Prejudice literally means "to prejudge." And it’s a hard thing to admit, even in retrospect. But until I was diagnosed with clinical depression, I was prejudiced toward sufferers that I knew.
My "prejudgment" went something like this:
“You have a nice house, a corner office, a partner, and adorable kids. You get a skinny soy cappuccino every day, you holiday — frequently — somewhere exotic, and you’re depressed? Nope. Sorry. You have no right to feel that way.”
What I didn’t know about depression is that it can happen to anyone, at any time — however privileged or enviable their life might seem. And I learned the hard way.
When I myself was first diagnosed, I was working as a reporter for The Times, a reputable London newspaper, had a husband I adored (a junior banker at Goldman Sachs — and handsome, too), a house in picturesque Notting Hill, and two precious children (Edward, 2, and George, 3 months old).
But none of that stopped me from getting so sick I wanted to die. I was bedridden and unable to move. I experienced nausea, insomnia, intense physical pain, and was in a perpetual state of terror — I felt as though I were on a plane that was about to crash. My priorities changed from long-term planning to short-term survival and my systems were operating in a state of permanent emergency response.
I wanted to die not because I didn’t like my life. I did, very much. I wanted to die because I was in such deep physical and emotional pain.
There’s no failsafe method for warding off mental illness, but knowing the triggers can help. The onset of clinical depression, for example, is often connected to significant life changes involving a sense of loss, such as divorce, the death of a loved one, or even giving birth.
It can strike in any setting, but from what I’ve observed, stressful environments can often be fertile ground for the particular brand of depression that I suffered from — anxiety-driven depression.
Working in a newsroom was extremely demanding. However many stories I filed and headlines I wrote, there was always another imminent deadline looming. I never felt good enough, either at home or at work.
I remember one evening I had left work slightly early to be back with the children in time to share a bath. As I swilled the warm water around me and Edward and George, my editor called. (I was expected to be available for queries from the newsroom about stories I had written or to write fresh articles that were needed late in the day.) I knew I had to answer the phone, especially as I had left the office early.
Edward started trying to grab the phone. George went under the water. Either I supervised two children who might drown, or I spoke to my editor. I didn’t answer. Such pressures fed my anxious, striving nature, and left me in a state of permanent worry. Plagued by stress and fatigue, my mind was vulnerable to all kinds of negative thoughts.
The night I first fell ill, I didn’t know what was happening to me. At one point, my heart was beating so fast I thought I was having a heart attack. Only once I had seen a doctor did I realize my symptoms implied a psychological rather than physical illness.
This first breakdown left me unable to function for six months. My psychiatrist made clear to me that "breakdown" was not a medical term. I was suffering a major depressive episode. But at the time, "breakdown" seemed to describe how I felt. And it managed to convey the seriousness of the situation to others.
I gradually recovered, thanks to a cocktail of antidepressants and sleeping pills prescribed by my psychiatrist. It took several months to find the right combination of drugs and the right doses, but over time my symptoms diminished, the sense of dread reduced, and I began to start feeling like the person I used to be.
I was eager to resume life as usual, and eventually weaned myself off all medication. I associated antidepressants with a dark and frightening period of my life that I wanted to leave behind. I didn’t seek help in the form of therapy either: I was too afraid to examine my character or lifestyle that closely. I didn't know what I would find. I just hoped that I would somehow manage to withstand the pull of depression the next time. I didn't.
The second episode, which happened a few years later, lasted twice as long as the first. That was the wake-up call I needed. I realized I couldn't just "be strong enough." I had to tackle this illness with everything I had in my arsenal, and I needed to acquire all the tools I could. My second breakdown, like the first, was triggered by an attempt to do too much and be too many things to too many people.
It’s taken 10 years for me to feel truly recovered. I’ve employed a variety of strategies including psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, breathing techniques, regular exercise, improved nutrition, and mindfulness — above all, I have a different career. Working for mental health charities has helped transform my own sense of well-being.
Winston Churchill referred to depression as a black dog. I finally have mine on a tight leash. And in the process, I conquered a lasting prejudice as well.