Thursday, 5 February 2015

Time to talk

Today is "Time to Talk Day", an initiative of "Time to Change" which aims to raise awareness of mental health issues and end mental health discrimination. [1] As I have suffered from anxiety and depression for he best part of 20 years, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share some of my thoughts and experiences.

This video is one of the best explanations of what it's like to have depression that I have come across (wish they hadn't used a dog though)

A little bit of History

I first began to experience serious anxiety when I was around fifteen years old. I had always been a slightly anxious child - I remember disliking harsh words, confrontation and being afraid of being beaten up - but things began to get worse during the years when I was doing my GCSEs. I had my first minor panic attack when I was sixteen and from then on, I often couldn't eat because my stomach would seize up. The psychosomatic effect on my stomach has stayed with me and at the time it was dangerous because I began to lose a lot of what little weight I had - I left school weighing seven and a half stone. I still find it difficult to remember what triggered these panic attacks; some have suggested that it may have been stress related to school work but I always enjoyed studying and I don't remember dreading revision or exams. At the time, some doctors thought I was anorexic whilst others prescribed me medication for irritable bowel syndrome. I did attend some relaxation classes but they didn't achieve enough to relieve the symptoms. 

I suffered my first major depressive episode when I was seventeen and it was triggered my first major panic attack. In the weeks leading up to it, I was unable to control my thoughts and my mind was racing. I wasn't able to sleep properly and I felt constantly nauseous. Things came to a head one evening when I was trying to get to sleep. The racing mind, the sweats and the nervous energy all combined to convince me that I was going mad. The next morning, and for every morning for what seemed like an eternity, my first act was to be sick with stomach bile. I began a steady spiral into despair which would eventually leave me wishing for death - I just didn't want to wake up another morning feeling so low. Thanks to the support of my family and faith, I never doubted that I was loved or possessed self worth. I never took any actions towards that end but it is a crushing experience to wish for death each day.

My recovery process was long and hard. I was prescribed the anti-depressant Seroxat and received cognitive therapy which helped me to understand what was happening to me. I firmly believe that learning about the physiological conditions of depression and anxiety helped me to overcome them because I like to understand how things work. The cognitive therapy also helped me to identify how my thought patterns could bring on panic attacks and contribute to my depression. I began to see how in some circumstances, I would allow my thoughts immediately jump to the worst case scenario, rather than consider more balanced and rational likelihoods. Dealing with the fear of returning to a major depressive state was also incredibly important as I was triggering that which I was seeking to avoid. Accepting that I may never fully recover from depression but that it was possible to live with it was likewise crucial to my rehabilitation. Little by little, I made my recovery; I was able to sit my A-Levels and though I needed to take a year out, I made it to university. Since that time, I have suffered three other major depressive periods, two coinciding with an attempt to wean myself off Seroxat and one whilst undertaking a PGCE course.

Though I continue to have periods of depression and anxiety, major panic attacks are thankfully quite rare but I do get the odd "spike" when I hear potentially worrying news about family or friends. Perhaps my greatest break through is that my appetite is not adversely affected by periods of depression or anxiety - I am therefore able to keep up my strength and weight which helps when I'm in a rut. Exercise and healthy eating is now a crucial part of my daily routine and I usually spend an hour and a half a day at the gym. I also try to ensure I don't get over tired (which is quite a challenge as I often go through bouts of insomnia when I am unable to control my thoughts) and have to be very careful with alcohol - a "big night" can leave me low for several weeks. I have also tried to make more time for prayer, spiritual reading and Mass and have found great consolation in doing so. Just before Advent, I made a retreat to Belmont Abbey and I think I will now look to make regular retreats to take time out and take stock of my situation.

Paradise lost

Having suffered from depression and anxiety for the majority of my life, I find it difficult to remember what it was like to live without it. It necessarily effects my decisions and ambitions and I have a vague sense that in some respects, I am the lesser for it. It has restricted my capacity for thought because I don't always feel in control of my own mental processes and I sometimes lapse into irrationality which only becomes apparent to me after the fact. It is hard to have to wonder how much of my personality is really me and how much of it is due to Seroxat and its side effects. As I am also diminished in my ability to cope with stress, I have to be very careful what pressures I put myself under, especially with regards to work and personal life. When I was younger, I was convinced I would be a "high flyer" with a well paid and important job but having learnt from friends the stresses and strains such positions entail, I know they would be detrimental to my health.

