2 words which hide a mask of pain and fear, but that we feel need to be said when asked how we are. Why do we do this? Is it because, deep down, we feel that no-one would want to truly know the sadness that lives inside us? Do we feel that no-one really wants to know and that our friends, family, colleagues and partners just want you to say you're OK so they don't have to feel obligated to care?
Or is it because we feel that we are not worth caring about? My personal experience is that everyone feels this way at some point in their life. 28 years old, having had a mental breakdown in my 6th year of teaching, I felt that the only person who would miss me was my cat … and that's because he wouldn't get fed. After being signed off from work due to "stress" for 2 weeks, I felt like a failure. How could I even begin to assume that I could teach someone, let alone support someone else going through their own struggles? I began to suffer from some dark thoughts; self-harm, suicide, drinking – all were considered as different ways to deal with the emotions I was feeling.
I knew something was very, very wrong when I was sat at my desk after work with my colleagues sat around me talking about their day and I started to cry. Not proper crying – but tears were coming out of my eyes and my face was emotionless. Only one thought was passing through my mind…
"I don't want to be here."
Naturally, my peers were rather worried – terrified is more accurate.
The next day, I foolishly came back to work, thinking that it was just a blip and that I was just being silly. I had a department meeting that morning and I sat there knowing that I was being spoken to, but unable to respond. Then the tears came again, just like before. One person kindly escorted me out of the room so I could have some privacy. Then the anger came. I screamed, I shouted, I let my emotions rip.
I am not proud of that day, my words and emotions really hurt some people around me, but there was no way I could hold any of it back any more. Up until that moment, I didn't even know I was holding anything back, but it was like the cliché of a dam breaking – there was no stopping it now. People scattered and avoided me for weeks afterwards, afraid I might lash out at them, when all I needed was someone to talk to, to share my pain with. I left work that day and went to the doctor who signed me off.
The initial breakthrough was when my loving partner of 12 years said during those 2 dark, dangerous weeks "Why don't you bake something?" I have always loved cooking and found during my first disastrous attempt to make chocolate chip cookies to be stressful – but in a manageable way. My partner was baking with me, subtly monitoring my mental state. There is something soothing about baking – the control over something gave me the first start of confidence. Being able to put something in and get a quantifiable result back was important – it made me realise that I do have control of my life and what happens every step of the way.
I started receiving texts and Facebook messages from my friends at work – no pressure on me to answer, but things like "Hope you're OK, thinking of you". Even my students could sense that there was something wrong and sent me emails letting me know that they were thinking of me. This meant more than I can say and helped me to help myself.
Exercise is also helpful – I started cycling to help me stay in the "now"; you can hardly focus on how negative you feel if you are trying to avoid being run over by other road users. But the feeling of accomplishment getting to the top of one of the highest hills in my town (even though I was a sweating, swearing mess) made me feel like I can do almost anything.
I can do anything. You can do anything. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't.
It's been about 8 months since I "broke" and I can say, with some confidence that I am recovering. Yes, I still have wobbles – even this morning, I had to be comforted by a colleague after hearing someone else talk about their experiences in quite some detail. I still suffer from paranoia about people – do they like me? Have I said something wrong?
But there are people around you who know what you are going through – they may be going through something similar in their own heads. Talk to people, don't be ashamed, be honest about how you feel; people will listen and take you seriously. If they don't listen, they are not worth talking to.
You will recover. Depression is not a one-way street – there is hope for everyone. Especially you.