Depression. It can catch you at any time in your life. For me, I was only 19. It was my first year at university; a year that should – according to everything, everyone – be the best of your life. And yet, my first year was a dark, dark cloud of unhappiness. 10 years on, and I’m still not quite sure why I became depressed that year: it may be a predisposition to the illness but I still wonder whether it was the massive change that I experienced starting university; a change I couldn’t handle. I’ll never really know, but what I do know is that I hope I never have to feel like I did that year ever again… although I never know that I won’t. However, I want to think, and I have to let myself think, that I have enough tools in my mental health monitoring tool kit to not let myself be overcome by that big black cloud in the future.
I can’t even pinpoint when it started. I moved back to the UK from Thailand in the summer. I had had the best year of my life – made the best friends, found a boyfriend, got an amazing tan… and a stomach bug (more on that later). Moving back to England was a huge shock. Most of my friends from school had seemed to have forgotten about me, and Wellington was really not Bangkok. I loved being back with my parents, of course, but where was the adventure? Where was the everyday newness? August quickly turned into September, and I was packing for university, moving to Brighton to make new friends and do a course I was so, so excited about. But… nothing was as I expected. I hated the pressure to go out and drink all the time, I hated the messy kitchen and I hated all the time I had in the day without anything timetabled. There were, of course, things I loved. Playing netball, working at the gym, my lectures and the city of Brighton. I gradually started to fall into a dark place. I stopped saying yes to going out with people and I filled all my spare time with exercising or just feeling sad in my room. Everything was further complicated by the fact that I was really struggling with food, as in Thailand, I’d contracted giardiasis, a stomach bug with really damaged my insides, and I was recommended to stop eating gluten and dairy. I didn’t know what to eat, and was scared of eating anything as it felt like everything made me ill. I lost a lot of weight, which, because of toxic society associating thinness with greatness, made me actually feel good, and I spiralled into a horrible hole of eating very little and exercising a lot. I had no energy. I remember thinking that I would go for morning runs around the park near my halls, and rather than getting stronger and running further every week, I got slower and had to walk more, as I was giving my body so little energy.
I knew things were really bad at Christmas, when I went home for the first time. My boyfriend had come over from New Zealand, and we had all my family up for the holidays too. But I just couldn’t feel happy. Nothing gave me joy, and I couldn’t really be bothered to get up in the mornings to see people or doing anything. It snowed, and I didn’t care. My parents made the most wonderful meals without gluten or dairy and I didn’t want to make myself eat them. I felt like my soul had drifted away.
Not long after the holidays, I met up with my mum in London for the day, and as I we parted at Marylebone station, I had a massive panic attack. I couldn’t bear to say goodbye to her and be left on my own again in Brighton. I think my brain had finally had enough of being quiet.
She came back to Brighton with me and we went to the nurse together. I was put on antidepressants straightaway, which really helped. I told a couple of the friends that I had managed to make about what was going on, and went home for a bit. I started to try and eat more. My concentration in lectures came back. I slowly got better, and started to feel like me again.
By the summer, the clouds slowly lifted, and I knew that some of the sparkle had come back into my eyes. I started my second year not as a new person, but as the old Cathy. I moved in with some lovely girlfriends, broke off the impossibly long distance relationship and started to feel better about
food too. That second year was the antithesis of the first – I found running, found my now husband and found some life-long friends. I said yes more, and I laughed and smiled every day, and wanted to get out of bed because life is ace.
Looking back, I feel lucky, in a way, that this deepest, darkest time was when I was young, and that it didn’t impact too much on anyone else, and that I could almost start again a year later. But going to university can be really hard for people; there’s so much expectation on it being brilliant and you being brilliant and knowing exactly how to be when you’re there. So if you have kids, or friends heading off to university in September, or they’re there now, check in. Remind them that it doesn’t have to be perfect and neither do they. I still get dark days and I can’t help wondering if I always will. But I know now that being outside, being with people I love and being busy all help me look after my brain, as well as my body. If I find myself slipping away, I talk to my husband, or my parents and they are able to gather me back up again. I know that running holds me together too – it gives me structure and focus, and the endorphins give me joy like nothing else. I’ve made some of my best friends because of running and they hold me together too.
To find out how you can improve your mental well-being and mood visit the NHS website
Author: Cathy Drew-Beresford