Learning how to fight depression
Image credit: Dr Malcolm Harvey
In April, I wrote a piece trying to encourage people to be more open about mental health by talking about my experience with depression. Over the past three years, I’ve tried to be as open as I can be about it, discussing it with anyone who was interested. I found that openness was helpful in a number of ways: it helped those who couldn’t get their head around depression understand it a little more; it helped those with their own experience of mental health issues understand that they were not alone in having these experiences; and it helped me, personally, to understand my own illness, and figure out how best to tackle it.
I’ve been on medication for depression since August 2014. Or, rather, I had been. This year, in consultation with the GP, I’ve gradually reduced the dosage, down from 150mg of sertraline to 100mg in January, then to 50mg in April.
I’d privately intended to be medication-free by August – marking the three year anniversary of the diagnosis by coming off the medication entirely. However, the news that a friend from university had taken his own life in July – a friend who I knew shared some of my experiences with depression – knocked me for six. A group of us got together to organise a charity event in his memory, raising over £4,500 for SAMH, which gave me a focus and a challenge, and something positive to think about, and my mental health steadily improved.
I regularly took part in the 5K parkrun on Saturday mornings. I set up a running club for the politics department at the university – a 5K around the campus every Thursday morning. I got myself a Garmin watch (which annoyingly buzzes every hour if I haven’t been active enough, forcing me to get up and take a walk). Exercise provided more endorphins, and I thought again about trying to get myself off the pills. So, at the end of October, I started alternating the days I was taking medication – until, last week, my final day on anti-depressants was here.
I’m not a fan of boxing, but I think as a metaphor here, it probably works. Depression won the first couple of rounds, with some sneaky blows – especially since I didn’t know how to defend myself. I hit the canvas a couple of times. But with better advice from my corner (medication, exercise, communication) I was able to fight back better in the middle rounds. I haven’t been able to get in any knockout blows, but the fact that I’m still here means that neither has the depression.
More recently, I’ve started to win a few rounds. As it stands now, depression and I are still in the ring, circling each other, looking for a weakness that either of us can exploit. I’ve not won this fight yet – and it’ll last much longer than the normal 12 rounds of a boxing bout – but I’m much better prepared for the fight. And if depression starts to get the upper hand again, I won’t be shy to return to what I know works against it, including going back on the medication.
It’s been a long road, and I’m under no illusions here. I’m not ‘cured’ – I’m not sure you ever really get fully cured. But I’m feeling much better. I’m having fun with the family again. I’m very much enjoying teaching again. And – crucially for my work – I’m able to concentrate for longer periods of time again. In the past, I’d have to read the same passage in a book five or six times before it went in. That was frustrating, and created cycles of irritation, lack of concentration, boredom, tiredness and anger. So to be able to read again – well, that’s a big signal that I’m doing better.
That’s just the practical side though. There’s an existential side to depression and improving your mental health too. In quiet moments, I’ve been reflecting on ‘who I am’. One of the concerns I had about coming off the medication – apart from worrying that I’d descend into depression again – was that I couldn’t remember what I was like before I had depression. Would I still be the same person as before? Am I the same person as before? Has this experience of depression changed me? Has the medication? Was the medication the only thing keeping me in this state? In truth, I don’t really know, and I probably won’t ever know. That’s frustrating, especially for an academic. I don’t have an answer for that – but perhaps learning to not care what the answer is will be a sign of victory.
I’m Malcolm – and I probably still have depression. But I know how to fight it now.
Dr Malcolm Harvey is a teaching fellow in politics at the University of Aberdeen.