independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Jeannette Birch: 'I have no shame about my illness and will speak about it when asked'

What people with depression really want is to be heard

Everyday battle: Jeanette has lived with clinical depression since she was 12

FOR almost a decade, I've suffered from the most silent of all illnesses. To the outer world I appear happy and healthy, just like a 21-year-old is expected to.

Inside, I feel as though my soul has gone. I cannot truly enjoy life as I should. I cannot follow a healthy eating or sleeping routine, and constantly isolate myself to try and spare others from my involuntary self-destruction.

To the medical community, I am clinically depressed, and have been since the age of 12. An age when I should have been at the height of full energy and vitality was spent failing school and self-harming.

I knew no other way to cope with my immense distress, and those around me failed to see how much I was hurting until they saw my scars.

Over the years, I have tried so many different mechanisms to take away my pain. From drink to self-harm to drugs, those were the quick fixes I so desperately needed to get through another day.

When I was first diagnosed, I was told to do things like go for a walk, take a bath, make myself my favourite dinner.

I remember being so angry at this because I wanted a quick fix. I wanted someone to wave a magic wand and take this away from me.

That's when I began self-harm and drug-taking, even though they brought more negatives than positives, they were almost like a quick fix for me.

I stopped all this six months ago and have found little things can really help. My favourite things to do now when I get really distressed are go for a run with my dog, take a cold shower or scribble on a page.

When I get low I have to force myself to get out of bed, and go get hot chocolate from my favourite cafe. I think when people are first diagnosed they tend to stay away from these things because they just want it all to go away, and the whole 'what's the point?' comes into play.

But it's about letting yourself be, do the little things you love to begin with, even though your mind is telling you not to.

Even taking five minutes to put on make-up, do your hair, enjoying a cup of tea can help take an edge off strong emotions.

Every individual is different, and what works for me may not work for many, but no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, depression can always seem to trap me in its hands and pull me back into the well I've just crawled out of.

Of all the aspects of my illness, the one I have found hardest to come to terms with is the lack of knowledge and understanding from the general public.

I have heard all the hurtful comments people label sufferers with. "Only you can fix this mess you got yourself into. You need to cop on and start doing something with your life." I have been called lazy, selfish, self-absorbed. You name it, I've heard it.

What many do not seem to get is that no one asked to fall victim to depression.

This apparent laziness you speak of? Let me put it into perspective. "What's the point" is such a common thought to have when the illness takes hold.

What is the point of going to school, college or work when your mind is so numb you can barely make sense anymore? What is the point of even getting out of bed, when the simplest of task feels like climbing Mount Everest?

I want you to imagine the following scenario. I want you to pick your favourite thing to do, whether it be playing sports, partying, cooking etc. Even though you know how much you adore this activity, every time you attempt to do it your mind tells you you're not allowed take any pleasure from it.

It tells you that you do not deserve to be happy, you do not deserve to relax.

Now imagine applying this thought to all your daily activities. This is what I have to battle every single day, along with millions of others.

Depression does cause its sufferers to become self-absorbed, but not selfish. It's a vicious cycle that is one of the hardest to endure. My mind will not allow me to focus on what is happening around me at present.

Instead, it drags me to my tumultuous past, where I play and replay scenes of abuse and bullying. It drags my thoughts back to that time I failed all my exams. It reminds me of all the jobs I've had, and not one could I stick due to constant breakdowns. It tells me I cannot do anything right, that I am worthless because of all the bad things I have done and all the things I have failed at.

Never will it let me remember the good times I've had, which have been plentiful. It does not let me enjoy my friends, who have been so good to me over the years. It lets me think people do not want me around anymore, when in reality they do. So rather than believing I'm selfish, which is the easier thing to do, please understand that it is my illness that causes these thoughts.

The world needs to change their disdain into compassion. I need you to understand that mental illness is horrendous, and that all sufferers need understanding and care.

We do not need labels or judgment, we need someone who will listen and validate what we're feeling and thinking. We do not need comments such as "cop on and do something about it", because had we the choice, we would never have wished it on anyone.

It takes so little of your time to sincerely ask how your friend, partner, child or work colleague really is.

And it means so much to them when you listen.

I like to be asked how I am without too much intrusion.

A few people I know would ask, "how's the head today?" or "are you feeling depressed?", but I'd much rather someone asked, "how are you feeling?"

If I respond by telling them I'm really not doing too well, I prefer if they ask questions without coming across aggressively.

There's no point in them telling me what they think I should do, and that's another thing.

People should ask what they think would help the individual rather than saying "just get out for a walk and you'll be fine". Being told what to do when you're depressed can be really frustrating.

Ask simple questions, be delicate about the situation and, most importantly, listen to what the person is saying. It's the hardest thing to do, to really listen. Validate what the person is saying.

Give five minutes of your time to sit with your loved ones over a cup of tea. Help to point them in the right direction. You have no idea how big this little gesture is.

Please listen to us, before it is too late.

By Jeannette Birch

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