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The Beast That Knows You Best

Depression is the beast that knows you the best. It hunts you where you live, every moment of every day. Because it is born within you it knows how to hurt you, where your weak spots are. It feeds your every doubt, negative emotion and neurosis. It undermines and inverts anything positive in your life – your family, your job, your relationship, your self-respect…everything you prize becomes everything you’re going to lose if you can’t sort your head out. It forces your gaze inward to focus on an endless loop of your personal failings, eating away your trust in your own judgment.

I know these things because I’m being hunted, too. The beast has had a grip on me for a few years and it’s a scary, stealthy predator. I didn’t notice it wrapping itself around me, not until it started to squeeze. It’s subtle at first, the effects easy to dismiss as a bad day. Everyone has bad days. But then there’s another bad day…and another. People seemed to be looking at me differently. My reactions to different everyday situations were…well, off. One minute I was too quick to anger at trivial events; the next there was nothing but empty space where a reaction should have been. Very quickly, bad days were the norm. Sleep became patchy, broken by a relentless internal monologue of fear and self-recrimination. I hated myself for not being able to snap out of it.

By this stage I knew something was wrong, I just didn’t know what to do about it. I was embarrassed.  Actually no, I was ashamed. I felt weak, stupid and inarticulate. I couldn’t tell the people closest to me about it because I didn’t know what it was and I couldn’t bear even a single look of pity – not from my wife nor any friend or colleague. But even if I had known what to do, if I had wanted to confide in someone I just couldn’t – the beast wouldn’t let me. It had paralysed me, left me totally unable to do almost anything positive about my situation. Instead of seeking a solution I spent hour after hour in miserable reflection on the terrible consequences of my inaction and how I’d left everyone down. I’d become a spectator, a passenger, a victim of my own life. I couldn’t see anyway back to my previous existence.

With no visible route back to my old life and no idea how to cope with my new life, I started acting. I went through the usual daily rituals, pretending everything was okay. What mattered most was that no-one got to see the pathetic reality of what I’d become. I wonder if anyone who hasn’t experienced depression can understand how a person arrives at that as a priority? Anyway, a busy working and private life helped me maintain this charade for months.  I was in a senior job so questions about how I was feeling were infrequent. If colleagues had noticed a difference in me they were either too polite to mention it or unwilling to spark my temper with an enquiry. Having a large and expanding family meant that home life was filled with the noisy chaos and endless logistical challenges of parenthood. This left mercifully little time for reflection – during the days at least.

But you can’t maintain this sort of pretence forever and slowly the pressure within me began to tell. After months of digging myself a deeper and deeper hole, the beast finally kicked me into it and I fell a long way. In the end it was my inability to deal with a work-related difficulty that brought everything to a head. I was sitting on the kitchen step in the dark, clutching at my sides, rocking back and forth, crying as quietly as I could (so as not to wake the kids), completely and utterly lost. For me depression wasn’t about the presence of sadness but the absence of hope.

The beast had me completely. But then it was revealed for the fraud it really is…by my wife. She did the only thing she could – she listened, she offered love not pity, she wasn’t appalled nor did she condemn, she just listened. It was alright that I wasn’t alright. We’d figure it out. Step by step. I wasn’t fixed but thanks to my marvellous, true-hearted wife there was a shaft of light to illuminate the gloom. There was another side to the story. There was hope.

That was more than a year ago and I’d love to say that over this time I’ve figured out how to defeat the beast for good. But I haven’t, not completely. It’s crafty and it’s always looking for a new way in. The biggest victory I’ve won is to acknowledge its existence, to accept that there is something skewing my outlook on the world. This is a big thing. Admitting you’re depressed, that your mental health is in some way impaired, is a huge threshold to cross. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have had my wife’s support. What I’ve come to realise is that there is support all around us; it just requires the strength to reach for it. Wife, husband, partner, parent, friend, doctor, counsellor – whatever, whoever, works for you, just try. It’s incredibly hard and completely worth it.

Since then I’ve been figuring out how to fight it. Overall I think I’ve regained the upper hand. Some days, though, the beast regains its choke-hold and anything close to normality is a victory. For me, the only answer to days like these is to fight harder. The core of this fight is activity; don’t think, do; don’t dwell on a crappy yesterday, push for a better today. I try to break from routines, it doesn’t matter what it is as long as I derive some satisfaction from it: walk, run, cook, swim, send an overdue email to a friend…write a few paragraphs for other people hunted by the beast. Whatever it takes.

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