For me, mental illness was always in the post. In my view, a mix of genetics and life experiences made it inevitable. However, outrunning depression has become an integral part of who I am, and I am proud of who I have become as a result. Ultimately, and paradoxically, mental illness is the one thing that has ended up adding some meaning and value to my life.
Depression in my teens
My depression first presented during my teens. My first encounter with the aptly named “Time thief” was when I was 16. I remember feeling tired all the time, my outlook on my life was incredibly negative, and I began to ruminate about anything and everything. Though I recovered spontaneously from this episode within weeks, this experience put me on a path to gain a better understanding of myself, and I remain on that path to this day.
I went to university to study Psychology, and although I didn’t realise it at the time, my motivation behind this was to gain a better understanding of my own psychology. During my time at university, the “Black Dog” of depression began to hound me once again, first presenting as anxiety and then years later developing into a more severe depressive episode. This occurred when I was aged 23 in 2014.
An abyss of despair
This episode plunged me into an abyss of despair. To be truthful, during this episode, I didn’t want to wake up in the morning. I remember opening my eyes each day to a feeling of dread, reeling around in bed in the morning after a night of disturbed sleep with muscles aching all over my body. With a heavy, painful pang in my chest and a sense of desperation and longing that somehow everything would end. During this time I rationalised that I had nothing to offer anyone and that I was a burden to everyone around me. Furthermore, the social part of my brain ceased to exist and I became increasingly isolated.
I began to recover from this episode with prescribed antidepressant medication. However, this only took me so far. Medication is, in my view, not a panacea for treating mental illness. The combination of antidepressant medication and exercise is what really helped me recover. My favourite personal metaphor for describing my recovery is the notion of trying to reclaim land once lost to the sea, with the sea being my depression and the land being my personality. With every 5k run and each dose of prescribed medication I am draining the lough, and reclaiming a little bit of myself back.
For me, I feel my depression is endogenous, meaning it is fundamentally biological in nature. Depression results in reduced volume of some regions of the brain and increased activity in other regions of the brain. These neurochemical and neuroanatomical abnormalities give rise to some of the symptoms of depression such as impaired cognitive ability. Antidepressants offer a neuroprotective effect against this process and reverse the differences in the brain caused by a depressive episode. Exercise also has a restorative effect upon the brain, with physical activity increasing the volume of areas of the brain. It is the combination of these two approaches which has reversed my depression.
A holistic approach
My advice to anyone starting their own race against mental illness is to adopt a holistic approach. Work on every aspect of your life, and these efforts combined will slowly pull you out of depression. I am still recovering but I’m not slipping backwards.
I am now in my final year of Mental Health Nursing at Queen’s University, Belfast. This course has been one of the key drivers behind my recovery. The education I have had as part of my course has enabled me to prevent a relapse. I’m keeping the “Black Dog” at bay for the time being.
In the future, I hope to help others recover from similar experiences, through the skills I have learnt in my nursing course. I am wholly devoted to this cause and it is my entire reason for being. For me, my race is not yet run and it will probably never stop, but right now I feel like I’m outrunning depression on a victory lap.