My mum is a complete stranger to me. I have no memories of her – literally none. She died on New Year’s Day when I was two years old.
My dad is also a stranger to me. Most of the memories I have of him involve him being drunk, hungover or ill in hospital. He died a fortnight after I turned 18, after years of alcoholism.
Since then, depression has been part of my life.
I am one of the roughly one in four people in the UK who will experience a mental health problem in any given year, and although my episodes of depression are now rare, they are among the 75% of conditions established in people before the age of 24.
Barely two months after my dad died, I started university in a complete daze. Freshers week, university football, lectures, essays, nights out, exams, our Erasmus year in Paris. They all passed by as if I wasn’t really there. I’d withdrawn into my grief, which I didn’t know how to address, or want to share with anyone else for fear of appearing “weak”.
How could anyone possibly help, or even begin to understand? What could they know about what it’s like to lose both your parents and feel like you’ve just been abandoned? What if admitting to others I felt depressed made them treat me differently? What if I got kicked out of University for this? There were so many “what ifs” running through my mind that I felt almost paralysed for the better part of four years.
It wasn’t until the final term of my final year, on the verge of simply quitting my degree that I finally went to see a counsellor. The first few sessions were painfully awkward. It felt terrifyingly vulnerable verbalising thoughts I’d kept to myself for so long, let alone sharing them with a stranger. It honestly felt like I was naked. The longer we persisted though, the easier it got. We made progress. It felt good. We’d even begun addressing some of the limiting beliefs I had, but then my degree ended, and with it the counselling.
Fast forward five years to 2012, and I’m having dinner with two of my oldest friends feeling like I’m in a completely alien world, totally removed from everyone else. My ex-girlfriend and I had broken up, I was struggling to find a job after completing my Masters, and had recently failed one of the final stages of a graduate recruitment scheme. There seemed no end in sight to the string of unsuccessful job applications.
My friends tried their best to be supportive and offer advice, but their words just washed over me. I was in my own world, and with every passing thought – “She was right to break up with you”, “You’ll never find a job you enjoy”, “You don’t deserve their friendship” – it felt like I was sinking further away until a point where it felt like I’d hit rock bottom.
I tried to look ahead to something – anything – but all I could see, all I could imagine, was emptiness. Nothing. I literally could not envision a future for myself, and I’d never felt as scared or as low as I felt that evening. Even though I was with two of my oldest friends and they were doing their best to help me, I felt utterly alone and helpless.
Luckily, I haven’t felt that low since then, but the memory of that feeling of sheer emptiness is burned into my consciousness forever.
I know it can feel like nobody could possibly understand what it is you’re going through, that the thoughts running through your mind aren’t worth sharing with anyone, and that it’s easier for everyone – yourself included – just to sweep them under the carpet, but you are not alone, and it is absolutely OK to ask for help. It is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of incredible strength. That first step will invariably be the hardest – you’ll feel naked and on edge, you’ll double guess yourself, feel like you’re wasting people’s time or that you’ll be judged – but you’ll be surprised by people’s reactions, and I promise it gets easier. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Brene Brown.
Where depression used to be a knockout punch, it’s now no more than a rare gentle tap on the shoulder. Through experience and with the help of counselling I have learned not let it take over my life. Those knockout punches used to be the beginning of a shameful spiral that made me withdraw from the world, but they are now no more than passing thoughts I’ve learned to observe without judgement.
As for dealing with losing both parents way too early, the wonderful Anne Lamott says it best. “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
Michael Royce is a Programme Support Coordinator for Restless Development, working on the ICS programme.