© Vicky Hartle

Depression: What it feels like to receive a visit from the dark side

06.03.2019 | By LISA HARTLE

I first experienced depression when I was in my mid-twenties and at university. It came out of nowhere and I had no idea why, I should have been having the time of my life, there was no tragedy that occurred, no reason for me to feel this way but as I have since learned that’s not how depression ‘works’. It can strike at any time and doesn’t need a reason. I unravelled pretty quickly and it left me feeling like a different person trapped in a different, darker world where no one recognised me and I didn’t recognise myself. I reached a point where I didn’t want to wake up the next morning but I didn’t want to kill myself either…I just wanted to cease to exist, which must have been heartbreaking for my family to hear….but it is how I felt. I remember one day looking in the mirror and saying I’ve had enough, so I went to see my doctor I was prescribed anti-depressants and slowly with help from my loved ones I started to get better.

I don’t feel as though I’ve ever been the same person since my first experience of depression and this isn’t a negative aspect. Since then I appreciate feeling happy more than I ever did and I appreciate what are deemed the simpler things in life such as having my favourite coffee or laughing with friends. I can also relate to and empathise with others in a way I never could before.

Well-meaning friends who have never experienced depression have asked me to help them understand what it feels like with the only emotion they could compare it to as feeling upset. So after years of being free from depression ‘visiting me’, when it returned in the Summer of 2018 I decided to document the feelings and symptoms as it approached, in the hope that it will help people to have an insight into what it is like. Listing the symptoms such as waking up at 3 am with a racing heart or for me the cruellest symptom; a feeling of absolute hopelessness doesn’t convey what depression feels like so I personified depression as that is what the illness feels like for me…an unwelcome visitor.

June 2018

A familiar, unwelcome, gentle tap on my shoulder. I feared he would return one day but prayed he wouldn’t.

It’s been a long time. I thought I saw him lurking in the distance weeks ago but dismissed it as tiredness. But as slowly and inauspiciously as spots of mould appearing on a neglected ceiling, I didn’t realise he was back until he had made a firm root back in my life. A delicate, conniving invasion. I should have known he had returned when I jolted awake long before the sun each morning or my pillow told me my heart was racing. And of course his seemingly specialised skill – coating any hope in his thick tar, to the extent that I could barely remember what hope felt like – I haven’t forgotten – but the longer each period of feeling hopeless lasts the harder it is to remember, let alone feel it.

I usually find the most joy in the simplest of things, but when he is around I feel nothing for anything. I try to remember what I usually feel when I see my favourite people, buy coffee from my favourite place or as cliche as it sounds to wake up and see a blue sky welcoming me to the day. But with him back I feel nothing and then guilt and sadness at feeling nothing. Some days he leaves me alone – I feel hope again, the coffee tastes good, my unreachable dreams return to being achievable goals, I feel lighter – free. But with no warning at all, he can swoop back, with each whisper in my ear snatching everything that brings me joy and above all hope, hope at what I’ll achieve during my life. Mocking my aspirations, telling me I’m ridiculous for ever thinking my ambitions can be anything other than dreams. I tell myself that I was fine – more than fine – the last time he left and that he was gone for a long period so I just need to hold tight and ride his visit out.

This time depression was easier for me to deal with, as like a broken-heart if you’ve overcome it once you know you’ll eventually be fine again, you just need to ride it out. As with many things it is the unknown which is most terrifying.

Glastonbury 2016: How most people know me to be - laughing easily

The Glastonbury Festival-mud photo is how most people know me to be – happy and up for an adventure. This is probably why when I once told someone I sometimes encounter depression she said:

“I can’t imagine you having depression, you’re such a happy person”, obviously this was meant as a compliment but it just showed how misunderstood mental health is. It’s similar to saying “I can’t imagine you having a cold, you’re such a happy person”.

Personality has no relation to having depression, anyone can experience it and 1 in 4 do at some point. I absolutely love that we have days like World Mental Health Day which hopefully mean that eventually this misunderstanding will be wiped away….just like that glorious Glasto mud!

Ten years ago people talked about mental health problems in whispers, 100-years-ago people were sent to the asylum for having depression….so we’ve come a long way! But we’ve still got further to go until everyone feels comfortable talking about mental health without feeling judged.

I’m not a healthcare professional so my advice for anyone having a visit from depression would be to see your doctor, sometimes anti-depressants just give you that lift above the water you need to start healing. Other steps that help me is to really take good care of myself even though all I want to do is be alone eating everything I shouldn’t, if you can manage it go for walks, eat and drink foods full of goodness and be around people who love you, the love they give you when you feel like you can’t love yourself is a huge part of getting well again.

I post about depression on every World Mental Health Day, the great thing is that with each year more people I know are sharing their stories….each one chipping away at the stigma surrounding mental health. So talk about your noggin and do what you need to, to look after it.