This was not a good week.
Ever since I got diagnosed with depression, I’ve generally been pretty open with people about it. There’s little reason to hide away from the fact that it’s there. In being honest about it, I can get the support I need to get me through the day. But, I also hope that my being open about it means that others who may be experiencing similar struggles can feel as though they can speak up and get support themselves.
Today was not a good week for me. I’ve been struggling for a while what with the pandemic and lockdowns and stresses at work, but this week was particularly bad. I spent the majority of the week as an anxious bundle of stress and panic as I waited for what I hoped would be good news but which ultimately wasn’t. It’s ironic that this happened during Mental Health Awareness Week.
I’ve thought for a while about writing about my journey with depression. There’s always that worry about “what happens if I’m too honest about this?” Will people think differently about me? Am I just being really self-involved? Does anybody actually care enough to read this? Will it help anyone? Will it help me to just write it down? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, but as I sit here, I don’t want today to be a complete write-off. I’ve already had plenty of those and they’re just not fun. So you know what? I’m just going to write my story of depression and me and see where I end up.
Content Warning: Bullying, homophobia, grief, suicidal thoughts, depression
What is depression to me?
Depression is an odd beast that’s different for every person. For some it materialises as a complete apathy for anything and everything, for some it’s constant feelings of sadness, for some it’s a mixture, and for some it comes in peaks and troughs.
Mine is somewhere in between. There’s always a constant element of imposter syndrome nagging at the back of my mind that I’m worthless and I’m not as good at things as I think I should be and that nobody likes me and I shouldn’t be in the position I’m in. There’s the constant hoping for good things to happen and the stress and the panic in the waiting when it’s out of my control. There’s the pain and the hurt when something nudges some of the deep-seated emotional scars I’ve developed over the years. Some days I just feel empty and exhausted, others I just want to cry.
Most of the time, I feel stable and relatively happy. Whenever anybody speaks to me, they’re usually speaking to the happy, smiley Richard who will delightedly geek out over just about anything and belt his lungs out to any musical theatre song given the opportunity. And that’s because that’s the person I want to be. That’s the person I feel I should be and can be.
And most of the time, that is who I am. But equally, there are days when I’m just not.
Recently, my depression has come in the form of just wanting to sleep constantly. I get up and just want to go back to bed. I do a bit of work and then I just want to nap. It’s not that I’m not getting enough sleep, I’m just really lethargic. And then there’s the brain crashing. The only way I’ve been able to describe it is like a car stalling. I can feel the gears of my brain grinding to a halt and then I’m just staring at a screen doing nothing. I can’t bring myself to do anything. So I just mindlessly sit and stare and look at the same few things again and again and again. And then the guilt comes in, because there are people a lot worse off than me both in life and in terms of their mental health, and here I am moaning about how hard my life is. And then it ends up in an endless cycle of anxiety, depression, self-loathing, and frustration.
And then I pick myself back up and keep on fighting. I slip back and then I try to bounce back. It’s gotten harder to bounce back from things as I’ve gotten older.
When I get sad, I’ve always found that it helps in some weird way to listen to and sing along to really sad and emotional songs. To let all of that emotion out into something. One of the songs I’ve connected to the most is ‘Words Fail’ from Dear Evan Hansen.
No, I’d rather pretend I’m something better than these broken parts
Pretend I’m something other than this mess that I am
‘Cause then I don’t have to look at it
And no one gets to look at it
No, no one can really see
‘Words Fail’ from Dear Evan Hansen
I don’t think I’d ever felt so seen emotionally until Dear Evan Hansen, and it’s lyrics like that that capture something of what it feels like to me to live with depression.
Where it all began…
So where did this journey all begin?
I was a really happy and excitable child. I was a little bundle of energy. I was sensitive and cried a reasonable amount, but nothing out of the ordinary.
And then in Year 5, when I was about 9, the bullying started. It began as just a few people calling me gay. It was at that time when ‘gay’ was used as an insult by everyone to mean ‘rubbish’ because there was a particularly awful strain of homophobia in schools in the Noughties. I don’t remember ever really understanding what it meant in reality, but I knew it was being used to insult me and I didn’t like being called it.
Then I went up to senior school at 11 and that was when things got worse. The bullying got worse. The constant sneers of ‘gay’ being hurled at me because I was small, and a bit camp, and loved Disney and singing and was a smart kid. There was a small group of bullies who particularly had it in for me, but often it felt like the whole school was mocking me and laughing at me. I remember one lad threatening to stab me with his keys once. But really it was the constant calls of ‘gay’ and ‘poof’ and ‘f*g’ that got to me the most, particularly as I’m not gay and never have been.
Looking back, it should never have gotten to me, because being gay is not a bad thing. But when you get called it pejoratively constantly and for years, you build up certain mental scars associated with the words and the associated behaviour.
