Living with the Shadow of Depression

Kintsugi (金継ぎ?) (Japanese: golden joinery) or Kintsukuroi (金繕い?) (Japanese: golden repair) is the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum, a method similar to the maki-e technique.[1][2][3] As a philosophy it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. Source: Wikipedia

Trigger Warning for mentions of self harm and suicidal thoughts.

Last week, I was in the principal’s office, discussing curriculum adjustments for students with disabilities. I kept my tone light, and my face professional. But behind it, I was preoccupied by a vision of blood – pouring from long slashes running from my wrists to my elbows,  gushing, like a broken dam from my stomach, cut open.

I returned to my office, sat down and stared at my hands for several minutes.  Just staring, on the verge of tears, when I finally thought “What the fuck am I doing?” and got on with the timetable I was working on.

I thought I was past all this, that I was cured, and that I had better coping strategies. It took me by surprise to have those thoughts again.

I was diagnosed as clinically depressed when I was 30, but I’ve lived with depression on and off since at least my teenage years. Some people describe it as a black dog. I think of it more as my shadow self. Its part of me. A friend, whose embrace I find it easy to fall into. It creeps up so softly, that at first I don’t realise it’s there. It can hang around for months before I realise I’m in its grip.

Years ago, I used to cut and burn myself.  When my depression was at its worse, I was numb. There was no pain, but there was no joy. I felt nothing. During those very dark days, I wanted to feel something, anything. Pain was good. Cutting or burning allowed me, just for an instant to feel something and  know I was alive.

But I mostly wanted to cut myself open because I didn’t know how to express the pain I was feeling. I still don’t. I was and am ashamed of it. I don’t have a right to feel this way, when so many people have greater problems, better reasons to suffer. Cutting and burning – they were physical manifestations of pain I had no right to feel and wouldn’t express any other way.

Random events have opened up old wounds for me: the murder of a teacher in NSW; encountering someone who attended the same  high school as I… suddenly I find myself assaulted by memories. Things that were buried are close to the surface now. The scars I thought had healed  are open and bleeding.

I remember the strategies the psychologist taught me. To monitor my thought patterns, challenge the negative ones and avoid catastrophising. I know I need to practise mindfulness and gratitude, to get out in the sunlight and to get some exercise. I’ll do all that,  I will — but for now, I’m letting myself bleed a little. I’m cutting myself open with my words this time – letting you peek behind the mask.

You see, I know I’m not alone in this. There are so many of us who struggle with mental health. Everyone acknowledges that it affects others, but we so rarely admit to it in ourselves. We carefully craft our public identity and our social media profiles to show that we are positive, competent, capable. It’s a risk to confess that we’re also flawed. But that’s why I’m confessing. Depression isn’t something that happens to a small group of weak-minded people Self harm isn’t a weird deviant practice. It’s common, but it happens in silence and shame.

Having lived with this on and off for years, I know I’m okay. At the moment, I’m experiencing symptoms of depression, but I don’t think I’m trapped there as I once was, and I can get myself out.

I’m using apps to monitor my mood several times daily. When I’m depressed, my tendency to catastrophise leads me to believe that I feel that way all the time, instead of it being just a part of my daily experience. I become quite anxious. I never want to return to the dark place I existed in years ago, when planning my death became a full-time obsession. My fear of returning to that compounds the problem. Mood monitoring helps me recognise that it’s not that bad – sometimes its just a mood, and there are times, each day, where I feel good. In fact, I experience moments of joy each day, and my outlook is still relatively optimistic. I can immerse myself in activities (like baking the raspberry macarons that are currently setting in the oven) and for a time, completely forget about these darker emotions.

And yesterday, I found an app called “Happify” which has activities and games to increase positive emotion. I was skeptical, but my initial experience has been good. Last night’s task was to simply identify 3 positive experiences that occurred during the day. Given that I’d had a migraine for most of it, and was feeling fairly melancholy for the rest, I doubted I could find any. But sure enough I found three. Immediately my mood lifted somewhat, I felt appreciative, and it helped me to remember that even while I’m fixating on the negative, good things are happening. I just need to pay attention.

There’s a stigma to depression, and its a risk, as a teacher, admitting to it publicly. As much as we want to promote mental health in our schools, we don’t like to admit to having problems with it ourselves. It’s can be seen as a failing, a sign of weakness. Its okay to admit I stayed in bed for half a day with a migraine yesterday, but a character flaw to confess that I stayed in bed for half a day with depression today.

