My black dog: The truth about depression
'Having to e-mail my boss and tell him that I couldn’t come into work because I was depressed was agonising'
My name is Annabel and I’m a depressive. That statement shouldn’t feel shame-ridden, but to me it does. It should be as simple as explaining that I have diabetes, but to me it’s not.
Having to e-mail my boss and tell him that I couldn’t come into work because I was depressed was agonising. I must have written and deleted those pitiful words 10 times before hitting send. I very nearly lied and said I had the flu.
I’m not alone here. According to a recent survey by UK mental health charity Mind in partnership with YouGov, just 5% of employees who have been off sick owing to mental health problems gave their employer the real reason.
Every company has a different policy on sick leave. Every boss will respond to your disclosure differently. Mine has been extremely understanding, although I still worry he thinks less of me now. His response to my e-mail was brief but kind: he said he was sorry to hear I was unwell, referred me to HR, told me not to worry and explained to my colleagues that I would be away for a bit, but not why.
I e-mailed a few of them individually and the replies were all so touching that I wanted them embroidered on cushions.
Lots of these people praised my “honesty”, but I can’t say I was being brave, or that telling the truth provided any relief. The cogs of my mind were so broken this time, I might as well have been clutching a sign that read “out of order”. This episode had coincided with the death of a loved one, but I was probably overdue one.
One in four people in the UK will suffer from depression to varying degrees in their lives. I imagine plenty deny or conceal it which you can if it’s mild. I prefer to call mine, as Winston Churchill dubbed his, the black dog. I inherited it. It’s a debilitating chemical imbalance in the brain that sometimes rears its head, ruins my life for a bit, and then passes.
When it hits, it’s thunderous and unshakable; something akin to waking up from an anaesthetic to find yourself wrapped in a cloak of misery, with pockets full of bricks, worn over a straitjacket ... and feeling this way constantly, for weeks, months even.
I’ve had this black dog at my heel for nearly two decades now, and I’ve had more than 10 bosses over that time. Not one of them knew I had a pet. In the past, when I’ve had an episode, I’ve left, gone freelance and disappeared with my dark hound in tow. But it’s been years since my last one, and this time I didn’t want to creep off defeated.
I’m fed up with concealing it and worrying that telling the truth sounds like I’m just feeling a bit wimpish and can’t be bothered. So this time, I told my boss the truth.
The late journalist/author Sally Brampton, who lost her battle with depression by way of suicide in 2016, was told by her psychiatrist during one particularly bad episode that her IQ would be down at least 30 points. Depression, he told her, “literally depresses every cognitive process”.
So to sprinkle a little more devastation into an already unmanageable cauldron of doom, I assume the people around me, who don’t know about my condition, put my sluggish behaviour and general withdrawal down to laziness, or skiving, perhaps even a good old-fashioned hangover, and roll their eyes.
Having been around other people during a depressive episode (my brother suffers too) I know it can seem annoying. How hard is it to get out of bed, have a shower and leave the house, for heaven’s sake? Well I can tell you first-hand, it’s nigh impossible.
Tears like clockwork
How does depression really feel? Fasten your seat belts, it’s not pretty.
Every morning I prise open my eyes with the lurching dread that I’ve got to play that silly game again. How hard will it be to crawl, sometimes literally, through yet another pointless day on an Earth that’s been drained of colour? I’ve had eight hours’ sleep, yet I’m already exhausted before I peel off the duvet and dangle my feet over the bed.
My body is acutely aware that the illness lies within my skull, which is why, in the same way you hold your stomach when it aches, most of my day is spent clutching my head. At times, I’ve bashed it against the wall so hard as to leave a bruise, such is my frustration. Much like whacking the side of a dodgy computer that won’t turn on – pointless, really, but worth a shot.
I’m not alone in this rather violent act of self-infliction. In a 2015 interview with Vogue, model-turned-actor Cara Delevingne said of her depression: “The feelings were so painful that I would slam my head against a tree to try to knock myself out.”
Showering is out of the question, given that I’ve curiously attained a catlike aversion to water. Changing out of my pyjamas? Unthinkable. That would require selecting clothes from a wardrobe, which would be too confusing, and it’s not like I can possibly leave the house in this catatonic state, so what’s the point anyway?
Reading a book? Ha ha, brain, forget it. You give up around the time you’ve read the same page seven times and absorbed absolutely none of the words. Then come the tears, like clockwork – once in the morning, once in the evening, for absolutely no reason.
Usually, I’m so hyper, so fidgety as to be annoying. During an episode, I find myself slumped against a wall staring into thin air for hours on end because my mission to get from the bedroom to the living room failed.
The aspect of depression that most people don’t realise, and can’t possibly empathise with unless they’re in the club, is that you’re not sad. There’s something poetic and oddly satisfying about being sad. No, you’re entirely unplugged. To quote Stephen Fry, famed for his frankness about his own depression: “The blankness of future is just so extreme, it’s like such a black wall of nothingness. Not of bad things like a cave of monsters and so you’re afraid of entering it. It is just nothingness. A void, emptiness.”
Now, given that I’ve been so far into that void that my ability to walk from one room to another was hit-or-miss, obviously there’s not a chance in hell of me being able to do my job as a journalist. At my worst, I couldn’t even read, and the twice-daily sobbing would frankly be uncomfortable for everyone. But knowing my absence was making my boss’s job harder induced profound guilt and self-loathing.
And herein lies the problem. I shouldn’t feel guilty, talking about it shouldn’t be painfully hard, writing about it shouldn’t be “brave’”, and self-loathing certainly doesn’t help you get better.
Still, despite the fleeting honesty in my e-mail to my boss, when most people asked me how I was feeling, I lied. If I had a broken arm, I could have pointed at my cast and said: “A bit rubbish, really.” But if I’d said: “I’m depressed. I cry twice a day and can’t tie my shoelaces,” I would have found it as toe-curling as talking to a stranger about sex.
To me, depression still feels taboo. Partly because it’s not a visible bodily wound; and partly because the term is flung around innocently, but flippantly. Films are “depressing”, the last day of a holiday is “depressing”, but this is not depression, so when a clinically depressed person like me uses the word to explain why they can’t work or socialise, naturally there’s a fear that it won’t be taken seriously.
The darkness sat over me for about six weeks, after which I emerged, somewhat timidly, to find a world that looked completely normal again. Returning to work, however, felt like swimming sheepishly to a ship I’d long abandoned. I thought that, at best, I’d probably been forgotten, and at worst, I’d be a burden to have back. I needn’t have worried. My boss helped me ease into things at a manageable pace, and my colleagues offered sincere kindness, but never treated me differently.
It’s hard to know what to say to someone who is in, or has just emerged from, a period of mental illness. But one colleague, Hugh, got it completely right: “You’re a very valued member of the team, and it’s good to have you back.”
– © The Daily Telegraph