From Our Readers
September 14, 2014 7:00 am

Last November, I was diagnosed with depression. It’s an illness that provokes a wide range of reactions in people, depending on their personal experiences. For me, it is still something intangible: just when I think I’ve understood its impact on my life and those around me, it slips away and mutates into something else. Some days I am able to brush it aside, other days it lies on me like a hot, heavy, suffocating blanket, preventing me from doing anything, and leaving me tearful with frustration. For sufferers and those who deal with us, be it friends, family, or colleagues, I think depression might be the most frustrating illness of them all.

When I was diagnosed, my doctor suggested I take anti-depressants and that I sign off from work for a few months. I was, after some initial hesitation, happy to try the medication, but signing off work was an impossibility, due to the meagerness of statutory sick pay. However, after a few months of continuing with work, everything had changed. I was so incredibly tired, and my attention span was so woefully short, that I was making more and more mistakes by the day. After one particular crisis at work, I went to my doctor and finally agreed to sign off work.

I struggled immensely with taking time off. Those who were sympathetic said, “You must think of it as having a broken leg. Nobody would expect you to go to work with a broken leg, so don’t feel bad about it.” But, obviously, one of the hardest and most frustrating things about depression is that you cannot see it. You cannot put a pin in it, do a test, take an x-ray and say, “Yes! You have depression!” Even to myself, I often wondered if I was truly ill or not. The general impression of the illness is that you must be utterly incapable of doing anything, ever, constantly weeping, preferably with scars lacing your arms and a couple of suicide notes in your back pocket. One of my colleagues said after I’d left, “But she always seemed so happy.” There are no set markers, only what you feel, and getting the full grasp of the shape of your own emotions can be astonishingly difficult.

This doubt surrounding depression diagnoses isn’t helped by the attitudes you encounter. Most of the people I told (and I made a point of telling many people, after seeing from the experience of others that not talking about it only serves to isolate you further) were absolutely wonderful, hugely supportive, and told me to do whatever I needed to do to get better, including leaving work and taking some time off. However, from some people, I received no support at all. One told me that I needed to be sure I “really was ill, and you don’t just need someone to tell you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

I was told that people my age had no reason to be depressed, that people left university and suddenly had to deal with grown-up things like bills and so on, and found it difficult to cope with (interesting, seeing as I’d left university for nearly four years and had been paying bills when I was there in any case), and that this wasn’t proper depression. I was told that depression was massively over-diagnosed, and that this particular person doubted its existence.

It’s difficult to imagine someone denying the existence of a broken leg,. Unfortunately, the situations I was in when all this was said to me meant I couldn’t defend my diagnosis. It is these kinds of attitudes which get people into a lot of trouble these days if they are voiced publicly, but you can hear the undercurrent of grumbling and scoffing even now in private.

One of the main reasons depression is so intensely frustrating is that unless you have experienced it for yourself, it is incredibly difficult to understand it in somebody else. When a close friend of mine was diagnosed with depression at university, it was at a time when we were all struggling with dissertations and final exams. We struggled to understand it, because we were all worried, stressed, and fed up: what was so different about them? Why couldn’t they get on with it?

It’s only when you have suffered from it yourself that you understand: with depression, you just can’t. You can’t “just get on with it.” There are days when you are against an invisible wall, and all you can do is stare blankly into space. Or cry. Or cocoon yourself in a duvet. Many days at work it was all I could do not to curl up under the desk in a ball. You are filled with a total, immovable weight, sunk deep into your chest and stomach, dragging your head down to your chest. It’s not surprising that I wasn’t terribly productive in my last months at my job.

For partners of people with depression, I have the greatest sympathy. I’d say depression is 99% as frustrating for them as it is for the person suffering from the depression. So much of the time, there is nothing you can do. Someone you love will have tears streaming down their face, telling you they’re desperate and scared and sad and can’t see a way out. They don’t know why they feel like this, and it is the absence of answers that is the worst part of all. Some partners sit and stare helplessly, others cry, too, others get frustrated and angry and tell you to “just cheer up.”

I understand the anger inside-out and back-to-front, but in nearly all cases, getting angry is the most destructive thing you can do. Someone once told me that depression is anger turned inwards on itself. The person suffering is angry, too, as angry as their partner is that they cannot defeat this cloying, dragging, desperate illness which is making them both miserable. In my experience, the best thing to do is to hug and reassure a person in this kind of pain. For me, putting something easy and cheerful on the television and offering to cook dinner are the next good steps. Then, because partners are equally frustrated and angry, they should tell someone else what they are going through. They need someone to lean on so their anger doesn’t clog them up, too.

The last utterly frustrating thing about depression is that the person who is suffering is the best person to help themselves, even if they find it impossible to do so. Good support is worth its weight in gold, but ultimately, the person who is suffering has to be the one to get up and go to the doctor. To take the pills. To talk to a counselor. To face the days when you can’t get up, and find the energy to do it anyway.

A friend of mine said to me that just because I have all these negative thoughts, doesn’t mean I have to give in to them. You have to fight the battle for yourself, and keep putting one foot in front of the other on the days when it doesn’t seem possible. Of course, this is desperately frustrating in itself, because depression will keep throwing up moments or hours or days when you want to sink like a stone. I am still fighting, and trying to find more and more things to help me through the dark days. Reading children’s books can help lift the fog for a while. Getting outside. Talking to the dog. Going for a walk. Music. Dancing. Any little thing that makes you feel more like yourself, and less like a plaything for a killer disease.

Chloe Day is a 20-something living and working in London while completing a Masters degree. She is an introvert with a passion for blues dancing. You can read more from her here and follow her on Twitter here.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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