Sarah Fullagar tells us how she beat a decade of depression
Intro by Charlotte Fantelli
A few months ago I had the privilege of being involved in a project, blogging with Nick Watts and Sarah Fullagar, as they took on a challenge to create awareness and fight stigma surrounding eating disorders and mental illness. In doing so I was able to get to know more about these fab people and the stories behind the wonderful work they do.
I would like to introduce you to a great ambassador for mental health and a courageous fighter of depression - Sarah Fullagar. This is her story in her own words:
Depression doesn’t come in fragments. It comes as a wave, creeping up on you slowly then engulfing you before you have time to start running from it. Fragments might be easier to handle. But the real thing is all consuming, exhausting, painful, excruciating even. And you have no motivation or ability to do anything about it.
I wrote this and the rest of the italics you’ll find within this blog at the start of 2011. I had been suffering with depression for almost a decade, and was also fighting self-harm and an eating disorder. My condition had rendered me void of a social life, had left me with practically no self-esteem and had left me feeling like an utter failure.
It’s a feeling that you never quite fit. Not really. I feel that I’m on a different planet, that I’m seeing something different to everyone around me. There are days when my heart feels like it’s moving twice as fast as everything else around me, and days when I feel like I’m lagging behind, days when my head or my heart simply can’t keep up with everyone else. I hear music and remain convinced that someone has sped up the tempo, doubled or tripled it so that it’s speeding uncontrollably ahead. But it’s just me. I’m out of kilter. With myself, my life and the world.
It paints a pretty bleak picture really I guess. And for almost a decade, that’s what my life was like. In the past ten years I have seen more being done to raise awareness of mental health issues; most of us will have seen the ‘1 in 4’ posters, and I don’t mind betting that everyone out there knows someone affected by mental illness, whether or not they’re aware of it. But yet there are still so many misconceptions out there, and with that comes stigma. Although we’re talking more than we were, we’re still not talking enough. It’s one thing saying these issues are out there, but we need to go further to fight to help people understand these issues, to provide an insight as to what it’s like to experience them, to live with them, and to encourage hope that things can get better.
From helplessnes to seeking help
For the majority of the decade I was ill I never truly believed I would ever be ok. For one thing I never understood why I was feeling the way I was, and if I didn’t understand it then I couldn’t see how things could get better. After all I grew up in a happy family, did well in school, had lots of friends; from the outside my life looked pretty perfect. The shame and embarrassment I felt were massive factors in stopping me from asking for help, or even in engaging with it, particularly in my teens.
On some level I thought that by accepting help I’d be admitting that something was wrong, and I didn’t want to believe there was anything wrong with me. Looking back now it seems silly; after all, if I’d broken my leg I wouldn’t have had any problems with getting a cast put on it, mental health shouldn’t harbour any more shame than physical health. Unfortunately my thirteen year old self had yet to come to this epiphany, so I continued to battle on with my feelings alone, all the while becoming more secretive and emotionally isolated, preventing me from opening up to friends, family or professionals. After all, if I couldn’t understand how I was feeling, how could I expect anyone else to?
Choices - 'feeling crap, or feeling nothing'?
Eventually, aged 13, after months of suspecting I was depressed, (it turns out I wasn’t as good at hiding my emotions as I had thought) my parents took me to my GP. My silence was far from co-operative, whilst he tried to probe me for clues as to why I was feeling so low I sat staring at the floor refusing to talk. By the end of our appointment he had prescribed my first (of many) anti-depressants.
All people seem to want to do is pass me a prescription of ‘happy pills’ sure to bring me back to normal. Fluoxetine, sertraline, citalopram, venlafaxine- they never seem to work. I never feel ‘normal’. What is normal anyway? What if this heart tearing sadness and emptiness is my normal? The problem with pills is that they don’t stop the bad feelings, they just numb them. And I’m not sure which is harder, feeling crap or feeling nothing.
I know several people for whom antidepressants have worked, but for me they weren’t enough. They tried to fix the symptom, but didn’t manage to change the catalyst, the thing that had set me off feeling so low. I understand why they’re handed out by GPs, the average appointment is under ten minutes long; certainly not enough time to get to the root of a psychological condition, and so to treat the presenting symptoms makes sense. But in my case it wasn’t tackling the problem, and so the problem didn’t go away, it just got brushed over. I was hidden behind a Prozac haze.
