When a depressive episode hits me, it feels likes the mental equivalent of being crushed to death by a lorry. I can go from being sociable and happy, to screaming in uncontrollable toe-curling torment within just a couple of days. The pain is so immense, so immeasurable, that it is hard to capture exactly how it feels in words. This has happened twice recently; one of these occasions was only last week.
My psychiatrist told me it is like having asthma, in the sense that it can only currently be dealt with by prevention rather than cure. This means that although I can put in place measures and medication to reduce the risk of an ‘attack’, it doesn’t mean I am invulnerable to experiencing a breakdown or other negative symptoms ever again. In other words I am healthy, but not immune.
The great thing is that most of the time I am now well. However, despite having made considerable progress with my wellbeing, I know these episodic mental landslides will inevitably recur. Since my most recent bout of depression is still fresh in my memory, I would like to take the chance to explain to you what it is like to experience such a severe low.
One of the first clues that something in my head was awry was that my dreams became vivid and disturbing. I was reliving events during the night. Terror, guilt and death were always rife. Things that happened during the day would present themselves to me in warped and nightmarish forms; so rather than resting, whenever I went to sleep my brain would be processing the emotional trauma of believing my life was nearly over. Every morning I woke up feeling exhausted and often unsure what was dreamt and what was reality.
This nightly effacement between the real and imaginary worlds also gradually creeped into my waking hours. Things around me started to appear different and somehow offbeat. Imagine walking into a very accurate reconstruction of your bedroom, except you know it isn’t real. I would almost liken it to feeling as though you are a player in a video game. Everything seems familiar, yet there’s also something false and unnervingly altered about it at the same time.
For a couple of weeks, this disconcerting perspective became how I experienced life. It essentially felt as though my connection with reality was severed, or a part of my brain had become anaesthetised. I felt hardened and cold. The meaning I usually find inherent in normal interactions and daily activities soon began to leak away. People might as well have been actors reading from a script. This is what is termed disassociation. The umbilical cord which kept me feeling safely attached to the world had been cut, and I was left adrift.
But this wasn’t the ultimate low point: the equivalent to when the asthma attack starves its sufferer of almost all oxygen.
It was a Monday afternoon when it happened; I felt it coming and tried to hold it back. Then all of sudden it was like a dam inside my brain had finally been overwhelmed by the pressure and erupted, letting the torrent rush in. It was a visceral, whole body experience. My head felt like an open flesh wound that someone was sticking their fingers into it as hard as they could. I was looking back down into the abyss. I saw my life stretched out before me: pointless and decrepit. It was so unbearable- and so abominable to myself- that I wanted the air to be cut off and to die.
It is like being given the Dementor’s Kiss: having your human soul sucked out through your mouth.
There are no words which really can do justice to it. Reality, meaning and hope all fall in on themselves. Even time doesn’t pass normally; it seems to drag itself along like a wounded corpse, second by painful second. Now and again I feel quite afraid to be stuck inside my own head because I am aware of this state of acute agony it can drag me into.
But right now I am okay.
I am grateful I have emerged from both of these cataclysmic depressive falls, and now I am doing my best to resume normal life and move forward. My greatest fear is always that one day this dark side of my brain will get me when my defences are too weak to fight back. This is why I continue to look for ways to combat it and build the strength to endure it, in case it ever comes back. The knowledge that even the greatest pain cannot last forever is what I hold onto during those times in order to get through.
I’ve come a long way you see, but I’ve still got far to go.