People who do not know me very well might be hugely surprised to read this because they would only have seen me on the 95% of the time when I am absolutely fine and full of life. Until now I have kept the other 5% for close friends and family but that doesn’t help raising awareness which is why I have decided to go public with this.
I suffer from depression and have done so for over 20 years. I have decided to talk about this today with the hope that it will raise awareness, let others know that they are not alone and share tips on what to do to fight it and how to support a friend who suffers from depression.
I have encountered people who care very much and have the best intentions but either do not know how to help or do the opposite of what you need; so hopefully this will help them too. Sadly I have both experience of suffering the condition and living with someone suffering from it too. So what I am sharing with you is only my experience and my research on the subject, nothing more. You may disagree or have a different point of view but please bear in mind that there are several types of depression, not everyone is affected by it in the same way and what is true for me might not be true for others.
I have been in total denial about my condition until about 2 years ago. I have been through years of feeling terrible, then years of feeling absolutely fine and then went through a rollercoaster. Until my mid-twenties I was completely unaware of my condition, thinking that my ups and downs were just life. I used to distance myself from people telling me I had a mental illness. I reached the bottom once, accepted support, thought I was “fixed”, was fine for years, reached the bottom again, thought it was circumstantial, accepted punctual support again and again thought I was “fixed”. But when I reached the bottom again 2 years ago I was forced to admit that the issue was deeper than that.
I accepted long term support, listened to advice and things got better; but the hardest thing for me was to acknowledge that this was a permanent condition. I felt like I had a Damocles sword above my head for the rest of my life and that made me feel worse. Even if I can go years without symptoms it will always be in me. For a long time I thought that therapy would “cure” it, that I could get rid of it. Sadly it’s not how it works (although that depends on the type of depression that you suffer from). But I have made huge progress this year. I have learned how to live with it and how manage to it. It’s a steep learning curve with ups and downs but I can definitely see now how I can live a depression-free life, as long as I look after myself as I should.
The vicious effect of depression is that your mind will tell you to do what is not good for you and the lower you are the less you will feel like doing what would actually help you. This is where your friends can help by reminding you of what you should do to get better and sometimes even forcing it on you.
So here are the results of my research. This is mostly common sense and in no way exhaustive. It is all about having a good routine, a good support network and being kind to yourself.
- Have a good routine
Boring, I know! Although this is the most important thing, I find it very difficult to stick to it. But if I stray away from my routine for more than a few days, I feel low straight away. That says it all.
Having a good routine involves:
- Sleeping 8 hours, go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time every day.
- Exercising ideally 30 minutes every day, although 3 times a week is already very good. You don’t need to hit the gym every day. Just going for a walk will do if that’s all you can manage.
- Having a healthy diet – eat at least 3 times a day, avoid junk food or food that will affect your sleep, keep the caffeine down…
- Get as much sunlight as you can
- Go to work
This might make you laugh but those are actual exercises that a doctor instructed me to follow 2 years ago. At the time I found them extremely difficult and was told to hold a journal to record my progress on these daily.
Watch a comedy, see your friends, do whatever works for you.
- Do something you enjoy or used to enjoy
Even if you do not feel like it at first, it will make you feel better. At some point.
- Treat yourself
Treat yourself regularly with something that you really like and that you wouldn’t normally do.
- Acknowledge and fight negative thinking
This is advanced stuff! Depression comes with a critical inner voice. You are being very harsh with yourself all the time, you tell yourself off for something you have done or not done, you beat yourself up constantly.
This is what you need to fight the most. Don’t listen to that voice. Instead, when you notice these thoughts you need to identify them as an alien point of view. Ask yourself, would you think such cruel thoughts about a friend who was experiencing the same struggles. By having compassion for yourself and recognising this inner voice as a destructive enemy, you can begin to see who you are more clearly and realistically.
- Don’t punish yourself for feeling bad
Don’t feel embarrassed and don’t hate yourself over your depression. It is not your fault, it is an illness. Criticizing yourself will make you feel worse (see above). Remember that depression is a very common and highly treatable illness. It is just a matter of recognising you’re feeling bad and finding the treatment that works for you.
So keep your head high and go back to the basics (see above).
- Ask for help – talk about it
This is obviously the first (and hardest) step. Whether you talk to your friends, a GP or a therapist, just do something and don’t keep it to yourself.
I used to feel ashamed about it, feeling even awkward in confiding to close friends. I’m (clearly!) over that now, although even now a part of me is anxious about what people will think when they read this.
- Make sure someone is looking out for you at work
Talking to colleagues about your depression is extremely difficult. You are worried about their reaction, that they will judge you or that it will affect your career.
But the benefits of having colleagues aware of your condition are huge. To start with you have someone you can speak to when you have a bad day. It has happened to me to suddenly burst into tears at work and it was a huge relief to be able to go and find a friend just to help calm me down rather than having to go and hide in the ladies waiting for it to pass.
