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MIND

I had no idea what depression felt like, until suddenly, I did

Last year, Zoë Beaty began to feel abruptly, irrationally, unreasonably sad. Now that she’s on the road to recovery, she’s trying to understand why

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By Zoë Beaty on

Every evening, I leave the office and make my way to Green Park tube station. I walk down the stairs, I follow the grey markings on the signs towards the Jubilee line, to get closer to home. It’s a busy station. There are elbows and hushed, aggravated voices; and there are bodies – hundreds and hundreds of bodies, walking, rushing, pushing, desperate to get somewhere better. And among the thousands of bodies each day, and the tens of thousands each month and the millions each year that walk the same path through stations like Green Park, there are the hidden few, beside you on the escalator and lined up on the platform, who are desperate to get nowhere. Last night, as I walked through the tiled corridors, under the ugly lights in Green Park, one of those people died.

On a different evening, a few weeks ago, I left the office to make my way to Green Park tube station. I walked down the stairs, I followed the grey markings on the signs towards the Jubilee line. Amid a smaller afternoon crowd, surrounded by bodies, I lined up my toes very precisely with the yellow line parallel to the edge of the platform. But when the tube came, I couldn’t get on. And I couldn’t get on the next one, either, or the next one. Instead I stood there, watching the trains whoosh in and whoosh out like my thoughts, feeling quite terrified. The noise scared me. My own body scared me. The feeling of being so very removed from everyone around me – and the very normal scenario playing out in front of me – scared me. I wanted to opt out of being. I don’t know how long I stood there for. It felt like an hour, maybe it was less. Finally, I looked down at the ground as another train pushed its way in, to see another two pairs of feet were stood either side of mine: two police officers.

I am grateful that they stood beside me and spoke to me. If they hadn’t would I have jumped? Hopefully not. I was thinking about it an awful lot, and it certainly wasn’t the first time I’d thought about it in the past few months. But the fucking annoying thing about wanting to die is that death is still terrifying. And it is not easy to die. Actually (and I have researched it thoroughly), it’s more than likely that you’ll fail. And so, in another quite comedic bout of self-pity, my own lack of self-worth has told me each time I’ve come close that I would probably fail at that too. When I learned that, last night, another person felt so incredibly hollowed out that they too stood where I had been, and that they didn’t come back from it, it frightened me all over again.

The very clever thing about mental illness is that the symptoms are barely visible until, all at once, they become all you can see

Let's rewind. If I’d have read about an outwardly successful, privileged, safe, financially secure, healthy woman standing alone on a platform edge six months ago, I would have had thoughts amounting to approximately this: “that’s sad”; “that person needs some therapy, I hope someone is helping”; “she must be lonely, I am grateful I am not”. A small part of me would have thought of it not as hyperbole as such, but as a dramatically charged scene. Something slightly performed or unbelievable, only because I couldn’t truly empathise with it. Despite having had mental health issues and cognitive behavioural therapy in the past, I couldn’t read or listen or watch something like this and know the depths of that feeling that some of us, who have stood on that yellow line all over this city, can feel. Now it feels so big and so loud and so rooted and rotten inside me that I want to scream at myself: for not understanding before, and for not completely understanding now.

It was in July that I first felt a familiar uneasiness in the space just below my heart. It started as a small question mark; a morsel of doubt hovering at the end of each thought. In the middle of the summer, life was ostensibly good – I had a job I loved, wonderful friends and family, a boyfriend I admired, a fun and comfortable house to live in and a newly clean bill of health. I dismissed the feeling as a hairline fracture of the mind and assumed it would heal itself. Instead as the question mark grew larger the fracture became a fissure, big enough that I tumbled in.

The very clever thing about mental illness is that the symptoms are barely visible until, all at once, they become all you can see. Basically, at some point my inner voice started to change. The things I had been taking for granted – a functioning level of confidence, self-worth, self-respect, interests, independence – began to disintegrate without me realising. The question mark became largest when I tried to sleep, so I stopped sleeping. Predictably, the intrusive thoughts were afforded more power. I did my best to suppress them, to hush them up, but they broke out over my skin – a faint rash on the back of my neck and over my chest. I got a stomach ache and probed it like you would a bruise, to see how much pain was hiding inside. I felt like I could touch the anxiety rising and falling through my belly.

By August I felt ugly. By September I felt wholly inadequate. I’d never had a panic attack before, and didn’t know that’s what was happening when my chest started constricting in the toilets at work. It’s weird, that stuff. The fear felt like sitting helplessly in the passenger seat of a speeding car, hurtling towards a wall but never quite hitting it. My heart beat ferociously for weeks and made me too full, and sick. Simple thoughts and assertions about myself were soon subject to a constant, complex, internal cross-examination. Of course I haven’t read enough; of course I’m not smart enough; or interesting enough, or funny enough, or pretty enough. Sure, people say I’m doing OK in my career, but they don't mean it. Because, isn’t it entirely feasible that they are lying, or worse, laughing at me? And isn’t it plausible, then, that the friend who wants to go for a pint later pities me, and actually thinks I’m incredibly boring? And that the man who claims he once found me attractive is really just playing a very cruel game? And, and, and, and, and.