The hardest thing for me about depression was apathy. It’s surprisingly exhausting not caring about anything. Ultimately what I needed was the belief that something was worth fighting this black cloud, that if I could just get through this period of my life I would be fine, things would make sense again, that they wouldn’t be so excruciating. But depression had robbed me of any motivation I had to fight through it. Anything that should have been motivating wasn’t. There was no energy left after I’d absorbed and experienced my daily dose of depression.
I long for the day I wake up and don’t wish I hadn’t. I can have an ‘exciting’ day ahead of me and still curse myself for having woken from the broken sleep I get every now and again. I should be grateful I know. For the things I have that I’m sure others would love to have. But the sad truth is, they’re not enough. And no matter how hard I try to accept them as enough to want to live for, to value myself on, to hold as gifts, the truth is I’d rather it just all ended. Because I don’t know how much longer I can do this for. It’s as if I’m a car, with an infinite stretch of motorway ahead of me, and very little petrol. And I’m driving and driving and there’s nowhere to fill up. Nowhere to recuperate and get what I really need. Nowhere to provide me with the fuel I need to keep going. And I can drive and drive- I can even get out of the car and push it. But there’s still not a single petrol station in sight.
There’s no real connection. Even with the friends I’d count as the closest to me. I’d like to say I’m honest with them, but I’m not, not really. It’s a tainted honesty. The honesty you think they can deal with, the honesty that shows a slither of instability without revealing the sheer terror and to a degree, the immense dread that you’re just not meant to be here. To be in this place, on this planet, alive even.
Aged 18 I had all my hopes pinned on moving away. Maybe if I could just get away from the place it had all started things could be different. I moved to university, determined that this would be a new start, a new me. For the first couple of months it seemed to be working, but then slowly but surely I began to feel the weight of depression absorbing me again and this time it bought with it a barrage of anxiety attacks. For over a month I would drag myself reluctantly out of bed after a sleepless night and get on the bus to the campus. But throughout the journey my heart quickened, my palms were sweating, I felt nauseous, like everything was closing in around me. 9 times out of ten I remained on the bus as my friends got off and went straight back to my flat, all the time crying, shaking, feeling like an utter failure for having missed another day.
I can go on for so long, putting on this front and managing to hide myself amongst the real people. You know, teaching, working at the pub, sorting out transfers at the bank. And then every now and again I feel like I’m drowning, I can’t breathe and I need more than anything to get out. Not just out of school, out of the shop, but out of the world.
To get out of the world wasn’t really an option. Ironically I was too scared of failing at suicide to attempt it. And I’m not sure I even wanted to die, I just wanted desperately for something to change. For so long I searched the past, frantically looking for a reason for my emotions. I had a million questions, as to why this had happened, why I’d been feeling this way. But what finally helped was opening up to the fact that there might not be any clear answers, and that they don’t always matter. In looking for them I found myself deep in self blame and eroded my self-worth until I was convinced that my condition was my fault. The more I believed that, the more depressed I felt. My initial condition had left me in a repetitive cycle where I didn’t even value myself enough to help myself out of it.
Feeling the fear and doing it anyway
That is, until I stopped looking for answers and began focussing on the present. I began to trust others when they told me I was good enough and that it was worth me fighting through this illness. It took time, it took strength, and it meant pushing myself into situations that made me feel uneasy again and again and again. I was feeling the fear and doing it anyway, and I can tell you it wasn’t easy.
But I can also tell you this; I have been off medication for a year and out of therapy for 4 months. I live with my flatmate, and work two jobs that I love. I have a social life and good relationships with my friends and family. I look forward to waking up in the morning. After almost a decade with depression it no longer defines me.
Beating depression was all about learning to go easy on myself; to accept the things I could not change, and to concentrate on the things I could. About learning that blaming myself for my condition was nothing but detrimental, and about opening up enough to allow myself to notice the things around me that slowly but surely began to matter again. Depression left me just as it came, gradually and then suddenly. I couldn’t tell you exactly when I got ‘better’, I was too busy enjoying life to notice the specifics. And surely, that’s what it should all be about.
You can see more of Sarah and the wonderful work she does here: http://bodygossiping.tumblr.com/ or follower her on twitter: @bodygossipsarah