Besides periods where I feel low and anxious, the most lasting effect of my depression is poor sleep and a lack of energy. I am prone to periods where I feel quite anti-social and I often go through frantic periods of mental activity, which I sometimes find relief from through reading or coding.

As a Catholic, the two major vocations are to the priesthood or the married life but I have decided that both are beyond me. I doubt my capacity to be a good priest or husband and father because of the mental fortitude required and because there are times when I feel the need to withdraw into myself and to be alone. The thought of experiencing a major depressive episode with the responsibilities incumbent on a priest or husband and father fills me with dread and as I believe that all dating should be entered into with the possibility of marriage in mind, I am necessarily single. Such decisions do not of course lesson my attraction towards women or my examination of vocation so it always a bitter-sweet when I see a pretty face, learn someone I have affection for begins dating or attend an engagement party, wedding or ordination. In this, I am sometime troubled because I wonder if my decision amounts to a denial of the possibility of God's grace giving me the strength to fulfil such vocations. If it does, it is a serious matter indeed.

Depression and anxiety have been a great test of my faith - at times, I struggled to find God in the midst of my suffering. Why didn't he take this cross from me? What possible good could it achieve? If only I was free of it, I could accomplish so much more.

Paradise regained 

It may sound asinine to suggest that there may be any positives in depression and anxiety but after healing and reflection, I finally managed to find them. Despite my initial despair and anger with God, the whole experience has strengthened my Faith. I am able to recognise God's guiding hand in the decisions I made and the people that encouraged me throughout my journey. The suffering aspect of Faith is something I had never considered before my depression and it particularly drew me closer to Christ through his passion and death. I am convinced that the Cross is the only answer to sin and suffering because it leads to the Resurrection. Who knows - if it wasn't for depression, maybe my faith wouldn't have been as important to me as it is now?

I believe that my own experiences with suffering have made me a better person - I have greater empathy with those in pain and I am less judgemental because I recognise that we are not always completely free to make the right decisions when we suffer. Though I don't always show it, I appreciate my family and friends a lot more because I recognise how their support was and is for my own well-being. Indeed, if I hadn't have taken a year out from university, I may never have made the great and lasting friendships I eventually made there or at current workplace. I have found it a privilege to give advice and help to some people who have experienced depression and anxiety for themselves and I now regularly pray for all those so afflicted. My experiences may also have tempered any inclinations towards materialism and arrogance with regards to my own abilities.

I could name point to a million and one little things which, in response to depression and anxiety have given me great satisfaction but a few will suffice. I have already mentioned the gym but (when I'm not injured), I also enjoy running. My love of classical music is in part due to the fact that I asked a friend to recommend some relaxing pieces which I could listen to when I was feeling anxious. The same friend also suggested that I try watching Star Trek when I wanted to take my mind off things because it was often on late at night when I couldn't sleep (As an avowed Star Wars fan I was deeply suspicious of Trekkers at the time but I was soon converted). At my lowest ebb, I found great solace in the natural world, be it in the great outdoors, natural history and animals and such an appreciation is now a vital part of my life.

I'll end this post with an invitation to anyone who suffers from depression and anxiety to seek help. One in four people will suffer in this way at some point in our life so there are more of us out there than you might think. Talking about it is the first step to dealing with it and making a recovery. I would advise against taking medication immediately (doctors seem too quick to prescribe anti-depressants when cognitive and similar therapies should be tried first) but do not be afraid to do so should it be deemed necessary. If you are prescribed medication, make sure you are aware of all the contra-indications first and try and get someone to help monitor you during the process (monitoring and re-evaluation is perhaps not all it should be in the NHS). Please also take a holistic approach to your health - we all need to take care of ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually.

The patron saint of those who suffer from emotional or mental disorders is Saint Dymphna, who was born in Ireland during the 7th century, her feast day being traditionally celebrated on May 15. A Novena for her intercession can be found at

Litany to Saint Dymphna

Lord have mercy on us. 
Christ have mercy on us. 
Lord have mercy on us. 
Christ hear us. 
Christ graciously hear us. 

God the Father of Heaven, have mercy on us. 
God the Son, Redeemer of the World, have mercy on us. 
God the Holy Ghost, have mercy on us. 
Holy Trinity, One God, have mercy on us. 

Holy Mary, Virgin Mother of God, pray for us.
Health of the sick, pray for us. 
Comforter of the afflicted, pray for us. 
Our Lady, Help of Christians, pray for us. 

