I don’t know for how long I’ve struggled with mental health issues. I could tell you I’ve ostensibly dealt with depression for four or five years, when I began to become aware of it, but the truth is I’ve probably dealt with it for much, much longer.
See, that’s the thing. I never knew. I assumed dark, negative thoughts were normal. I assumed not wanting to speak to other people was normal. To me, being holed up in my bedroom all day, not wanting to speak to my family or socialise with friends was what any teenager would do.
As far back as I can remember I’ve always felt quite…melancholy. There was a sadness to things, that I could see. I worried constantly about death, even as a child. I remember when my mother would go on nights out with her friends, I would say ‘I love you’ as she walked out the door, and would insist she said the same to me. In my mind, this was because if she died that night then at least I could take small comfort in the knowledge those were the last words that would have passed between us. Then I would lie awake all night in fear that she wouldn’t come back through the door. That I would never see her again.
Growing up I dealt with a panoply of unusual situations I won’t bore you with here, that confused and frightened me. I had that childhood fear of not being in control, of watching the adults play out some bewildering drama I was forced to sit through, and be affected by. I grew up timid; I had seen the effects of over-confidence, of allowing your emotions to cloud your judgement. I had seen how people could get hurt or worse, when you acted on instinct, without thinking. I was always afraid to make a mistake and repeat the actions I’d witnessed from my elders. I wanted to avoid the confusion and fear of my childhood, and so in my adulthood I developed a tendency to bottle up my emotions in favour of rational, calculated thinking. This, I was sure, would save me.
When I was twenty-three I was working in a bar. I hated it. I was earning very little money, and spent my days in a place I didn’t care for, contributing to something that meant nothing to me. I felt useless. I felt worthless. My existence, I thought, was pointless.
I had dropped out of university because I believed I didn’t have the skills necessary to pass and I didn’t want to waste my time. Instead, I wanted to move out of my family home and into a place I could share with my girlfriend. This lead to a string of dead-end jobs which paid little and which mainly seemed to consist of taking abuse from customers for not doing my job right, and then taking abuse from my manager for not doing my job right. There was nothing to look forward to, no hope of a better life on the horizon. Life was survival, plain and simple. I came to believe that there was nothing left to care about.
It was at this period of time those dark thoughts reached a zenith. During a shift I conceived the idea of killing myself. As I pulled pints for drunken customers and cleaned sticky tables covered in sauce and beer stains, I formed a plan in my head about how I would do it, where I would do it, and what method I would use. I remember being shocked when I realised what I was considering, shocked when I realised the reality of what I was dealing with. I felt my stomach drop and my mood plummet to depths it hadn’t reached before.
After my shift I stumbled home, feeling like I had already gone through with the act; that I had committed to ending my life, and so was pretty much already dead. Luckily, I was living with an amazing girl who understood. She took one look at me as I came through the door and she knew something was wrong.
I spent the next few hours crying, telling her I couldn’t deal with it anymore. I couldn’t deal with the hopelessness. ‘You need help,’ she said as she hugged me, ‘you need to speak to someone’.
In my teens and early twenties I wasn’t really aware of depression, or the prolificacy of it. It was a strange concept to me that mental health could be equated to physical health. After all, you could see physical issues. If someone broke their leg, you would see the bone protruding or the strange angle of the leg. If someone told you they were depressed you might laugh wryly and say ‘aren’t we all?’
Where I grew up in Scotland that was the de-facto response to an idea such as depression: shrug it off, move on. That’s just life. It was in this atmosphere that my depression was allowed to percolate. It wasn’t something you spoke about or admitted to. There was an undeniable stigma to it.
I remember when I was sixteen I used to skip school frequently. I didn’t like being around a lot of other people; school had a flammable atmosphere and I was always scared I would say or do something to embarrass myself. Sometimes I did, and I received the standard responses you might imagine: I was bullied frequently; aspects of my personality pulled apart and dissected like some lab experiment. This gave rise to my increasing belief that I was some ‘Other’, a thing that belonged in a different margin to regular kids. And so I skipped school.
The situation came to a head one day when I was called into the Head Teacher’s office with my Grandmother (who was my legal guardian at the time). I was given an ultimatum: see the school counsellor, or be expelled. I glanced at my grandmother, who gave me a look that told me I needed to accept the offer or I would be hearing about it from her later. Then a funny thing happened.
I attended just one counselling session, and was almost instantly referred to an outside service: a centre for troubled kids. Suddenly my grandmother, an old school woman, was uncomfortable. She took me to a few sessions, then, and I remember this conversation very clearly, asked me to stop going.
I was only sixteen, but I was well aware of what had happened. My grandmother didn’t like the idea of counselling, of admitting these kinds of problems. It wasn’t her fault: as I’ve said, she was old school. She had always had a very determined nature, a stoicism; when things got difficult in her life, she just got on with it. That was what you did back then: you got on with it. What you did not do was talk about your feelings. And if anything, I admired her for that indeterminable strength.
