As of Friday, for the first time in three years, I am back on antidepressants. Given that World Mental Health Day was observed not too long ago, and that I’m quite heavily involved in Accenture’s mental health enablement initiatives in proactive “better” mental health as well as support systems for those currently going through issues in their life, I feel I need to talk about this publicly. I say this as someone who’s dealt with depression in the past and gotten out of it. It’s important to celebrate success stories of when people get through tough times and those issues are the rear-view mirror; it’s equally important though to talk about this and normalise the discussion while it’s happening.
My breaking point where I realised I needed help happened last weekend when I was the cinema, watching Bad Times At The El Royale. (It’s from the director behind The Cabin In The Woods; a great watch that is a slice of crazy Americana.) There was a point in the film where Jeff Bridges’ character breaks down sobbing and shaking because of he hits problems with memory recall (likely dementia) and the loss of self that it made him feel. This hit me super hard…because I realised how over the past few weeks, I’ve increasingly found it hard to recall information — and found myself similarly struggling internally with the rage of not being able to meet the bar I set for myself.
Now, to be fair, it doesn’t affect me at work as much, since I have a habit of copiously taking notes to remember things. (Oh hi folks! If you’ve ever been in a meeting with me and saw me on my laptop or my phone, it’s because I’m taking notes. I’m not ignoring you.) But in general I have a habit of ingesting an enormous amounts of random information and being able to flick it into existence in conversations, and not being able to do that felt like a loss on sense of control.
“The bar I set for myself” is a funny term, and a big reason why I’ve probably ignored the fact that I need to talk to someone for months now. So let’s talk about that, because I feel that’s something a lot of people going through mental health issues put themselves through.
For me, I’ve been on panels on mental health internally within the company / externally at industry events, or even socially in groups in my friend circle. I’d find myself talking as an “advocate” exhorting people to talk openly, seek help, and monitor proactively — all the while feeling like a hypocrite on the inside. Deep down, I realised I needed to follow my own advice. And I didn’t, because stupidly enough, I’d see it as “accepting defeat” and “hey, it’s not bad, I can deal with this”.
My way of dealing with the rising tide of symptoms of depression — as it always has been with me — was to throw myself headfirst into work. I’m sure that’s partly because I’m a workaholic anyway. Work gives me a sense of control over my life, and a sphere where I can achieve things to feel good about myself. But to an extent, it’s also like going to a buffet and piling on a plate with as much food as humanly possible so that you can stuff yourself until your body screams “no more”.
Honestly, I’ve had the emotional bandwidth of a soggy paper straw in being able to handle friendships and relationships, for months now. It’s not that I don’t want to hang out with my friends — I really do have a good time when I push myself to say “yes” — but the instinctive reaction, the tiny voice inside my head, has defaulted to saying “no” whenever a social gathering was involved. Even when I have said yes out loud, it has taken immense effort to shake off the crazy impulse to say no from the inside.
Quite often, I’ve used “work” or “oh sorry, I’m at a conference” as an excuse to portray that I’m too busy — but, really, that is a defense mechanism to stem the rising tide of panic I get every time I see the red notification dot of text / Facebook / WhatsApp messages. Dealing with those takes emotional effort, and I’ve massively struggled at finding the capacity to bring myself to engage.
It’s easier to lie to myself that the “real reason” is an external factor, like work. It’s less painful than the sinking feeling in my gut that I’m not being a good friend, who proactively engages. I stopped blogging, something that I love and have done for years. I haven’t read a book since 2015, because I’ve lacked the capacity to handle the attention one needs; instead, replacing it with a steady stream of articles Pocket and Twitter (so I’m not really out of touch with the world per se). I’ve steadily cut back on hobbies or things I do for fun. When my Apple Watch taps me to “breathe” through the day, my body reacts with a visceral shock of shock of “I can’t deal with this right now” and a dismiss notification.
The red notification dot of Outlook is less judgemental.
To be clear, my way of dealing with social situations is obviously unhealthy and unsustainable. And a terrifying time too, since in the past my combination of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication has caused blackouts when out drinking. I’m also eternally grateful for friends and colleagues here who have pushed through that stubborn wall that I’ve built around myself — which I know I shouldn’t keep around — and dragged me out to just…engage.
But it also feels good to acknowledge, deal with it, and move onwards from here on.Being able to listen to my own advice, that I give to many others, without judging myself for it.
It gets easier.
There is, of course, a technology angle that I had to bring into this. When I finally had the “oh fuck, I do need help realisation”, thanks to the fact that I was registered with GP at Hand as my NHS GP, which offers 24/7 online video/audio consultations, I was able to get an appointment to talk to a GP within two hours.
People underestimate how much, when someone is going through depression, the prospect of having to set up an appointment over telephone (listening to Celine Dion hold music), and then getting a “convenient” appointment on a Thursday at 11.40am can be a turn-off to patients who need help now.
There’s a tiny window of opportunity when people going through depression are lucid enough to recgonise they need to talk to someone. I’m happy to engage in debate whether the way the provider behind GP at Hand wanted to expand services is correct and safe (I believe it is).
As a society though, I do think we can all agree that making access support should be easier, cheaper (to provide), and more accessible.