Monday 21 December 2015

Why my own depression went undiagnosed for decades

One afternoon in 1989 - on one of the frequent days I took sick from work - I lay on the bed with the large coffee jar beside me. Its potentially lethal contents, carefully amassed for this purpose over the past weeks during visits to different pharmacies and supermarkets, were just feet away from my mouth. A glass of water sat on the bedside cabinet.

Yet somehow I couldn't bring myself to take the overdose despite being in a dreadful state: absolute fatigue and apathy, deep, dark depressive thoughts, self-loathing, probably drinking too much and the constant jabbing of the inner voice which told me I was a failure, that I was 'different' from other people, that they probably thought I was odd and that it was not surprising that I'd been fired from my previous job for 'not fitting in'.

In desperation I called the Samaritans. I told the woman on the line what I planned to do and why. I desperately wanted someone to talk to, someone who would understand, because I sure as hell didn't understand myself.

I can't remember her exact response, but it was along the lines of 'Pull yourself together, there are thousands of people worse off than you so just think about them for a while'. Basically, like Hannah Betts confessed in a recent article on her lifelong battle with depression, I was made to think that people like me shouldn't feel like this. I had everything going for me - my own house, a secure family background and good upbringing, a brilliant job (even better than the job I'd been fired from) and a good income. Yet I was made to feel as if I should get off the line so she could devote her time to people with genuine needs, not silly 31-year olds like me who should be thankful for what they'd got.

It's no thanks to her but I never did take that overdose. And I got rid of that coffee jar.

But I never did get rid of the undiagnosed depression which had hit me with a sledgehammer for lengthy periods, on and off, since the age of 15.

In the weeks and months leading up to this afternoon in 1989, I'd visited my GP on countless occasions complaining of extreme fatigue and apathy, dark feelings, sleepless nights and nightmares. I'd had numerous days off work because I couldn't muster the energy to get out of bed.

The GP took umpteen blood tests suspecting iron and magnesium deficiency. She felt it was probably something to do with pre-menstrual tension and heavy periods (although mine were pretty normal). Maybe I needed a different contraceptive pill. Or maybe I just needed to give myself a good talking to and get on with life. Again, I felt as if I was taking up valuable time which could have been devoted to people with 'real' problems. As if the GP was thinking "Oh no, not her again..."

Not once did anyone ever diagnose depression.

Yet, thankfully, I was able to put on a great act at work and at play. No-one would ever have guessed that beneath my lively and creative exterior (See? I can prove that my previous boss was wrong when he said I 'didn't fit in'!!) lay this mess. Nor that my slim, toned, attractive appearance took a heck of a lot of hard work - of missed meals, eating next to nothing and punishing myself at the gym every evening. I avoided going out for meals or being invited round for dinner. Unless I could find a bathroom afterwards...

And so I lived though past episodes, that particular episode and more episodes that were still to come until finally, following my son's eating disorder, I was able to get a proper diagnosis and help.

When I began to feel out of control again, two years ago, everyone thought it was some kind of PTSD - the result of having had to care for my son during his battle with anorexia.

Certainly there were PTSD-like symptoms, but many of those overlapped with those of clinical depression, not helped by the years of battling to get my son well. Thankfully several therapists on, during the past 24 months, I have finally found one that has unravelled the illness for what it is: depression and anxiety.

Proper depression and anxiety. Undiagnosed for decades.

And I have a GP that understands. Like Hannah Betts, I have good medication: Citalopram. And I have amassed a toolkit of CBT-based and mindful techniques which help me through the bad times.

Plus a fantastic group of friends across the world who 'get it' - the mums I've met through the eating disorder carers network.

Instead of feeling weak and a failure, I have come to realise that I am quite the reverse. I am strong. I brought myself through each depressive episode, determined to change whatever needed changing in my life to raise my mood. In the past my coping strategies weren't always healthy ones... And for some time I struggled with my own particular methods of maintaining my weight and exercise regime. Ah, if only I'd had the support, understanding and tools I've been fortunate enough to receive over the past couple of years.

I hated and criticised myself needlessly and destructively for too long.

I also realise now that my dad probably suffered from undiagnosed depression, especially following his retirement when, although fit and healthy, he confined himself silently to an armchair as if he was waiting to die.

And my son, now recovered from anorexia, still has depression. Like me, he is on Citalopram.

I can't explain the feeling of sheer and utter liberation of understanding more about why I am like I am and was like I was. And that there could be genes at work here.

It is not my fault. I never was weak. And I should have been proud of myself rather than self-hating.

How I wish I could go back and speak to that young woman in 1989 as she lay on her unmade bed, the large jar of painkillers beside her, and tell her that she wasn't to blame and that it was OK.

I am now 57 years old and there is a lot of regret that, in my past, very obvious mental health symptoms could go unnoticed and undiagnosed - or treated with callousness because people like me weren't supposed to get sick.

But the good news is that I feel so very much better, simply for being able to understand this thing better and to accept it as part of me and work on loving myself and making a life for myself filled with nice things in a world where it is now much easier to talk about mental health.

And where I am sure that the people who provide vital services like the Samaritans are far, far better trained than they were back in 1989.


  1. Bev, it makes me ragingly angry to hear the ignorant cruel and dangerous responses from a service designed to help those like you in need.
    I'm so very grateful that the buried deep inside part of you that found the the strength to resist the frightening painful urge.
    I'm glad that not only have you found help, you found a path to help others. Bravo you amazing woman!

  2. So very sorry that your condition took so long to be recognised. Even today, our mental health services are creaking at the seams! But at least things are better than they were. You are a strong woman! I feel privileged to have met you and consider you a friend. Let's have another cycle next spring!