Depression still seems like such a dirty word, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I suffer with it, and have done for years. Sometimes it’s crippling anxiety, the lowest of low moods, the angriest of rages, or like now, when I’m correctly medicated, it’s just a niggling demon in the back of my mind, which doesn’t prevent me from day-to-day activities so long as nothing too unexpected occurs that I’m not prepared to deal with.
You probably wouldn’t know I suffered if you met me though. I don’t fit the “stereotypical persona” of a depressed person. I’m quite friendly, I’m quite funny, and I like to think quite intelligent, too. But I know couldn’t be any of those things without medical help. However, if you get to know me, you’ll see the signs that my depression is there.
Why do I have depression? Who really knows? I have theories about possible triggers. Would it help to share them? I think it would help me if I wrote about them, as I rarely talk about these things.
For the most part, I had a normal childhood. I have 3 brothers: 2 older, and an identical twin. I always thought that 4 was good number as we could each have our favourite Ghostbuster (Winston) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (Raphael). We had a lovely, quiet mum who would do anything for us, and a dad who, while we loved him, was more interested in running, cycling, and going to the pub than being with us. I don’t remember it, but it also turns out that he was abusive and broke my mum’s nose by smashing her face on the oven when we were young. Perhaps I chose to block that memory?
We didn’t see most of the family (I honestly don’t know how many siblings my dad has, or who my cousins are), except for my mum’s sister and her dad. I love my auntie like a second mum, and adored my grandad. Every weekend, my auntie and “Gramps” would look after us: we’d take the bus out, go to the arcade, do the groceries and sleep over. We loved it, but I think it caused friction that we were so close to my mum’s side of the family, and completely absent from my dad’s.
Then one Saturday when I was 9, I went to the toilet in the local shopping centre. Just an everyday occurrence, right? I went in to the cubicle, pulled my trousers down and sat. The cubicle door next to me shut. Then a big, hairy hand reached under the cubicle wall and grabbed my left foot. He squeezed tightly, and tried to pull my leg under. I stamped on his hand a few times with my right foot until he let go. I pulled up my trousers, unlocked the door and ran out of the toilet block crying to my grandad, auntie and brothers waiting outside. I told them what happened, and they barely said a thing. They just ushered me away, and they did their best to take my mind off it and go about our normal Saturday day out. It was weird, and still, nobody talks about it. I don’t know if paedophiles were big, public knowledge back then like they are today, but I just assumed he mistook me for a man because, in my innocent mind, I had big shoes.
Fast-forward a year, and I had a really close (girl) friend, Jo. She was a brilliant swimmer and I’m sure she would have made the Olympics one day, but she was troubled. She had a terrible home life, and you could tell that this 10 year old had such a deep depression, but it was 1991, so no she didn’t; she was just an unhappy child, she’d grow out of it.
It was nearing the end of lunch one school day and I casually walked in to our classroom to get ready for the next lesson. Jo was sitting on the ledge, her legs hanging out of our second-story window. She turned to see me come through the door, and just said “Bye, Matt” then jumped. Thud. I ran to the window and looked down to see Jo lying, screaming on the concrete below. Jo survived, but with two very severely broken legs, so she’d probably ruined her chance of making it to the Olympics. What was the school’s response? Mostly silence. I think we may have had a 5 minute group “counselling” session, but again, like with the paedophile experience, it was mostly not talked about. Is that what you do? Not talk about bad things and hope they go away?
Jo was in hospital for weeks, and never returned to our school. I never saw her again. I lost a great friend that day. Jo managed to cope for another 6 years before I heard that she finally succeeded in taking her own life.
At the age 11, we had to leave our old house so moved to a new area. At 12, I started a new secondary school. Practically everybody else came from the 2 local middle schools, so I was instantly an outsider and was immediately treated like one.
Day 2 PE should have been good fun, I thought. Wrong. PE started and ended in the change-room by being held down and having deodorant sprayed in my face for what seemed like an eternity. There was no reason, other than they didn’t like me because I wasn’t one of them.
The bullying continued most days for a good while. I’d walk in to the classroom each morning for registration and would get pelted and covered in blackboard erasers. Every morning I’d brush off all the chalk dust, just to be covered in it again the next day.
At 13, I was quietly having lunch outside on the football field. The group of bullies punched me to the ground, grabbed my legs and forcibly rammed my legs around the goalpost. The pain was excruciating; exactly what a “developing” teenage boy needed, I’m sure. I now can’t have children naturally, and I’m sure this was a factor.
One Monday when I was 14, I walked in to school, and wasn’t bullied. It was amazing, but lots of kids looked sad. I soon discovered that on the weekend, the ringleader of the tormentors had been hit by a car at 70mph while playing on the dual-carriageway and died instantly. I felt nothing. No, that’s not quite true; I felt a tiny bit of joy. I was happy that a boy my age had been tragically killed and I didn’t care. I was rarely bullied again.
When I was 15, my 60 year old grandad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He quickly slid in to a shadow of his former self; basically devolving in to an aggressive child. Now none of my brothers visited on the weekend, except for me. I went over and cared for him to give my auntie some respite while she did the groceries and just to have a break. Every weekend for 3 years he gave me abuse and hit me while I cared for him: feeding, washing, shaving, and taking him to the toilet until he passed away.
I didn’t do anything normal teenagers would do on the weekend, I had no real friends outside school hours, and by the end, I completely resented my grandfather. I didn’t even cry at his funeral. Again, I felt nothing.
