I thought about a lot of different things over the weekend.
I thought about how underrated the humble trifle is as a dessert (seriously though, cream, custard, jelly, fruit, cake, what’s not to like?), I thought about the reality that I am mere days away from the half way point in my pregnancy (nah but seriously, HOW?!) and I thought about the fact that this autumn will mark five years since my official depression diagnosis.
Although I want to clarify that my battles with mental illness go back much further than 2012. The first time I went to my doctor’s surgery and pleaded for help it was 2006 and I was 16. My GP simply pulled a book from his shelf, flicked to the second chapter and said ‘this is how much of your life you’ve written so far, now go away and write the rest of it’.
Not so helpful when you’re busy sticking your fingers down your throat and overdosing on paracetamol every day, huh?
I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about old Hannah. Both the version of myself from a decade ago, the girl who was so frantically struggling to stay afloat, and the version of myself from five years ago – the version of myself who finally found some of the help she so desperately needed.
And so I wanted to write this post about life after depression. Life after the darkness has completely taken over and enveloped you and left you feeling like there’s no way out. Because there is a life after, you just have to find it.
It was November 2012 when I finally got round to booking another GP appointment to discuss my mental health – this time with a different doctor at the surgery.
I was six months into my dream job at a magazine and desperately using it as a distraction from the hideous places my head went when left to its own devices. I’d just come out of a long-term relationship and my dad had just received the all-clear from cancer. I was celebrating a new time in my life and reveling in a fresh burst of freedom. I should have been ecstatically happy – and at many times, I was – but I was also harboring a lot of sadness and darkness. Call it unresolved emotions from my childhood if you will.
I spent a lot of time feeling numb. Feeling completely void of emotions. I would lose myself into my own head for hours at a time. And I knew that something needed fixing, that I couldn’t go on attempting to live my best life under a stormy cloud.
My doctor’s appointment was relatively short and simple – he asked me questions about how I was feeling, and then told me he thought I was likely suffering from a combination of stress, anxiety and depression, and that he wanted to place me on a daily 20mg dose of Citalopram, which is a commonly prescribed anti-depressant.
It didn’t scare me or shock me or make me freak out, in fact, it did the opposite. It assured me that all the fucked up stuff in my head was real, that it was worthy of medical attention, that I did need help.
I stayed on that anti-depressant for around 18 months in varying strengths. After moving to London I went up to 40mg which made me feel incapable of feeling anything, and before I finally came off them altogether I went down to 10mg.
I also had a few sporadic sessions with the occupational health therapist at the company I was working for. I was originally referred to her when my dad was ill, but found the sessions actually much more helpful for discussing my own emotions and my journey with depression.
I told her that I believed I would live with low-level depression for the rest of my life, that it was a disease embedded in my personality and my past. She told me that I shouldn’t write myself off so quickly, but that even if that was the reality, it was more than OK. She told me of people who’d continued on low doses of anti-depressants whilst pregnant and breast-feeding and said it wasn’t something that shouldn’t worry me, that long-term use of these sorts of medication were no longer frowned upon in the same way they once were.
And it put me at ease. It let me see my depression in a different light – as something manageable rather than something that could threaten to overcome me.
Now, there are a lot of things I attribute to fixing me.
There’s the medication, which I have no doubt helped pull me out of some of the darkest corners of my brain.
There was the people around me – I decided the best way to tackle my diagnosis wouldn’t be to keep it a dirty little secret, but to speak loudly and confidently about it. To embrace it. Because the more openly you can discuss it, the easier it is for other people to understand how they can help you.
I also found a real fire in my belly to fight it, to combat the depression. Things in my life were finally starting to shape up in the way I’d always dreamed they would, and so I felt like I owed it to myself to search for the determination to confront it face on.
And there was the life changes I made. I became aware that a lot of the things that were dragging me down – things like living situations and jobs and negative people – were actually entirely in my control and that I could change them. And so I did. I stopped fearing big changes and learned to rely on my gut instinct. To do things for me. To save myself. I cut people out, I moved on, and I relied heavily on the strength of being independent.
Now, depression is different for everyone, the way having a cold is different for everyone. No two people will have the exact same symptoms, and people will find different cures that benefit them.
But I am in a place now where life doesn’t overwhelm me. The good days by far outweigh the bad days. I am happy. I am excited and inspired and motivated, but more than any of that, I feel like me.
Like the version of me I was always supposed to be.
I fear the return of bad days. I worry about post-natal depression and about the uncertainty of the future – I worry that I could be brought down by troubles I know nothing about, or simply because depression likes to sneak up on you when everything else is going swimmingly.
But I take comfort in the fact I know there is a light after the dark. If I have found the light before then I can find it again. No matter how tough times get, there is a way out.
The first step in overpowering any mental illness is to admit it, to acknowledge that it’s there and therefore acknowledge that it’s something that can be fought.
I no longer believe I will live with depression for the rest of my life but I do believe I will be susceptible to it, that I need to be vigilant. But I am at peace with that, and if it wants to creep back into my life, I am prepared and I am ready.
And so to anyone currently suffering, just know that you are not alone, know that you are wonderful and strong and brave. And know that there will be a day, sometime in the future – maybe in a week or a month or a year – where you will be doing something seemingly mundane like driving or taking a walk and you will be overcome with this feeling of lightness, and you will know in that moment, that you are winning.
And you will want to cry because finally you can remember a life before the darkness and you can imagine a life after the darkness.
You have got this more than you could ever imagine.