Depression has affected me from adolescence. Back then, I didn't realize I was depressed, and the numb “feeling” accompanying it was my daily bread.
I was depressed for so long that it was normal for me. So too were the morbid thinking and suicidal ideation that at times threatened to engulf me.
To all appearances, I was a happy child and grew into a capable and confident young adult. But I knew different. I was crumbling on the inside. My confidence was nonexistent, and I didn't know how I was going to cope after school finished. At least there I had fewer responsibilities than out in the real adult world.
That was one reason why I trained as a psychiatric nurse. And I thought, surely after a few more years of training, I'll be okay.
But I wasn't. If anything, I was worse. I didn't think I could talk to anyone about it. Why? I was under the erroneous impression that I didn't have the right to be depressed. Nurses don't get depression, I told myself, especially psychiatric nurses.
You'd think it would've been easy for me to open up to a colleague in psychiatry—that surely one of them would understand. But I was only 18, it was 1985, and I was too afraid of the stigma, so I suffered in silence.
After qualification, and God alone knows how I managed it, I remembered Anne, one of my tutors. It was common knowledge she had bipolar affective disorder. Some of the students used to make fun of her behind her back—another reason the fear of stigma haunted me. But I had always liked her enthusiastic personality.
I approached her one day in her office and blurted the whole thing out—my moods, lack of energy, hopelessness, suicidal ideation. A wave of relief washed over me suddenly and left me trembling and weeping. She made me a cup of tea and plied me with biscuits.
“Sucks, doesn't it?” Anne said and scrunched up her face. I managed to laugh a little.
“You just have to face it, Andy,” she told me. “You need to accept that everyone gets sick every so often. And it's only a big deal if you make it into one.''
I appreciated Anne's candor. And she had an answer—acceptance was the key.
Anne looked serious now. “And how do you think I felt when I was hospitalized?” she said. “Even though I went to another city, my reputation as a psychiatric tutor followed me. All the nurses knew who I was. And I was paranoid enough to begin with . . .” Her face relaxed, and she let out a little laugh.
I promised Anne I'd visit my local doctor. When I did, he referred me to the psychiatric services in the next town to help protect my identity. Anne said it was the best thing to do, so it didn't follow my career as it had hers. She had the experience, so I gratefully complied.
I didn't expect to feel as relieved as I did when I got to meet my psychiatrist. Fiona was a gentle soul and couldn't have done enough for me. Since I was a nurse, she gave me her private number and told me to ring her any time.
“We must look after our own,” she said. That filled me with a sense of belonging, and I felt safer and more willing to trust her.
I initially resisted going on antidepressants. But keeping in mind the idea that acceptance is the necessary first step, I gave them a go. Delving into my past was also a big part of accepting my depression, and it helped me understand myself better.
When I felt a greater inner steadiness and confidence, I also looked at alternative ways to supplement my treatment, such as essential oils, eliminating sugar from my diet, and mindfulness meditation to regulate my mood and improve my sleep.
Looking back, long after being stabilized and relatively free of depression, it all now seems a bit surreal. Even though I never told any colleagues way back, and still don't make a point of doing so, I'm at peace with that.
I still have some rough periods, but I'm at peace with that too. I know what to do to take care of myself. The first thing I do is to not feel sorry for myself. If I give in to that, then I'm less inclined to follow through with other aspects of self-care.
I'd hate to think what would have happened if there hadn't been a Fiona or an Anne who had experienced their own issues. I wish them well, wherever they are, and I'll continue to help fellow sufferers by giving them the same care and support that I received.