In fact, years ago,  after I admitted I had a history of depression the principal I worked for refused to allow me to take on any extra responsibilities or leadership. He thought it would make me vulnerable and took a paternalistic decision to protect me, by limiting my opportunities for leadership and career advancement.

But I’ve been living with depression for longer than I’ve been teaching. It’s accompanied me throughout my career. And yet, I’m an accomplished teacher and a school leader, who has earned the respect of my colleagues and community.  When I work with students, I’m completely immersed – in flow. Teaching brings me such joy, and demands my full attention. When I’m teaching there is no room for the darker moods. which can take hold in the quieter moments.

If you think you are struggling with depression, or if this post has triggered some difficult thoughts and emotions in you and you need help, check out the Beyond Blue website. 

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41 thoughts on “Living with the Shadow of Depression

  1. Thank you for sharing. You continue to amaze and inspire me. I live with someone who struggles with depression and understand how debilitating it can be. Unfortunately, for him mindfulness and cognitive behaviour therapy do not work. I’m glad they work for you. So just like I would if you had a bout of the flu – I hope you feel better soon. Would you like my Chinese chicken soup recipe that helps all that ails you!

    • Hi Jen, Thank you for commenting. Yeah mindfulness and CBT only go so far, and don’t help everyone. I imagine it’s tough supporting someone through depression as well. Your chicken soup sounds wonderful. Yes please, I’d love the recipe.

  2. Denyse says:

    My dear Corinne, thank you for your heartfelt & open post. I read it with relief. That I am not alone. My goodness… Wish I could give you a hug right now. You are doing such a fine “job” in your journey & I heartily support you. I’ve been overtaken by bouts of anxiety since we made this major move to central coast & it’s manifesting itself in some unpleasant physical responses (hello return of IBS) .. Ive been wonderfully supported by my hub of many years & a friendly GP who agrees this major life change takes time. Im a bit “lost” as family, career & owning house all are now not part of my day to day life. The good news is I am enjoying art, mindfulness via @get_headspace & activities via Happify. So, dear friend.. Let’s reach out & have that hug! Love Denyse x

    • Hi Denyse, no, you’re definitely not alone. I’m glad my post helped you feel that way as its one of the reasons I wrote it. These issues affect so many of us, and keeping it hidden just reinforces the view that it’s wrong, shameful and weird. It’s not.

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been overtaken by anxiety since your move – and as you said, its such a major life change. You’ve left so many things that made your life meaningful. But, I’m certain, knowing the incredible woman that you are, that things will settle and you’ll find your path through this new chapter.

      Hugs,
      Corinne

  3. It’s a rough ride – and no matter how many times people try to ‘understand’ it, they can’t. It’s nice to hear other people’s stories of success and strategies to help…currently downloading Happify as I type.
    Thanks for sharing Corinne 🙂

    • HI Fiona, thanks for commenting. Yeah, I don’t think its possible to understand unless you’ve experienced something similar. I do find talking with other people about their strategies helps me.

  4. Melanie says:

    Thank you Corinne for writing this. As teachers we are highly creative people and creative people seem to be very susceptible to the black dog, or the shadow as you call it. I too think that keeping busy and taking on challenge are vital to keep depression at bay. We need support networks. We need to know the signs. It is important that staff support each other and that someone we work with knows (not just for depression, but diabetes, migraine, asthma – any ailment) so they can be the backstop to stop you going over the edge.

  5. I am glad that we are now at the brink of being able to talk about mental health so openly. If you had a physical condition that impacted on your work, no one would blink, but there is still so much ignorance regarding depression and anxiety. Articles such as these help all of us to understand each other and the individual pressures we face. Teaching can be simultaneously collabrative and isolating, so it is important that we stop to consider ourselves a well as others. Thank you for sharing your story.

  6. Lynne Edwards says:

    Love this post’s beginning image – a beautiful Japanese ceramic piece – flawed but whole, functional and unique – just like most of us.
    Appreciate and admire your capacity and willingness to write openly about how you cope day to day, professionally and with life beyond school.
    Our profession, your current and previous school communites as well as your online following are indeed fortunate to be able to share your generous leadership and courage.

    • Hi Lynne, I’m glad you liked the image. It speaks volumes to me. Broken but beautiful – even more beautiful than before. I really appreciate your words of support here. It was a bit scary hitting publish and letting the world see my struggle.

