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Dealing with Dementors

October 10, 2017

The radio informs me that it is World Mental Health Day today. Learning this has prompted me to turn the computer on for the first time in days.

According to the UK Mental Health Foundation:

  • Mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain, with 8% of people meeting criteria for diagnosis.
  • 4-10% of people in England will experience depression in their lifetime.
  • Common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety are distributed according to a gradient of economic disadvantage across society. The poorer and more disadvantaged are disproportionately affected by common mental health problems and their adverse consequences.*
  • Mixed anxiety and depression has been estimated to cause one fifthof days lost from work in Britain.
  • One adult in six had a common mental disorder.

*  Just how blindingly obvious is this statistic?

A generation ago this was a seldom-discussed subject. There is more discussion now, but somehow the stigma remains. It is not easy for anyone to admit – even to family and friends – that they suffer from a mental illness. When everyone else seems to be on top of everything, how can you admit you’re not? (If those statistics are to be believed, clearly everyone else is not on top of everything.)

So, on World Mental Health Day here is my public admission. A few years ago I was diagnosed with chronic depression. I am currently on medication for the second time.

Some people will know what this means. Others, fortunate enough to have never seen depression darken their doorstep, will not. Those people, the lucky ones, think they know what depression means. They feel sorry for you, because they think you are sad all the time. They are wrong.


Feeling sad would involve feeling something. Most of the time people with untreated depression are numb. Even with treatment it seems an insurmountable job to turn sadness into happiness, self-loathing into self-love, anxiety into tranquillity, hopelessness in optimism, and isolation into belonging.

Why haven’t I turned my computer on in days? Because the bloody thing scares me. It is the gateway to hell. Hell being internet access and the fear being that once that gateway is opened I will waste hours and hours playing a stupid computer card game to which I seem to have become addicted.

What do I get out of this stupid game? Oblivion. The stupid game absorbs all my attention so I do not have to think about all the other things depression is preventing me from doing. And around and around we go. Some people use alcohol or drugs to mask their depression. I use a stupid computer game.

Even with medication, depression makes it impossible to work – either on contract or for myself.

I would, for example, love to be working on another novel. Earlier this year, whilst riding an unexpected high, I actually started one. It was going quite well. A couple of chapters written, a clear outline of how it would unfold. The novel did require a considerable amount of research and for several weeks I dedicated myself wholeheartedly to this. I felt like me again. It was all quite exciting.

What happened? I don’t know. It seemed as if overnight I just lost interest. The one friend who knew about the novel stopped asking how it was going because it was clearly very painful for me to admit it was going nowhere.

This is what depression does. It sucks the life out of you so thoroughly that you can’t even remember what life used to feel like. It is the Dementors from Harry Potter.

Of all its facets, the worst part of depression is the sense of isolation. If you suffer from it, seek medical help, which is readily available in most countries. And once you’ve done that, tell your friends and family. As I’ve learned from experience, people want to help. This particular problem shared may not be halved, but (tossing clichés around) sunshine is the best disinfectant. Get it out in the open. Asking for help is often very hard. Failing to do so is very foolish.

And if a friend or family member takes the brave step of telling you they need help, here’s the best thing you can do: get them out of their house and out of their head. Make them laugh. (Another cliché, but true. As I can personally attest, laughter really is the best medicine.)

Don’t live close enough to get your friend’s isolated feet out of his or her house? Check in with them. They probably will never call you, because everyone else is happier and has a better life than they do, so you can’t understand their problems. (Yes, of course, I know that not many people actually have extraordinarily happy lives, but when you’re depressed you think everyone is happier than you will ever be again.) Phone calls are good. Emails and texts and instant messaging are bad. Too easy to ignore. (If these are ignored for too long, phone calls are essential.) If you really want to make their day, write them a letter. I know it sounds mad in these days of instant communication, but even a millennial, who may never have received a letter before in their life, will be chuffed at the novelty. Chuffed is good. Do they have an Amazon wish list? Send them a book (or whatever is on the list, even if it’s not their birthday. (Especially if it’s not their birthday.) They will be thrilled at the realisation that someone is thinking about them, someone cares about them, when they are mired in self-loathing, believing themselves to be undeserving of love.

Above all else: Don’t sympathise, empathise.

There is a world of difference.

From → Columns

  1. I just did a search on dementors (I’m not a HP fan. is it ok to even type HP?). Nasty things, they seem. This was a lovely read. Depression is, at times, hard to describe for the sufferer and you very exquisitely captured the extent at which depression stretches. You wrote about every ridge in it’s terrain, and it’s a smashing piece really! hope you had a good day, love xo

  2. I felt that numb feeling and totally found myself nodding when you described that part of depression.. This is such a quality post and I thank you for it.

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