This is by no means the most severe case of mental illness you will have ever read about. I’m perfectly aware that there are people out there who have suffered far more than I have. But that’s why I think it is important to share my story, because it does matter. It matters in whoever it affects, and to whatever extent. No matter who you are, or what you are going through, it matters.
When I was younger, probably about 14 years old, someone very close to me – a member of my family in fact - was diagnosed with severe depression and immediately put on medication. At the time, I remember having absolutely no comprehension of what the word “depression” meant. Surely someone who was “depressed” just needed to boot themselves up the backside, right? Indeed, that seems to be the opinion that majority of the population harbour: that depression can be overcome by a stern self-talking to, that it’s a voluntary feeling, easily cured by the individual if they just tried. I always thought so.
It wasn’t until a very difficult summer in 2012, then coming to Oxford and finally being diagnosed with depression myself, that I realized the full gravity of the illness. It makes sense to start at the beginning to explain exactly how depression manifested itself in me. I had a very positive upbringing, I loved my school, my family were (and still ARE) absolutely incredible. I cannot make any claims to some sort of tragic event which triggered my depression. On the contrary, my childhood and home-life were idyllic. Which is why is seems pertinent to me to make it absolutely clear that depression can occur in anyone.
I left school in 2010 with an optimistic outlook on the future. I had a great group of friends and was really excited to start Sixth Form College with them all. However, college is precisely where it all went wrong. My friendship group quickly disintegrated around me; it became very clear that I wanted entirely different things to them. My focus was on academia, learning, literature, and ultimately: getting into Oxford. This motivation, however beneficial to my achievement, quickly isolated me. After a messy break up with a boyfriend at the end of my first year, I found myself with very few friends who I actually felt I could turn to. My second year of college was not much better. I immersed myself in study and exercise. These were the only things that took my mind off the intense feeling of loneliness which was growing inside of me.
Consequently, the summer before I started university was long and solitary. I spent much of my time alone, either studying in preparation for Oxford or at the gym. I obsessively controlled my own eating habits and exercise, writing down the calorie count and fat percentage of every morsel of food which passed my lips, punishing myself mentally if I went a day without exercising. I absolutely had to have control of every single aspect of my life. I made lists detailing what I was going to do every single hour of every single day. 7:30am – Get up, put gym kit on. 7:45am – Leave for the gym. 8am – Arrive at the gym, and work out for one hour. 9am – leave the gym. 9:15am – Arrive home and eat breakfast. 9:30am – shower and get dressed. 10am – 12pm – work. 12pm – lunch. 12:30pm – 5pm – work. And so on and so on… I planned every day down to the tiniest detail, and if I began to “run late” or someone suggested doing something that I had not factored into my plans, I quickly panicked. Going off-schedule was absolutely unthinkable for the entirety of the summer of 2012. I had to be in control.
In retrospect, it is clear to me that this necessity to be in control developed from a despairing sense of lack of control. By ordering every hour of every day of my life, I left my self no time to feel the emotions that began to creep up on me in moments of idleness. The whole summer, I told myself that I would start Oxford, and everything would be perfect. I would make friends, be studying exactly what I wanted to be studying, in a beautiful city, and I would be happy.
How wrong I was. The first few weeks of Michaelmas were a whirlwind. I threw myself into life at Oxford with unimaginable passion, embracing every moment I was there with vivid intensity. I would find myself walking down Turl Street, eyes welling with emotion at the sheer beauty of the place. Whatever I felt, I felt it in the most shocking way. In some ways, this was fantastic. I was obsessively in love with the literature course, excitable to the highest degree about every facet of life and probably a buzzing presence to be around. With these incredible highs though, there also came incredible lows.
My first episode occurred in around 3rd week of Michaelmas in my first year. After three weeks of term and a hectic fresher’s week, I was exhausted. I had hardly stopped for breath and four weeks of non-stop partying, working, socialising in an intense new environment had flown by. Unsurprisingly, I crashed. I remember waking up one morning, and just not being able to move. My entire body felt paralyzed. All I could do was cry. If anyone knocked on the door, I would ignore it. I stayed in bed for an entire day, intermittently crying, sobbing, and surging with self-hatred. I rang my Mum, she told me it was homesickness, and I believed her. We thought it was. It wasn’t until it began happening on a regular basis, that we realized that something was not right.
