Bryony Gordon on depression: ‘I woke up with an elephant on my chest this morning’

When lockdowns were first announced, many were relieved that they no longer had to commute to work, that they got to spend more time at home. I know I was. Nobody likes getting on public transport, or having difficult meetings with intimidating colleagues about tricky projects. 

But all these little things that we occasionally wake up and dread doing are actually the things that, in the long term, allow us to properly enjoy our lives. When we are forced to challenge ourselves on a regular basis, we are also given the opportunity to pat ourselves on the back. The more we challenge ourselves, the less challenging life seems. And so it is that the opposite is true.

Of course, a pandemic is challenging. Nobody can deny that. But the restrictions that come from it have meant that most people have been unable to usefully challenge themselves on a day-to-day basis. This means things that previously seemed like an annoyance can start to feel like an impossibility. 

When you aren’t regularly filling up your ‘I can do hard things’ bank, your belief in yourself gets smaller and smaller until one day, you wake up with an elephant on your chest, wondering why life is so bloody hard. And it is why, when the Government announces there is a new variant, you feel strangely relieved at the opportunity to cut yourself off and dive back under your duvet again.

I think this explains why it can seem as if people actively like being in lockdown. Actually, what they like is feeling safe and secure and not threatened. When you are depressed or have low self-esteem, you crave safety. 

And there is a strange kind of safety in being locked away by yourself. This is what depression feels like, and for a lot of people right now, this is what life feels like.

If this all sounds bleak, then I have good news. As a person who has a history of depression, I find quite a bit of comfort in being able to make sense of why I feel like this. In my time writing about mental health, and working on my own head, I have learnt that depression is a strange survival mechanism, a way of alerting you that your life is not working as it is. 

In this context, a collective sense of not feeling quite right is actually the most right thing during a pandemic. Of course life feels hard: you have been living in fight or flight mode for almost two years.

And so while I hate feeling like this – or not feeling, as perhaps I should say – there is also a voice in my head telling me that this state of clinical depression is inevitable given the circumstances, a small voice that gives me a tiny sense of optimism that has always been missing from previous depressive episodes. 

It tells me that things will get better. It tells me that, if I keep doing the things I have done to help me through past episodes, I will come out the other end thriving. 

The elephant in the room, and on your chest, tends to disappear when we talk about it. I hope reading this gives you permission to do so, too.

The broken boiler theory 

You know some well-meaning gurus tell you to imagine yourself as a bird, or a dolphin, or a brave lioness roaming free over the African savannahs? Well I want you to imagine yourself as a boiler.

In particular, a slightly clapped-out boiler that is in dire need of servicing, the type that requires careful handling in order for you to get half a shower’s worth of hot water out of it. 

You know the type… we’ve all had one, usually in our student days, or house-share days: the kind of boiler you can’t really be bothered to call your landlord about, because it sort of still works if you fiddle around with it a bit, and the landlord will probably blame you for whatever’s wrong with it, and take away your deposit to pay for fixing it. That kind of boiler. 

As it so happens, my house is currently in possession of such a boiler, and I have no excuse…I am 41, I own the property and I should have called a repair person weeks ago.

Like me, our boiler is old, clapped out and very erratic. I need to protect it from draughts to keep its pilot light going. Now, boilers only work when the pilot light is on, and humans aren’t that different, really. 

I want you to imagine your self-esteem, your well self, the bit of you that hasn’t yet been eaten up by depression and anxiety, as that pilot light. 

You are that flame. And you need to do everything you can to keep that pilot light of self-esteem going. You want keep it on. That pilot light of self-esteem is the thing that is going to protect you from the mental-health issues that will try and sweep in, stealthily, like the slow seasonal change of winter, leaving you horribly exposed.

Whenever you want to do something, ask yourself: is this going to preserve my pilot light of self-esteem, or is it going to help blow it out? If it’s going to preserve it, then do it. If it’s going to blow it out, stay well away. Is beating myself up going to help my pilot light?

 Is scrolling mindlessly through social media going to help my pilot light? Might calling my boss and explaining that I am feeling overwhelmed because I have a mental-health issue help to keep my pilot light on? 

Will signing up for an advanced meditation class be good for my pilot light, or might it be better, right now, to listen to a podcast about it while going for a walk? Will getting drunk help my pilot light? Will crawling into bed in the middle of the day and drawing the curtains help my pilot light? 

Is speaking to my mum, who doesn’t really understand mental health, going to help keep my pilot light going, or might it be better to go and speak to my sister, who does understand it? Is cancelling this therapy appointment at the last minute, because I think I might have a cold coming on, going to help keep my pilot light going?

Nurture that self-esteem. Bit by gentle bit, keep it going. Do not extinguish it. It is the thing that is going to help you snatch your body and your life back. It is the thing that is going to return you to you.

Extracted from No Such Thing as Normal: What My Mental Illness Has Taught Me About Mental Wellness (Headline, £9.99), out now. Order your copy from the Telegraph Bookshop

Bryony Gordon: No Such Thing as Normal LIVE is at Alexandra Palace, London, on Sunday 6 February 2022, for tickets and more information see the website. 

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