I mentioned Sir Winston Churchill in my post on his birth place Blenheim Palace the other day, strangely he fits in rather well for this post too. Churchill waged a life-long battle with depression, he called it his “black dog”. You don’t think he’d be the type, he’s an icon of British fighting spirit and strength, his rousing speeches to the masses in the darkest days of the Blitz bring a tear to the eye. Steadfast and strong he embodied the British war effort: Never give up. Never surrender. How can a man with such force of personality have possibly wanted to throw himself under a train at the age of 35? But he did.
I too have battled my own “black dog”. I’ve tried to write about it many times, and I’ve eluded to it briefly in my post on emigrating to Australia, but the time has never been right. Now, for this week’s writing challenge, I think I’ll try.
I think I have been struggling with depression, without really realising it, since the age of sixteen. For me, it comes and goes in bouts or what I like to call “bad patches.” The worst bad patch I have ever been through started around February 2008 during the second semester of my MA course, which I had moved to Oxford to complete. In those early days, I don’t think it had even registered with me, I was just generally unsatisfied with my studies. The course wasn’t what I expected, the work wasn’t what I expected, Oxford wasn’t what I expected. I wasn’t happy in general and couldn’t wait for the course to finish. It hadn’t put me off my choice of career though, so when the end finally came in September I moved out of halls, moved into a house and continued my job hunt that had begun earlier that summer. I knew it would be hard, the recession had hit full force a few months before and “proper jobs” in my field were thin on the ground. I knew the graduate job market was competitive, I knew my particular career area was competitive, but I just wasn’t prepared for what was to come. Endless interviews, cover letters and applications became my life. For every interview I got, I was rejected for ten more.
No matter how down-trodden I got, I couldn’t hide the flame of hope, however small, that would ignite inside me whenever I got an interview. I’d prepare for each as rigorously as any exam. My carefully chosen outfit, ironed to perfection, would wait for me until the morning when I would nervously board a bus to London or go into Oxford city to meet my yearned for future colleagues. They always smiled, we’d shake hands warmly, we’d all laugh and I’d be perky and enthused. Then we’d shake hands again. “Thank you for coming today, you’ll hear from us soon.” A week would go by. Then another. Nothing. This went on for a year.
When I finally got my “proper job” in the summer of ’09 I was made up. Everyone was so pleased for me, it had happened at last. For me, everything seemed bright – my “adult” life and future was unfurling before me, this is what the years of study had been for. A good job in a field I wanted to work in. Yet…early on I knew things weren’t right, perhaps this wasn’t the job for me. Stubbornly I pushed those doubts and feelings away – I’d only been there three months, I should give myself time. I’d worked so hard, I didn’t want to get on the interview treadmill again so soon.
In February 2010 I started to struggle with insomnia. I’d wake without fail at 4am every morning after waking every hour during the night. I’d sit blankly looking at Teletext until it was time to get ready for work. I’d walk around feeling like I had a weight pressing down in my chest, my limbs would feel like concrete, my thoughts muffled and slurred. I’d wake with a headache, gulping down caffeine to help me function. At the weekends I felt worse so I increasingly spent them in bed. I lived a double life – during the week I would be smart, I’d go to work, I’d see my friends, I’d smile, we’d laugh. At weekends however, someone else took over. I would come home on a Friday at about 6pm, go straight upstairs to my room and go to bed. I wouldn’t move until Monday morning. I’d lie under the covers with the lights off, refusing to leave my room for anything. Not even a drink of water. My housemates didn’t even know I was in most of the time – I’d ignore knocks on my door anyway.
The heaviness began to infect everything else. If I could sleep it would be too deep and too heavy. I’d wake feeling sluggish and slow. My thoughts would be jumbled and I’d feel detached from my surroundings. Getting out of bed for work got harder. I felt empty and listless, a zombie drifting from one thing to the next. My feelings were confused and volatile. One morning on the way to work I noticed a woman staring at me on the bus. Confused, I put my hands up to my face and realised I was crying. I had no idea why, but still tears continued to roll down my face unbidden. It didn’t occur to me to wipe them away. It didn’t occur to me that it was strange. I felt nothing at all, I only felt empty. Food would slowly decompose in my fridge I cooked so little. I gave up showering. Dark thoughts would intrude during the most mundane of tasks – I would consider drinking bleach whilst mopping the floor. I would imagine cutting off my finger whilst chopping vegetables. I’d go for a walk by the weir near where I lived and stare into the inky black water for hours, imagining what it would be like to drown.
