“I had never realised I was happy – until I wasn’t”: an essay on depression

“You have major depression,” the doctor told me, her eyes kind and thoughtful, like a basset hound.

“There are loads of things we can do. We can get you into therapy and put you on some anti-depressants,” she continued. “You will get through this, Lily,” she said, taking hold of my hand and squeezing it tightly.

I closed my eyes and cried – not with sadness, but relief. Finally, an answer. There was something wrong with me, even the doctor said so. This wasn’t me being melodramatic, this wasn’t me being ridiculous, this wasn’t just how growing up felt. This was a real, medical problem. There were things that could be done.

But the best thought of all was: maybe I won’t always have to feel this way. And for the first time in a really long time, I felt the clouds in my brain shift, just a little, and I could see a glimpse of another life. A life where I was happy.

Strangely, I had never really noticed I was happy – until I wasn’t. It’s so easy to take happiness for granted because a lot of the time, happiness is nothing more than a gentle hum in your chest, or being able to fall asleep the moment your head hits your pillow. Happiness can be smiling to yourself on the train, or going a whole day without thinking a single negative thing about yourself. These were luxuries that I took for granted, because I had no idea how it would feel when they went away.

I didn’t know that the gentle hum in my chest could be replaced with a tightness that made it hard to breathe, that there would be nights where I lay awake, convinced I was utterly worthless as a person. That my smile would be buried somewhere at the back of my throat or that I would begin to hate the very essence of who I was.

* *  *  *  *  *  *

One of my mentors once told me: “You’ll never get anything if you don’t ask for it.” Over the years I’ve repeated this advice to myself in a million different situations, and each time, it has let me tap into a deep reserve of bravery that I didn’t know I had. It was this advice that I drew upon last time I had a depressive episode. I knew that help was mine for the taking and that all I had to do was ask.

But, of course, the asking is the most difficult part. Vocalising that you think something is going wrong with the inner workings of your brain is incredibly hard. Forcing the words, “I need help,” or “I think I’m depressed,” or “can you please take me to the doctor,” up your throat and out of your mouth can feel as impossible as breathing under water.

It was for that exact reason that I ignored my depression for a long time. I had my first depressive episode when I was fifteen, and at the time it was so tightly woven into my anorexia that it was almost impossible to work out where one ended and the other began. The side effects of anorexia were obvious in my baggy clothes and the sunken shadows under my eyes. But depression hides inside your brain, revealing itself only to you, like the invisible friend you had as a child.

I suppose the real reason I ignored it was simply because being a teenager is confusing. Your body has morphed into one you don’t recognise and spots are erupting like volcanoes on your face and your moods change with the wind. Hadn’t my teachers and parents and textbooks explained every change in my life with a one single word: hormones? Hadn’t every book I’d ever read, every song I’d ever listened to, every movie I’d ever watched, warned me that growing up was meant to be hard? That teenagers are meant to be full of angst and to feel like no one understands them? And so, I told myself, maybe that’s all this was.

And after all, what did I have to be depressed about? Me, with my loving family and my nice house and my top grades. Me, with my loyal friends and my supportive parents? There were people in the world who were starving. People who were homeless. People who had lost parents or siblings. People who had lives that I couldn’t comprehend in my privileged bubble.

But none of these things stopped the neurotransmitters in my brain screwing up. None of these things ever have or ever will be enough to stop mental illness. Anxiety has never looked at someone and gone, “Gee, you know what? They have a really sweet family, so I’ll just leave this one be.” Depression doesn’t give two hoots if you make Head Girl or the hockey team. OCD doesn’t decide to skip someone because their parents are rich. I know these things now – but at the time, the fact that I had every opportunity in the world and was still depressed only seemed to prove to me that I was a terrible person.

For a long time, I believed that my mental illness made me weaker than other people. I would watch my friends swing between happiness and sadness with ease. I would wonder why I couldn’t be more like them. Instead, sadness seemed to cling to me like an ex who just won’t take the hint.

But it turned out that my brain just needed a little more help that other people’s. The same way you need to throw a kite into the air a little, in order for it to take flight. With the right medication and the right therapist, I was able to claw back parts of my life that had withered with neglect. And you can too.

It’s like Dumbledore said (kind of):

“Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

Once you ask for help. Once you confess your worries to a parent. Once you say the words aloud to a doctor. Once you confide in a teacher. Once you let the words out into the world, things can start getting better.

To all of you out there struggling silently with depression, I promise you one thing: it doesn’t have to be this hard.

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