Falling into the abyss: what depression feels like to me

A tweet from Alastair Campbell that appeared in my stream this morning

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led me to read his article on depression in The Independent “I feel for Stephen Fry. Nobody who has known depression would wish it on their worst enemy.” Alastair describes what it feels like to be depressed and said:

“I grade my depressions. Eight and a half is can’t-get-out-of-bed bad. Nine is can’t open my eyes, dress, shave, brush my teeth.”

As I read that I thought

“Oh. I get that! Is that depression?”

It sounds really silly but I’d never put the two things together properly in my head.  I’ve not had it that many times, and thinking about it, I’m lucky in that I know what triggers it. So, I guess if I just avoid the cause I’ll be OK? But the cause for me, as it sounds like the instance Alastair mentions in his article, is death. So actually I can’t do that much about it, or can I?

After my mother died when I was twelve and my Dad remarried someone who was an emotional bully I used to get depressed. With good reason looking back, because it was an awful life, never knowing what lies and accusations would come my way, and being ignored by my Dad on the street if he saw me. Sounds completely weird to me now, but, it happened. There’s so much more to that story….that’ll do for another time.

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Much more recently when my brother committed suicide a few years ago I slipped into a horrible depression. I managed to cope just after his death even thought it was a horrifically awful thing to have to come to terms with I managed to get along. But then just as everything started getting back to normal I felt as if I was falling into a dark bottomless pit from which I would never escape. It was terrible. I was scared. It was like walking around, blind, in a dark, damp scary tunnel, knowing that there were people having a wonderful life a mile above me in the sunshine, but having no way of ever getting out of the tunnel, no way of ever being one of those people.

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I told work that I wasn’t coping and was given time off work to sort myself out. I started CBT counselling which was really wonderful. From the first one hour session I was helped to work out why it was that I felt out of control with my brain was spinning round and round in never ending circles of unhappy thought. It felt like the counselling gradually helped me put together the rope ladder which helped me to clamber out of the dark tunnel and into the sunshine. It was incredible.

At some point I realised that the part of my grief which was fuelling the depression was this:

FACT My brother, sister and I had suffered some awful emotional cruelty at the hands of our father and stepmother.

IF we are all happy and enjoying our lives now

THEN everything is OK

ELSE everything is not OK

I had managed to build my life on the foundation of the FACT that we had all suffered, but we were all happy and enjoying our lives, so, PHEW! Everything is OK. But wait, we weren’t all enjoying our lives. Something had gone horribly wrong, my brother had killed himself. Everything was not OK.

It wasn’t just not OK, it was awful, the most awful that you can imagine. It meant that he had never been completely happy, he had never got over the abuse, and that meant that I, and possibly my sister, had never got over the abuse either. Oh 😦

That was what was making my brain spin around uncontrollably. I had lost my foundation stone, it had been ripped out from underneath me. What *was* my life? I didn’t know.

Over six weeks of counselling I managed to start building a new foundation stone, so that I had something to stand on, and then crafting a rope ladder to lead me out again into the sun. It was hard and it took time but it worked. I can’t thank my counsellor and my partner enough for helping me through that time, they were wonderful. I also some advice from the wonderful Stephen Fry who I tweeted in absolute desperation one day when I thought it would never get any better. He was very kind and supportive, just what was needed.

Fast forward to the second half of last year. My best friend Hazel was diagnosed with cancer in August. We decided to go out on a day trip once a week together somewhere fun. Our first trip out was to Brighton for the day in September. I picked her up in the car, we drove down to Brighton chatting, went for fish and chips and then a walk along the prom. It was a lovely sunny day. She got tired easily, so after a couple of hours I drove us back home and we discussed what we were going to do next time.

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The week after our trip I was off to Brazil for a week and then another week in San Francisco, for me it was the trip of a lifetime, but I was unhappy about leaving Hazel for all that time. I had a great time though, met some very cool people, and came back home at the beginning of October.

