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Are You Depressed? How Can You Be Sure?

Becky Killoran knew she was stressed and just wasn't coping; it turns out she was depressed. Here's what she learned, and what you can do if you think you might be depressed.

Photograph CC Ryan Melaugh

 

Life suddenly got a bit too much for me to handle towards the end of the summer holidays in 2013. At the indoor beach - yes, that’s a thing - in Milton Keynes with a friend and our children, I suddenly broke down in floods of tears. My friend happened to have recently been in a similar state and told me to go to the doctor straight away and get some help. It’s obvious now – it became obvious that day – but until then the thought that I might be depressed hadn’t crossed my mind; I just thought I wasn’t coping and was stressed. Fortunately, just going to my doctor’s surgery started me on the road to recovery.

 

Depression is much more common than you might think: The Royal College of Psychiatrists reports that 1 in 5 people will become depressed at some time in their lives. But how many people are depressed and don’t realise it? How many don’t have stresses and triggers that push them over the edge and instead suffer in silence?

 

Are you depressed now? Are you sure? Do you know all the symptoms? The UK’s National Health Service website has a comprehensive list and a self-assessment tool if you’re interested or concerned, but generally you feel down and hopeless and you don’t enjoy things that may once have given you pleasure. These symptoms may be accompanied by low self-esteem, tearfulness and lack of motivation, and in severe cases you may have suicidal thoughts. Physical symptoms include disturbed sleep and lack of libido and also changes in appetite. You may also find that you suffer socially because you don’t want to go out and meet friends, or go to your usual clubs and you may struggle at work too.

 

Given recent increases in peoples’ awareness and understanding of mental illness, you might be surprised that the view that sufferers are not really ill, and simply need to “get over it”, is still widespread. We would never say this to anyone with a visible illness, such as the flu, but it is all too common to treat mental illness as a weakness, when it has nothing to do with a lack of strength. Depression is often caused by trying to cope with too much for too long and not wanting to admit that anything is wrong because you know how negatively people might react.

 

Looking back now, it is obvious that my depression had been building up for several years. Caring for two young children while my husband worked long hours in London, running the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), adopting a dog with severe separation anxiety, trying to do my husband’s accounts without any training, the boredom and frustration of staying at home and never doing anything for myself  – it all became too much.

 

To my disappointment, the doctor didn’t give me any tablets. Instead she listened sympathetically, diagnosed me with moderate depression and ordered lots of blood tests as she was worried about my fatigue – they fortunately didn’t reveal anything, as it turned out.

 

Back home afterwards, the realization came that I’d have to make some changes to help me cope with my busy life. Just making this decision alone lifted the fog a little.

 

My first change was to resign as Chair of the PTA when school reopened in the September. This role had previously given purpose to my life and been a chance to socialise with other mums, but after six years it had become a real burden, fuelling the stress that at times threatened to completely overwhelm me. Now I had no enthusiasm for it and, without it, a huge weight lifted from my shoulders and space opened in my life. Now it was possible to focus on the future.

 

Chatting to a friend in the playground shortly afterwards, she mentioned she was thinking of enrolling in a computer course in town. We had both been stay-at-home mums for 10 years and, feeling completely out of touch with technology and low in self-confidence, it seemed a good idea on several levels. We ended up going to the Induction Course together.

 

There are varying degrees of depression from the mild to the severe, and still lots of debate over what causes it. Clinical depression is commonly attributed to a chemical imbalance in the brain (lower levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin), which is why drugs are often prescribed as a remedy, but they only work in a third of cases and seem to mask the symptoms rather than cure them. Psychotherapy is actually much more effective at treating the symptoms and people who have undertaken such treatment are much less likely to suffer a relapse than those on drugs. It appears that low serotonin levels are actually a symptom of depression rather than the cause of it. People with depression often get caught in a vicious circle: getting out of the house and socialising really helps raise your serotonin levels, but often you can’t face doing either. The more you stay in and don’t participate in activities that give you pleasure, the lower your serotonin levels become and the more depressed you feel.