St. Dymphna, virgin and Martyr, pray for us.
St. Dymphna, daughter of royal parents, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, child of great beauty of soul and body, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, docile to the lessons of thy pious mother, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, obedient to thy saintly confessor, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, who abandoned the court of thy father to 
escape the danger of impurity, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, who chose a life of poverty on earth so that thou might lay up 
treasures in Heaven, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, who sought consolation at Holy Mass, Communion and prayer, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, ardent lover of the Divine Bridegroom, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, devoted to the Mother of God, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, beheaded by thine own father, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, Martyr of holy purity, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, brilliant example of Christian youth, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, renowned for many miracles, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, glory of Ireland and Belgium, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, full of compassion for those in need, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, protectress against all nervous and mental disorders, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, consoler of the afflicted, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, friend of the helpless, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, comforter of the despondent, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, light of those in mental darkness, pray for us. 
St. Dymphna, patroness of those who suffer with nervous and mental diseases, pray for us.

That we may love the lord our God with all our hearts and above all things, 
pray for us. 
That we may hate sin and avoid all occasion of sin, pray for us. 
That we may carefully preserve the virtue of purity to our state, pray for us. 
That we may receive the Sacraments frequently, pray for us. 
That we may obtain the spirit of prayer, pray for us. 
That we may be humble and obedient, resigning ourselves to God's Holy Will, 
pray for us. 
That we may learn to have confidence in God during our afflictions, pray for us. 
That we may obtain the grace of final perseverance, pray for us.

In moments of temptation, pray for us. 
In times of sickness, disease, war, and persecution, pray for us. 
In our last illness, pray for us. 
And at the hour of our death, pray for us.

Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, spare us O Lord 
Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, graciously hear us O Lord. 
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Pray for us Saint Dymphna, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us Pray.

O God, since Thou didst give St. Dymphna to Thy Church as a model of all virtues, especially holy purity, and willed that she shouldst seal her faith with her innocent blood and perform numerous miracles, grant that we who honor her as patroness of those afflicted with nervous and mental illness, may continue to enjoy her powerful intercession and protection and attain eternal life. Through Christ our 
Lord. Amen.



  1. Okay, apparently it didn't, which is frustrating because I just spent about ten minutes writing it. Grr.
    The long and short of it was: 1) thank you for sharing your experiences with depression and anxiety, which I identify with though my own struggles have been on a much smaller scale
    2) Unless you feel called to the consecrated single life, which is awesome, perhaps it might be worth considering (or rather, being open to) marriage?
    If this comment actually makes it through, I can expound on all of that. Too tired to type it all out again now!
    - Emma

    1. Thank you for your comments - I'm sorry that your original post was lost.

      It is rare that a day goes by where I am not forced to reflect upon my decisions. When I am going through a good patch, I often wonder if I need to reconsider my position but this resolution quickly evaporates when I begin to feel low or go through a bad patch. As I say in my post, I worry that I am not sufficiently open to the effects of grace and the action of the Holy Spirit in attempting to over come my difficulties and I am conscious that I am essentially following the path of least resistance to maintain a sense of emotional and psychological stability.

      I think matters of the heart complicate matters further as I risk the emotional well being of another person, especially as I have a tendency towards self-centredness when dealing with my problems. I recognise that I can be (and to my shame have been) reckless with the feelings of others as a result of this capacity for self-centredness and because I have no intentions towards marriage. It has taken me far too long to understand that what I regard as a rational decision does not absolve me of emotional responsibility in my friendships. I am incredibly grateful for the patience my friends have shown with my self-centredness and for their willingness to help me understand the actual and potential impact of my behaviour on others.

      I firmly believe that an openness to children is fundamental for any marriage and for that reason I could not enter into it in good conscience because I fear that any children I might have may inherit my difficulties. Again, this is a very difficult position for me as I worry it sets me against the operation of grace and the action of the Holy Spirit. Given my age (35) and the likely age of anyone I was to marry, it would not be fair to enter into a relationship hoping to resolve these issues with time because of issues related to fertility.

      I am aware that my decision making process is flawed and that in most respects I am "doing what I can to get by". I offer the explanations not as advice to others but rather as an insight into my own thought processes which I recognise are highly influenced by a desire to avoid the pain I experience in my darkest moments. I have long lost the objectivity required to make decisions in which my worst fears did not play a part. I want to believe that this might not always be the case.