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Friday 15 December 2017

Depression made me feel like a loser overnight, says Aifric Campbell.

BEST-SELLING author Aifric Campbell, whose latest book On The Floor was longlisted for this year's Orange Prize talks about her post-natal depression.

Ten years had passed since I'd seen most of the 33 men inside. That was back in 1998, just after the birth of my son, when I became the first woman on the trading floor to be promoted to managing director. Five months later, I was in a psychiatric ward diagnosed with severe post-natal depression.

That was when my career imploded and, in a world where I had always been a winner, I'd become a loser overnight.

It's estimated that one in five people in Ireland will experience a depressive episode at some point in their lives. According to the World Health Organisation, it's already the leading cause of disability and it's on the rise.

It's tempting to believe that the age of confessionalism has led to greater understanding of mental health issues, but every time I speak or write about it, I get emails from strangers saying they wish that far more people would speak out about their experience.

To be honest, I loathe revisiting such a painful period of my life but I refuse to conceal or deny the experience. The guilt and shame and fear that still surround depression is so prevalent that many people suffer in silence and fail to seek professional help, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

What I have learned, however, is that once you go public, you no longer "own" your story and you may end up as a poster child for the wrong cause. An Islamic website used my life story as a warning message for working mothers.

Memories of my time on a psych ward are patchy since I was on a lot of medication, but I can still remember what I thought: life is carrying on without you. Your child does not need you. Your husband is managing wonderfully. The nanny is superb and the office is doing just fine. You are surplus to requirements.

When you are deeply depressed you no longer recognise yourself and nor do the people around you. You lose all but the most basic physical sensations. It's as if a thick glass wall separates you from the world you used to know and -- nothing reaches you -- music, people, books, even taste.

Medication and therapy are crucial holding patterns, but they are not solutions. Acceptance is a critical step forwards. Without it, you have anger and fear -- and fear of a recurrence of depression is the biggest obstacle to sustained recovery. For a long time I remained convinced that if only some doctor could explain exactly why this happened to me, it would make all the difference.

There are plenty of theories about depression, you can research them endlessly (I did) but what it comes down to is this: there isn't always a good reason why bad things happen. If you refuse to accept this you can spend the rest of your life (and a lot of money) looking for answers. For all its potential positives, long-term psychotherapy can encourage an obsessive preoccupation with the past. What really matters is what happens NEXT.

Getting better is like slowly clawing your way towards a pinprick of light in a tunnel that may collapse at any moment. I remember noticing the taste of chilled water one morning. And the feel of sunshine on my arms -- these were the first signs that my body was coming alive to sensation again.

Recovery meant rebuilding my life and learning to trust myself again. Rediscovering my interests and passions. I wanted to be unafraid and I wanted to be my unmedicated self. So I badgered my psychiatrist into taking me off the drugs. After that I quit therapy. And I didn't go back to banking, I took on a new challenge -- I decided to get serious about writing fiction, finally started doing what I'd been doing on the side for years. As I started to take action, my confidence returned. I began to recover my lost self.

Statistically, people who have suffered from depression are far more likely to suffer a relapse. So what can you do to prevent a recurrence?

Learn to listen to your body and recognise warning signs. Pay attention to changes in behaviour patterns -- sleeping, eating and mood. I was chronically insomniac in the months leading up to my PND and I see that as a major factor. Sleep deprivation grinds you down, distorts your thinking, crushes your spirit. Increases in irritability or anxiety levels are also potential symptoms. And if there are recurring unresolved difficulties in your life -- relationship failure, problems with booze or drugs -- they will have to be tackled.

I am evangelical about exercise. If you are sceptical about this, spend 10 minutes on the web reading about the positive effects of exercise on serotonin and dopamine.

There is absolutely no question in my mind that walking, running or swimming can be as effective as low-dose anti-depressants. But it requires more effort than swallowing a pill. My husband used to literally hand me the dog lead and open the front door -- it was always the right thing to do.

Over the years I have plenty tons of books on depression but the best of them all is the one with the worst title: Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. A big fat practical and highly informative book by Jon Kabat Zinn, who runs the famous Stress Reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. I still keep it by my bedside.

I was once asked in an interview if I thought depression had made me a better person.

I don't believe in silver linings. I don't think going through a bad time is character building. At most, it might give you some insight and empathy and recovery certainly makes you aware of your own considerable strength. When you are on the floor there are only two options: you can stay there forever or you can somehow struggle to your feet and move on with your life.

Aifric Campbell's novel On The Floor is published by Serpent's Tail and priced €16.58.

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