When I was in high school I visited my brother at university. I remember reading a sign that said, 'Feeling homesick? Feeling lonely?' and listed support services.
In my naivety I asked, 'How can you feel alone when you are surrounded by people?' Little did I know, three years later I would find out.
Initially, university was all I expected it to be. I did well in my subjects, I made heaps of friends and went to all the social events. I had a great time, minus getting glandular fever. This physical illness didn't stop me from achieving what I wanted. Mental illness however, was a whole other ball game.
I once read this quote on the wall of a Headspace waiting room:
"Mental illness is like fighting a war where the enemy's strategy is to convince you that the war isn't happening."
It sums up my experience perfectly. After a great first semester, I returned to university without the same enthusiasm. It took me four weeks to get back into study, I just wanted to stay in holiday mode.
I began feeling that things weren't quite right. I wasn't feeling motivated. I actually felt bored. I briefly saw a counsellor and put it down to the fact I wasn't excited by my subjects.
The end of the year came and I applied to become a Student Leader for the next year. I'm not sure why I applied. Maybe because my two best friends were and I didn't want to miss out. And maybe because I felt guilty about how much rent my parents were paying for me.
I got the position which involved running weekly events for students, working 8-hours a week in the office and attending regular team meetings. We had training a few weeks before the semester, already I was feeling the pressure. Not only did I have to be a model student, I would have to put a lot of effort into the job.
Three weeks in and I was feeling overwhelmed. Working as a Student Leader, studying, going to class and socialising. I was living from week to week. I thought 'If I can just get through this week I'll be ok'. But, come Monday it would all start again.
I stopped going out with friends and I didn't attend any of the big social events. 'What you're not going on the Harbour Cruise?!' someone asked me in disbelief. 'I don't want to ok. Just leave me alone!' I snapped back and stormed off.
I hated taking meals in the dining room, I just wanted to spend hours alone in my room. As clichéd as it sounds, I listened to sad music and cried. It was frustrating to be so low. I felt hopeless, desperate (for what I don't know) and just incredibly sad.
I don't think my friends understood, or if they did they didn't make me aware. This was a massive barrier to seeking help and I went on pretending I was okay. Just like the enemy convincing you nothing is happening, right?
For me depression was like autumn. The first cool winds were just a breeze and I didn't take notice. Then the leaves on the trees began to gradually change colour, slowly falling until the tree was empty. It's not like one day the leaves were there and the next they weren't. Depression was a gradual change and one day, out of the blue, I woke up in a dark winter.
My boyfriend at the time couldn't understand. 'Why can't you just be happy?' he asked. I didn't know the answer which made it worse.
One day I was sitting in the dining room trying to eat breakfast and silently tears began streaming down my face. I wasn't sobbing. I was just completely empty. Some students tried to comfort me, asking what was wrong, which I couldn't answer, so they took me to see the head of the campus. She asked me if I was okay, I said no and burst into a big sobbing mess.
Having someone genuinely ask if I was okay was probably the turning point. It was a question of actual concern, not just a question because I was crying. It felt like 'are you coping with life?' It was a relief to finally have someone ask.
When I am well my internal dialogue is positive, quiet and in the background. As my depression advanced, a negative version of myself appeared in my thoughts. It was nasty, mean and insulting. The 'good' version of me was shut down and eventually became non-existent.
One day I wrote down all the feelings I was experiencing. They included despair, frustration, sorrow, anger, sadness, hopelessness and complete emptiness. This made me feel so distressed and I didn't know what to do. It was at this point that I called my mum and said I was booking a flight home. Exams were only a week away and I managed to get a doctor's certificate to defer them. My parents had no idea I was as bad as I was. I was very good at hiding it and I didn't tell them because I didn't want them to worry.
One night I began hearing voices inside my head. It was internal, not auditory, and they were saying things like 'you will be ok,' 'you are safe, we're here for you'. I told my mum about the voices and she was worried. She took me to the hospital where I spoke to a mental health nurse, who made an appointment for me at Headspace.
When I went to Headspace I retold my story to for the third time. The doctor said to me 'you've got depression' and I cried again. But it was a cathartic release, I was actually relieved and pleased to finally know there was a reason I was feeling like this!
I was prescribed antidepressants which helped reverse the nasty internal dialogue and lifted me to a place where I could function again. I was also having regular sessions with my youth worker and the doctor.
I can't exactly pinpoint my 'lightbulb' moment, but ending up in emergency would be up there. It's a situation I'm trying my damned hardest to prevent… but sometimes lightbulbs dim or go out completely. It's important for people to support their friends and loved ones who are going through a tough time. Because, when you're feeling around in the dark, sometimes all you really need is for someone else to turn the lights on for you.