The day after I got back I phoned Hazel to find out how she was. She had had some more results back. She had lung cancer and secondaries on her brain, it was terminal. I managed to finish the conversation with her before bursting into tears, I then cried all evening. The next day I went round to see her, to chat about where we we going on our next day out.

I was shocked to find when I arrived that she could no longer get out of bed. A dramatic difference from two weeks earlier. Over the next couple of months she battled the disease and we did what we could to help, but she died on 28th December 2012, my daughter Emma’s 29th birthday.

That period was like an awful swirling nightmare, I was unable to concentrate properly on anything I was doing. I only just managed to get through it without falling apart. I performed poorly on some work related tasks and felt completely emotionally drained all of the time. If it hadn’t been for my family again, Hazel’s friends Angie and Ryoko and my friend Alison I don’t know how I would have got through it.

Something I didn’t expect was that a couple of months ago, some weeks after Hazel had died, I suddenly felt unable to get out of bed in the morning. I just wanted to cry. I couldn’t understand why. What was going on?

It took me a couple of days to work out that it was a reaction to Hazel’s death and that I was slipping back down. Like a gradual fog taking over and enveloping me, then transporting me back down underground to the dark tunnel again. Ughh.

Once I realised what it was I contacted my counsellor. Unfortunately she was going through something similar with her best friend at the time. She recommended someone else, and a few days later I went to see her. As before, from the end of the first session I felt like I had a way to get myself out of the state that I was in. A chink of light, a glimmer of hope. I’ve now had six one hour sessions and am back on top, thank goodness.

So, I get depression. I’d somehow not really realised that before. I’ve described something of the two worst bouts of depression from the last few years, there have been other times when it has happened, and usually after the death of a friend or relative. At my age now, that unfortunately seems to be happening more and more often.

But then that makes me think, well maybe depression is normal. Surely having a strong reaction to the death of someone close is a completely normal thing to happen. The psychologist my workplace sent me to after the death of my brother said that my reaction was completely normal. Maybe its abnormal to not feel depressed in such a situation.

This leaves me wondering if there is something that I can do to help me not sink into the abyss when I do. Could I be doing something in my everyday life to stop it being such a dramatic, all engulfing feeling? I welcome your thoughts and opinions.


  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your feelings and thoughts Sue. I believe that depression is normal but some people still think it’s a taboo subject. I’ve suffered from it since 1994 and at that time absolutely nothing had changed in my life to make a difference but in hindsight I had been dealing with a lot of earlier experiences from chilldhood to motherhood that suddenly hit me and hurt me. Since then I too have had periods of depression AND like you they HAVE occurred at rotten times and there was good reason to be sad and desperate. BUT I’ve also had periods when I really couldn’t explain why I was feeling so low and these times I really beat myself up because I felt there was no reason for it and that in itself made me feel even worse. Noticeably over the last 6 months life I have definitely been better than I ever have been before but I can’t come up with any one thing that stops the depression being as engulfing and awful as it can be.

    I can only share the advice of a brilliant young doctor that I went to see about 5 years ago slap bang in the middle of a depression, crying and sad and desperate (first time ever I’d managed to get out of the door during such a time) and she listened and quite obviously cared and then said I should stop trying to analyse why I was feeling this way, stop beating myself up because I felt I had no reason to feel this way and simply try and go with it and remember that I always get through it eventually. IT ACTUALLY WORKED FOR ME – I’m not saying that it will work for anyone else but that little snippet gets me through whenever I’m overwhelmed. I realise that in your Stephen’s case things must have been a million times more desperate than I could ever imagine for him to feel that he had no other option than to leave but I feel lucky that I have never had suicidal feelings no matter how down and depressed I’ve been.

    I really hope I haven’t rambled on Sue – I just wanted to respond to you and appreciate you sharing.