 

Going to college twice a week and doing something new and interesting helped my mood enormously. As well as a reason to leave the house and much-needed company, the course provided me with new skills and a confidence boost when we graduated the following spring. We liked it so much we enrolled on another one as soon as possible.

 

Even though my life was about to change for the better, the first three months, between September and Christmas 2013, were difficult. The slightest things stressed me and I snapped at my children too easily, my emotions were raw and sometimes I found it really hard to talk to people without crying. I had little enthusiasm for anything and retreated into myself. The best thing to do was to take one day at a time and not put too much pressure on myself. What did it matter if the Christmas cards didn’t get written that year? Nobody even realised that we hadn’t sent any, much less complained about it. Talking to friends about how I was feeling helped too. The old cliché of a problem shared is a problem halved really is true.

 

So, other than the computing course, what else helped me feel better? My number one priority was a job, because it would give me a sense of achievement, a feeling of being useful and of using my brain. Friends, trying to be helpful, told me being a mother is a really important job too. Explaining to them that it wasn’t enough for me could be tricky: Some of them understood and some didn’t. If you’re one of those people who is content to be a stay-at-home mum, hats off to you. For me, however, being at home with the children had become boring and tedious and, after ten years, I’d had enough. My life was totally focussed on the children and my sense of self had drowned under being a mother; it was too easy to put them first and deny my needs even existed.

 

Having made the decision to work again, the question now became what kind of job to do? One way back into the workplace was to do something on a voluntary basis – surely running the PTA meant I was well suited to charity work? Over the next few months, I tried to find work with various charities; ultimately I wasn’t successful but these setbacks didn’t bother me as much as they would’ve done a few months earlier, which was a big step forward in itself.

 

Last Spring I came across my old diary from a visit to Canada in 1989. The style was a little childish but it was engaging and an idea lodged itself in my mind: I decided to take up blogging. Impolite Conversation had published an article of mine the year before but, for some reason, I’d thought of it as a one-off event. My first post was written within a few hours, and was very well liked – I had touched people by writing from my heart. After that I started blogging regularly, inspired by the many positive comments I received.

 

In October, my friend Matthew called and asked if I’d like to take on a role at this magazine. I accepted without hesitation and literally danced around the kitchen for joy once the phone call had ended. Life finally had meaning again and I relished the thought of a challenge.

 

Singing also helped me to recover: it gets me out of the house, gives me a chance to socialise with other people and, vitally, is just for me and doesn’t include the children. It’s well established that singing gives you an endorphin boost and releases oxytocin as well; it really is good for your mental well being. 

 

Rock Chorus, a contemporary choir, is immensely enjoyable and a great tonic for the stresses in my life. I’ve been a member for two years and it’s become the highlight of my week, providing me with a whole new group of friends and the thrill of performing at festivals and fetes around Milton Keynes. But it doesn’t really matter what new hobby you take up, as long as it gets you out of the house and gets you interacting people: Morris Dancing, Bridge, tiddlywinks, anything that floats your boat can make a difference.

 

So if you feel that your life needs changing but you don’t know where to start, take a good look at it and work out what’s making you unhappy and stressed, and try to change or completely remove it. If this seems overwhelming, take one step at a time: even small changes can make you feel better.

 

Although I made practical changes to my life, shifting my mental attitude really made the difference. “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly do that”, has become, “Why not?” We only have one chance of a life, so go out and live it the way you want to and don’t let depression hold you back.

 

Editor's Note:

If you think you may be depressed, please speak with your doctor
or seek alternative medical help as soon as possible

 

 

 

Becky Killoran

About the Writer

Becky was a TEFL teacher for many years, including two spent in Japan. A keen reader, she is also passionate about music and is an enthusiastic member of her local choir, Rock Chorus. She lives with her family in Milton Keynes.

 

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