Depression is a strange illness – it’s not diagnosed with a blood test like diabetes or anaemia. Instead, your doctor asks you a few questions prescribed by the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, 5th edition) to diagnose a major depressive episode.
According to the DSM-V, five to nine symptoms need to prevail during a two-week period. These symptoms can cause personal distress, and changes in how you function socially and professionally.
- Appetite changes – either weight loss (when you're not trying to lose it) or weight gain
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Slowing or speeding up of physical activity
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Feelings of excessive or inappropriate guilt
- Difficulty concentrating or being indecisive
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
At least one symptom needs to be:
- A depressed mood
- A loss of interest or pleasure in something you previously enjoyed
I tick many of those boxes (or, if I’m honest, all of them). Yet, I do find myself wondering whether my depression has been cleverly created by my brain as a way of not dealing with life. I’ve even had my thyroid checked as depression can occur as a symptom of hypothyroidism.
I often ask myself if this is real? Am I really depressed?
Going off my meds
In June 2017 I decided to go off my antidepressants. I spoke to my doctor and he agreed that I was doing much better than previously and was happy to let me give it a try. He made it clear that some people are able to wean themselves off their medication, while others have to accept that they will be on medication for a significant part of their life. He warned me that I might fall into the latter group.
He gave me strict instructions on how to wean myself. And the last thing he said to me be before I left his office was, "If at any point you don’t feel well and are not coping, phone me. Do not stay away and do not suffer in silence."
I smiled and walked out feeling strange – one part of me was curious to see how I would cope; the other part of me was curious to see whether I actually had depression.
The first few months were great – I didn’t have a single depressive episode. Life was treating me well. I no longer felt numb, the world seemed much brighter and, dare I say, happier. My heart sank though because the doubt started to creep in. I began to wonder if I really suffered from depression or whether using medication was just a crutch, an easy way to deal with the curveballs life sends us.
The return of the 'Black Dog'
Month four arrived and I slowly started to notice my Black Dog was back – he was lurking in the background, but not interfering too much from one day to the next. I still felt as though there was nothing I couldn’t handle, and that I was in control of my depression. So I pushed forward, reminding myself that I could cope, that the low day would pass and life would be colourful again.
By month six the dark days were more frequent. I was exhausted. I struggled to get out of bed. I no longer wanted to do any of the things I used to. I was depressed.
And then I suffered a major setback, brought on by devastating news. This was a curveball I knew I couldn’t handle. The first thing I did was phone my doctor and tell him I needed help. I went to see him and in a blubbering state told him what was happening and that I was worried about the dark thoughts I was having. We discussed the way forward. We both knew I had to go back onto antidepressants.
Depression is real
This was an interesting experiment and one I had to do because I often found myself doubting my diagnosis – depression makes me feel like a fraud. Many people associate mental disorders with craziness or attention seeking but the evidence, for me, was that depression does exist. It’s not something we make up or want to suffer from.
How could I have forgotten that more than 300 million people worldwide suffer from the very condition I was diagnosed with years ago? Likewise, when we remember the people who have tragically lost their lives to suicide – people like Robin Williams, Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington. And, most recently, Tim Bergling, the popular Swedish DJ we knew as Avicii, who allegedly committed suicide on 20 April 2018.
Avicii's family released the following statement, giving us a tiny glimpse into his suffering:
"Our beloved Tim was a seeker, a fragile artistic soul searching for answers to existential questions. An over-achieving perfectionist who travelled and worked hard at a pace that led to extreme stress.
When he stopped touring, he wanted to find a balance in life to be happy and be able to do what he loved most – music.
He really struggled with thoughts about Meaning, Life, Happiness.
He could not go on any longer.
He wanted to find peace.
Tim was not made for the business machine he found himself in; he was a sensitive guy who loved his fans but shunned the spotlight.
Tim, you will forever be loved and sadly missed.
The person you were and your music will keep your memory alive."
You are not alone
Depression can make you feel as though you are alone, or like me alone and a fraud. It also knows no boundaries and can affect anyone – no matter your gender, age, demographic, status, or wealth. Depression is a real medical condition and needs to be treated. And always remember, you are not alone.
If you need help, contact SADAG. You can speak to a counsellor between 08:00 and 20:00 Monday to Sunday by calling 011 234 4837. For a suicidal emergency call 0800 567 567. The 24-hour contact is 0800 12 13 14. Alternatively, you can SMS 31393and SADAG will call you back.
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