You can actually see the difference in my eyes from before it all really began and after. The spark of joy in life just vanishes into nothingness even if the smile remains.
My parents reported the bullying to the school but they did absolutely bugger all.
And then one day the school finally listened.
Because one day I came home from school, sobbing, and told my mum that I just wanted to throw myself of the school bridge because I couldn’t cope anymore.
The school couldn’t not listen at that point.
Did I have depression then? I’m sure I did, but I would never have said I did, because depression and mental health and illnesses just weren’t talked about in school, even then.
So there I am, a suicidal pre-teen pushed to the brink by bullying. The school took some action then, they got me out of PE lessons where the bullying was the worst and gave me a get out of class card should I need it and they did tell off the bullies. Not that that really stopped anything in any meaningful way.
The bullying continued, and I even had awful interactions with some teachers. I remember quite vividly one particularly awful day.
I’d won an award at the school for the extra-curricular work I’d done in setting up a Games Club and reviving the Anime Club and the prize was tickets to see High School Musical On Ice. Bit awkward as a teenage boy to get that as a prize, but I did love High School Music so there we go. Early on that day I asked a girl I liked if she’d go with me. She said yes. Later that day in French I got the gender of a word wrong (because French is like that) and my teacher said “You’re a hermaphrodite.” Cue the entire class pissing themselves with laughter and using it against me for the rest of the day. The girl was so embarrassed after that that she said she wouldn’t go on that date with me. And I once more went home sobbing.
Typically, that teacher was never punished for what she did to me. Neither was the teacher who told me on a field trip to Barcelona that he never wanted to hear that I ‘tolerated’ someone ever again even though they were bullying me at the time. Or the teacher who talked about me to another class behind my back.
I think what hurt the most was the countless times when the people I thought were my friends never stood up for me. Whether it was because they didn’t see how badly it all affected me, or they were just too terrified to stick their heads above the parapet, or they were struggling themselves and didn’t have the strength to help, I’ll never know. I know I lacked that strength then to truly stand up for the friends I did have though I remember trying my best. But either way that lack of peer support in those early years is ultimately what led to the trust issues I’ve got to this very day.
So yeah, school and bullying. That’s where it all began, not that I realised it then.
So I poddled along through life as you do. I wasn’t great, but I kept going and I achieved great things academically. Despite everything that happened, I was the only person in my year who managed to get into Oxbridge at that time. To get into Cambridge was huge because I never thought I ever would have stood a chance of getting in. But I did and I went and it really helped me begin to regain some of the confidence that I’d long since lost.
Being at university was great but challenging too. There were many challenges around friendships and relationships that always occur when you out a bunch of young adults close together in a high-pressure environment. But ultimately, I did ok.
And then something big happened. My second Christmas at university my Grandad ended up going in to hospital. We knew he hadn’t been quite right since that summer, but this was when the truth dropped. He got diagnosed with lung cancer.
That was hard to deal with, but as you do, somehow I found the strength to keep positive. We’d caught it before it was terminal and he started having treatment for it. But obviously, it got worse and became terminal. It eventually spread into his spine and then he was bedridden and at that point, he really did just give up.
Going back to university for my final year was difficult because I knew that when I said bye to him I knew it was most likely going to be the final time I saw him. I desperately wanted him to keep fighting. I wanted him to see the pantomime I was writing to honour him and my Nanna and the wonderful story of how they met. I wanted him to be there for my 21st birthday and for my Mum’s 50th birthday and my graduation. But I knew the likelihood of that happening was minimal.
And then about a week or two after going back I got a phone call on the Saturday to say that we were in the final few days. And then on that Monday I got the call from home to say he’d gone.
Grief is another strange beast, and part of me has been fascinated to see how it’s affected everyone in my family as it has impacted everyone so differently. But for me, grief tore another spark in life from me. I’d steeled myself for the event and knew it was coming, but I just felt empty. Nothing I was doing felt like it had any meaning. I ended up being quite an existential nihilist for a while. What was the point in my dissertations? They didn’t mean anything. What was the point in doing my video game commentaries? They were just distractions. What was the point in anything when life could just go like that?
I did my pantomime and I did my commentaries and I finished my degree and they all felt good, but the spark had definitely gone.
Even then, I didn’t think I had depression. It was of course more understood in the general public, but I just thought that my mood and emotional state was entirely dictated by my circumstances and that once things got better, I’d be fine.
I was wrong.
After I graduated I struggled to find a job. I left feeling like it’d all be great because I had a good degree from a good university and I was a good hard working person and I’d been trained all my life to believe that I was the type of person who could just walk into any job they wanted. I couldn’t because that’s not how life works. Some people are lucky and put themselves in the right place and the right time for great opportunities, but for most of us, it’s a constant battle. You don’t have enough experience for this job but there’s no way to get the experience without being in the job. And those months of rejection took their toll on me.
