A personal narrative by Meg Hughes, yoga teacher and NHS worker navigating depression, wellbeing and self compassion.
Trigger warning: mentions of Depression.
There was a big gap of time between me first having symptoms of depression, and me acknowledging them as such. I had experienced a sudden, traumatic bereavement when I was 19, so when I started to experience periods of what I now know to be mental ill-health at around 28, I put it down to a grief that I had never allowed myself to feel, unravel and process.
However, there was a difference between my grief, and these other waves of unidentified darkness and despair that would knock me sideways. Sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months. This feeling is denser and more complicated than “sadness” which I had always believed depression to be. My depression shakes me, taunts me, and presents the world through a lens which makes everything appear terrifying. My brain convinces me that if I have to DO (meet a friend for coffee, go to work, get up out of bed) that I will surely die. I know that sounds melodramatic, but I can’t explain it in any other way. The effort of living becomes too much to bear. It hurts and it is impossible to imagine it ever being any different.
Over the last couple of years, I have tried many ways of treating my depression. I have been desperate to “fix myself” so that life, and functioning, as a wife, friend, daughter, sister, and colleague is possible. I have thrown so many tools and practices into the leering face of my depression; exercise, painting, antidepressants, reading, yoga, breathwork, therapy, walking, writing, more vitamin D, less alcohol, less coffee – that list is not exhaustive! Whilst every single one of these are valuable to my mental health, the thing I’ve had to really lean into and work hard at is accepting my depression. The thing that has helped me do that more than anything, is the sea.
I have always adored being near the sea. It feels like home; somewhere that inspires me, soothes and energises me. Eighteen months ago I began swimming regularly in the sea in the summer months and the continuing of this habit into winter and out the other side really surprised me. I hadn’t planned it. But it made me feel wonderful. It made me feel.
Each time I quickly stripped down to my cozzie, in wind, rain, (and one particular time when there was frost actually ON the sand!), my brain told me that today was the day it would be JUST TOO COLD. There were a hundred reasons why getting into the water was a bad idea. Every time I did it anyway, I proved something to myself. That I could do hard things and survive. When you plan to put your body into freezing cold water, you resist. First the resistance comes from the brain; which does all it can to convince you not to do it; it’s freezing, it’s uncomfortable, it’s unpleasant. Then comes the physical resistance, your body will squeeze and tighten and it will feel really tempting to hold your breath, clench your jaw, and muscle your way through the discomfort.
I have come to notice amazing parallels between this experience and how I used to and sometimes still, resist my own depression. Like the cold sea, my depression is something I know for certain to be painful, to be challenging, something to be survived, each time it rears its head.
When my body is finally submerged fully I wait for my favourite moment. It’s a sweet spot, where your body, mind, and breath all surrender and the experience of being in the sea feels easier. I arrive at this moment sometimes in seconds, sometimes in minutes, and every single time, it’s different. When the water is calm, clear, and undisturbed, it’s easy to surrender, to lean in and enjoy the experience. When the wind is howling and the waves are violent and the sea is crashing, black and angry, it takes longer, it’s hard, and I’m reluctant to soften into it. Just like depression. One thing remains the same between these two mammoth forces in my life, fighting them just doesn’t seem to work for me.
In the past 12 months, I have tried to stop fighting my depression quite so hard. This doesn’t mean that I don’t work hard to take care of my mental health or that I don’t value my wellbeing. I try to accept it as a part of my life, sometimes showing up even when I have done all the “self care” in an effort to prevent it. Depression causes my head to be a dark, turbulent, bottomless place. Much like the sea at times. A place where it seems impossible to find ease. It can be ice cold, uninviting, and hopeless. When I “fight” my depression, I mask it, I pretend, I cover up, and I turn inwards and away. Without doubt, this fighting has always landed me in a more devastating period of depression at some point down the line. One that is harder to dig myself out of, and one that takes me further from myself.
When I acknowledge it’s overbearing arrival, that’s my sweet spot moment. Of course, it never feels sweet like it does in the sea, but parts of that process can feel empowering in a way. In the same way I might plan for the sea to be wild, rough, and chaotic, I plan for how I can take care of myself during this rough patch.
I never question the fluctuation of the sea, how it changes; peaceful and tranquil one day, violent and abrasive the next. I accept that the sea is ever changing. That the sea is not one thing only. That the sea always calms after a storm. This reminds me, I too am ever changing. I am not just my depression, there are countless other parts of me that also exist. My depression always lifts and leaves in time. The sea is a constant place where I find hope. On the darkest, wildest days, I know there is every chance that tomorrow could bring ease and joy. Nothing lasts forever.
A few months back, after a particularly difficult couple of weeks, I went for a swim and a walk along the cliffs. I contemplated the sea and the joy, learning and support it gives me. Whilst my experience of depression is much more than just a “blueness”, at that time I wrote a poem about the two “big blues” in my life, how they are similar in ways but their effects on me are lightyears apart. Without the sea, I don’t really know where I’d be, and I’m grateful to have found something that soothes me and gives me the opportunity for reflection.
I hope you too, even in the midst of pain, can find something that anchors you and helps you feel excitement, worth, and hope. Something bigger than you, that makes you feel alive again. It will come, that sweet spot always does.
“There are two big blues in my life
One often sits for days in the corner of every room I occupy
A knowing leer and a glint in his eye
Sometimes to turn to him head on and say
I’m going to the other big blue
I don’t care if you come or not
They are alike in some ways, the two big blues
Both are vast, powerful and consuming
One strips me of me, destructs and threatens me
The other doesn’t scare me, she heals and holds me
She eases the weight bearing down on my heart
She builds back the pieces of me that the other tore apart
Sometimes I just sit with my two big blues for a while
Me, my sadness, and the sea”