IT has taken me 16 years to go public about my depression.
So why have I waited until now to speak out about the condition that hit me with all the force of a sledgehammer in April 1999? In truth, I am not exactly sure.
Was it shame, embarrassment or a need to keep certain things very private that prevented me from telling anyone who cares to listen before now?
No. Indeed, I have never felt a need to hide my past, albeit I am from a background and of a generation that urged you to “pull yourself together” or “snap out of it” and not to bring shame on the family by admitting to any sort of mental condition.
At the time of my illness – and, yes, contrary to what some appear to think, depression is an illness – I was open about my condition to the extent that some of those closest to me cringed at my desire to label myself “officially barking“.
It was a defence mechanism of sorts, I suppose, and felt like one less pressure to have to deal with.
In reality. it was no joke or cause to be flippant about an illness that inflicts millions and ends the lives of many. It was just my way of coping.
By why talk about it now? Maybe I just feel a need to share my experiences in the hope that if a powerfully built and physically strong guy like me with the ability to appear outwardly tough and durable can be struck down by what Sir Winston Churchill so aptly labelled “the black dog”, others similarly afflicted will realise that no-one is immune and seek the professional help that is out there rather than continue to suffer in silence.
I have also grown increasingly aware in recent times of the growing numbers of sportsmen and women who have suffered in a similar manner, some to a far more acute degree than I did.
I cannot recall that, even in my darkest moments, I ever experienced a desire to end my life. Others like Gary Speed, Robert Enke, the German international goalkeeper who threw himself in front of an express train after years of often-silent suffering, and Jack Syme, the young Forfar Athletic footballer found dead at the foot of Perthshire cliffs only a few weeks ago, were much less fortunate.
Mercifully, Clarke Carlisle, the ex-Premiership footballer and former PFA chairman, survived a suicide attempt in December when he threw himself in front of a lorry. Not even I can fully imagine what it must feel like to reach a point when it has all become too much and you want to die.
Clarke has found the strength to speak publicly of his struggle and, in doing so, has doubtless helped many in a similar position.
Compared to Speed, Enke, Syme and Carlisle, I was extremely fortunate. Having ignored the warning signs in the belief that I was mentally stronger and tougher than the next person, I was caught in time, and a course of medication eventually did the rest.
I should have seen it coming. For months I had laboured under the misapprehension that I was just a bit down and one morning I would wake up and all would again be well.
Tired, listless, drinking too much, hiding away from the world whenever the chance arose, full of negativity, hating my job, no longer as concerned about my appearance as I had once been, lacking a desire to pursue past interests, disinterested in the affairs of others – even my closest family and friends – and incapable of removing the mask that disguised my true inner feelings; these were just some of the symptoms.
Thankfully, the penny eventually dropped that I desperately needed to seek help to see me through what had become a crisis in my life – and I got it.
My medical practitioner at the time may not regard herself as an angel of mercy, but that was what she was to me. Having quickly diagnosed that I was suffering from full-blown depression and not just a “bit depressed” – an unfortunate and utterly inappropriate terminology most of us use from time to time, the good doctor immediately signed me off work and prescribed medication to treat my condition.
I was also advised to withdraw from the rat race for several weeks, ensuring at the same time that I avoided further stress as much as possible by ignoring the ringing of the telephone and resting.
What had caused my depression in the first place? I can’t say with any degree of certainty, but the increased stresses of modern living and the at times insane demands of employers were almost certainly major contributory factors.
I suspect that when the word got out, family, friends and work colleagues were shocked to learn that I was suffering from the D-word. After all, I think most probably regarded me as a fairly indestructible character. But it was all a con-trick. I wore my mask successfully in the main.
I was fortunate to have an understanding employer, supportive family and friends, and eventually made a complete recovery, albeit “the black dog” is always lurking menacingly, waiting the bite you on the backside once again.
But Rome wasn’t built in a day and it took several weeks of gradual recuperation before I reached the stage when I felt ready to face the world again.
In the interim, there were the hellish days of not wanting to get out of bed, refusing to take telephone calls from well-meaning people, lounging in an armchair still unwashed at three o’clock in the afternoon watching the most god-awful rubbish on TV rather than attempt to read a newspaper or have a meaningful conversation.
Gradually, though, I came through the other side and noticed the sunshine again. My life changed, too, in the sense that I embarked on a new career as a freelance journalist and I have never had any cause to regret my decision to turn my back on the partial security of a staff job.
I think I changed, too, as a person, becoming a little more understanding, more appreciative of the simpler things, although perhaps no less cynical – for a time at least!
Strangely enough, I believe I also became more confident and self-assured, though don’t ask me to explain why. I haven’t got an answer why that should have been.
But, hopefully some of the changes that took place for the better in 1999 have remained with me and in my personality.
Am I glad it happened? No. Depression is a hellish thing; a potentially destructive force that too often ends tragically. But I like to think that in some ways at least I emerged from my life-changing experience a better, slightly more caring and rounded individual.
And having stroked “the black dog“, I know for a fact that life is worth living. I know, too, with absolute certainty just how quickly and menacingly the dark clouds can descend.
But there is help out there, plenty of it. All you have to do is ask for it. That’s easier said than done, of course. But you wouldn’t think twice about seeking medical attention for a broken leg. The only difference is they don’t put depression in a plaster cast for all to see.
Maybe a large part of the problem is a sense of shame; of failure, even, at falling prey to an illness that regrettably continues to have a stigma attached to it.
But, believe me, whether you are a high-profile sportsperson or a crofter living on a remote Scottish island, there is nothing whatsoever to feel ashamed of.
Please seek help – and seek it now, in the knowledge that you aren’t alone
TOMORROW: I slept under the Erskine Bridge a few nights. When you get to that stage, straight thinking goes out the window – Ian Wallace on his battle with alcohol