Standing at the edge: My story of growth from depression. Pt 1

I’m writing this to open doors and minds. To let friends into a place that I share with very few, and to reclaim my identity as an advocate for change. I hope that it will be read widely and will motivate sufferers to speak out, and reframe people’s compassion for others through better understanding. 

Know that there is always hope.

“Stand behind the yellow line as the train approaches” instructed the tannoy behind me. My feet were already over the yellow line as the bright eyes of the Hammersmith & City line train emerged from the tunnel. I was too far away from the tunnel. The train was braking. By the time it travelled the 40 yards towards me, its speed would have more than halved. If I wanted to do this properly then I should stand by the entrance of the tunnel. But surely it would be quick enough anyway. I was so close to the platform that all I had to do was take one step. Or just fall forward. The train would hit my head and that would be sufficient. But it would be messy. Other people don’t need that. I’d better do it properly.

I lifted my heel, leant forward and felt the rush of air through my hair as the train passed. I was too late.

That was 12 days ago.  Today is my 24th birthday

I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life, but it didn’t have a clear name until February of this year.

There are many things that can trigger severe depression. Bereavement, change in employment, conflict, uncertainty, or even a simple change in weather. It’s also worth knowing that more than 40% of your chance of getting chronic depression is genetic, and it does run in my family.This year, my triggers were threefold: overwork, illness in my family, and the unexpected end of a long-term relationship.

Looking back, my slide into severe depression began as far back as September 2012. The changes were gradual; only noticeable over spans of weeks and months. I balanced medical school with a part time job and an intense voluntary role with Medsin. New to London, I lacked a network of near friends and my relationship was strained by distance. I became increasingly isolated, and buried myself in work. This got exponentially worse when I took over as the leader and sole employee of Medsin in August, a role with seemingly near-infinite workload.

“Don’t just work hard, work smart”.

One of my favourite phrases. I wish I had remembered it in September, when my workload increased and I responded by subjecting myself to punishing hours, working at home late into the evenings and forgetting many of the productivity tips that I had spent years accruing. It spiralled out of control, and by Christmas I realised that there had only been one work-free weekend since August. I’d also experienced my first serious incident of suicidal feelings. The speeding evening traffic around Marylebone looked all too attractive after a challenging business social. I went home and told no one. 

All of this spilt over into my relationships. After moving to London I became increasingly detached from my family, and much of the happiness sank out the relationship with my partner. I was with my partner for nearly 5 years. We had effectively lived together for 3: It was one of those instant “now and forever” relationships. Despite moving back in with each other in July, the time we spent together felt progressively listless, like everything else in my life. Fun together became a routine necessity, a small bump in the day-today flatness of my experience. As we approached Christmas, we both started to recognize that something was seriously wrong with me. 

I started to shy away from work, to detach myself from it. The thought of opening my work inbox would make my breath catch, and business calls to me started to go unanswered. My productivity greatly declined, and I felt more and more guilty about failing my colleagues and my organisation. Sleep became a bugbear. My frustration grew as my ability to wake at a normal time dissipated. Some nights I wouldn’t sleep at all, and some days I would only wake to eat. Food was one of the few things that still made me feel, so I ate more and more sugar; more than regaining the weight that I had worked so hard to lose the year before. My bike, my faithful commuting partner, stayed in chains for weeks on end as I became a recluse. 

I still put in my hours at work but they were unproductive, joyless, flat. Barely covering the essentials. External partners started to get frustrated with my level of engagement, important emails went unanswered and I fell into a vortex of guilt and self-loathing.

Depression is not feeling sad. 

