I felt my heart sink recently when I learned of the death of Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper who committed suicide. I had never heard of the man before, yet I felt great empathy for him upon reading the circumstances surrounding his untimely demise.
Even before the death of his infant daughter in 2006, Enke had suffered from depression. However, that event took his illness to its deepest form – a spiraling sense of dispair and futility that would ultimately have him take his life, rather than struggle on in apparent hopelessness.
That he had managed to hide the depths of his depression so well only served to make the blow delivered to his friends and family that much more severe. That’s the trouble with depression – it’s something you can hide, both from those closest to you and from yourself.
Now, I wouldn’t claim to have experienced it to the same degree as Enke, but when my doctor told me back in April that she thought I was suffering from depression, well, I already knew. Her diagnosis was merely confirmation.
For almost a year at that point I’d been worn down by a variety of things and although I’d started 2009 with a more positive outlook, it was more of a facade I’d conjured up to hide how low I was feeling. I smiled in the face of adversity, I cracked jokes, I carried on as normal, but the reality is I knew I was slipping lower as the days went by.
I’m not exactly sure when it started happening – it just sort of crept up on me, but I found myself having the nagging thought; “what if I wasn’t here at all?”
Without going into too much detail, it turns out you can play out some pretty convincing scenarios in your head of how simply not being around could be so much better than the current reality.
I found myself think through those scenarios after each hard day at work as I stood on the platform while the last train of the night coasted into the station. I’d think through them again before I went to sleep, and again the following morning as I made the journey back to the office.
I did make a conscious effort to snap myself out of it on several occasions, especially on a night out with my close friends. But the relief was only temporary, and in the cold light of the next day I would be unable to sustain the disbelief.
So I knew for sure I was ill and that I would need to get some help, but the fact I couldn’t take time off work at this point served to prolong the suffering and the overwhelming sense that I just had to struggle on. By the time I did stagger into the doctor’s office with “a sore ankle” in late April, I was at the lowest point I’ve ever been.
It’s pretty clear to me that there were people who knew me that did not take my situation at all seriously, even after my doctor had confirmed the deterioration of my mental health. However, from the outside I had a well paying job, a roof over my head, a loving girlfriend and a great little daughter, and I’m surrounded by family in my hometown. I can agree on some level that those seem like the kind of ingredients in your life that should safeguard against depression.
And that’s the view I took myself after couple of weeks signed off sick. To go with all the self doubt, I actually had doubts about whether I really was ill or if I’d maybe just imagined it all and made a drama out of nothing. The break from the daily grind was both a change and a rest, too, and I started to believe it would be a quick road back, despite what my doctor had told me. She had said that I did not get depression in the space of a few weeks, and nor was it likely I’d fully recover in a short time frame.
Going back to work was a blessing in disguise. I was simply not ready to face the circumstances and that caused things to come apart pretty quickly. It would be a full two months later before my doctor agreed that I had made any significant progress, and even now – seven months after the initial diagnosis there are days when I feel the shadow of depression cast upon me by things outside my control.
So it’s tough. I know I’m not out of the woods yet and possibly never will be. The trick is to try and remain positive and recognise that it’s a slippery slope. It’s easy just to let yourself succumb to the to the external influences that just seem so much more imposing when you’re feeling low and insignificant.
And who am I?
Just a nobody, really. An every day man in his 30’s with a similar social, financial, and career situation to countless others. I’m not an athelete like Robert Enke or a rock star like Kurt Cobain or John Lee, yet they were equally susceptible to the illness. In their positions they seemed larger than life – almost imortal, and surrounded by the kind of support that should prevent any kind of fall from grace. So I think that’s why the death of Enke, so directly linked to depression, came as such a shock to those who knew him.
Depression, if trivialised or left untreated, can become all-consuming no matter who you are or what you do. To those blessed with the self confidence to shrug off the every day things that bring about the attrition of a person’s will to live, depression must be hard to comprehend. On the surface it appears that someone is feeling a bit down, but by the time it’s obvious that something is wrong externally the illness may already have taken root.
Which is why it’s important to get help for yourself rather than struggling on in the hope that someone might reach out and arrest your slide. It’s hard for other people to judge this kind of thing – harder still when our inbuilt defence mechanisms serve to mask the true extent of an internal struggle.
Although the effort to recover has to come from within, I found the support of my doctor was invaluable, along with the online help, such as Living Life to the Full and others. The path to recovery is there – you just have to want to find and travel it.
Which is why I find it tragic that Robert Enke, for all his sporting achievements, could not muster the strength to ever truly recover from the illness. Suffering from depression is a miserable way to live and an even worse way too die. I only hope that the publicity surrounding his depth brings a greater understanding of depression.