In the summer of 1999, I finished college after studying advanced IT. Computers had always been my happy place. I started programming at age 8 on my ZX Spectrum by copying code from the back pages of magazines. I continued programming in AMOS on the Amiga, and then later on PC. It was the one thing that I was really good at but for some reason, my dad absolutely hated computers. C’est la vie.
But even though I thought I was good at programming, I couldn’t find a job after leaving college, while practically everybody else in my class did.
One morning, a free AOL CD arrived in the mail. So, armed with my weekly dole allowance, I signed up for an unlimited plan and spent every waking moment when my dad wasn’t around, with a 10m phone extension cord connected and reeled in to my bedroom upstairs. I literally spent hours on the Internet every day, it just seemed so expansive; there was always something new to discover and allowed me to forget about the real world.
Being home all day, I noticed patterns in my family’s behaviour, and it didn’t take long to realise that both my mum and dad were having separate affairs. I was absolutely devastated when I finally had proof, but as with all bad things in my life, nothing was ever mentioned.
I continued to go online because I didn’t have to be the real me: the depressed, awkwardly skinny, pasty and spotty teenager.
Music and the web were the only things I loved at that point. I went to the BUSH website, and opened up their chat system. I started to have conversations with people like me, who had similar interests; it was amazing. Every day I’d return, talking to these same people; and one in particular. We’d start our own private chat room, and ravo and I would talk (type) for hours.
Weeks went by and I was falling for her. I’d never had a relationship before and I didn’t know what to do. She was in Australia, and I was in England with no money. It all got too much one day, so I took a large kitchen knife in to the toilet and put it against my wrist. I tried; I really tried to do “it”, but just sat there bawling instead.
It was the wake-up call I needed.
So instead of going to the job centre every fortnight for no (personal) benefit, I found a job in a local factory where I could work evenings. That would allow me to change my sleeping pattern to be in sync with Australia’s and I could earn money to get to Australia to see ravo.
I worked hard for a year, saving every penny and flew to Australia for a 2 week holiday. It was the bravest thing I’d ever done in my life. I’d hardly been anywhere alone, and here I was on plane to the other side of the world to meet someone I met online.
We continued in person just like online. We were meant to be together. Over the next 6 years, we lived together in Australia and England, then in 2006, moved to Australia to live permanently and get married. Everything was great, and I soon found a really good web developer job locally, where I’ve since worked for 8 years.
Then, in 2010, out of nowhere my depression returned, and more fierce than ever before. I think I was constantly trying to do too much, and my body just couldn’t maintain what I was striving to achieve.
I’m a perfectionist and want to be the best I can be. I was an important member of the Fireworks community and the Adobe pre-release teams, I was publishing great work, I wanted to learn everything I could and slept very little. My brain just snapped.
For months, I was angry, distant and empty. My arms hurt, my back hurt, my legs went numb and my head thumped with excruciating pain every day. I had test after test, and they all came back negative. I later read that depression in males often manifests as physical pain, so I’m not sure why the doctors didn’t make this connection after my diagnosis.
My colleagues (and friends) made me seek medical help for my depression. The GP prescribed medication that would help me sleep and lift my mood. For the first week, I was a zombie. I could have slept for 16 hours a day. I couldn’t function, so had to take time off work. He referred me to a counsellor, and every one of those sessions was agonisingly difficult. At the time, they didn’t make it any easier for me; I left angrier than when I went in. If you were unfortunate to follow me on Twitter back then, you would have seen how angry I became and how dark my moods were; I apologise, but I couldn’t help it. As I was brought up not communicating my feelings, I needed to talk to someone, and Twitter was my release.
I also thought about dying… a lot. Thinking of dying occassionally is normal and healthy, but to my extent, visualising every possible way in which I could die, was dangerous.
It took many months of rigourous monitoring and medicating for me to return to a more normal self. 4 years on, and I still can’t sleep unless I take my medication. Without them I can’t deal with social situations and my stress threshold is so dangerously low that I become explosive. The meds have some spectacularly embarrassing side effects, I’ve put on a lot of weight and my world is a consistent grey, with few peaks and troughs, but that’s a small price to pay for being able to function. And it’s not that I can’t enjoy life and the people in it, it’s just that my emotions are somewhat muted.
At the end of the day, your life’s experiences and the journeys you take help to form the person you are. Would I prefer to have not had some of those things happen to me? Of course. But would I not want my loving wife, my beautiful daughter, the friends I have, the love of developing for the web and the respect I receive? Absolutely not. It’s who I am, and if I didn’t experience some of those events earlier on, I wouldn’t be me today.
What I do want people to take away from this is that communication matters. Make sure you talk about your feelings, regardless of how difficult you may find it. If you can’t talk to your family, find someone you can talk to: a doctor, a counsellor, anyone. Just don’t hide or bottle your feelings up like my family and I do, because it ultimately ends up killing you from the inside.
I’d also recommend that you don’t give your 8 year old son RoboCop on VHS for his birthday. While he still thinks it’s the greatest movie of all time, the concepts, the violence, the gore and the bad language were probably too much for his little mind to take.
And no, I don’t know how my identical twin managed to escape all of this anguish I experienced, but I’m sure he has his own issues to deal with, as does everyone.
And yes, this was incredibly difficult to write.
Your move, creep.
This is a post for #geekmentalhelp