‘Depression doesn’t discriminate’ – my journey through the mental health minefield

Our Health & Lifestyle Director, Danielle, on how depression affected her – plus dealing with the self hatred and anxiety that tagged along, too...

I’m a fun-loving, dog-obsessed woman with a tendency towards flamboyance (there’s never a wrong time to wear sequins, in my opinion). I like making people laugh, hate missing a party, have a fantastic job, and friends and family I adore…

I also have depression

And you know what? I never thought it would – or could – happen to me. Surely it was the preserve of people who’d had something really bad happen to them. Because, you know, they had a right to feel that way? I had (and still have) a good life. But depression doesn’t discriminate – it can strike regardless of age, weight, race, religion, job or situation.

That’s why I’m coming out of the mental-health closet so publicly (to people other than close friends and my parents), in the magazine where I’m the Features Director. I want to do my small bit to help remove some of the stigma that people with depression may be feeling. To show them they’re not alone. To give an insight – because, if you’ve never had depression, it can be hard to understand or sympathise with someone who has.

Depression is the predominant mental-health problem worldwide, with more than 300 million people affected. In fact, globally, it’s the leading cause of disability. It’s likely that most of us will encounter someone who has it, or get it ourselves. So this is my story, which, sadly, is far from uncommon.

The mist descends

When a huge ‘black cloud’ descended on me in about 2004, I really was #livingthedream as a junior writer on a big-name fashion magazine in London I’d fantasised about working on since I was 13. Every day was a pinch-yourself moment: I couldn’t believe that I, a working-class girl from Brisbane, Australia, with absolutely zero connections or cool credentials, was mingling with famous fashion designers and celebrities. I had a loving, supportive family (albeit Down Under), a tight friendship circle, a glam social life. My life, on paper, looked amazing. And yet…

For a long time – too long – I didn’t take this feeling of impending gloom seriously. Because it wasn’t the first time I’d had ‘A Melancholy Period’, as I called it. I’d had a couple of previous bouts, lasting about a year each. They struck without reason before gradually receding, leaving behind a lingering sadness. I’d cry myself to sleep regularly, and lugged around feelings of self-hatred, despondency and anxiety, like a heavy, emotional handbag. Sure, it slowed me down, but I could function and, above all, hide it. Mostly.

Looking back, I realised it manifested in ways that affected me for years. I was moody, negative and maudlin (I joked my middle names were Glass, Half and Empty). I’d get overly stressed about things that weren’t a big deal. And I was so full of self-hatred, it was as though I’d slashed any nice thoughts about myself to ribbons. Internal self-harm, if you will.

If there’d been more openness about depression at the time, perhaps I’d have done something about it. And this black cloud – which, a year down the line, started to gain momentum and followed me into a new job – wouldn’t have completely swallowed me up.

Of course, I tried to keep it at bay and distract myself, but I did all the wrong things. I threw myself into working late, going out five nights a week and drinking too much. And when I wasn’t doing that, my escape was sleep. Nothing worked. By 2006 I’d lost the fight. Despair, bleakness and anxiety consumed me.

Building a fortress

As with many people who have mental-health issues, it became my life’s goal to cover it up. I panicked that if I became too close to, or confided in, anyone, they’d see the seething blackness inside and run a mile. So I turned myself into an impenetrable fortress. Relationships with men were a no-go – I mastered the art of the short-lived fling. I skilfully kept friends at arm’s length. I wore a polished, confident mask at work, yet couldn’t enjoy my job because anxiety was tearing me apart underneath.

I was the loudest, most flamboyant person in any room, at the centre of the laughing and joking. No one had a clue how often I’d go home and be racked by anguished sobbing. (What is it they say about the tears of a clown?) Just getting out of bed and behaving in a way that I felt was ‘normal’ every day was making me exhausted to my very bones.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, my poor parents were clueless (just as I intended – I didn’t want them blaming themselves for the mess that was me).

