IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Spoke Up About My Depression On National TV After Years of Secrecy

The thing is, most people had no idea I was ill at all -- I told them on a need-to-know basis, because I was embarrassed and scared of their reactions.
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Polly Allen
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The thing is, most people had no idea I was ill at all -- I told them on a need-to-know basis, because I was embarrassed and scared of their reactions.

"Any negative thoughts today?" The lady on the phone asked, as I sat at home, unwashed and clad in my pajamas.

"Yes," I said, "all the time. I want to die. I can't focus on anything else."

There was a pause as she considered my answer. "Oooo-kay, I'm going to write that you've had a couple of fleeting thoughts, but do remember we can't provide additional help. Are you up to anything nice this evening?"

Welcome to the UK's crisis care strategy for mental health patients. I spent three weeks under its Crisis Team in 2014, when my ongoing clinical depression -- something I'd secretly battled for seven years and airbrushed out of my social media feeds -- spiraled out of control.

Once a day, a rotating cast of health workers would visit or call. Mostly they made small talk or wrote a few notes; one spent most of her visit telling me about her son's waster friend. I then got sent to an outpatients' program, with "art therapy" (a group of us drawing silently for an hour) and "Mindfulness" sessions (an Occupational Therapist read the same two exercise from a sheet each week). 

It was no surprise that I plummeted further into depression, and took an overdose, soon after. I was beyond the Crisis Team's help, but nobody else stepped in. 

My allocated psychiatrist was on holiday, with no staff cover, and I was left for nearly a month without intervention. If it wasn't for my parents turning into carers and watching me like hawks, I wouldn't be here today.

Up and down the country, people were getting the same underwhelming treatment as me, and when the mental health charity Mind asked for media volunteers to discuss crisis care earlier this year, I jumped at the chance to kick back at the system. Not just for me, but for those who don't have a supportive family, and for everyone struggling to be heard above the noise of bureaucracy.

Some of the books I've found useful over the years when dealing with depression. Often better than health workers.

Some of the books I've found useful over the years when dealing with depression. Often better than health workers.

Treatment may be free under the NHS, but waiting lists are longer than a George R.R. Martin book; meanwhile, staff lack the basic emotional intelligence to deal with vulnerable people. 

I was fueled up to have my little rant about the issue, expecting to be giving a few quotes to a newspaper or something, when Mind asked if I could talk on camera to the BBC. Suddenly this was a very different soapbox I'd be standing on, and everyone would see.

Since diagnosis in early 2007, clinical depression has been a constant presence in my life. I tried most of the anti-depressants on the market, along with talking treatments, but nothing touched it. The thing is, most people had no idea I was ill at all -- I told them on a need-to-know basis, because I was embarrassed and scared of their reactions.

In 2011, I had a nervous breakdown and took an overdose. Confiding in people didn't help -- one friend told me, "If you want to kill yourself, I don't know what you expect me to do about it," -- whilst a doctor joked about how "You'd better lock up the knives!" I told him flatly that my parents had locked up the knives. And the razors. And the scissors. 

Everything stayed locked away for months, along with my feelings. Talking to a news channel could leave me a target for similar comments.

Keeping an eye on negative thoughts with Ruby Wax's book, Sane New World.

Keeping an eye on negative thoughts with Ruby Wax's book, Sane New World.

I thought long and hard about doing the interview, and whether it would trigger a depressive episode, but this second breakdown in 2014 had already seen me at rock bottom, and the harshest critic had been myself, not anyone else. 

I thought it was normal to be physically disgusted by yourself; I thought I was asking for it when yet another guy used me; I thought there was nothing remarkable about wanting to be hit by oncoming traffic. Suddenly I began to see the interview as a chance to put my demons to rest.

Thankfully the piece wasn't live, so I didn't feel so pressurized into getting things right the first time, and the reporter's questions were really tactful. 

By the day of the broadcast I was nervous, but expected it to fall under most people's radars, especially as my interview was part of a bigger report. It was shown on the lunchtime news bulletin and I got a couple of phone calls asking if I'd just been on TV. 

Mind then emailed a link to an online summary of my comments, again used in a larger piece on mental health budgets being cut by 8%. Suddenly this wasn't a blink-and-you'll-miss-it news clip to camera -- it was on the Internet, making the top 10 most read pages on the BBC website that day, and strangers were tweeting messages of support.

"Fuck it," I thought, "the genie's out the bottle," and I posted a link to the BBC's online article on Facebook. In the past I was a Facebook obsessive, always trying to work on that millennial façade of having a great time 24 hours a day. I wasn't into selfies or #blessed status updates, but I was the person who posted all their holiday photos and uploaded group pictures from nights out as tangible evidence that I had a social life. 

Never mind the boring truth, that being in a different country made me no less depressed, and that most of my friendships were powered by the number of favors I could do for people, like driving them to bars or helping them with projects... it all seemed worth it to maintain the illusion. 

I'd created this idealized version of myself for other people to judge, and convinced myself I could smother the depression if I just worked hard enough to become that idealized person.

Two months before my second breakdown, but already spotting early warning signs, I was still posting carefree pictures like this.

Two months before my second breakdown, but already spotting early warning signs, I was still posting carefree pictures like this.

When the breakdown hit in 2014, there were no nights out, no exotic holidays, just days of howling on the couch until my ribs hurt. I was consumed by the grim depths of my illness and the relentless urges to end my life. I could hardly post something like, "Just chilling in the emergency room with my terrified parents, waiting to be seen by the on-call psychiatrist -- fingers crossed I finally get admitted to hospital, lol!," so I'd stayed silent.

Posting the link on Facebook shattered the old illusion, and the silence, instantly. What I wasn't prepared for were the "likes" and comments, people calling me "brave" (which I feel uncomfortable about) and sharing their own stories of mental health problems.

However, that sense of being accepted didn't last in the long term. Most of the people who reached out were just paying lip service, adding faux concern to save face (if you've ever seen the "U ok hun?" Tumblr. One of the few friends who stepped up, and made regular visits despite living four hours away, captured it perfectly during one of our coffee and cake binges:

"How many of those people who 'liked' your status have been in touch since? How many have responded to your texts asking to meet up? They like to be seen to do something, but they don't actually make the effort, even if they live 10 minutes away from you."

She was right -- there's more to friendship than asking after someone and not listening to the reply. People who care will make time for you, even if they have demanding jobs or their own issues to cope with. I've always hated having to ask for anything from my friends, even the closest ones, but this has been a learning curve.

Since speaking out about depression, I've changed the way I approach it. I've always (wrongly) seen it as a weakness, rather than something I've coped with for years and balanced alongside the day-to-day crap we all have to deal with. Being able to say I'm depressed, and not feel the need to apologize for it, is a huge step in confronting what's happened. 

I won't wear my diagnosis as a badge of honor, but I have to acknowledge I'll manage it on some level for the rest of my life, the same as someone with a thyroid condition or IBS. I can't wish it away, nor does it give me a free pass to act like a dick "because I'm depressed and I can't help it," but I can try to tame it.

That means making recovery my main priority, silencing my inner critic and speaking up for my own needs. I hope to do more campaign work to raise awareness about depression; Whilst my own self-esteem is shaky and I can't honestly say I like myself yet, I will fiercely defend anyone else who's been through a similar situation. 

I'm also working to try and understand that pain isn't measured in a league table -- the pain of clinical depression is valid, even in the light of other people's problems or conditions, and it needs to be spoken about, not silenced.