Coping With Depression: My Experience

KIT PRESTON BELL shares his experience of overcoming depression in Cambridge.

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One of the first things that my Director of Studies said to me was that you have to think of Cambridge as an asylum. Although we all like to joke about that guy who lives on your staircase who you’ve only ever seen once, for some this can become an absolute reality. And that’s exactly what happened to me this time last year.

My first term in Cambridge started out fine. I got all of my work done, went to lectures, and generally had a great time. Things got a bit stressful towards the end of term: I had to pull the occasional all-nighter and missed a deadline or two, but there was no cause for serious concern.

The problems began when I came back after Christmas. I had felt ill during the vacation and anticipated being able to do all of my holiday work in the couple of days before term started, and so I found myself starting Lent already behind on work.

After a week or two I started to feel very unwell. There were no particular symptoms, I was just exceptionally tired. I missed just about every lecture and class because I simply couldn’t get out of bed. Even when I made a real effort to get an early night I would still end up just lying in bed all day until choir in the early evening. It was as if I was living in a kind of fog where everything just merged into one single twilight zone. I didn’t differentiate between days, weeks, or months; I was just stumbling around in the darkness. The problem was that I was dreaming a lot and therefore not sleeping properly. (When you dream, your body and brain aren’t actually resting. It’s only in deep sleep that all the proper recuperation can happen.)  As a result, I was just getting increasingly more tired as time went by.

Things only got worse as term went on. I didn’t write a single essay or go to class for 5 weeks, which made me start to panic. I realised that I had to try to get back on track, but whenever I tried this I just ended up becoming incredibly anxious – I would have panic attacks and fits of rage where I would punch walls or hurt myself because of my inability to do anything meaningful. I ended up completely unable to sleep because as soon as I tried to switch my mind off, it just kept taking me to that dark, angry place where I was incapable of working and I became terrified of where my thoughts would go. I had to keep my mind occupied, so I would stay up all night watching films or television, anything to keep me awake until I could no longer keep my eyes open. I wasn’t eating either; I completely lost my appetite and was getting by most days on a paltry ham sandwich. Even that one meal wasn’t pleasant though – eating anything at all just made me feel unwell.

I had to get help. I spoke to my Director of Studies, who advised me to see the college nurse, the University Counselling Service and my GP, where I was diagnosed with severe depression and given medication for my sleep problems. But one day I woke up feeling so weak that I knew I couldn’t carry on. I spoke to my tutor and DoS again and we all agreed that degrading was the best option for me. I needed letters from my GP and tutor explaining my position and the college took care of the rest.

At home I spoke to my parents, who were very understanding. I started to see a counsellor who lived nearby and things improved very quickly; the medication finally got me back into a good sleeping pattern and after a decent amount of therapy it seemed I had properly broken the cycle. I’ve been back in Cambridge for over a term now and although there’s the occasional moment when I feel a bit down, I know how to cope. The problem I had a year ago was that I had no idea about depression and so I failed to spot the symptoms. It’s not a question of just curing depression and living happily ever after. It’s about being self-aware and promoting your own happiness in whichever way is best for you. If you take that brief moment to assess where you are emotionally then there’s no reason why you can’t flourish in this exciting and challenging place.