“That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.”
The last four years of my life have been a really weird, painful blur but I wouldn’t edit them in any way if I had the opportunity. Dare I say, I am glad they happened. It started in the final year of my A-Levels. My cousin, who had suffered from bipolar depression for many years, took her own life seemingly out of the blue. This shook me up significantly more than I realised at the time. I was on track to get straight A*s and study law at the university of my dreams; I couldn’t have been more excited for the next chapter of my life. Her death steered me off course for my A-Levels, I messed them up and ended up depressed and alone in a university I didn’t want to be at, studying a course I hated.
The solution was simple: go study psychology at Durham University and one day become a clinician so as to “fix” or “save” other young people like my cousin. Alas, that solution was flawed. In my first two years at Durham, I probably skipped at least a third of my lectures because I was physically unable to leave my bed and endure another day of feigning happiness and “normality”. I managed to successfully play it down by adopting the classic “lazy student” persona so no one thought it strange. It’s a curious contradiction because I did not necessarily want to die but I definitely did not want to be alive.
Simultaneously and somewhat ironically, I was pouring all my time and what little energy I did have into campaigning for ending the stigma surrounding mental illness and encouraging people to engage in dialogue on the matter. I was so invested and seemingly credible to the point where a member of staff asked me to represent Durham University, at a three-day conference in Brussels that was addressing the youth mental health crisis in Europe. I was the youngest and least accomplished person there, yet my passion alone had landed me in a room full of distinguished academics. A wonderful illustration of high-functioning depression. Yes, on some days I was the classic head-clutching, weeping mess traditionally depicted as depressed but more often than not I was sat amongst my peers in lectures, just muddling through life like any other student. I describe my cousin’s suicide as “seemingly out of the blue” because I have now realised what depression doesn’t look like.
As it turns out, 16 days at summer camp in a tiny Polish town is all I needed to address and undo four years of accumulated pain. The combination of being completely immersed in nature and being with group of Christians amongst whom vulnerability was not only embraced but encouraged, was exactly what I needed at the exact time that I needed it. A few days into the trip someone asked me, “Natalie, are you ever not happy?” and that’s when I knew that the dark cloud that had loomed over me for four years had left. That question took me by surprise and actually made me laugh out loud because anyone who’d met me up until that point probably had a burning desire to ask if I was ever happy. I had rediscovered joy and hope. The source of which are my faith in Jesus Christ and my identity in Him. Having people available around the clock who intently listened to years of bottled up rants and affirmed that I was not defined by depression is what lifted me out of the dark hole I had been gradually sinking into.
It’s a terrible cliché but I wholeheartedly believe that every season is for a reason. My summer camp was organised by the Navigators, a Christian society I was involved with and heavily invested in while at my first university. Had I not ended up there in 2013 (and subsequently remained a long-distance member), I’m pretty confident I wouldn’t have had the life changing summer I did.
I’m still working through stuff and am in no way qualified to dish out advice on what the “correct” way to handle depression is. However, I would encourage people not to allow the automated “yeah I’m good thanks, how are you?” response to govern your everyday conversations. Ultimately, the weightlessness that follows releasing that burden from your shoulders far outweighs the awkwardness of initiating that conversation. I can’t stress the value of authentic relationships enough.