When I moved out of home to go to university was the first time I experienced what I now recognise as depression. I didn’t have words for it at the time, sometimes I could show up and cope with life, other times I couldn’t. It was a tough year. I had moved into an apartment instead of a hall of residence and had very little opportunity to make friends. I was away from my family, trying to act like an adult for the first time in a strange city with very few people I knew. On my birthday that year I didn’t see a single person who had a clue that it was a significant day for me. I was incredibly lonely.
Then came a sensation much different to being sad there is no one to sing you happy birthday, which is one of the most awkward moments of public humiliation and seems like a truly barbaric punishment for becoming another year older. I started to feel exhausted. Sleep all day and all night exhausted. Struggle to walk up the stairs or down the hall to the kitchen exhausted. I started not to care. About myself and my well being, or my grades, my room or what was going on with the Kardashians, or the meaning of life. It all seemed like it had gotten lost in the wash somewhere, swept out to sea, and it would never be delivered back to me again.
But I am blessed, as most human beings are, with an innate ability to bounce back. A resilience so deeply rooted in my core that even in the darkest of times I am usually able to pick myself up, dust myself off and keep going. Except when I can’t. At the time I received my dads terminal cancer diagnosis, my life was already on a collision course. I had grown tired of what I was doing for work, I had lost sense of purpose and direction in my life. I wasn’t taking care of myself or my body. My relationship was falling apart. Then I learned the fate of my father, and there was nothing but impending doom. Sitting and watching the cyclone growing, with legs that won’t carry you and nowhere to run, waiting for the storm to hit.
Now there have been people who have been in much darker places than I have been. While I never planned to harm myself, from the second I woke up in the morning to the second I fell asleep, if sleep came at all, the same words would run across my mind in a loop, the worlds most de-motivational thought banner that said ‘I do not want to live anymore’. But no matter what the banner said, I knew checking out was not an option. Life is worth living, and I have loved ones that need me. One person in particular needed me more than ever, and I knew there was nothing more important than getting well, showing up and being there to support my dad on the most difficult journey of his life. So for the first time I sought professional help, and if you or someone you love ever finds themselves down that deep, I believe that is what they will need to do also.
Occasionally, these feelings hit me like a freight train. More often than not, the feeling creeps in slowly, and I can recognise the behaviour I exhibit when I start a downward spiral. For me this usually includes taking less care of myself and my surroundings. Links between gut health and mood have existed for over a century, recently particularly compelling scientific evidence is being discovered about our gut bacteria’s role in depression and anxiety. I have experienced many gut related issues as well as depression, and for me, the two being connected is far too consistent not to be true. It is essential for me to be thoughtful about what I am fuelling myself with not only for the health of my body but also for my mind. I need to work to hold on to the feeling that I am worth taking care of. We are only gifted one body, and its important to consistently treat it with the respect it deserves.
I have found that the only way to get out of bed is to get up. No matter how intelligent you are, I can guarantee you can’t think your way out of a cocoon of misery, or simply will yourself to start showing up to life again. You must pick yourself up and get moving, letting the momentum carry you forward and start to build. Just as the sadness creeps in so will the joy, if you let it. It is difficult to slide into depression when you are actively practising gratitude and living in the present. Things may not be as you would like them to be, but you have a heart that beats, most of us are lucky enough to have legs that carry us and arms that support us. Tune in to and enjoy the sensations of moving your body, of sheets on your skin. Taking note of the little things, this is how they turn into big things. I find it essential to actively seek out the things that bring me joy. Often I believe we are fed a narrative that happiness is something that finds us, in the form of a new relationship or the perfect job or finally obtaining the body we’ve always wanted. I can guarantee that working toward a consistent feeling of contentment and happiness is more likely to get you into the best shape of your life, and not the other way around.
I am not a mental health expert, I am an expert in physical health, yet this is something I have to work on every day, and something I believe desperately needs to be discussed more. Because being vocal can eliminate some loneliness for someone else. Because we don’t expect a broken leg to heal on its own, yet when our spirit is broken we feel embarrassed to ask for help. Because we need to remove the fear of a stigma, a perceived weakness, or being part of a statistic. Because we need not be ashamed that we struggle, but proud that we triumph.