I used to have a woman in my wardrobe
(and other ways to cope with chronic depression)
When I was thirteen, I had a list of about twenty one-line ‘daily reminders’ carefully handwritten on a piece of A3 paper and pinned inside my wardrobe.
Alongside these one-line sentences was a picture of a smiling woman wearing some terrible sludge-green outfit, accompanied by a somewhat extravagant hat on her head. From her gurning unopened mouth, erupted a huge speech bubble, in which I’d written these twenty sentences, carefully numbered from one to twenty.
These daily reminders were a weirdly important part of my life. I’d see them every time I opened my wardrobe, a secret kind of ritual I had in the morning before I had to head off to school. I would chose a sentence at random, close my eyes, and repeat it a few times. Then I’d be ready to face whatever hell could throw at me.
I suffer from chronic depression. I make this no secret; one in four people in the UK will suffer from a mental health problem each year — and that’s an overwhelmingly large amount of people like me. In rush hour, just think about the number of people you walk past or sit next to, and imagine how many of them are suffering in silence.
Let me tell you a bit about my depression. Mental health is tricky to understand if you haven’t been through it, and lots of people who are lucky enough to have escaped its claws are kind to me and try to understand it a bit better.
The one thing it might help to know is that it isn’t a case of me needing to ‘smile more’ (I hear that a lot). Neither is it the case that I’m ‘just having a bad day’. Some days are worse than others, but at any given moment I am coping with this niggling feeling inside that I am worth nothing, terrible at what I do, and do not deserve to be where I am.
And that is an awful thing to say to myself really, when I have worked extraordinarily hard to get to where I am, both in my every day life and my career.
Every day I wonder whether people might be happier if I’m just not around them. Anyone who has met me will know that I can be a bit socially awkward. Normally the awkwardness actually comes from the irrational feeling that I’m just not welcome, and I do that to myself. I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide I was going to channel Alan Partridge — it’s more that depression makes me think that I don’t deserve to be your friend. To be anyone’s friend.
I’m not asking for sympathy. This is just how I feel. Every day.
The way I deal with it is by developing strategies to cope. I can only imagine that every other sufferer does the same. I recognise these as strategies mostly in hindsight, as I was only formally diagnosed with chronic depression in my early twenties.
My first strategy is to learn. I am incredibly curious about the world, and try and do something positive with this curiosity; I learn techniques that might help me become more productive, or encourage me to approach a problem in a new way. TED talks are excellent for this.
It means I can create a fresh environment for my brain, which acts as a distraction and delays the effects of depression. I can rationalise not succeeding in fully integrating a new idea because I am testing it out, and seeing if it fits with me.
Sometimes I learn useful titbits of information that stay with me. I recently watched a brilliant TED talk by Amy Cuddy, in which she talks about how body language can directly impact our hormonal levels. Apparently by simply standing in a certain way, we can lower stress-inducing cortisol levels in the brain. For someone who can have problems with anxiety, this is an incredibly useful “body hack”. It has already come in useful; I had a bad day and it ended with me cry/laughing at myself standing in a toilet cubicle with my hands raised to the ceiling muttering to myself about how it was going to be okay.
My second strategy is to always have a destination. Having something to aim at gives me a focus, and allows me to build a plan of attack. It also means I can push myself to get out of bed and face the world, knowing that’ll get me one day closer to achieving it.
I don’t give myself unrealistic expectations for success, and I don’t tend to have deadlines either. This means I can just take everything as it comes, knowing that if I keep moving towards my destination, one day I will get there. And when I do, I know I’ll find another destination. This might sound a bit mumbo-jumbo, but these destinations can be anything at all. “I will own a house” or “I’ll have seventeen cats and name them all after superheroes”. It’s just a matter of making sure I keep moving towards whichever goal I’ve given myself.
The important part to add is that I also mentally allow myself flexibility. If I decide later that I want to name those seventeen cats after my favourite musicians instead, then that’s ok; I’m still moving towards something. I’ve just moved the endpoint slightly.
My third strategy is to channel the depression away as much as possible. This isn’t easy to do, but I tend to do this a couple of ways. I talk about what’s on my mind more, so I’m not burying my emotions away, and I draw.
Channeling it all really helps. I hate that BT were all over this in the 90s, but it really is good to talk. Talk to anyone, and everyone. I talk to the cat. I’m also not afraid to talk about coping with depression, and I don’t think it should be a taboo subject. In most cases, people are more than happy to listen to me — and in many cases, people already have stories related to their own mental illnesses, or close friends and family who struggle with it.
When I was thirteen I had already figured this out. I’d already realised that having coping mechanisms was an important way of dealing with the emotions running around inside my head.
In Year Six I got thrown out of class because I’d filled my drawer with notebook upon notebook of some story I’d been secretly writing in classes. I’d filled so many notebooks that they had jammed the drawers, and spilled out all over the floor when my teacher decided to work out what was causing the blockage. I was MORTIFIED.
Nobody knew why I wrote so much as a child, but I am certain that that was my first coping mechanism. From virtually the second I picked up a pen I began to write stories, about absolutely anything. Normally the stories involved a group of close friends who solved mysteries together, or went travelling together, or ran away together. They were always happy stories, about close-knit groups of people that cared for each other and had fun together. I was a lonely child with very few friends, and felt — whether I was or not is a different matter — very unloved. Through creating these new worlds and new friends and by running away with the characters in my books I could momentarily leave the present world and retreat to a place where I could feel much happier.
I stopped writing when I was about sixteen, and burned a lot of my writing. I wanted to forget my childhood so desperately that I resorted to physical actions: I guess hoping that the memories would fade. I regret not being able to look back at those journals, because I have come so far since then and whilst it is heartbreaking to remember some of the terrible things I’d thought about myself, it is good to know that I am still here and I am still coping.
Coping mechanisms are the only way I, and many others out there, can deal with chronic depression. I got through some years of hell, without a psychiatrist and without medication, by self-medicating on a mixture of creative writing and daily reminders — and managed to survive some of the most traumatic years of my life.
I’m probably not going to go and pin a new set of daily reminders for myself inside the wardrobe, but I do wonder how many thirteen year-olds are out there using the same tactics.
It’s really hard to know what to say or do around someone suffering with chronic depression. I should know; when I am having a really difficult time, I can’t use the mechanisms that usually keep it at bay. I can’t talk, because I don’t feel that there is anything interesting I could say, and I don’t do anything, because I don’t feel like I would be good company. I am quiet, and pensive, often teary and withdrawn, and generally not very pleasant to be around. Those close to me still find it difficult to interact with me.
Knowing what a sufferer might normally do to keep depression away is incredibly useful, as sometimes we need people around us to give a little guidance and encourage us to cope. For me, giving me a challenge — something to learn — is a great way to bring me back from the edge. As is helping me find my way back towards a destination; giving me something to aim for. Not huge things, but small achievable goals that I can succeed in.
You probably know someone with chronic depression. I hope this might encourage you to talk to them about how they manage with it, so you can recognise the signs when they’re struggling, and know that when you ask them to “just smile more” they are fully justified when they give you a well-aimed slap.