    Lots of love to you and your family xxx

  2. Hi Jaqui,

    Thanks very much for sharing that. I seem to get that awful cycle of not being able to work out why I’m feeling so awful too and then that making it worse because it keeps spinning round in a continuous loop. I will remember to look back and read your comments next time it happens as that simple thing of trying to just go along with it, although simple, seems like very good advice 🙂

    Thanks again and love right back to you and your family too xxxx

  3. Hi Sue, growing up around your family I had no idea of the horrid life style all were leading and understand totally how trauma can later lead to serious depression. My son suffers with depression and I came very close to losing him. I watched that deep dark place he was in and it was the most terrifying time of my life. For him medication is the only option, and prayer from his mother. Some just have that chemical imbalance, often a family thing and can certainly be traced in our case. Taking medication is often a no no for many, for my son it is a must. Often in those places or darkness there is nothing that can be said to pull one out of it, some it may, but in his case talk therapy does not work. I have felt myself slip down that path many times, this world can be a painful place to live in and for me my foundation is my faith, as having faith in this world leads to disappointment. I am so sorry that you all endured such horrid pain in childhood, we often spend most of adulthood getting over our childhood, you have a head-start in recognizing and facing it head on. What amazing ladies you and your sister have come to be!!!!

    1. Hi Linda,

      Thanks very much and so sorry about your son. I think it is more common than we realise. Yes, I realise that I’m very lucky, I honestly can’t believe that I didn’t realise it was depression till today.

      Do I know you from Burnham? Sorry I don’t remember your name, its been a long time.


      1. Hi sue, I remember you vaguely, I was in school with Sarah and Stephen and often came to your house totally unaware of what was going on back then. Sarah and I have talked a few times over the past few years, but I have been living in the States for the past twenty some years. Mental illness here has gotten a lot more attention, although the awareness still need to be out there, and the taboo around it needs to be exposed and dealt with. From what I have learned, the argument of nature vs. nurture always come up. For many people are born with the tendency to have certain illness’s being the nature side of this, nurture comes in as triggers, I have seen it in my sons life. He experienced trauma when he father left expectantly when he was eight, as a teen and dealing with dating (his first love) came another rejection which I believe triggered this disorder which was there, but not exposed yet. The pain of the past, including the pain of the current rejection was the triggering factor here. So much pain from childhood unresolved can cause havoc as we grow older, I wish there had been more human services back then that were readily available for people who suffered so much in childhood. In the UK especially there is such that attitude of (be strong) and (stiff upper lip) that many hide the fact they were suffering, until it becomes too late. The old saying of kids are resilient in divorce and get over it drives me nuts, (no they aren’t, they suffer greatly) as well in situations that you have dealt with. Let’s face it, life is tough, we all need each other, and your reaching out to others here is an amazing, and wonderful thing.. A place where people can admit safely that I am not dealing well here is what we all need. Thank you!!!!

  4. Hi Sue,
    Reading your article brought back many memories for me. I had an appalling childhood, by adopted parents. I left home at 9.30am on my 16th birthday. I never looked back. it was some years later that I was told I had depression. My way of fighting it was simply to think if I gave in to the days of not wanting to get out of bed then my adoptive parents would have won, they would have broken me and I could not allow that to happen. It was 35 years later that my birth sisters found me and I met a lady from the adoption society..She helped me more than I knew at the time. Out of the blue after 27 yrs of marriage with no warning my husband committed suicide, I had 3 children all over the age of 15. My son 16 yrs old then has never got over it, He has daily medication and has had some very dark times, I have nearly lost him several times. I so wish the taboo that still surrounds depression was not there. It would make it easier for people to talk and actually live their lives easier. I have followed Stephen Fry for quite some time, wishing him out of his black holes. I think one thing I want to say to you Sue is, feeling depressed after such trauma is normal, I am sure it is the bodies way of coping. They say you have to let these feelings out or else later in life you will face a bad illness. You had a terrible childhood, lost your closest friend then your brother committed suicide, i think if you lived every single day as if nothing had happened then that would not be normal. Don’t beat yourself up, let these days happen, it’s the healing process I’m sure. Be gentle with yourself Sue. I wish you love and peace on your journey.
    Trisha xxx

    1. Hi Trisha,

      Thank you so much for your wonderful words of wisdom. You are such a strong woman. You have had to deal with more than most people have to deal with in a lifetime and you have come through it with a great attitude towards life. I’m so sorry about your husband and your son, I hope he manages to find some peace.

