually surprised and grateful that he’s still with me. But I’m a very functional depressive – I don’t take my crap to work if I can possibly help it. My boss is aware of it because I had to warn her about why I might be oversleeping when I started taking antidepressants. I try and keep it out of my social life, mostly by hiding out at home and refusing to go out, but I make an effort not to be the ‘breakdown in the pub’ person. I save that for the journey home.
Having said that, things have improved hugely in the past year and a half, and it’s all been down to sport.
Last month, papers started reporting on a study that purports to prove that doing exercise has no impact on mental health (original study here). The reporting implied that there was a huge, very basic flaw in that study – that doing a sport you love by choice is not the same as the PE experience of being made to do exercise (see here for why I say ‘implied’). This flaw is recognised and argued against very well by an answering Guardian article, which I agree with this (and love the comments that immediately recognise this as occupational therapy), so I’m not rehashing that side of things. I just want to recount why I don’t believe that study could be totally correct. All those links are just a lead into how much exercise has changed my life.
I wasn’t having a bad day, just a fat day, whinging about how horrible I felt and so forth, when my friend suggested I sign up for a triathlon- mostly because he already had and he wanted someone to train with.
At the time I was a couch potato (I still am, at heart) and taking antidepressants. With some persuading, I signed up for a sprint triathlon that was about nine months away. I was positive I needed those entire nine months to train to be able to do any of the three distances. I hadn’t been on a bike in about seven years. I hadn’t been swimming in two years, and then only breast stroke. And I never, ever ran.
That week, I signed up for the local gym. I printed out a couch-to-5k programme. I had a few quiet panic attacks. I loudly told everyone I knew what I had signed up so that I couldn’t back out. Then I started getting into a routine of training. I signed up for running events to keep me running. I registered on a training website to log what I was doing – which turned out to be an invaluable area of support. I had a sense of purpose. My sole aim was not to shame myself and to be able to do the distances in the allowed time limit. My aim is always to do this, in every race– I just want to finish.
I could start waxing poetic about the training. I won’t though – just, I learned to love the high of doing the exercise and finishing, and how my muscles, once they started appearing, ached. I work well to a schedule. If I have nothing planned, I get overwhelmed by the options and end up doing nothing at all. More than once, my job has kept me going just by dint of being something to get up for. This was something extra, with a tangible goal at the end (as well as shiny medals and pretty t-shirts). It gave me structure, even for weekends, and a daily natural high. Every time I got out of bed on time and made it to the gym, or reached a personal training milestone, it was a little bit of a boost.
After a couple of months, I didn’t feel bleakly flat any more, so I weaned myself off antidepressants and I haven’t been back on them. I should note that I know from experience that my troughs and peaks happen over a year or two, so maybe this is a peak – but I don’t think so. My mood-swings evened out, and things I struggled with daily stopped seeming so insurmountable. I felt, and still feel, more content than I ever had – I stopped picking fights with CM (I can hand-on-heart say that my mental health was making me a very unpleasant person to live with), things that got to me very easily stopped bothering me. The day I completed my first (secret) triathlon was a breakthrough on a level I’d never experienced. Suddenly nothing was off limits, everything was possible, because I never thought I would be able to finish a sprint triathlon, but I did.
This is starting to get really long and somewhat Reality TV Show/swell sentimental music. So I’m knocking this entry down to the key points. Sport changed my life –
- I’m off antidepressants; apparently off depression. I’ve gone from someone who, from an early age was (and I quote my own mother from a conversation, not a fight) ‘a very angry, very sad person’ to pretty much the opposite. I still get the blues occasionally, but they’re normal ‘the weather is crap, I have to go to work, I can’t be bothered’ blues, not ‘don’t come into the bathroom, I’m trying to drown myself in the tub’.
- It taught me that everything is a struggle and things never get easier – so don’t waste my time bemoaning what I’m dealing with. Everything involves work. Accept it and take it in your stride. This somewhat echoes what one of my GPs told me: “You need to accept that you’ll always have this –even when you feel great, even for ten years, it’ll probably come back. It’s part of who you are.* You need to accept that, learn how to recognise it so that you can deal with it the minute it reappears – and then refuse to make it the focus of your life.” That’s a genuine quote – I have good doctors. (*I’m genetically predisposed to depression – my bloodwork and so forth is fine.)
- Suffering is optional. It’s going to hurt – that doesn’t mean you need to wallow.
I think that without swimming, biking and running, it would have taken me years to learn those three things, more years than I felt I would last.