I made a huge step forward last year when I told my line manager about my condition. I didn’t say much (and certainly did not say how bad it was at the time) but it was important to me that he knew that I had an illness and might need time off for medical appointments or time off for rest, and that if my capacity to work had reduced it was for a reason, not just because I didn’t care about my job anymore. At the time I had issues getting up in the morning and just getting myself to work was a huge thing. I had bad days where I could not stop crying and couldn’t concentrate on work. Being able to call my manager to say “I don’t trust myself with this task today, can I please talk you through it” or “I need to reduce my workload for the next few days” was a huge relief.
But even then I didn’t want him to tell his manager and especially not HR. I was afraid to be labelled and that it would hurt my career advancement. Although these fears are understandable this is not the right thing to do. By asking my manager to keep it between us, I was putting the burden onto him, preventing him from getting support from his manager on how to deal with a direct report who suffers from depression and guidance from HR.
I have recently got over that too, and it is now in the open, which gives me greater support. This simply means that there are more people watching out for me.
- Help others
Helping others, giving to charity; do whatever you can manage… When you do things for others, you feel better about yourself. It might sound wrong, but it is a fact.
- Avoid stress
This one has been a very tough one for me to crack. I am a business lawyer and my job was, until recently, super stressful. From the moment I realise that my job, that I absolutely loved, was part of the issue and me moving into a new less stressful role, there was about 18 months.
- Do not isolate yourself
If you are feeling like seeing no one, that is precisely when you need to kick yourself and call your friends or go out to a public place. Easier said than done, I know.
- Do not drink or smoke
This is another tough one to crack! Personally I am still working on it.
Alcohol and tobacco are vicious because they temporarily make you feel better and are associated with socialising. And although socialising is very good for you, alcohol isn’t. The more you drink, the worse you will feel over the next few days, and I am not just talking about the hangover.
Drinking just undoes all the good work you have put in by having a good routine etc. And when you are hung-over your routine goes through the window which makes things worse.
My advice (that I don’t even always apply to myself – I’m only human!) is to try and keep my intake as low as possible. Never have a drink on my own at home and keep drinking for socialising only. Try to keep it to once a week at the maximum. You can also try not to drink at all over several weeks. You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel.
I often use the driving excuse so that I do go out but only drink softs. And if you are on a night out, count your drinks and have a glass of water in between drinks. The lack of hangover on the next day will be your reward and you will feel better about yourself when you have a productive day instead of feeling sorry for yourself all day.
Smoking is tricky because quitting will temporarily make you feel worse and failing will make you feel like you are a failure, which will make you feel even lower! It is all about timing and short term v. long term benefits. Listen to your gut. You know what is best for you. That said, I have now quit smoking. I will soon be celebrating a year. I will talk about how I have achieved this in a different article but it has had a huge impact on my state of mind.
What you can do if you wish to support a friend
- Look after yourself first
You can’t help others if you can’t help yourself first. A car needs fuel otherwise it doesn’t start. The same applies here.
- Do not tell your friends that they are not ill!!!
Acknowledging the issue is the first step to recovery and it is a very difficult one. It takes a lot of guts to talk about depression. If someone opens up to you it is because they trust you. If you tell them that it is all in their head they will feel worse for it and it will increase the negative thoughts I referred to above.
- Don’t be scared
The last thing your friend needs is for you to act differently around them. Don’t be nervous, don’t walk on egg shell. It will just reinforce their feelings of being singled out. Just behave how you always have. Looking out for someone isn’t the same thing as treating them as if they were made of glass.
- Check-in with them regularly
In this case, no news is not good news. If you haven’t heard from your friend in a little while, give them a call. You will be able to tell from their voice if they are having a good day or a bad day.
If they are having a bad day, try to go and see them and if you can’t go there and then, organise something. Having things in the diary to look forward to actually helps.
Just a few weeks ago, I told a friend I had cancelled all my plans for the week-end and was just sitting at home feeling depressed. She rocked up inviting herself for lunch with her husband and baby. That forced me to shower, tidy my place and pop outside to the shops to get some food and I felt much better for it. They only stayed a couple of hours but at least I did something else that week-end than just stay on the sofa watching crap TV and felt better.
- Encourage them to get out / follow that routine
Make plans, take them out for a short walk, a coffee, anything.
If you have time, agree to go to a gym class once a week together or practice a hobby together.
It’s always easier to get yourself up and going if you know someone is counting on you / waiting for you. That one works well on me as letting people down makes me feel guilty.
When I was at my lowest 2 years ago, one of my friends who was living round the corner use to check on me daily and took me out on walks. This is the simplest thing but it made all the difference and actually helped me through a very difficult time.
So now it’s time to take back the control of your life. I hope that you have found this article useful. Go and try some of these things, or even better, all of them, and let me know how you get on.
Let’s beat depression together!