      Take care and lots of love

      Sue xxxxxx

  5. I’m so proud of you Sue for writing this great blog and after reading it I think it sums up nicely how I feel too. We suffered a really awful time growing up and there was never any glimmer of any love or care and it is hard to work out “why” sometimes especially when you become a parent yourself. Sue, Be proud that we have survived, gone on to have our own fantastic children and lived our lives as happy as we can. We both need to carry on now for “Stephen” because that’s what he would of wanted. Lots of love always xxxxxx

    1. Thanks very much honey. Its good to know that you feel the same way. One of the awful things about depression is that it is so isolating. Writing this blogpost and more particularly getting such great feedback has been really uplifting for me. I hope that next time the cloud descends I will be able to read all the responses I’ve had and feel able to make more sense of what is happening. Maybe even to stop it from happening. We will see.
      Yes you are right re having children. I couldn’t in a million years have treated my children the way we were treated. It makes me quite ill to even think about it. How do they sleep at night? It’s a mystery to me. Anyway, thanks very much sis, love you loads xxxxxx

      1. You are the most amazing mum and I’m so grateful for everything you ever did for us. We are so lucky that you are and were strong for us throughout our childhood and I am the person I am because of you. Love you mum xxx

  6. Hello Sue,

    You’ve touched a difficult topic. It seems yes it is natural; depression is a state I think we all reach. On one level it’s sadness, which in itself is an emotion like any other. I think for myself the definition is when it becomes overwhelming and or interfering with your daily life. “The feeling of not being able to even get out of bed.”

    As to your question of what can you do. I think from anyone who has had severe depression their answers would never be the same. On a clinical level I believe for some it comes that emotions tend to feed themselves. Or starve themselves. Serotonin for instance is a chemical produced in the brain it has been linked to mood balance; it’s believed when we start to get depressed our Serotonin levels begin to fall.

    US Psychologists at least is my experience medicate with many forms of Antidepressants some of which help produce/replace Serotonin in our bodies to combat the never ending cycle. Some have sleep aids I would think a lack of sleep puts our bodies out of sorts and cause imbalances to us. Such as a lack of Serotonin but it can also lower our immune system for example. St John’s Wort is a natural herb that has been linked to also help produce Serotonin. Recently I discovered however to not mix them with anti-depressants as it can lead to Serotonin Syndrome. It seems to much of a good thing can be bad. Who knew.

    I think first and foremost forgoing all that clinical jargon and terminology is to take a self assessment. I can go on with the horrors I have endured. But the morale of those stories are.

    What coping skills did I have going in to them. And what coping skills did I take out of them that I applied to future events. So as to lessen my suffering.

    Coming from a Bi-polar mother or so she had been diagnosed. I had to learn early on that it wasn’t so much for her what they labeled her. As it was her own reactions to difficult situations. It seemed to me she “Couldn’t Cope” and that always led me to believe either; she didn’t have the tools necessary to deal with life’s unfortunate circumstances; which could have helped her regulate her chemistry, or she could never develop them due to a permanent chemical imbalance. And as such she suffered all the more for it. Forever in a never ending cycle of ups and downs. Many of which if she had the tools to cope with the ups. Such as receiving a large tax return. Her coping skills on something good was to over indulge. Which in turn led to being broke. So she was now down in her lows again. Looking back I believe her life had taught her that being low was the norm and so she would always find herself back there again. I’ll never know her ticking’s as she’s passed 4 years ago. For those who have never been through such a thing what I just wrote seems a mystery within itself. Much like depression to those that have yet to deal with it. My take on all of that was for decades she was told she was chemically imbalanced. I always wondered why they couldn’t test this similar to anemia.

