Learning to cope with depression
Josiah Hartley experienced depression when he was 19 years old. He has written a book called The Boy Between with his mum, Amanda Prowse, which is about his experience and recovery. Here, he shares his story about learning to understand and cope with his depression.
I was 18 when instead of having the time of my life, a peculiar thing happened: MY BRAIN SWITCHED OFF. I opened a textbook and read the same page over and over. Each time it was as if it was the first time, I had read it. Me, Josiah Hartley, who could recite whole textbooks of facts – I couldn’t retain one single word. It was as if everything I had known had been syphoned out and replaced with goo.
I felt like I had run into a wall at speed. Did I have a bug? The dreaded glandular fever? I thought I must need a nap; I closed the book before crawling under the duvet. I thought after sleep I’d jump up and get cracking. I thought many things. But I never once thought that living this half-life, as if someone had unplugged me, might be my new ‘normal’.
The darkest of times
I slipped further into the grip of depression. Every aspect of my life felt like an enormous pressure. The stress of having got behind in my academic work, of trying to convince others that I was okay, having to get out of bed and wash and dress, clean my teeth, speak to someone – all these things took more energy than I had. I wanted to give up.
I figured suicide might be the answer. I kept this to myself. It felt like an easy decision. I lay in the dark. It was almost as if my room existed in a different space, like a boulder in a stream, stuck in stillness whilst time flowed around it. I gave up mentally and gave up on life.
The light at the end of the tunnel
I wish I could say my recovery was quick, but it wasn’t. I decided to leave university, to quit. It was as if weights had been cut from ropes, I’d dragged behind me for the longest time. I would leave university! It was a scary prospect, made easier by friends who all said how they feared for me if I stayed. And that was it. It really was that simple. I left the environment that I had been working hard to gain entry to for the whole of my school life. And it felt . . . it felt like it did on the afternoon you broke up from school for the summer holidays. I was finally able to think about the future without the knot of dread in my stomach.
I now like the idea of being a flag waver for an alternative way of life – university is not for everyone! University did not give me depression: nature did that. But depression is an illness that for me was poked into action by the pressure of university life. All my life I’d been led to believe that I was going to get a piece of paper that would tell the world how smart I was. Starting over without the first clue as to what came next was scary. It was the first time since I was three years old that I wasn’t a student. I found it difficult to tell people, who’d say, ‘Oh, you’re at Bristol, aren’t you?’ I’d change the subject, as if it was in some way a failure.
But now I say, ‘It didn’t work out for me. I’m going to try something different. It was really bad for my mental health.’ And interestingly, they often tell me the story of someone close to them who didn’t finish their course and who also had mental health issues. I find it sad that this personal insight into what is so common would likely not have been offered if I’d not started the dialogue.
So how is my recovery going? Really well! I revised my diet. The physical benefits of weight loss are great, but mentally I now understand it’s better to give my body good fuel rather than the fat-laden stuff that did nothing to help my sluggish mind. I wish I could say my energy returned overnight, that I woke and cartwheeled along the hallway, but this was not the case.
It was more of a slow, gradual awakening; so gradual I barely noticed at first. Until I realised, I was a little more engaged, a little more awake. I can only liken it to any physical injury when suddenly you realise that it doesn’t hurt quite so much and the pain of it doesn’t keep you awake all night, until it is possible not to think about the injury at all. I am not quite there. But I’m getting closer. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to ignore the illness that has taken up residence in part of my brain, but it is certainly getting better. I can live with it and it can live with me.
Very slowly, colours started to reappear – I am no longer living in a black-and-white world with grey around the edges, I can see blue sea and sky and grass is green, and my future? Well, even that looks quite rosy. I’m a boy between the hold of his illness and a future that is yet unwritten, and that’s exciting.
If you need support with depression
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- Mind offers advice and support to people with mental health problems. Their helpline runs nine to six from Monday to Friday. 0300 123 3393
- Student Minds is the UK's student mental health charity. Search their website for information, research, and to see how you could get involved.
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By Holly Turner
Updated on 10-Nov-2020
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