Some days, I’d veer wildly between sobbing uncontrollably and boiling with rage. I’d done everything right dammit, why was I so unhappy and frustrated? I’d worked hard for my MA, worked hard to get my job and worked hard at my job. Despite my sizable commute I kept staying late, coming in earlier, anything to make it right. But nothing worked. I felt like everything had failed; didn’t work hard = do well = HAPPY?? Everything was backfiring though, it was going so horribly wrong. The mask began to slip at work. I’d lock myself in the toilet and have panic attacks before big meetings. I’d return to my desk with smeared mascara and puffy eyes and no one would say a thing. I’d get palpitations boarding my bus to work. If my email inbox was over a page long my hands would begin to shake so much I could barely type a reply.
After one breakdown too many, I gave in and went to see my GP in July 2010. Whilst sympathetic to me, I had to go back to him numerous times before he would really listen. He referred me to a counsellor who I saw once a week and I began a slow road to recovery. The turning point came one Sunday in the October. I had struggled all day to get out of bed, and when I finally managed it, I decided to go into town. The exercise was pointless as the shops closed in half an hour but I didn’t care, I was managing to leave the house! On the walk over I felt so insubstantial I feared I would blow away. I had no idea when I’d last eaten. Coming outside after being in bed all weekend felt like landing on another planet, noises were too loud, colours were too harsh, the light was bright and hurt my eyes. People would talk to me and I had no idea what to do. I felt detached, like I was floating along Cornmarket Street in a bubble.
As I stood in the middle of the street, convinced people would pass right through me, I started thinking about the beginners Japanese class I had started taking that month. I was enjoying it. Years ago at university I had heard about The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) when I was considering a gap year to travel. I had dismissed it at the time as something I could never do – but that was then. Why didn’t I apply? I’d been to Japan that April and loved it, and I was really enjoying my language class. I could work really hard at it and then apply for JET next October, enrolling in the next stage of my language course at the same time. If I was successful, I’d be sent out to Tokyo in July 2012, with over two years of Japanese study under my belt. If I didn’t get in, why not look for teaching jobs in Japan anyway? People had often told me I’d suit teaching. If that wasn’t fruitful, why not apply for a Working Holiday Visa and actually go to Australia? I’d wanted to for long enough and nothing was keeping me in Oxford any longer…why not?
I had an idea. For the first time in eight months, I had a plan. I had direction.
It was like a lightening bolt. From that moment, everything changed. It felt like I had come back to earth from whatever planet I had been on. A warm glow spread through me as I thought about what it would be like to finally, FINALLY travel. I have wanted to visit Australia since I was sixteen, and up until that moment in Cornmarket Street nearly three years ago, I had nearly applied for a Working Holiday Visa on three separate occasions. Each time, I’d held back. Too young, no money, no one to go with, university, postgraduate. Not anymore. I wasn’t going to put off travel any longer. The more I looked into it, the more viable a year on the JET programme or a year in Australia became. I had some savings already, and could easily save more now I was motivated. Things still weren’t easy – each day was a struggle and I still went through very dark periods, but now I had a secret weapon. Travel. When things at work were bad I just thought about the future I was saving for. I devoted myself to squirreling away money in preparation for my “escape.” At my peak I was saving over £300 a month. I developed a ritual. Every time I passed Flight Centre in Oxford, I would look in the window at flight prices to Australia and Japan. Seeing the prices there and imagining the day I would book my ticket somewhere gave me a little thrill. My heart would lift and I’d get that warmth in my chest. Freedom!
Sadly, after being discharged from counselling in March 2011, I had a relapse. This relapse resulted in me being signed off work for two months and ultimately, I left my job that September. During that time, I’d often wander into town and visit either a bookshop or the local library. I’d find solace in the travel section, pouring for hours over travel guides and gazing wistfully at photographs. Where I’d normally feel deadened, here I’d feel excited. My heart would race, I’d get butterflies and feel warm all over. Imagining being on a plane taking off for who-knows-where would make me feel as if I could fly myself.
Things are better now though the last two years have continued to be hard in many ways. My plans have changed, I didn’t apply for JET or my WHV, but now I’m looking at going out to Australia permanently. This blog came about when I applied for my Partner visa. I’ve tried blogging in the past several times, mainly to talk about my experiences with depression, but they never worked out. Those early blogs were too bitter and aggressive, who would want to read posts like that all the time? Now, instead of writing about how much I hate Oxford and can’t wait to leave, I write about what I have enjoyed and what I will miss. I want to write about travel and planning my travels. I want travel to be in my life like never before. Now I’m brave enough to try and make travel part of my career instead of hiding – who knows, maybe I could write for a living.
My blog is called Wrestling with Wanderlust because that’s what I’ve been doing for my entire adult life. Sadly, I’ve also been wresting with depression for just as long. I want people to know depression isn’t a life sentence. Things can and do get better, no one has to be alone. There are people there who can help, and they do care about you despite what you may think. Don’t suffer in silence. Most importantly, as Churchill said: Never give up, never surrender.
Don’t let depression claim you, fight back.