Christmas was always the worst time of year for me. 2011 was a particularly bad one. Shivering in the cold of my childhood bedroom, I sat - hands clasped around knees - thinking about how best to kill myself.
Hopelessness only scratches the surface of the description - that same feeling I’d had on-and-off for ten years. I was 23. Half my life had been spent in darkness.
I went over the mathematics:
I was finally ready to admit I needed help. So as I sat there, in my childhood bedroom, I vowed to put an end to it. “I’m going to give this one final push - I will put all of my energy into stopping these continual depressions, and these cycles of bingeing and starving myself. If it still doesn’t work, I’ll just kill myself.”
It really was that simple.
I had always hated the idea of going on medication. (Hell, I don’t even like to take paracetamol.) So, personally, that wasn’t an option I wanted to pursue. Where - then - does one begin on such a quest? I’d heard the term “mindfulness” being thrown around, and I had a certain idea of what meditation was. I wondered if that would help. So - like any good researcher - I hit the library, I read the internet, I devoured information.
In the meantime, I put my name down for counselling at my University, even though this had never been useful to me at my previous universities and schools (I was a Mathematics Ph.D. student at the time of all of this.) At the first “orientation” interview, it was suggested that perhaps writing <a>Morning Notes</a> would help me focus on my Ph.D., just while I’m on the waiting list to see a counsellor. So I was scrawling at various points of the work day, just to get me through incessant ruminations - and that hateful monologue.
I went to Waterstones early on in the quest. It was here that I was recommended John Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. This book was a game-changer, a life-changer. Although Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses were originally for people in physical pain, it’s impossible not to see the similarities between physical and mental anguish in this context.
It’s from Kabat-Zinn that I learnt about Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). It just so happened that Exeter University - my university - was one of the few places in the UK researching MBCT and its effects on depression. I was extremely lucky: the Mood Disorders Centre was on my doorstep. I asked my doctor for a referral to the next available course.
Meanwhile, my counselling had started. I also joined the University’s Meditation Society which I tried to attend weekly, and I consistently trained at the gym. Three times a week, I made powerlifting the only thing I absolutely had to do, above all else (including my Ph.D.).
Due to high demand, Exeter only allowed six hour-long, weekly sessions with a counsellor. A short time indeed, but it seemed I was in luck again because Dee Bowker is nothing short of a magician - a compassionate, loving, caring magician. She reignited my lost creativity and gave me exercises - one of which included a life-changing visualisation exercise during a silent retreat at Gaia House, a meditation centre in Devon. She pushed me exactly the right amount, and I responded: it was finally the right time for me to heal. So we made great progress in those six hours, and the impact she made on my life has lasted ever since.
Counselling ended; MBCT started. This is a group therapy session, which I found to be invaluable - not least because it allowed me to hear other’s experiences with depression through group discussions (and then reunions). I really can’t say enough good things about the Exeter MBCT course, and - in particular - Willem Kuyken and Jenny Wilks. Not only are they at the forefront of scientific research, but they are the most genuine and kind people you could ever have the joy of meeting.
The course, the reunions: it was all so very, very helpful. I experienced real peace for the first time. I was able to “let go” of thoughts and worries. I was able to acknowledge I had a body, and not just a mind. I treated myself with kindness. In general, I wasn’t particularly happy, or particularly unhappy; I was perfectly content. I’d never felt that way before.
The fact that both the counselling and the MBCT course were completely free of charge is something that - as a student - I am beyond grateful for. I also realised how young I was in comparison to everyone else there. Some of these people had suffered with this crippling disease for 40, 50 years or more. Again, I felt extremely lucky to be stumbling upon the solutions and the people I needed.
A few weeks after the MBCT course concluded, I became depressed again. This was a hard fact to come to terms with - that despite the serenity I had been feeling, I wasn’t “cured” at all.
The depression lasted only two weeks and I survived. And I began to see that that was the difference - I could deal and cope with it better: I could recover quicker. I had trained to become aware of the initial signs, and what to do when I start seeing them. Moreover, being in the present moment in day-to-day life means I am more aware of the times in normal life when I am feeling real, true joy. So any thoughts of “I’ve never been happy. This will never end.” were met with a more compassionate “It’s OK. This is just a temporary feeling. I have felt joy before and it will - at some point - trickle back into my heart again.”
My disordered eating was a lot better, too (a delightful consequence of being kind to yourself). It wasn’t 100% where I wanted it to be, though, so I seeked nutritional help from Georgie Fear, who teaches that continuous kindness to ourselves is the only way (but that's another story).
Since then, I may have gone into depressions maybe two or three times, but I have recovered quickly. I also finished my Ph.D., I still train hard at the gym, and you basically cannot stop me creating these days.
It’s no exaggeration to say I am a different person because of all of this. It wasn't easy. In fact, it's the hardest thing I've ever done. But it's been absolutely worth the struggle and all the effort. I’m no longer afraid of the problems that haunted me so often in the past because I can let go of them. I no longer strive for perfection because I'm realistic and kind to myself. I’m no longer frightened to speak out because I know so many others suffer from the same issues, and because I don't allow other people’s hurtful words affect me anymore. I try to laugh more, and I’m not afraid to just be. Imperfect. Human. Me.