Carol Hunt: 'Clinical depression was the most terrifying thing that ever happened to me'
Carol Hunt’s first bout of depression was the most terrifying time of her life, but she knows its signs now and can keep it at bay
It’s what Dr Harry Barry calls “the difference between depression with a capital ‘D’ and depression with a small ‘d’.
One-in-four of us are unlucky enough to be hit with the capital ‘D’ at some stage in our lives. I’m one of that number. When I was first hit by the big ‘D’, I had no idea what it was or what was wrong with me. It was, frankly, the most terrifying experience of my entire life (so far).
But more of that later. Because if we accept the one-in-four statistic, that a quarter of us will suffer from mental illness, that means that the vast majority of the population will never experience a major mental illness in their lifetimes. Which is great news. And yet, everywhere we look, we see people in emotional pain; in distress; nerves wracked and worn down; unable to enjoy life in the way they would wish to.
Why is this? Why can’t we be happy?
I think it’s because many of us have never learned what it is to care for our mental health — certainly not in the same way we are taught to care for our physical bodies. Like looking after your body — getting regular check-ups, eating healthily, getting enough exercise — looking after your mind takes time and requires education.
It’s important to recognise the signs if something starts to go wrong. In the same way that a bad cough can develop into bronchitis or a cold into pneumonia, a “bad mood” as it were — stress, anxiety, panic, depression with a small ‘d’ etc — can, if not adequately attended to, develop into something much more serious and difficult to treat.
I mentioned that suffering from the capital ‘D’, clinical depression, was the most terrifying thing that ever happened to me. This was mainly because, when it first occurred, I had absolutely no idea what it was.
It was helpful knowing that there was something recognisably wrong with me, something that I could learn to cope with, if not cure, and that I wasn’t going to stuck in despair forever. And so, I have learned how to take scrupulous care of my mental health.
Paradoxically, my mental health crisis has ensured that I now keep myself, mentally, in much better health than those people lucky enough not to be hit with a major mental health disorder. It also means that I have to care for my physical health in the same way. The two are not separate, as many people still seem to think. We have the philosopher Rene Descartes “ghost-in-the-machine”, mind-body dualism to thank for that misconception.
Consequently, there is no quick fix that leads to a healthy mind, no “happy pill” that cures all ills; we are holistic beings and, consequently,
we need to treat our health —
mental and physical combined — holistically. For me, that means that eating healthily and getting regular exercise is crucial. When we exercise, we release endorphins — happy hormones — that are wonderful, natural mood boosters.
I walk and do bikram yoga regularly — but everyone should find some sort of exercise that appeals to them: cycling, swimming, salsa dancing, whatever floats your boat.
I also meditate regularly and I try to be kind to myself. Kindness is a much undervalued currency. Never underrate the value of being kind to yourself, and to others. It’s what makes the world a better place.
I know I’m prone to SAD (seasonal affective disorder), so I make sure to go with the season, as it were, and, as much as I can, enjoy the winter months.
So, instead of beating myself up for not being overly social in the evenings, I light the fire, pick a good book and curl up on the couch with it — sometimes even with a well-deserved glass of wine (alcohol should be avoided as a self-medication, however).
Books are my ultimate pleasure; a good book is, for me, the very best medicine. And winter means I can dose myself daily without feeling I should be outside of an evening, making the most of the sunlight.
During the day, nothing can beat a walk beside the sea, however — and as a Dubliner, I’m blessed with living right beside it. I try not to listen to music when I walk — just be in the moment, look around, enjoy the magical sound of the waves and the light on the sea.
Having a dog to bring with me helps with this. Dogs are fantastic for making you feel loved and wanted — no matter what. But inevitably, when times get tough, we need a little extra help to keep well and happy.
Over the years, I’ve also tried various types of talk therapies. I’ve never kept to any particular type for an extended period however, having neither the time, or the finances, to engage in long-term psychotherapy a la Woody Allen.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) I’ve found very useful — it is recommended by doctors who are at the coalface of treating mental health — like the aforementioned Dr Barry.
But recently, I’ve heard of a new talking therapy called Human Givens, which is based on the assumption that, as humans, we all have needs, and if we don’t get them, our health suffers. Unlike many other therapies, the Human Givens approach does not cover the past history of the patient. It’s quick and, supposedly, effective. Could this be true?
From my initial introduction to it, I think it could be a very effective tool for stress, anxiety, and depression with a small ‘d’.The need to “know thyself” is what inspired the Human Givens approach to therapy, which teaches the patient to liberate themselves from pain.
Since my own mental health crisis, I make sure to monitor my moods and emotions — that ancient injunction “know thyself” being crucial to a healthy mind, a healthy body and a contented spirit.
It’s a life’s work. But we are in charge of our mental and physical wellbeing. We can be happy if we work at it.
Mind yourself. Learn to know yourself. You’re worth it.