But this was how it was with everyone I knew. You didn’t discuss these kinds of things. You didn’t talk about your feelings. This wasn’t the Teletubbies, this was real life and you had to push forward regardless.
I always felt a deep guilt that I didn’t share that inner strength she seemed to possess. That she could weather any storm and not ask for help. Those were the times, though. We often say things such as ‘I couldn’t imagine life without TV’, and one day our kids will say ‘I couldn’t imagine a life before Facebook, before social media’. That is part of progress; those things we never knew we needed, and which enhance and enrich our lives, seem like they have always been there. But for every new aspect of progression, there is resistance; there is always the generation before, who existed their whole lives without it, and who see it as unnecessary and trivial, and sometimes embarrassing.
This is what we face with mental illness. We have to break through the barrier erected by generations before us, who did not consider these things to be an issue to discuss, but rather to endure. Only then will we achieve progress.
I’ve spent most of my life comparing myself to others: friends and family, who had achieved success where I hadn’t; colleagues whose lives seemed so much more solid and structured than mine; even success stories I had read about in magazines or seen on TV filled me with anxiety and self-loathing. Here were all of these people spending their time doing things, and all I could see was the mirror they appeared to be holding up to me as they said ‘you see? Look at who you are. You will never achieve any of this. You are destined to fail’.
There are so many opportunities I haven’t taken advantage of, and I still think of all the things I might have done with my life had I not denied myself the chance, because I wasn’t sure I was deserving enough. How could someone love me, when I couldn’t love myself? How could someone hire me to do a job, when I wasn’t sure I was even good enough to do it? How could I enrol in college or university courses, when I was convinced I was an idiot, and that everyone was so much smarter than me? There were always better options than me, I knew. I was the last kid on the bench at gym class, whom no one wanted to pick for their team. And that’s exactly as it should be, I thought.
These thoughts have all lead to long, sleepless nights. For years in my earlier twenties, I didn’t sleep well, if at all. I was up at night constantly thinking of the ways in which I had failed myself and others around me. I was thinking about how there was no hope for me because there was nothing I could do which was of any use. I would never marry, never have children, never own my own home. I was not good enough for those things.
All these night thoughts lead to daytime paranoia. I remember being convinced people didn’t like me, that they were talking about me behind my back. In some instances this might have been the case, but more often than not there was no credible argument for this. Walking down the street I was self-conscious about the way I looked, or walked, and wanted nothing more than to turn around, run back home, and hide in my room.
When I was in college I would miss classes because I didn’t feel as though I could face anyone, in case I might perceive another glance or comment as a hostile threat to my existence. I felt constantly on the brink of breaking down.
I’ve had relationships failed, friendships waned, and family disputes, all of which stemmed from my self-loathing and depression. There was always a voice in my head telling me I was not good enough. For a long time I believed that voice.
I began seeing my current counsellor around a year and a half ago. At the time I was a little sceptical. Yes, I was down. I was unhappy. But I was working a minimum wage job and barely able to make ends meet, of course I was unhappy. Anyone would be unhappy in those circumstances, I told myself. That didn’t mean I needed professional help. I suppose, in some ways, my grandmother’s disapproval still rang in my head.
‘Your job is a very convenient target though, isn’t it?’ my counsellor told me during one session, ‘easy to tell yourself all of your problems are because you hate your job’. I now know she was right.
Yes, I did hate my job. But so did many others I worked with. This was a fact of life, a symptom of the climate we lived in. They were able to continue their lives, have families, and create meaning from something. They had hobbies. They worked towards something.
It wasn’t the job. I know that now. It was the illness which allowed me to hate myself to the point where my own death felt like a comfort, like something I actually deserved. This is where I drew the line. Death is not an answer. It is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, a problem many people live with daily and don’t speak of.
Emboldened by my sessions with my counsellor, with my growing knowledge of depression and the span of it, and by my conversations with others who experienced a similar thing, I decided I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to reach out to those who struggle and tell them that this is not something they needed to deal with on their own. That there is no sense in being silent about these issues, because there is nothing wrong with having to deal with them, that they will not be judged because they have an illness that no one can see. That there is always a way.
I have now enrolled in a counselling course, with a view to counselling young men and women who struggle with issues they feel they can’t speak about. According to the Samaritans Suicide Statistics Report 2017, 6,188 suicides were registered last year, with the highest amount belonging to men aged 40 to 44. This is something we need to talk about, to admit is a problem that is okay to have.
I’m not out of the woods yet. I still have my bad days where things seem a little darker and a little less hopeful and I struggle to get through it, but those days are less now. I have great friends, great passions, and, now, a purpose; a future I feel hopeful for.
If we all talk about these problems, admit that it’s okay to feel like this, then that’s a future we can all have.
– Daryl Macdonald (Via Men Tell Health)