I waited nervously in the waiting room. “This time, I’m going to be honest.” I thought. “I need help. I don’t want to be like this anymore.” When my name flashed up on the electronic noticeboard I entered my GP’s office and sat down. “So, what’s the problem?” She said. I looked at her directly and said, “I think I have depression.”
In order to understand what this admission of honesty meant to me, I should explain some of the background in the lead up to that day. I initially, to use the Oxford jargon, “rusticated” in April 2011 in the middle of my Experimental Psychology Part 1 exams (for anyone outside of the Oxford bubble, to rusticate means to withdraw from studying at the University for a certain period of time). In the months prior to the exams, my Uncle died after a protracted battle with a combination of liver cirrhosis and bowel cancer and then my Granddad died quite suddenly after having a heart attack. In the immediate aftermath of both events, I thought I’d coped as well as could be expected. I grieved for them and felt sad for a brief period of time, but tried to move on and get back to normal.
I gradually began getting behind with my tutorial essays and Core Practical Reports (which actually contributed towards my degree). Then, in Hilary Term, I stopped studying altogether. I made excuses to different tutors about why I hadn’t written essays. I became so anxious during tutorials that I kept my mouth shut, hoping to sink into the couch, until I had to mumble something that sounded coherent when asked a question. I then spent a miserable 6 weeks in Oxford trying as hard as I could to revise for my exams but I was constantly agitated and couldn’t concentrate for longer than 10 minutes at a time. I felt like I was letting myself down, my tutors down and my family down. I became increasingly self-critical and gradually began to hate myself. I lied to my friends, saying everything was fine and that revision was going well. In reality though, I was struggling to sleep at night and slowly started withdrawing from everyone who cared about me. I sat two of my Part 1 exams and tried to maintain a façade of normality, but on the inside it felt like I was gradually crumbling and falling to pieces. I managed to make it home and to my bedroom before I would sob into my pillow for around half an hour before composing myself and trying to carry on. Only then did I acknowledge that something was wrong and spoke to one of my close friends about the problems I’d been having. It felt like such a relief to finally reveal the truth and, as a result of that conversation, I emailed my tutors to explain the situation too. One of my tutors immediately rang me on my mobile and advised me to withdraw from the exams and take a break from Oxford. I remember not knowing how to tell my parents what had happened. I rang home and broke down in tears when my mum answered the phone. Since then, I’ve discovered that my mum thought I’d been attacked or that one of my friends had died!
Initially, I felt much better. I’d removed myself from an extremely stressful situation and started to talk to my friends and family about the depression. I saw my GP and they prescribed a course of antidepressants. But I convinced myself that I didn’t need to take the antidepressants or get therapy, against the advice of some very wise friends, because I told myself that I was completely fine. I can deal with this alone, I thought to myself, how hard can it be? I tried to keep myself occupied over the summer of 2011. I went to a music festival and went travelling around Europe with some friends, but I started to notice the reappearance of all the same self-critical, self-doubting thoughts I’d had before. And in all honesty, I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was losing control. I withdrew into myself again and dreaded going back to Oxford in October. I told myself I wasn’t intelligent enough and didn’t deserve to be there. After a week of avoiding the outside world, I impulsively emailed the Academic Officer at St Hilda’s and said that I wasn’t ready to return this academic year. I immediately regretted doing it but I can acknowledge with hindsight that it was the right decision. At the time, however, it felt like the world was collapsing in on itself.
For the next 5 to 6 months, I was severely depressed. I didn’t take my anti-depressants. I completely withdrew from friends and family and stopped doing all of the things I enjoy. There were days, even weeks, where I wouldn’t leave the house. I ignored the texts, phone calls and Facebook messages from my friends; I didn’t think I deserved friends. I stopped talking to my Mum, Dad and brothers. I was barely surviving from day to day. I wished that I could just disappear and that all record and knowledge of my existence on Earth would be erased. When I try to think back about specific details of how I spent my time during that period, I can remember hardly anything. It can’t imagine how tough it was for my parents, but they were supportive and caring and loving throughout (and I can’t express to them how much it means to me). They saw a doctor to ask if there was anything more they could do for me, but she said to continue doing all the same things and, most importantly, be patient. They encouraged me to see my GP again and I reluctantly made an appointment. I knew I was depressed, but in a perverse way I didn’t want to get better, I didn’t feel I deserved to be happy. Yet, at the same time I wanted to get help (trying to explain the paradoxical logic that becomes the norm when you are depressed is very difficult), which brings us back to the GP’s waiting room at the beginning of the article.
In was prescribed a new course of anti-depressants, which I have been taking ever since, and referred to the Primary Care Psychological Therapy Service (which is a part of the NHS). After steadily plucking up the courage, I got back into contact with a couple friends. They responded almost immediately and were unbelievably kind and supportive. That gave me the encouragement I needed to speak a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a long time. I am very lucky to have a group of wonderful friends. I began Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) sessions which have made an immeasurable difference. They take the form of one hour, one-to-one sessions with a trained instructor each week. You may now have a mental image of someone lying down on a chaise lounge facing a middle-aged man with white hair and beard who asks to talk about your past. If you are thinking this, then let me explode that myth! CBT is a modern problem-solving approach which is collaborative, pragmatic and highly structured. To quote from the brilliant NHS Choices website, “CBT helps identify specific problems [and] an attempt is then made to solve them.” I help decide on my ‘homework’ each week which involves setting achievable and realistic goals as well as completing activities such as a thought diary and achievement log for the next session. I’ve had 7 CBT sessions so far and have made a large amount of progress with changing the way I think about myself and the future.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to give you the impression that life is all sunshine and kittens (unfortunately). I have fluctuations in my mood. Some days I wake up feeling inexplicably low and lonely but now I’m much better placed to identify those feelings and deal with them in a healthy way. My long-term aim is to return to Oxford in October and restart my 2nd year. Like all students who take time out of their course, there are conditions attached; I must prove that I’m fit to return by being assessed by two doctors. As you may have realised though, there are a few pesky months in between now and then. I’m trying to keep myself as busy as possible during my year out: I’ve joined a running club and recently competed in a 10k race, I’ve started driving lessons, I’ve visited friends and I’ll be volunteering with Bolton Lads and Girls’ Club for 3 weeks in July with school leavers (15-16 year olds). I would also love to go travelling again and see more of the big, wide world.
I am in many ways I am very lucky. But whoever you are, whatever situation you are in: help is available. People are there to listen. It can get better. You are not alone.