Mental Health Awareness Week: Jennifer Speaks Out

Jennifer Roberts has suffered from depression for 17 years and has been medicated for five.  She has nevertheless managed to gain a good degree, travel, write two novels, get married and have a daughter. Today, she speaks. She has not been forced to talk about anything against her will. 

Oh, God, I’m So Depressed!

You’ve probably heard people say that quite a lot.  The word “depressed” has slipped into casual use now, to mean you’re feeling low.  But I can pretty much guarantee that the people who use it like it are not only not depressed, but never have been.  First, because someone who is actually in the grip of an attack of depression will be at home hiding under the duvet, not chatting with you over coffee, and second because they will probably not tell you they feel that way.

There’s still a stigma attached to depression.  Many wonderful charities, organisations and celebrities are working to improve that, but there is.  Some people persist in thinking that people who claim to be depressed are either weak, immature or selfish on the one end, or have suffered some kind of trauma on the other.  Sometimes people develop depression as the result of an incident in their lives, after suffering large amounts of stress or grief.  But, in many cases, there is no “why.”  It’s just there.  I first began to exhibit symptoms at 13 or thereabouts, so I assume the hormones released during puberty caused my depression to start to show itself.  Believe it or not, I have sometimes wished that something bad had happened to me, so there could be a “why” that perhaps counselling would fix.  Without a “why” you are also vulnerable to feelings of guilt.  Look at how lucky you are!  Nothing bad’s ever happened to you!  What right have you got to feel depressed?

The fact is, depression is an illness – or a disability, if you prefer – that some people are born with and others develop later.  Some people have a heart defect; I have a brain defect.  The mood centre of my brain doesn’t function properly.  In my teens, I told myself that it would get better once I was grown up.  I was ashamed to tell people I was depressed and I hid it well.  Fortunately, although I wouldn’t say I was manic-depressive, I don’t feel depressed all the time.  Sometimes I felt fine.  When I didn’t, I hid from people.  I always managed to keep going to school or work (others have it so bad they really can’t function – I was lucky) so people didn’t know.

I’d like to explain depression so that those of you who don’t suffer from it can understand, but I’m not sure I can.  For me, it’s like drowning in stormy seas.  Waves are crashing over your head and currents are trying to drag you under.  But the threat is inside your head and there’s no way to escape it.  Life feels unbearable.

At the age of 26, I finally “came out” to the doctor and was prescribed anti-depressants.  I had reached the point where I felt I couldn’t carry on.  If this constant struggle to survive each attack was to be my life, I honestly didn’t think I wanted to live anymore.  I have never attempted suicide, but I had certainly thought about it.  Fortunately, I have a certain degree of stubbornness and dislike of being beaten which has helped enormously in living with my condition.

Some people dismiss anti-depressants as “happy pills,” which they aren’t.  If you take a dose of an anti-depressant, you will feel nothing.  Keep taking them for more than a few days and you will usually get a range of unpleasant side effects, such as headaches and nausea, while your body gets used to them.  It usually takes about two weeks for them to have a noticeable effect on your mood.  Even then, they don’t make you high; they just stop you going too low.

Even this assumes you’ve found one that works for you.  There is a huge range of anti-depressants and it can take several attempts to find a suitable one.  Unfortunately, the wrong one can actually make depression worse.  Someone who’s just starting on a new one needs someone to pay close attention to their behaviour, and they often don’t have them because they’re ashamed to tell their friends and family.  Another reason why it needs to be okay to say you’re suffering from depression.

In the long term, anti-depressants can actually dull your emotions, so you struggle to get really excited or happy about anything.  So much for “happy pills.”  Bit depressing, isn’t it?