I spent a good amount of Michaelmas after that day wavering between ecstatic happiness, and absolute misery. One day I would be on cloud nine, convinced that I was the happiest person alive. The next I would be unable to get myself out of bed in the morning, overwhelmed by the simplest of tasks such as showering and getting dressed, let alone leaving my room. If I actually did manage to go to hall to dinner, I would be utterly unable to speak to anyone. Usually, I’m an incredibly chatty and vocal person. But during depressive episodes, my ability to socialise completely evades me. I find myself sat in huge groups of people, unable to find any words, immobilised by the enormous sadness bearing down upon me.
During Christmas vacation, my Mum took me to see a doctor. I was swiftly diagnosed with depression and put on antidepressants. Since then, things have been hard, and I cannot truthfully say I will ever be “cured” of depression. During Hilary of my first year, the drugs seemed to work; however they muted all of my feelings into a bland blur. I no longer felt intensely miserable, but I was no longer happy, either. I was indifferent to everything. In Trinity this changed, and I have no qualms in saying that I spent the majority of Trinity of my first year wanting to die. For which I felt horrendously selfish.
Indeed, there was nothing wrong with my life. I went to an incredible university, had amazing friends, a wonderful family and I was doing well. So why did I spent every day wishing that I could just sleep? For in sleep, I didn’t have to feel, I didn’t have to face the agony of merely being alive. Every morning when I woke up I would feel – physically feel – a lead weight descending onto my chest. Despite being a “mental” illness, depression can certainly express itself in an extremely physical way. If I managed to actually heave myself from the safety of my bed in the morning, I would later find myself frozen in place at the mirror, unable to face the prospect of going one step further, terrified at the day that faced me. Every single thing I knew I had to do that day was horrifically scary. Most of the time I simply just went back to bed, allowed the feeling of despairing hopelessness to overwhelm me. I would draw the curtains, lock my door, ignore my phone and sleep. All day.
Last summer – 2013 – after the first four weeks of barely leaving my bedroom, I was finally able to switch medication. After doing so, things improved dramatically, and so far this term I’ve been quite steady. This new medication does not “switch off” my emotions and convert everything into black and white. I still feel. But that intense, uncontrollable feeling of desperate unhappiness descends on me far less often. I can now go a few weeks, at least, without feeling miserable. I don’t ever think a day will come when I won’t be “depressed”. Even if a month or so has passed without a depressive episode, I know that the capacity is within me to feel absolutely desolate. In a way, this makes me appreciate life more. I’ve felt what it is like to reach the darkest places within yourself, and being able to leave those places and enjoy life is a remarkable achievement.
There are a few things I’ve learnt from my ongoing experience with depression. The first of which is to never feel selfish. Yes, my life is perfect, I have nothing to complain about. When I feel utterly miserable, and somebody asks me why, most of the time the answer is “I don’t know.” Depression is illogical. There are no answers to it. You must never punish yourself for being depressed. You simply are and there is nothing you can do about it, let alone feel selfish. The second thing I’ve learnt is that you’re never alone. As clichéd as it sounds, this is true. Your friends will understand more than you realise, as will your family and your tutors. Here at Oxford, we have a magnificent counselling service; take advantage of it and never feel like you’ve “failed” for doing so. Finally, I’ve learnt that anyone can suffer from depression. Even the happiest person in the world. The person sat next to you right now, the person reading this over your shoulder, the girl you sat by in your lecture earlier or the tutor who marked your last essay: they could all be depressed. Which is precisely why it is crucial that we are more open about depression, so that we can reach out to those around us and say it is okay to tell someone, that they will not judge you and that help is available: no matter who you are.
To anyone reading this who has had similar experiences with depression, you must always remember that there is an end to it. Some days it might feel as if there is not. I know what it feels like to not want to do anything or be anyone: simply to not exist. But I also know what it feels like to wake up in the morning and be excited for life, to feel surrounded by love and blessed with beautiful friends and an incredible family. You will know this feeling again soon, too. I promise.