I want to write to tell you every small thing that happened, which felt so huge and consuming at the time, to expel it, or expose it: a self-awareness so acute that I could feel each of my pores prickling; unconquerable irrationality; the sudden and uncompromising inability to eat, or to sleep, or to write. Compulsions: the surging impulse to rip the skin clean off my face and the hair out from my head and to escape from my own body, or disrupt it somehow. The realisation that I was no longer who I was supposed to be, that I was barely a person at all, and the frightening acceptance that I might never feel happy or loved or worth anything again.

I want to write it all to you not for your sympathy or to make you look at me, but because, for the first time in six long, wordless months, I feel compelled to write, and because I am desperate to try and make you understand how it felt so incredibly isolating, so contained within me and only me, so utterly convincing and so fucking lonely. Though I know with renewed perspective that I was most certainly not, I felt like the only person on the planet to feel it. Now I want to pour out my heart and start again.

Does it sound pitiful, and self-indulgent? It does, doesn’t it. But, fuck me, it does that to you. Depression comes out of the arse end of nowhere and not only takes away control – of who you are, of what you believe and what you see – but also the will to gain it back. And if it’s tiring reading this pity-party on a page, it’s because being sad and scared is fucking exhausting. Even more so because the fear is so present, but absolutely invisible – you don’t know what it is frightening you, so you’re rendered completely vulnerable to it. During weeks spent off work, barely moving from the furthest corner of the sofa, I thought, over and over, I am tired. I am tired of it, of trying to live, tired of trying and failing; I am tired of thinking and most of all I am tired of myself. I thought, I am aching. My body hurts. My jaw clenches so tightly that my face hurts. I ground my teeth so hard that I chipped one in anxiety.

I am making a point of telling people “I have depression”. I want to try, like many others who I know have felt the same, to eradicate the humiliation of it all

Why now? Why did this happen? I can’t answer the question, and I’ve learned that the many, many people who have felt like this or who still feel like this – one in five of us will experience severe depression in our lifetimes – can’t either. In theory there may have been so-called “triggers” – for seven months last year, and not for the first time, I watched nervously as doctors searched my body for multiple sclerosis; in March I watched someone very dear to me die in a hospital bed. A couple of other things happened, which I won't drag up here. My past happened. But all of it was simply unfortunate, inevitable things that happen in life. They made me worry, but they weren't half as bad as situations my friends deal with every day. And, anyway, I was absolutely fine – until I wasn't. Until I was suddenly, inexplicably, unreasonably sad.

It has changed me. I am – whether that is temporarily or permanently – different to how I was in July, when I took my first tumble. Things that are different include but are not exclusive to: I am more aware of my body; loud noises feel like they're suffocating me; often when people talk to me I can hear words but they appear in pencil, smudged with cheap rubber, or dissolving like they have been dipped in acid. The cogs in my mind are running at half-speed. My bones are dislocated and I don’t know how to put them together again. I’m a stone and a half lighter. I can no longer watch a train pulling into a platform without placing my hand, firmly, on a solid wall to physically ground myself. I can barely read or write. I am single. I take a lot of Prozac and it makes my jaw clench and my head itch and my dreams insanely vivid and it also makes me feel like I might not die today.

It has changed me, but that’s not always a bad thing. More things that are different now, compared to six months ago: I am more aware of looking after my body; music sounds more meaningful; I listen harder; I am trying harder; I talk to a therapist regularly; I am more accepting of my flaws; I am able, sometimes, to feel a deep gratitude that I am here and alive and laughing; I am single; I feel like I might not die today. I am making a point of telling people “I have depression”. I want to try, like many others who I know have felt the same, to eradicate the humiliation of it all.

And I see mental health differently. Some days I think about conversations I’ve had with friends, when I’ve listened to them tell me they feel “low”, or alone, or scared, and feel the sharp sting of remorse that I couldn’t hear them. Not wilfully, but ignorantly nonetheless, I couldn't really understand what they were saying at the time: I’d never been where they had. Most of my friends couldn’t understand me, either. But the really good ones tried and, fuck me, did they help. Even when I was humiliated by my own disposition, even when I was awake for days. Even when, during one particularly frightening time, I reached a point that I genuinely wished I could swap lives with Mark out of Peep Show – a fate arguably worse than death. I knew things were bad then.

I don't know how or why – just as I don't know how or why depression happened to me – but now things are (slowly, gently) getting better. My peripheral vision is coming back, after months in blinkers. With the help of an endlessly understanding and patient team of colleagues, my sturdy, unmovable mum and step-dad, who helped every single day, and friends that have been roots in the ground, I’ve taken my first gasp of air after months of being submerged under very dark, very cold water. I’m still frightened – about where I have been and what lies ahead; I’m terrified of feeling so fucking broken again – and you still feel far away. But I’m nearing a conclusion. This isn’t it. Soon.

If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, please call the Samaritans anytime, for free, from any phone, on 116 123.

You aren't alone, even if it feels that way. Here are some more NHS recommended support groups who want you to call if you're struggling with ill mental health.

@zoe_beaty

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Mental Health
mind
depression
Anxiety

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