  7. jane logan says:

    Corinne thank you for trusting us enough to share. Sam has lived with the same shadow for over a year now. So I appreciate your eloquent insight. He sometimes pours candle wax on his arms and I wonder if feeling pain is the reason. I listen, I hug, I talk in the hope that he knows we are here for him. I’m sure many will be inspired by your honesty. Jane xx

  8. Vanessa says:

    As others have said, thank you for your honesty. It’s a small step towards de-stigmatising mental health issues, which are far more widespread than people who don’t experience them, realise. I know you’ll be OK because you have learnt to use the strategies that work for you. It is important to feel the mental/emotional pain, and acknowledge it.
    We’re expected to be strong and politely not inconvenience anyone with our struggles, so the problems deepen and lead to anxiety as well. As teachers, we need time in our schedules to help students express themselves, support each other and understand that small problems are easier to deal with: moving rocks v moving mountains.
    Great post, Corinne.

  9. Margot Lavelle says:

    I’m very sorry that you have to go through these difficult feelings and hard times. Huge respect for sharing, Corinne. It is easy to feel alone with our burdens, connection with others seems to lighten them.

  10. Good on you Corinne for writing such an honest post. It is rare to come across such honesty about depression for a professional in a public forum – something that I hope will change with time. Our family’s experience with depression has been a mixed bag, with some managing it with coping strategies and others not! You take care of yourself – keep using your passion for education as the barrier that keeps the depression at bay, at least for a period of time.

  11. Clare Greenup says:

    Thank you for sharing. It’s only through people sharing their stories bravely (as you have done ) that we will start to break down petty and damaging stereotypes!
    Be proud.

  12. Well Done Corinne
    Since My current Deputy prin learnt of my “mental Health issues” I have been treated in a less than nice fashion.
    Thus I regret letting him know.
    Other teachers with whom I work are quite the reverse – supportive, kind, helpful.
    Like you I have struggled since my early teens. Some things really help, some do not. I have tried Psychiatrists, Psychologists, counsellors, kinesiology, acupuncture and many other things.
    I often use the mantra – Fake it till you make it. Recently a member of staff at my school was forced out of the school because of his depression preventing him from being as effective as he perhaps could have been. He told me that he could not believe how I seemed to be looking for good aspects so often. I just hid it better than him. Currently the deputy is trying to force me out as well but support from other staff helps. Many staff believe that a catholic school would not do that!
    Some nights I force myself to stay in bed so that I do not go down the shed and get a knife again. It always seems worse in the dark, alone in bed.
    So I know where you are at. As an actor and teacher, one learns to project a message that all is well to the extent that so many around believe it. It is only when things go wrong that the cracks appear.
    Maybe I need some of your gold lacquer.
    I have joined ‘Happify’ – thank you for the suggestion. Sometimes I cannot believe that as a computing teacher I do not think of searching the net for things like that.
    Again, Well Done and I feel that you are VERY BRAVE

    Thankyou for sharing.

    • Hi Andrew, thank you for your kind words and for sharing your story as well. I’m so fortunate to be working in a staff who care and with a principal could not be more supportive. I’m sorry to hear that your experience is so tough right now. The lack of support from above must just compound things. Stay strong.

      Corinne

  13. Ed says:

    Hi Corinne thank you for sharing some of your experiences of being a teacher and living with depression.

    I am a graduate teacher, who also manages an anxiety/depression condition.

    It inspires me to know that you are able to manage your depression and have an accomplished career as a teacher.

    Kind Regards

    Ed

    • Hi Ed, thank you for commenting. I’m absolutely confident you will be able to do fine as a teacher as well. You know how to manage your condition and there’s no reason it should prevent you from doing well at anything.

  14. Pingback: About Teaching
  15. I am also going through a difficult time, and this: “When I work with students, I’m completely immersed – in flow.” I may lose it in my private moments, but while I am in the flow, I am still experiencing such joy, it seems almost impossible.

    • Hi Becca, Thank you for reading and commenting. I’m so sorry to hear you’re also going through a difficult time. It’s strange isn’t it, how we have moments of joy, amidst such turmoil. I spent the evening with friends, who don’t know about this, tonight and there I was laughing, making jokes and enjoying myself. But, then I’d have these moments where I was almost overwhelmed by sadness. Its the strangest thing.

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