At the risk of banging what appears to be my one and only drum, I remain heavily involved in… and committed to raising awareness of mental health issues through my series of “challenges”. The fact that I have a condition called dysthymia—something I’ve lived with for probably the past forty years—is no great secret, but whilst it’s simple to give a list of symptoms, I’m not sure I’ve ever really conveyed just how it feels to have a form of depression. But I’m going to try….
Right from the outset, I want to point out that dysthymia, whilst chronic, is a relatively mild condition (you can use the word “illness” if you want; I just choose not to). What follows is therefore arguably the tip of the proverbial iceberg should you perhaps decide to contemplate the possible effects of (and the consequent daily struggles with) more serious depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, anorexia or bulimia (nervosa)… and so the list continues.
Every morning, I wake feeling flat. Not some or most mornings… every morning.
I liken the feeling to having my head held tightly by a giant hand. On a “good” day, the hand is still there; the exact definition of “not so good” depends very much on how tightly the hand chooses to squeeze.
I readily accept I have no reason to feel low; I have a wonderful (understatement) wife, a loving family, plenty of friends, a nice home, good job, and reasonable health for an old bloke with dodgy hips. There will be some of you who can’t understand why I don’t spring out of bed and skip down the stairs every single morning (hips notwithstanding)… and to an extent I agree; but do you not think if it was easy, I’d have found that consistent daily waking rush of inner happiness at some point during the past four-and-a-bit decades?
Dysthymia does not necessarily give you the exaggerated highs and lows that may be seen in other conditions. It basically mirrors whatever your own personal definition of “normality” may be; it’s just that the reflection is always that much gloomier. But when you’ve known no different, then it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that because you essentially feel the same every day, then that is “normal”, and that being the case, you just “get on with it” because… well… that’s what everybody does.
From being in my teens, I would have times of unexplained, but profound sadness. The more it happened, the more I amended my definition of “normal” and just accepted the tears. Actually, I didn’t just accept them… I would almost go out of my way to encourage them. I wanted to cry… I needed to cry… and so I would find a quiet corner and think about literally anything (real or imaginary) that would make me keep crying until that hand finally loosened its grip.
Many years later, I finally recognised that the more extreme emotion (sometimes, but by no means always caused by a traumatic life episode) was not “normal”, but it still took quite a long time—and countless conversations with those who could see the outward signs that I refused to acknowledge—before I sought the help I so desperately needed. In the intervening years (more than a quarter of a century), I continued to experience irrational periods of desolation and the dark thoughts that always came along for the ride. I reached a point where the negative side of my personality was so dominant that I almost functioned “better” when I felt overwhelmed by sorrow.
My “normal” had shifted yet further. Dark thoughts had now become usual… compulsive… and occasionally genuinely compelling. Part of me knew something was wrong, but I simply wasn’t strong enough to fight, let alone overcome, my demons (if that’s the right word). In truth, the stronger part of me didn’t want to fight… I deserved to feel the way I did.
It was a potentially dangerous downward spiral and much as I tried, whether instinctively or deliberately, to hide what others may have perceived as weakness; those who cared most could see through the charade. Eventually, I crumbled… specifically from the pressure of trying to deal with a hugely traumatic series of events; and I had that single brief moment of objective clarity that enabled me to make the call to the doctor—and that, I suppose, was the first step to getting to where I am today.
I was originally diagnosed with depression, but the correct diagnosis should actually have been “double depression”. Whilst my underlying (and undetected) dysthymia was always present, but manageable; it was the second episode (on top of the pre-existing condition) that was a big enough change from the familiar to finally make me pick up the phone. The second layer of depression was treated (pretty successfully), but the dysthymia remained… because it was so much part of who I was (and am) that the specific symptoms were either lost in the extremes or not even raised for consideration.
That was in 2004; it’s 2016 now and in many respects I am a totally different person.
Meeting Elaine was undoubtedly the most important single course-changing moment of my life; and whilst my sleep remains disturbed by recurring bad dreams (some of which I’ve had for over thirty years) and subconscious memories of not-so-good times gone by, my waking hours are so much better because of the person with whom every single day starts and ends.
That said I still have dysthymia. I will always have dysthymia. It’s part of me and who I am, but the difference is it’s no longer in a totally negative way. The massive lows are rare, but can still happen (November 2011 and June 2015 were the last two); now though I recognise the signs and I know that the feelings will eventually pass. Yes I still have a low opinion of myself… I fear failure, and usually expect to fail, and as I mentioned right at the start, I continue to struggle with those feelings of “doom and gloom”—but as well as having the support of Elaine, my parents and other close family and friends, my “challenges” have undeniably taught me so much.
The list may not be the toughest tests or biggest adrenaline rushes in the world, but I have done things I never thought I would, or could. I have reached out and asked for help… and it’s been there—and I’m so grateful. If there is a moral to this blog, it would be to translate the previous sentence to relate to dealing with a mental health issue rather than planning a stand-up comedy routine (for example). I know just how much strength it takes simply to ask for help… but don’t ever underestimate the possible consequences….
I might not always look happy… in fairness I may not always feel happy; but deep down, I am happy… very happy indeed.