I withdrew into myself. I avoided basically any meet ups my friend group at uni had organised. Partially because it was expensive to get to London and I was without a job, but when I eventually did get a job as a Front of House Steward and had the money to go, I didn’t go because I was ashamed. I was ashamed that I had failed to do anything with the degree I’d worked so hard for and I was ashamed that the things that I thought would mean something just didn’t.
My parents began to get really frustrated with me as I just stopped caring about everything. I wasn’t really trying too hard to look for new jobs anymore, I wasn’t really getting anywhere with the writing I’d promised myself I would do, I was just existing.
That New Year my Mum yelled at me on the landing and everything just came flooding out. The feelings of worthlessness. The shame. The self-loathing. And then my parents understood what had happened and I began to understand what had happened.
I began to realise that I was probably suffering with depression and that I probably needed to do something about it. I thought I’d wait a little bit longer to see if a situation change would fix things. I did eventually get my first full-time job as a Marketing Intern and that was great. But I didn’t feel any different. I was still sad and empty.
That’s when I finally went to the doctors and got the confirmation that I had depression and anxiety. My situation wasn’t helping matters and clearly had a large part to play in causing my issues, but this was confirmation that there was more to it than just the things happening around me.
For a long time, I’d been against the idea of taking anti-depressants because of all the negative things you always heard about them like the side-effects and the fact that you don’t want to rely on pills to keep you stable. But at that stage in my life, I knew that I needed something to help me as therapy was never going to be the answer for me. I think too much. I know the way my brain works and the paths it goes down and the trauma that has led to the issues I have. I’ve also seen enough stuff to know the types of things I should try to do like mindfulness and exercise. So anti-depressants were really my only option.
And you know what? They worked. I’ve unfortunately had to increase my dosage twice over the years, but they’ve quietened down that awful pit of empty nothingness. They’ve helped me realise what issues are related to my circumstances and what issues stem from my mental illness better. When I’m happy, I’m actually happy, not just pretending to be so. When I’m sad, it’s definitely because there is a reason to cry. And if I’m crying but there’s not actually a reason behind it, I know that that’s just my depression giving me the run around.
Life with Depression
And so that’s how I’ve been for the last five years. I’ve had highs like my staff pantomime and finally publishing my first book, and I’ve had lows including more suicidal thoughts following bullying from a senior manager in a workplace.
Living with depression is a constant battle. Some days, weeks, and years are absolutely fine. Others are not. I know that the last year has been really challenging for everyone, and I know that it has definitely had a real negative impact on my mental health. I also know that other circumstances in life are also having a negative impact. My brain has been less able to deal with stressors it could otherwise cope with and that’s frustrating.
I don’t want to be back there because it’s not fun.
So, I’ve done what I’ve had to do to keep going. I’ve taken naps when I’ve needed them, I’ve stepped away for a bit when my brain starts to chug, and I’ve gotten my anti-depressants increased because the most important thing I can do is to look after myself. These circumstances will pass eventually. So, I’ve just got to make sure that I’m ok for when they do.
In short, that’s my journey with depression. Right now, I’m not doing the best even when like everyone else I say “I’m fine” when someone asks me how I am. But that’s ok, because it’s ok to not be ok. Depression is not something you can ever just ‘fix’, it’s something you take on and face every single day. Some days you win the battle, some days you lose it. The thing that I’ve found is the most important is to think that I’m still here, I’m still going, and I’m continuing to be true to me. Every day lived is a victory over a mental illness that all too often can kill you. And every victory is proof that you can keep going. And if you can keep going, then you have the power to get control of it in the end.
This was not a good week, but I’ve been through many not good weeks before and I’m still here. I know there are many others out there who go through exactly the same. If I can do it, and they can do it, then everyone can.
It took me a long time to realise that something was wrong with me, but when I did, I spoke about it and I sought help. And that help came. I was lucky that I have such a supportive family. But even if you don’t, there will be someone who will listen and there will be someone who can help.
I brought up Dear Evan Hansen earlier and how it made me feel seen. Well, there’s another song in that show which is even more powerful and it’s one that gives me hope for the future.
Even when the dark comes crashin’ through
When you need someone to carry you
When you’re broken on the ground
You will be found!
So when the sun comes streaming in
‘Cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again
If you only look around
You will be found.
‘You Will Be Found’ from Dear Evan Hansen
I may have my own struggles with depression, and in the past, I may not have been strong enough to support others and keep my head above the water, but now, I can be.
So remember… I can keep going. Which means you can too.
And if you only look around, you WILL be found.