The only person I told – a close friend, Janine – lived in Sydney. I’d email her rambling essays detailing the depths of my despair, and hit send without realising the effect it must have been having on her. That’s another thing about depression: you can’t see outside your own circle of hell.

"As with many people who have mental-health issues, it became my life’s goal to cover it up"

Crunch time

Of course, just as with a physical illness, not getting help for a mental one means it gets worse. But it still took more than three years of psychological agony, and feeling the only way to stop the pain was to kill myself*. As I’d always had a phobia of death, I started to realise how out of control I was. Even then, Janine had to threaten to stage an ‘intervention’ and tell my parents before I finally went to see a GP.

Cue a diagnosis of clinical depression and a referral for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which, unfortunately, didn’t work for me. So back to the GP, who arranged for me to have a year of intense psychotherapy, twice a week. (This is why I respect and love the NHS so much – I don’t think I’d still be here without it.) While psychotherapy was a crucial step in getting me on the path to wellness, it didn’t give me answers. I still don’t have a clue why I got, and still have, depression. But it triggered an important realisation: I had to ’fess up to my parents. Understandably, they were shocked and upset, and urged me to go back to Australia for a few months so they could look after me.

While going home was exactly the right thing to do, I was still by no means ‘cured’. When I sat on my mum and dad’s sofa about a month after arriving, tears streaming down my face because I was, quite literally, overflowing with sadness, they rushed me to my childhood GP, who prescribed antidepressants. Of course, the pills are a plaster: they can’t cure my depression (which is why I’d resisted them for ages), but they help ease the symptoms so that I can function. And within a month of being on them, everything started to change… for the better.

Moving on up

Still, it’s taken a long time and some big adjustments to see the light through the blackness. In fact, it’s only in the past three years that I’ve started to feel genuine bursts of happiness again. That I’ve stopped feeling and being so negative. That I can look forward to things. I made a significant switch in my career: I resigned from the fashion magazine I was on (I was in my fourth job in journalism by then) with nothing to go to, because it was so toxic it sent me spiralling backwards.

I then moved into writing about health and wellbeing, which I’ve discovered a real passion for – and it’s been quite healing, too. As someone who used to scoff at my gym-going friends, I started doing regular exercise four years ago and it’s boosted my mental health so much, it’s now a huge priority (I’ve had to eat so many words!). I’ve cut back on drinking. I eat healthily. I ensure my work/life balance is good. I opened up to close friends about my illness. I educated myself about depression.And those pills? I still take them. Some people may only need antidepressants for six months or so, but not me. I’ve tried to come off them, but found the dark spectre of depression is still inside me, waiting for a sign it can unleash itself again. If there’s a next time, though, I think I’ll be ready for it. And I’m determined to win the fight.

*If you are having suicidal thoughts – or are worried about someone else – it’s important to share these feelings. This may be with your GP, a friend or a family member, or you can contact the Samaritans 24/7 on 116 123.

Danielle’s top tips:

1. Don’t let your symptoms get out of control, like I did

If you’ve persistently felt low for a few months and it’s not improving, see your GP as soon as possible.

2. Exercise

It doesn’t have to be hardcore – walking, yoga or even hula-hooping are all good options. If you fancy some company, try mentalhealthmates.co.uk. It’s a regular get-together (set up by journalist Bryony Gordon) for people with mental-health issues to walk and talk without the fear of being judged.

3. Read up about depression

It helps you understand you’re not alone, you’re not a freak, or weak, and you shouldn’t be ashamed.

4. Don’t think you can drink your way through it – another mistake I made

Booze made me feel superficially OK for a couple of hours, but when it wore off the mood crash was so awful, it really wasn’t worth it.

5. Hang out with animals

Even seeing a pooch walk past me on the street lifted my spirits in my darkest moments. If animals aren’t your thing, find out what is and spend time doing it – those little lifts help you get through the day.

"For help, support and information about mental health, go to: bigwhitewall.co.uk mind.org.uk sane.org.uk"