For me, it is a constant feeling of flatness, a painful emptiness in my chest that  persists and rears its head at otherwise happy moments. On the worst days it’s like having an anchor hanging from my  chest. My ability to reason and think clearly, something I usually take pride in, becomes caged and I am trapped with my thoughts. But most of the time I don’t think anything at all; I just feel. Everything is effort, even if I’m not actually doing anything, and the smallest challenge becomes Everest. Time stretches and contracts more than normal, and day’s disappear to nothingness. Some people, including the World Health Organisation, liken it to being followed by a black dog, though for me the ever-reliable Stephen Fry captures it best

The latest Global Burden of Disease study says that the black dog is now the second leading cause of disability worldwide. We are not alone.  

In late December, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s blogged extensively about her experiences, and I’m immensely proud of how she and my entire family have responded to the situation.  My father had also previously been diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma on his nose, a slow growing skin cancer that is rarely life-threatening. 

Christmas was tense. My mother was still in denial about the potential severity of her cancer, and my partner and I had argument after argument. The short break from work did nothing to mend my exhaustion or assuage my growing guilt and anxiety. 

Things got worse until late January, when I travelled to Leeds for a weekend-long meeting of my team (who are volunteers from all over the UK). I started the meeting by talking openly about how I felt, how much I was struggling. It was at this point, sitting in front of them, that I first completely owned my illness. I called it by it’s names. Depression. Anxiety. Words that I’d used flippantly before, or skirted around when talking with my partner. 

Not long after the weekend, I went on sick leave. Suddenly realising the scale of my illness, I reached out to several people who I respected and I completely separated myself from work. I informed my team, but we had no idea how long this would last, so we neglected to discuss the essentials: How should our processes change, who should maintain our relationships with externals, what should we tell the rest of the organisation, what essential work should be task-shifted, etc. 

At this stage I naively felt that I could manage my illness myself. I self-referred to the Islington Young Person’s Consultation Service, a 4 session counselling service to help me determine what steps I should take. I conformed well to the stereotype that “Doctors [or medical students] make the worst patients”. I believed that I had hit my nadir, but worse was to come.

To be continued in Part 2.

11 Comments on “Standing at the edge: My story of growth from depression. Pt 1”

  1. N

    U should be incredibly proud of what u have achieved. It is always a special kind of bravery that is needed to do something like this.
    Good on you mate.

  2. FY

    Really proud of you Cam, this is an incredible (and incredibly brave) post. Thank you for sharing.

  3. ZH

    Your bravery and humility inspires and touches me deeply, while also helping me understand this even more than I already thought I did before. On top of this you’re saving lives of those who cannot save their own. <3 Thank you.

  4. T-Shan

    Thank you for sharing this Cam. You are inspiring, brave and a good person. It takes a lot to share your inner feelings. I hope this goes some way to helping you and others that are dealing with similar challenges. Wishing you all the best.

  5. NM

    Beautifully honest Cam, a truly inspiring and thought provoking piece, and a brave step towards ending lethal stigma and discrimination. Thank you.

  6. Anya

    Cam, you’re brave for sharing. I have no doubt that you will be a powerful advocate for yourself and others in this situation. We’re all here to support you.

  7. Tim Chisholm

    My fellow sufferers,
    Do not despair,
    Salvation is at hand,
    You will rise again,
    Like a Phoenix,
    And spread your wings once more.
    You may not fly as high,
    You may not fly so swiftly,
    You may have damaged wings,
    But trust them,
    They will hold you.
    And you will see more, so much more,
    Flying closer to the ground,
    Than those who fly in the clouds,
    You have been blessed,
    It may not feel like it.
    But you have endured more than most,
    Your mere presence is a testament,
    To your strength and courage,
    You look down on no one,
    Not because there is no one beneath you.
    But because you understand.

  8. Fred Watson

    Thanks for sharing Cam. I wish you every success with your ongoing struggle. I recognise some of your symptoms within my family unit due to a recent bereavement and your honesty is commendable.

  9. Michael Ryan

    Cam, this is a very brave thing to do and will help you on the road to recovery, facing up to it is a huge thing and takes guts. I am also recovering from severe depression and writing down how I felt started me on the road to recovery. I wish you well, you will get better if you want to

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