[I originally wrote and published this on my own personal website. However, the reaction I got was so big that I felt it will be of use or interest to a much wider audience, so I’m reposting it here for you; I hope you find it useful]
Brace yourself, this is a long read. But a very worthwhile one, I believe, with some helpful tips and suggestions at the end too. So get yourself a nice big mug of hot chocolate and maybe a couple of biscuits, settle down, and have a read. And when you are done, I’d love to know what you think, please do feel free to comment!
A few days ago, namely 14th March 2013, was my 47th birthday. It was a pleasant enough day, if a somewhat quiet one as I was getting over a chest infection; out with some friends last night for a delayed celebration.
And yet, for several months, I honestly did not expect to live to see that birthday.
Not for any imagined terminal illness reasons or anything like that.
No, I did not think I would reach that birthday because, for the past several months, I had been planning to kill myself.
Looking back over my life so far, there have been a few occasions where I have suffered from depressive episodes. When I say depression, I don’t mean those short bouts of “I feel a bit meh, I’m fed up with life, it sucks”. They are something which we pretty much all encounter from time to time, and as unpleasant as they are, they tend to last maybe hours or a few days at the most. That’s “feeling a bit down”. By depression, I mean full clinical depression, which lasts not for hours or days, but for weeks or (more usually) months – what Winston Churchill used to refer to as visits from his Black Dog. I have had a few depressive episodes, including one where I was actually made to go to the doctor who placed me on Dothiepin for 6 months. Now, I know there are some strange views “out there” about anti-depressants. I have had people tell me that one should never take them as the pills turn one into a zombie, or they prevent one from getting better; all sorts of nonsense. In my experience of having taken them, they don’t turn one into a grinning buffoon (well, no more than normal!), nor do they make one lose control of who one is. No, all they actually do is to dull the pain of the depression ever so slightly, just taking the edge off it so that you can just about cope and almost begin to get on with life. One still feels heavily depressed, but it is just about bearable again. Thats all they do. Like taking paracetamol when one has a strong pain – the pain, the symptoms, everything is still there, its just not as excruciatingly debilitating, that’s all.
So yes, I have had a few depressive episodes, usually lasting for a few months. Once I did have medical help to get through it (and, if I am honest, that was only because I was pretty much forced to go see the doctor). Other times I have gone through it alone and emerged through the other side eventually. And sometimes, more precisely on 3 occasions, I made serious attempts at taking my own life. Yes, I attempted suicide 3 times in my life.
Each attempt failed, I have to report (I know of someone who was talking about a suicide attempt they had made, and they were genuinely asked “Did you succeed?”. Seriously! There are some scary people out there…). I’m not going to go into the gory details, as it would not serve any purpose at this point, suffice it to say they were probably pretty much the usual sort of attempts made. I also know that I was extremely lucky in at least one case not to have caused myself potentially long-term painful harm.
Were these actual attempts to kill myself, or merely cries for help? A question I have pondered many times. I honestly believe that they were genuine attempts, for a few reasons. They felt genuine at the time. I never told anyone about them, before or after, which seems to rule out cry-for-help. And in each case I remember feeling strongly and bitterly disappointed to find myself alive the next day.
At some point after my third failed attempt, I started to do some research. I realised that my attempts were either all too hard, too physically painful, or had far too high a risk of causing long-term and painful damage, which I didn’t want. And after a fair bit of research I discovered what seemed to be to be a very useful method. Again, I am not going to give any details for that serves no useful purpose here, suffice it to say that I had found a method which was relatively easy, pretty quick, painless and foolproof. It did, however, require a couple of pieces of relatively specialised equipment. Which, in a way, became a help to me over the coming years. I knew that I had a Way Out if things ever reached that stage, and I also knew that it was not something I could do without any planning – i.e. it required some premeditated preparation, which isn’t the sort of thing which would happen during just a short bad bout. Reassuring in its own way!
Over the next 10 years I either got better at fighting the Black Dog, or I got better at avoiding (perhaps hiding from!) situations which might bring me to its attention. I still had depressive periods, but nothing like as bad as they used to be, and mercifully much shorter lived.
Then I started getting into Personal Development and a whole new side if things which ultimately lead to me fixing so many things about me as well as changing careers.
One of the things I found was that as a result, even the fairly frequent yet not-too-deep-or-long depressive bouts also disappeared for several years. Which was excellent! Yes, I still had down days, but they were or the more common variety we all get, and were balanced out by good times. Normality was in danger of breaking out on this front! I did have a bit of a bout in early to mid 2012, and I was able to deal with it far better than any in the past.
