Recognising the first signs (of depression)

I have had a major depression when I was in my twenties. It took me a few years to crawl out of that gaping black hole. The things that helped me get out were time, support from family and friends, fresh air, new challenges and (very surprisingly for me) a strict schedule…

What I felt made my case worse, is that though I must have certainly inherited depressive tendencies, I feel I mainly have brought this major depression on myself through a very chaotic and frenzied lifestyle and by not taking care of myself properly. I felt young and invincible and “pushed too hard” (you know that song by The Corrs – cause we are so young so young now?) . I combined bad eating, sleepless nights either studying, working or partying, stress and lack of planning for the future with some very fertile ground of unresolved family and personnal issues, lots of coffee (which gave me acute gastritis), major life change (from student life to worklife), negated grief (my grandfather had passed away when I was abroad) and my first heartbreak (after a few years of very frustrating long distance relationship). Basically, in addition to feeling crappy because of depression, I felt guilty that I was so stupid and did not see it coming.

Since I have recovered – and believe me it took a long time – I have vouched that if I can do something about it, this should never happen to me again if I can do anything about it – at least not so bad as last time…

So when times are hard, and I hit a rough patch – at work, at home or healthwise or because of the depressing world events (like right now), I am on the lookout for the anouncing signs.


Because  – and THAT’S THE GOOD NEWS FOLKS ! – there are signs before the black veil descends, some are small and inconspicuous, but others are as big as billboards if you want to see them… I am convinced that we each have our own and it’s good if each of us knows which is theirs. The lesson was costly, but I believe that I know mine:

  • Sleep pattern changes – I am a big sleeper when everything is ok. I like to sleep, I need to sleep a lot. I usually fall asleep easily and sleep through light, sound- and if I wake up, I fall back asleep again easily. The first sign I look out for is sleep pattern change. Such as insomnia – not being able to sleep when I am tired and my head is on a pillow can seriously freak me out. It usually accompanies periods of high anxiety which can trigger more serious changes if I don’t deal with them. But the opposite is also scary, because, as far as I remember when I was depressed I tended to sleep all the time, just to get away from consciousness and everything…
  • Reading, concentration – not being able to concentrate on a book is a real alarm bell.  When I was depressed, I could not read books, as I could not concentrate for long enough. I would have been able probably to read short newspaper articles, but then I completely stopped reading newspapers and watching the news, as I couldn’t care less about what was happening in the world. I had no interest anymore. Nowadays, when I can’t concentrate on what I am reading I have to stop and evaluate: am I depressed or is this just a really bad book ? Fortunately for me, it sometimes is the second one and that is easily mended (= stop reading and drop book into recycling box).
  • The phone – This is a tricky one. Being an introvert, I have a preference for written forms of communication – I would have been at home in the nineteenth century. I would have been a great letter-writer. As it is, I e-mail, I text and I blog. I generally dislike the phone (one reason why my mobile bill is so low which amazes my husband), and my excuse is that I don’t hear that well – especially in places with background noise (which is almost everywhere now) so I only use it to text or to receive urgent phonecalls from work, my parents or the nursery. Many times I just forget my phone in my handbag until the battery runs out. Simple, but drives my “constantly connected” dad and brother crazy. When they argue that I should pick up the phone after the first ring – I just laugh. Not in my world.
  • (Anti)social behaviour – This is also a tricky one. As an introvert, not wanting to go out to party is not abnormal behaviour for me, it is pretty much standard. Since I had my daughter, this has been multiplied by ten. I just can’t see any good reason to leave the house after seven in the evening. I don’t drink much at all and have barely had a glass of wine since I stopped breastfeeding some months ago – just don’t have the habit anymore. Crawling in bed with a book is not a sign of depression with me, it’s an everyday occurence (if I find the time). But when I start not answering my e-mails, not answering the phone at all (letting it ring) prefering it to go to voicemail and generally avoiding interpersonal communication wherever possible, I know I need to take extra care. I “force myself” to book a few lunches with friends and go – and actually have a good time, I open skype and plan a call to a friend on another continent, or I call my mom or my brother and just bitch a bit to get it out of my system, or I write it out… Actually, if I have to be very sociable (and there are occasions at work when I have to be), I will need some alone (or almost alone) time to compensate… I strive to keep these two in balance, but I need to be careful not to give in to my “bear instinct” to crawl into a hole and sleep, especially in winter.
  • Speaking, oral expression – When I was depressed, I could not properly express myself, my vocabulary dwindled and I had difficulty finding the right words and felt it was too much of an effort to try to make myself understood by others, so I usually didn’t even bother or if I did, I started most of my sentences with “And the worst part is that…” – So when I surprise myself starting my sentences with a major negative, I know something’s wrong.
  • Physical pain – I somatise (a lot). I am also a hypochondriac… I am always at the brink of a major illness and googling my symptoms is not helping… But when migraines do hit more frequently then once a month, when my shoulders keep tensing and I start to get back pain for no good reason (like constantly lifting a wriggling toddler or not exercising my abs), I worry. Lately, I am suspecting that my recurrent sore throat is not really only a result of my daughter bringing home nasty bugs from the nursery, but perhaps a physical symptom of “some things I find hard to swallow”.
  • Crying without a (good) reason – or rather using any miserable excuse to cry – I have dropped something, I have messed up at work, I am angry, romantic movie, the news, because the world is such a horrible place… Sometimes I need a good cry to release a tension – then I dose myself with a good romantic movie, series or book and I cry my heart out to feel better…
  • Passivity and apathy…  – I need to keep a minimum of motivation for being proactive at home, at work… if I realise that I am being solely passive, reacting to things rather than moving forward actively, I now recognise it as a sign that I need to replenish my motivation reserve (get a training, get involved in a new project, talk to someone who is passionate about what they do, etc.). Being stuck and getting used to passivity is dangerous, as it is a downward spiral, undermining the remaining motivation and self-confidence. I stop, I analyse and I decide to start small to build back the motivation – sometimes just the act of cleaing my office or my cupboard will be enough to clear my head and put me on the right (active) track again.
  • …or on the contrary too much exuberance  – But I am also suspicious of too much enthousiasm and “frenzy” which takes me away from a healthy routine (especially for sleep, food). I know there will be a price to pay if I am not careful. So I am constantly checking my speed…

Reading this post, I am aware I have just written out a complete list of symptoms of clinical depression, perhaps with the exception of the suicidal thoughts… Yet I still believe that -especially in our troubled times – knowing what your warning signs are, you can do something about it, or at least get help early on. As some greek philosopher said thousands of years ago in Greece: “Know thyself”. This is, and always will be the first step for living a positive life.