    So back to your query.

    Assess your ability to handle loss. Can you discuss your siblings funeral arrangements with them while they are alive? If that alone causes you to shudder in fear. Imagine after they pass and you have to deal with both these issues. This is a poor example but a simple query into what if can often reveal what may be something your not ready to deal with.

    Again assess what you do to cope with issues. Financial stresses, break-ups, etc.. And how have you handled them in the past. A good emotional check list is a place to start. When anyone asks what can I do to ensure I am able to handle a situation.

    One talk about it. (You did eventually and now you’re hear to talk about that.)
    Never let yourself become so isolated you can’t escape from your own inner turmoil. For those dealing with suicide threats. Talk therapy has shown to be very promising http://www.bbc.com/news/health-30150746 . My Father committed suicide when I was 15. Suicide was actually a risk factor I was put into after that event. The power of our words when used together with the ear of another seems very promising in finding help.

    Talk to your Doctor about using natural herbs such as St John’s Wort. Now that you’ve taken a self assessment and think in the future a similar event may occur try taking it and see if you feel some help. Again get a real opinion on that not mine. I know it helps me. But then again I eat peanuts. And I know a few people if I gave them some; well anaphylactic shock is not a desired outcome.

    I think in all earnestness you are on the path you need be. Hiding from depression, making it taboo, shameful, or the like is what keeps many people in quiet suffering. It’s an age of communication. We are worlds apart you and I. Some 4,600 miles; for you that’s about 7,700 km. 😉 It’s been decades that this type of conversation is becoming atypical and yet we still find topics to be taboo.

    Sorry if I derailed your lovely post. I very much appreciated reading it. And it in turn has helped me remember I am not the only one who feels this way at times. So it seems although we have never met we have a lot in common. On December 28th, 2012 my Daughter Emma turned 8. She is also the reason I’m so proud to have found you through Twitter. I’m trying to raise an empowered young lady and showing her that women such as yourself exist maybe somehow will help me do so.

    Todd C.

    1. Oh wow! Thank you so much for your comments Todd, and what a councidence re Emma’s and their birthday. I think your self assessment idea is a good one, I’m going to have a think about that. Thanks for the headsup on St John’s Wort also, that’s good to know. Yes, I agree that isolation doesn’t help. I really appreciate the community of awesome people that I have come to know thru Twitter, of course I have family and friends too, friends on Twitter and Facebook have really helped me over the last few years too. I hope we get to meet sometime, do let me know if you are ever in the UK. Very best wishes. Sue.

  7. I think depression is normal, at least to the point where we can still function and meet our life obligations. Please forgive me for bringing up my origins but I think in Eastern Europe we used to deal with fear, sadness and despair even a bit better – we were used to it, we grew up with it – our political propaganda was grey so we had to find a way to accept it and work around it. So when I studies in Budapest I was so much more happy than I am in the UK today because my local friends (here, I mean) don’t really talk about sadness, distance themselves from any negative feeling and as a result I often feel I am left with it…it’s a huge burden to carry. Back in Hungary (Poland was already changing towards more Western thinking) the Eastern idea of accepting your faults and striving for balance not for pretty, happy, smiley faces, was still there. Somehow we would all meet depressed and work all evening long on ensuring that each and every one of us goes home happier – because we were not alone.

    I say this because I think that in more developed countries we grow to become more independent but often also isolated and alone in the crowd. I think web is changing that for those who are willing to gamble openness and vulnerability (and understand how it works) but those who don’t often get left behind.

    So I make a personal commitment of always helping people who ask for my support and not leaving the alone, sad, depressed to their own devices. Sometimes I suggest professional help. Sometimes I get a backlash and loose friends.

    But I never standby and pretend their problem is not real.

    I am so glad you blogged about it – you have a real power to influence and it will open many conversations – even though it might have been hard. Thank you.

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