I decided a few months ago that I would re-write my first book ‘Life After Darkness; a doctor’s journey through severe depression.’ It’s not that my story is inaccurate but if I had received a different response on the first occasion I asked for help, I believe I would have avoided the 7 year nightmare that followed.
Of course, life has moved on; it’s almost 20 years ago since my sudden and inexplicable recovery from an illness where I gained the diagnostic label of ‘treatment resistant depression’. So why would I want or need to write any further about this?
Sadly it has taken me a long time to unpick what happened to me and to discover the truth about the erroneous diagnosis, the well intentioned but completely wrong treatments I endured and the pseudo-science that led me to believe that I was in the safe hands of psychiatry. It was a shock when I first met somebody who challenged the diagnosis of depression. Yet once I was able to allow myself to contemplate that these learned, highly trained professors of psychiatry could simply put, be wrong, I felt as though my experience started to make sense.
The paradigm that I had had a severe, serious and prolonged depression which had not been amenable to standard treatment, which could relapse in the same way had a profound and lasting hold on my life. I found it difficult to be confident when I started to break away from the advice that my esteemed doctors had given me. It was very scary and anxiety provoking. But the rewards have been considerable.
I started to feel alive again after almost 25 years of high dose antidepressants but more importantly I am no longer afraid. I can be myself, free from worry about losing my foothold on life, free from the concern that I might once again be forced into hospital or given drugs or even ECT against my will. I can relish the fact that I survived and that I can work as a doctor and know that I am not a poor, vulnerable individual who is likely to succumb once the pressure gets too much.
I never was that person originally, though I became so when I was made a psychiatric patient. The label follows me on my medical record but I delight in defying the trajectory that the cynical and pessimistic mental health profession, unwittingly lays out for their patients.
I have been fighting against the stigma of mental health problems since 2001 and now I wonder whether that has been the right battle to engage with. I do not want others to medicalise their traumas in the way I did and to look to doctors for answers. I know that it did me a great disservice and even today, the potential for harm is great.
Instead I would rather focus my efforts to encourage individuals who have had particularly difficult or traumatic encounters, especially as children to see themselves in the context of their experiences.
We are not weak when we have emotional turmoil. Our requests for help in processing the past are indicators of the strength of our purpose. We are survivors and we will be strengthened through compassionate understanding and in this way we can be those who break the cycle of dysfunction that only too often has the potential to repeat itself in future generations. For this very reason, I have to be grateful to be where I am today.
My family did suffer and I cannot speak for them. I can only hope that in time, there will be a realisation that I would have done anything to avoid that. Yes, I was a victim but thankfully, I passed from that passive state to one where I was able to take back control of my own destiny.
The challenge I have today, in my working life is to re-empower those who have lost their ability to determine their own future. Clearly this is never going to be absolute, but to live life to the full, self determination without prejudice or judgement will enable the best chance of recovery. Medics like myself have to give up on the idea that we are there to fix peoples’ lives and then, maybe our patients may start to view us as fellows who inhabit the same human struggles as everyone else. That should not take us away from the ability to be compassionate helpers when the ‘chips are down’, rather we must hold on to the hope, that each person will have the strength to survive the darkest night and awaken to the opportunity of a new day.