Can you tell me a bit about where your story of living with depression starts? Do you think there was a time where you were ‘well’ and then became ‘unwell’?
I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly well. I like to think of it as a chemical imbalance. I can’t actually test whether that’s true or not, but it feels the most appropriate for me.
I was painfully shy in school – I was very anxious, and I had very, very low self-esteem.
Until I got diagnosed, my perception was that everyone felt that way. I thought I was ‘normal’, and everyone was having these same feelings and experiencing the same level of anxiety and self-confidence issues. I thought they were better at overcoming everything, rather than thinking that they didn’t even have the thoughts I was having!
One of my big triggers, the thing that really made it obvious that I wasn’t well, was taking the contraceptive pill at maybe 15 or 16 because I was anaemic. It was supposed to help my iron content so that I had more energy, but I grew up in France – there wasn’t much awareness of mental health, so it wasn’t thought about when I started taking the medication. That’s when I got really low, but even before that, I wasn’t mentally well.
What was that like for you? How did it affect school and college – did you feel supported?
I struggled a lot. I went to an amazing school – it was an international school, so I had a wide range of friends. But there was a lot of pressure (that I put on myself) to do well.
I didn’t think much of myself at all, so I would belittle myself a lot. I didn’t think I was worth anything. And I felt I was never the ‘pretty one’, which I took quite hard. Looking back now, I realise that that wasn’t true. But I thought everything about me was wrong.
My parents were fantastic, they were supportive, I was never put down for my feelings or what was going on… but they didn’t understand the level of my feelings. I felt like no one understood what I was going through.
It made it really tough – but I was still very privileged in my experience. It was a balance of feeling overwhelmed a lot of time, but also being so grateful for the opportunities I had. But that might be me talking retrospectively – I don’t think I thought that at the time!
What do you think changed for you? How did come to understand that this was something that could be helped?
So, I still had no idea when I started university. I went to the doctor to talk about being on a contraceptive pill.
I told them about my concerns about going back on a pill: the weight gain, the feeling of being so low, and being so uncomfortable in my body that I wanted to crawl out of it (which sometimes still happened, but not to the extent that it did while I was on that pill).
The doctor picked up on the fact that these might have been part of taking the pill, but also asked me about how I was… I didn’t realise what was happening, but she recognised some signs of clinical depression.
I didn’t believe it. I told her, ‘No, you’re wrong. Everyone thinks this way.’ partly because I hadn’t really learned much about mental health.
I came to terms with it quite quickly because I did a bit more research and I realised that she was spot on with a lot of what she was saying. I also had a really good mentor at the time through the university, and he was able to help me process a lot.
From then, I started taking antidepressant tablets. The first one was helpful, but not helpful enough.
I went off it for a bit and tried to go back to the same doctor, but it was hard. I couldn’t see a consistent doctor or someone that I felt comfortable talking to. Eventually, I did find a doctor who I saw regularly. She was lovely, she just took the time to listen. You knew, going to her, that you’d have to wait a bit because she was like that with everyone, so she’d always be a bit late!
She suggested another medication, and I’ve been on that since – so that’s seven years.
It sounds like you went on a bit of a journey to find what was right for you in terms of medication and a supportive GP. How have things been since then?
So since then, I’ve moved out to Thailand! I’ve been able to stay on the same medication and I see a counsellor every week. They’re a meditative psychotherapist, so it’s very much based on going into your body, seeing what’s coming up. It allows me to dive into what is forming my reactions. It’s something that I’ve gained a lot from.
I work in a school, and I am providing a role to a lot of students that I wish was in my school when I was growing up. I teach about mental health and negative feelings: how they can affect you and what to do. I also do one to one sessions with students who do have those persistent negative thoughts.
Overall, I don’t have downs the way I did. I’m not completely stable, though. I have to track my period because I know the days before, it’s as if I’m not on any medication! It helps that when I feel it coming, I can check my phone and go, ‘this is OK, we can get through this, we’ve been here every month. We know what’s going to happen.’
If we move back to the UK, I’d love to try and find a specialist that has more experience of PMS to see if I can get more information on it and make a more informed decision about all of the different medication options.
You mentioned medication and counselling. Are there other things that are really important for you to keep on top of to help with your mental health and living with depression?
When I find things difficult, I think: what are my techniques to deal with this?
I can’t be on social media before my period, because I spiral into feeling like I’m not being involved in stuff, which is not true – I have an amazing group of friends here.
I find meditation and mindfulness quite helpful, even though I’m not very good at doing it for myself! I teach it a lot to the students I work with, but I have to remind myself to try it.
And just being kinder to myself, I think. Self-kindness is a really big thing for anyone going through these emotions. The self-hatred and the self-judgment and the self-critique can be massive. For me, trying to think about if I’d ever speak to anyone else that way is helpful. I talk to myself like a friend.
The techniques that work best will be different for different people. For me, it’s like a safety rope or a harness. You might fall down, but you’ve got the stuff to pull yourself back up and save yourself. Saying that, it’s OK to have days where they don’t work or you don’t even try them because you’re so low.
When you first got diagnosed, were there times where you thought that it was a limiting factor and that you wouldn’t get to a place where you were flourishing like you are now?
Absolutely. When I first started taking medication, I didn’t feel grounded, and I didn’t have any forward drive. I wanted to get through uni, but I don’t think I had any goals, I wasn’t very caring to the people around me. I was doing things that weren’t healthy for me, and it took me a while to get out of that.
At first, I thought that people should be going out of their way to help me. I feel like that’s a natural reaction when you feel like you’ve been handed a bad hand and you feel like you’re less than other people. In some ways, that held me back – I used it as an excuse to not flourish, whereas actually, it was me holding myself back.
In that period, I definitely thought I would never excel… but now I see that the diagnosis doesn’t take away from me. It hasn’t taken away from anything I’ve done. It makes me so empathetic; it makes me amazing with students in my role, which is what I love to do.
Do you think anything might have been different if you had had more education on mental health when you were at school?
I think I felt a lot of the time that there was no one to turn to and I didn’t know what was going on.
If I’d had access to the sort of things I provide in the school I work in, it could have helped me work through a lot of emotions, realised that there was something not completely balanced, and maybe act on it.
It definitely wouldn’t have changed my diagnosis, and it might not have changed the fact that I’m on anti-depressants – that’s part of me and that’s OK; I don’t have an issue with that. But it could have helped me get there sooner.
When I started uni, I ended up in hospital with a panic attack, having no idea what it was. And maybe that kind of thing wouldn’t have happened – I could have had some techniques to use to help myself.
Now we talk about depression more, and it’s a lot more open. I don’t think I really knew anyone else at uni with a mental health condition at the time I was diagnosed with depression. People that were diagnosed were seen as ‘other’ – they were seen as different and like they couldn’t cope.
Mental ill-health was stigmatized – it wasn’t like people would openly say ‘this is wrong’ or ‘you’re wrong’, but the comments made about it generally made you feel like there was something wrong with you. And especially with comments about self-harm and things like that, you just felt like it was a freak thing to do. People didn’t realise that although it’s not healthy, it is a coping mechanism for something that’s going on.
People didn’t understand that depression can be all consuming and affect you so fully. I remember being called lazy once, by someone who had no idea about my depression, because I couldn’t get out of bed! I had to learn to let other people go – to let them be and not really care what they say.
It’s so important for people to be aware that you can seem OK and functioning, but actually, you can have a mental health problem and take medication for it – and that’s fine.
I’m happy to be open about my depression. I will talk about it in job interviews if it comes up, because for me, it’s something to relate on and it’s important to have these conversations. My diagnosis is not something to be embarrassed about.