If you, dear reader, are suffering the pain of depression right now, I hold you in my heart as I offer you my story. My hope is that in some small way, sharing my journey of healing may help water the seed of hope within you, and inspire you to believe in your own ability to change, heal and grow from this illness.
I first experienced some of the symptoms of depression at around 7 years of age. I very clearly felt that I did not belong here in this world. I felt ugly, invisible, bad, guilty, ashamed, alone, anxious, misunderstood and sad. These feelings partly stemmed from my dysfunctional family situation, but they largely evolved from my experience of growing up with a rare form of childhood social anxiety called Selective Mutism. Having this condition (which remained undiagnosed and untreated throughout my childhood) meant that in any social setting outside of my home I was literally paralysed with extreme self-consciousness, unable to speak and on some occasions even move in front of other people. At school I could never express my needs or my fears, or make myself understood by others. Other people gave up on me very easily and rarely took the time to try to engage with the child who was suffering behind the silence. Everyday interactions were a constant source of anxiety…. If you can imagine your worst case of public speaking stage fright, and then imagine being a child experiencing that feeling every single day – that was my reality.
As I grew older I gradually became able to speak and function more normally in social settings. In spite of this, the belief that I was inherently bad, a burden to everyone, and that I didn’t deserve to be here was firmly entrenched inside me. My pain and frustration twisted inwards into self-hatred, with depression becoming my protective shell – if I hated myself enough, I would be safe from all the pain of being in a world that didn’t understand me, that didn’t want me, need me, or care about me.
I dropped out of school at the age of 15, suicidally depressed, without hope for the future. Having no self-worth whatsoever I clung to the only person who seemed to notice that I existed, my employer – a sick sexual predator more than twice my age. Years of being used and abused and blaming myself every step of the way followed. When my involvement with this person ended, the feelings of guilt, shame, self-loathing and self-hatred within me became stronger than ever. I could not live in my own skin. I was alone and drowning, treading water just to make it through to the end of each day. The only people who sensed my vulnerability and threw me a lifeline were men who further verbally, emotionally and sexually abused me.
At the age of 24 I was introduced to the Depressionet website, and subsequently began seeing a psychologist whose details were listed on the site. At the time I weighed 42 kilograms; I was pale, emaciated, exhausted and empty inside. I didn’t eat or sleep properly. My body ached constantly. I cried every day. I was socially isolated and estranged from my family. I was overwhelmed by the negative thoughts screaming at me inside my head. Some days I would be unable to move, I would lie curled up on my floor just staring at my phone, wanting so much to reach out to someone, anyone, anything – but not having the strength to fight my inner thoughts that kept me trapped and frozen. Suicidal ideation was the only thing that gave me any relief – planning the when, where and how of my exit from the world, working out what needed to be organised, what letters I would need to write and what words they would need to say to the people left behind. I was convinced that everyone who knew me would be so grateful to see me leave the world, and that the world itself would be a much better place without me in it.
In spite of these feelings, I wore a perfect mask. Out of necessity I continued to work, driven by an obsessive compulsion to have the approval of everyone I came into contact with. No one knew that I was depressed. No one saw me curled up inside toilet cubicles at work crying and aching. No one heard the screams inside my head or saw the emptiness that was drowning my heart. No one knew I carried a razor blade around with me at work, for all those times when the pain of tiny failures, tiny insults, and tiny misunderstandings needed to be negated by self-inflicted pain within those toilet walls. No one knew how much my very existence depended upon their approval, nor were they aware of the self-harming consequences that would later occur if they were to throw a harsh word or dissatisfied look in my direction. The mask was just a fragile shell holding together all the pieces of my fractured personality. I was broken.
The first three years of therapy were just about survival, keeping me alive from one session to the next. I was a walking mosaic of diagnostic criteria, ticking all the boxes for major depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder. Aspects of my selective mutism came back with a vengeance – many days / weeks / months I was unable to speak or move in the presence of my psychologist. I was so afraid of doing anything that might result in even a hint of disapproval which, in my distorted way of thinking, would break the precious lifeline I had with this person who was keeping me breathing. My psychologist hooked me up with an excellent GP with a genuine interest in mental health conditions, and after years of resistance I eventually agreed to try antidepressant medication. For the first time the screaming inside my head faded into a quiet stillness. The drowning, suffocating waves of worthlessness and guilt eased, and survival gradually gave way to the start of healing.
It is now five years on and I have continued to work with my psychologist to transform the broken person that I was into the happy, peaceful, calm, fulfilled person that I am today. Like Humpty Dumpty all shattered and broken, I had no choice but to re-create myself from the inside out. All my habits, thought patterns, beliefs, values, perceptions, self-concepts, behaviours, relationships and lifestyle – everything had to change.
For me, the most helpful strategy in working through this process (in addition to therapy and medication) has been to integrate the practice of mindfulness into a new way of living. Mindfulness is the energy of being truly present in each moment. It is the fundamental essence of many lifestyle principals found in yoga, meditation and Buddhism. Embracing these philosophies and integrating these practices in my daily life has lifted me from a place of darkness and suffering to a place of true inner contentment, peace and self-acceptance – an authentic way of being that I could never have even imagined was possible in earlier years. I have learnt to stop fighting myself. I have learnt to stay in the here and the now with whatever emotions or thoughts arise. I have learnt to accept and embrace my painful emotions with tenderness, rather than trying to suppress them or avoid them. I have learnt how to recognise the true nature of my pain, anger, fear and despair, and how to nurture these feelings into positive energy.
Reaching this point does not mean that I am always able to walk the talk perfectly. Having the courage to extend unconditional love, non-judgment and compassion towards myself, not just to others, is an ongoing challenge. I still have fragile days with low feelings, self doubt, anxiety and extreme self-consciousness at times, but what has changed is that I am now able to manage these states in such a way that they no longer consume me or take over my life. Like waves on the ocean, painful emotions and negative thoughts come and go, but they do so in harmony with all the other waves of happiness, joy, gratitude, contentment, wonder, insight, appreciation and love that now also fill my inner world.
To you dear reader, dear friend, please know that you CAN get through your own struggles in this darkness. Whatever you are going through, however bad you are feeling, there are people in the world who want to hear your story, who want to understand your pain. They are out there waiting to help you, waiting for you to reach out your hand. My sincerest wish is that you too are able to find your own path back to peace and wellness. Please know that it is very possible…. Namaste.
– January 2011