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What does depression feel like?

Friday, 10 October 2014 Helen Mulligan

Helen uses her own experiences to compare mental and physical health problems.

"We missed you at the party last night. Your husband said you weren’t feeling well. Are you feeling better now?"

"A little, yes."

"Was it your tummy?"

"No, actually. It was my head. It’s a bit like a stomach bug, but it takes place in my mind."

And that is how I experience depression. I don't claim to speak for everyone. Mental health problems, such as depression, take many forms just as physical health problems are diverse. And, like physical illness, mental ill health does not discriminate. Although certain characteristics or circumstances may make you more vulnerable than others, anyone can experience a mental health problem.

I wish everyone could see mental health, and the other side of that same coin, mental illness, as they do physical health or illness. The last ten days has been exactly like having a stomach bug. I’ve been really unwell. I’ve been feeling low, some days so low that I’ve not been able to get out of bed or leave the house or be around other people. I’ve been really sick and found it hard to get on with my life.

My life is full and fulfilling. I have a job, a husband and friends. I have interests and passions in which I am fully engaged. I have built a sense of wellbeing that centres around doing things I believe in and value, connecting with people who inspire me and who I care about. I give what I can to those around me and the world I live in. I try new things, developing new knowledge, skills and perspectives and a better awareness and appreciation of the world in which I live. Exercise, good sleep and a balanced diet helps to keep me well. And I feel blessed to be alive, when for almost ten years I lived with death on my door and in my mind. Blessed to have health and love and security in my life.

But every so often I get sick. Sometimes, I can connect it to something I have experienced that may have set off old thoughts and feelings in an unhelpful pattern that I can recognise. Sometimes though, I miss it and I don’t realise until it’s too late. And sometimes, I simply have no idea where it came from. Just like a stomach bug. And, just like a stomach bug, I start to have symptoms.

I feel low and am easily upset. I feel tired and lethargic. I feel even more sensitive than usual. My thoughts become very negative and then cruel. I get abusive - occasionally to the people I love most, but mostly to myself. I am vicious to myself. Just like a stomach bug, my mind cramps and twists and turns. I can’t concentrate. I don't want to do anything, but can’t bear doing nothing. And, as always when you’re ill, you begin to feel like it will never get better.

But, unlike a stomach bug, my mind virus comes with a shame that means I cannot ask my friends for help or even tell them what is happening. I’m too ashamed, and too scared that I might never get better, that this sickness might completely devour me, as it has done in the past. Because that is part of the sickness. It tells me that I am sick because I am a weak or bad person who just can’t cope with life and doesn't deserve to have what other people have (a job, a husband, interests, friends, etc). And because your mind dictates your sense of reality and self, it can take over your life far more than a stomach bug.

Even those friends who do want to help don't know how to. They too are scared of the mess that pours out of my mind. They don't understand that, just as the contents of your stomach change when you get sick, so the content of your mind changes and it doesn’t always look pretty. And they respond either by pretending nothing is happening or by looking plain terrified. And who can blame them? No-one likes to discuss the elephant in the room.

But all I want to say, is that it doesn’t need to be this way. I have an illness. It’s recurrent, it’s vicious, it’s horrible. But it doesn't have to be life threatening. With the right response, it can go as often as it come and it doesn’t have to exclude living a wonderful life. It is not a measure of my worth.

I want to live in a society that is better able to tolerate and deal with emotional diversity, that redefines images of success and normal, that promotes social and emotional wellbeing and that prioritises understanding and supporting mental wellbeing in the same way that it prioritises physical health or economic growth.

So let’s talk. I’m no different from anyone else. I’m no better or worse. I’m human. But I do have an illness. So could you or anyone you know. It’s treatable and manageable and we mostly know how. So let’s talk about it.


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