That brings us to October of 2012. I am fairly sure I know what triggered it, looking back, although at the time I had no idea it was even happening. Which is helpful as it gives me something to avoid in the future, or at least forewarns me should I encounter a similar situation again, giving me a far better chance to fight it. So the Black Dog came to visit. At first I thought it was just going to be like one of the periodic not-too-deep visits I used to get, and that it would go away again after a few days or maybe a week or two.
I was wrong.
Unfortunately, one of the things about depression is that is it so insidious. It really does creep up on you stealthily, quietly. By the time you realise how bad it is, it’s too late because it has got you so badly that you can’t be bothered to fight it, you don’t see any reason or point in fighting it. It is truly nasty in that respect.
So, throughout October I got worse and worse, deeper and deeper into a full depressive episode. A very deep one, worse than I’d had for well over 10 years. Before I knew it, I was deep in its grip. I started to feel that there was no point anymore. Thoughts of suicide because a daily occurrence. I reached the stage, that hopeless stage, where to my mind there was no point in carrying on living, I had nothing to live for long-term whatsoever.
And it was in mind November that I decided it was time. Time to do something about it. So I started buying the things I would need to painlessly and flawlessly kill myself once and for all.
The decision was made. I knew where. I knew how. All that was needed was to decide when. I was going to make things as straightforward as possible for people after I’d gone, so I was going to take a few weeks to put all of my affairs into order, to document everything so that they could be dealt with easily after I’d gone.
As luck would have it, I was in rehearsals for a Pantomime which we were performing in January. No point in ruining that for everyone else (there being no understudies, and we had been working on this production already for a few months by then, so me killing myself at that stage would make it much harder for the rest of the team to continue with the show, and there was no sense in hurting them), so I resolved to hang on until after that was finished. So, end of January or later in February it was, then. Avoiding birthdays of family members (no sense in ruining their birthdays, after all).
I had the date. I had the wherewithal. All I needed to do was wait and pretend to carry on as if all was normal.
The waiting was easy – I had a way out, a definite exit, so it was fairly easy to put up with the hopelessness of life as it was not going to last forever, in a few weeks it would be over.
As for pretending all was normal? That is so easy to do – far easier than you might think. I have sometimes been told by friends in the past that I am very bad for (or, depending upon your viewpoint, very good at) deflecting and turning the conversation away from me and back to other people if there is something I don’t want people to know about me. And since I started learning all my current techniques and tools, I am even better than ever at doing that without people even realising I’m doing it. I even turned it into a bit of a sick game for my entertainment over those weeks, surreptitiously dangling a nugget and then seeing how easily I could divert attention away from me and back on to them and their situation again – it worked perfectly every time.
Christmas came, and I went back home to visit my sister, family and friends. Everyone assumed it was just another Christmas visit (and a chance to rebuild my relationship with my Father); in fact I was pretty much saying goodbye to everyone, knowing that I would never see them again.
January 2013 arrived, the panto came and went (very successfully I might add, even if I did damage my voice which has still not yet fully recovered 2 months later! But hey, what did damaging my voice matter? It’s not like I was going to need it much longer). And now it was time to put everything into place ready to kill myself in mid-late February. I had everything in place. I was actively looking forward to it – to finally putting an end to everything. After all, I had no reason to live, nothing to live for, no reason whatsoever to continue and prolong the agony and misery. Oh, how blessed that relief would be! Bring it on!
And then something totally unexpected happened. A chance email out of the blue from a friend I’d not spoken to in a while. More specifically, one single phrase in their email – they were actually reaching out and asking if I could help them with something. For some reason, that completely changed everything, completely kicked the ground from underneath me, and destroyed the Black Dog’s grip on me pretty quickly.
The depression is gone. Life has a point again. Indeed, I am now about to embark upon perhaps my biggest adventure to date; certainly it’s a massive change in my life.
And it also means that, despite what I truly believed for 3 months, I actually got to see my 47th birthday!
Does this mean I will never be visited by the Black Dog again? I honestly can not say, as that’s not how it works. I hope I won’t, but we’ll just have to see what life brings. Certainly I am in a better position to be able to recognise him should he attempt to sneak in, and thus repel him before it is too late.
What To Do If Someone You Know Is Depressed?
So, what can you do if a friend of yours is (or you suspect them to be) depressed?
I’ll start off with the words of TV presenter, comedian, National Treasure and long-time sufferer of bi-polar disorder, Stephen Fry –
“If you know someone who’s depressed please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation, depression just is, like the weather.
Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the otherside. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest and best things you will ever do.”
