Recognise it as an illness.
You did not choose to be ill with depression. The same way you wouldn’t choose to be ill with a physical illness. If you suspect that you may have depression or anxiety, it would be best to consult with your GP in the first instance. Wouldn't you consult with your GP if you had a funny rash on your body, or a persistent sore throat? Depression is no different, your GP knows of this illness and can help to treat it. Your GP can also refer you to helpful services within your area.
How did I get ill?
The best advice I ever received was from my GP was when I asked him ‘why am I ill with depression?’ and his answer was: ‘let’s not worry at the moment about why you got ill, let’s get you better first. Once you are well again we can then look at why you got ill.’
This was incredibly helpful and helped me focus on my recovery. When my good health returned it was quite easy to see how I had become ill - I had burnt out from juggling a full-time job with raising two young kids. But whilst I was ill I couldn’t see that. My advice to anyone who is poorly with their mental health is to follow the advice of my GP… focus on getting better first. Once you are well, it will be much easier to see how you got ill and you can work on how to avoid that going forward.
Medication … It’s a Plaster Cast
There is no shame taking medication in order to assist recovery from this illness. The same way you may need warfarin for a blood clot, insulin for diabetes, beta-blockers for the heart, or a plaster cast for a broken bone. My doctor likened anti-depressants to a ‘plaster cast’ for my brain/mind – which would assist my brain/mind to heal.
This came up a lot when I was ill. I was told to stop giving myself a hard time, and to be kind to myself. This was hard to believe to start with, as the negative thoughts bombarded me – a classic symptom of depression! But I tried and I got better at it. Whatever the ‘depression demon’ tells you – challenge it! Say to yourself ‘I won’t be hard on myself’ or ‘I choose to be kind to myself’ – the more you repeat this the less chance those negative thought have of penetrating your mind.
Keep in Touch
Keep in touch with friends and family in any way that you can. When I was really poorly, I couldn’t answer phone calls or respond to text messages in the daytime. But I found on most days that I was capable of responding to the text messages around late evening. It reduced my isolation by knowing that friends and family cared for me, and that I could respond at some stage on most days. This will change throughout your recovery, until you are back on that phone nattering about ‘this and that’ just like you did before.
I was encouraged to engage with deep breathing exercises, and it was surprisingly easy to do! It helps to slow down both the body and the mind. Meridian Wellbeing has a guided breathing exercise on our website which can help; I found this one helped me enormously.
On the tough days I used to repeat mantras to help ward away the barrage of negative and illogical thoughts. It really helps! Our minds can only action one thought at a time – if it is busy repeating positive mantras, it reduces head space for the negative and illogical thoughts. Here are some of the mantras that I used:
When I was poorly with depression life became hard. Things that I once enjoyed doing, which included reading and listening to music, I couldn’t do at the time of being ill. I showed myself some compassion and I stopped trying so hard to do the stuff that I couldn’t do. I took advice from loved ones on things that perhaps I could try, in the hope that I could do them.
The biggest helpful activity was to write. I found that I could still write. I tried to write about the illness, but that was a double-edged sword. So, I chose to write about happier times instead, which included holidays, friendships, family, the birth of my children. I wrote about all the things I would like to do when I was feeling better again. Writing helped enormously to remind me of who I still was.
A friend suggested knitting, as once you learn the stitch, it becomes a repetitive action and easy to concentrate on. Some days it helped, some days it didn’t, but it was always worth a try. As your knitting ‘grows’ you can see a tangible result of your work. This helped with the ‘everlasting time’ of each day, when I was knitting the time went by quicker. I only ever knitted lengths of stuff – I couldn’t have followed a pattern at this time. My daughter used my various pieces of knitting as blankets for her dolls – on one knitted piece she adapted it into an eye mask!
I began to spend time in my garden, as it felt like a safe extension of my home. I trimmed back bushes, cut back branches on the tree, pulled weeds out of the ground. I didn’t get round to planting anything as I’m not green fingered, but it felt good to be absorbed in an activity that I could do and which gave me a sense of achievement. Plus it got me out of the house and into the fresh air.
I couldn’t get to the shops; it was too difficult. So I gave myself compassion and I let others around help me with the shopping. But I could still do the washing up, so I took this role on and it allowed me to contribute to the home in a way that I could. I still did the clothes washing and ironing where I could, as I felt guilty that my family was having to take on more chores. I felt so guilty and helpless. I had to ‘dig deep’ for my compassion here.
There is a whole host of other ‘gentle’ activities of which people may benefit from. Some ideas include:
When I was ill with depression I felt guilty and helpless that I couldn’t function as I usually would. I was encouraged to recognise that small steps were achievements and this really helped. On days when I had no energy, walking to the bottom of the road to post a letter was an achievement. Getting washed and dressed was an achievement. Eating lunch was an achievement. I got better at telling myself daily that these steps that seemed easy before, but had become difficult when I was unwell, were massive achievements.
The above advice may seem logical on paper, but sadly depression is not a logical illness. Some days you may be able to achieve any number of these assisted recovery suggestions, on other days you may not be able to get out of the house. That’s OK. The trick is to not beat yourself up about it. You are doing your best. Depression is an illness, and you will recover.
Part 3 of Donna's Story: Depression is a Liar will be available on the 7th May.