If you have never suffered from depression yourself (and I sincerely hope that you haven’t and never do, although statistically the vast majority of us will suffer from some form of mental health disorder at some stage in our lives), then it can be hard to realise quite how debilitating it is, to understand the sheer hopelessness it brings, and to understand that normal rational logic and even emotional approaches just do not work.
What NOT To Say
This is the easiest bit.
Never ever say things like –
- “Pull yourself together”.
- “Cheer up! It might never happen!”
- “Get a grip, just cheer up”.
If that was all it took to fight off depression, do you not think we would have worked that one out for ourselves? Saying things like those do nothing to help, they make things worse, and will simply make the person feel even more alienated from you and less likely to pay you any further attention.
No matter how tempting, no matter how much you may feel it is helping (and having been on the other side I know what you are going through), please be very careful how you respond when a depressed person says something like “I am useless” or “I am worthless” or “The world would be better off without me” or any similar thing.
The natural response is to counter those – “No you are not! I think you are useful. Think of all those people who rely upon you each week!”.
Please don’t say things like that.
Yes, you are only trying to help, and what you are saying is absolutely true. However, think of how that comes across to the depressed person. What they hear, what you are in effect saying, is this –
“You are wrong. You are so absolutely useless that you could not even get THAT right, you pathetic worthless excuse for a human being.”
Which is guaranteed not to help them!
Oh, and a heartfelt plea – avoid those saccharine-sweet “feel good” hackneyed phrases which pervade the internet these days. Yes, they serve a very valuable purpose to a great many people, and long may they continue to benefit. But take it from someone who has been there several times – they do NOT help when one is being smothered by the Black Dog! For them to work, there must be a core of the person which believes in them – they are affirmations, reinforcements of a state of mind, therein lies their immense power for those who use them.
And therein also lies their utter uselessness for the depressed person – we do not feel “beautiful” or “special” or “loved”, not even a little spark of us feels that way anymore in that state, so telling us we are using those clichés will not help – if anything it simply makes us feel worse in those circumstances, as we end up reaffirming all our negative thoughts, sending us even deeper into depression.
So What CAN I Safely Say?!
It does seem to be a bit of a minefield, doesn’t it?
It doesn’t mean, of course, that you have to agree with their negative views!
Realistically, unless one is qualified in suitable therapeutic technologies, the safest (and best) thing is to just be there, to listen, to let the depressed person talk, to encourage them to talk – the more you do so, the more you really listen, the more you might start to spot possible clues which might, just might, help. And even if not, simply being there can be a massive thing (even if we are not able to show it at the time).
And if (or more likely when) we do snap back at you uncharacteristically, please don’t take it personally – it’s not what we actually feel or think, it’s just the way our addled messed-up minds work when we are deeply depressed. Indeed, that can actually be an encouraging sign, for in order to snap one must have emotion and at least care a little bit.
The excellent Time To Talk website has some great tips to help you to talk with someone who is depressed.
Wow, you’ve made it through this entire article! I know there is a lot in it, and it is sometimes a bit heavy. It’s just the way it had to be.
And I want to thank you for taking the time to read through it all. I truly hope that, if nothing else, it has given you an insight into what it is like for someone who is suffering from depression, and given you some tips on how you can help when that happens to friends or loved ones or even colleagues. Which statistically speaking, it will at some stage.
When it does, please remember that there is nothing to be scared of – it’s not contagious, you won’t “catch” it! Just continue to be “there” for them, for us. And if they look as though they are going to become a danger to themselves then please be prepared to suggest relevant professional help (and yes, I completely appreciate that is FAR harder to do than it sounds!!!).
And finally, please also look after yourself. It can be very emotionally draining when a loved one is going through a depressive episode, make sure you take some you-time, hang out with your other friends, for your own sanity.
A few places which you might find useful either for finding out more, or to help you to help someone.
- Time To Change – England’s biggest programme to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination, with a wealth of useful information. Well worth a detailed read.
- NHS Choices – detailed information about Clinical Depression, signs, symptoms and sources of help both for the sufferer and the helper.
- The Samaritans – 24 hour support, a shoulder to cry on, someone to listen, someone to help. No judgement, ever, just a listening ear for as long as you need it.
- List of famous people with Depression – sometimes it can help just to know we are not alone, we are not outcasts, we are not weird, we are not the only ones who get depression. And that many who do get it successfully pull through the other end.
- Detailed Wikipedia Article going into a lot of detail about depression, interesting background reading.
- Patient.co.uk – detailed information about depression, causes and treatments from the UK’s leading independent medical website.