Whilst Malta boasts the lowest suicide rates in Europe, January is a time traditionally notorious for a spike in feelings of sadness, and sometimes it's not just a case of the "January Blues". Blogger and mental health campaigner Claire Attard speaks to Lovin Malta about the years she spent suffering from clinical depression. Her plea – for anyone having a similar experience to reach out and get help.
My name is Claire. I’m 22 years old, and I’m recovering from clinical depression.
People don't generally associate depression with young people, or children, except if they've had a traumatic experience in their life – such as abuse, the loss of a parent, divorce or the like. I had none of these.
My story starts off with a typical upbringing. I had a happy childhood with lots of friends, I was active in sports and had a passion for travelling and writing stories. It was during my secondary education, between the ages of 11 and 16, that I started feeling different. I started to develop a fascination for crimes, murders and mysteries – which earned me the title of ‘weirdo’ and ‘strange girl’ among my peers.
"I had a normal, happy childhood before secondary school..."Claire Attard, blogger and mental health campaigner
This fuelled unrelenting attacks from bullies and I ended up with few friends. I’d constantly feel low and isolated and unbeknownst to me, this would be the start of a decade of sadness and emptiness.
After those dark secondary school days, I spent two years at Junior College and I managed to hold down a job in a department store all throughout my time at Sixth Form. During my first year I did quite well, but during the second year things started collapsing. I’d lost my uncle in June, and my grandfather just four months later – four days before his birthday. I kept insisting to myself that I was an outcast, and nobody would want me as a friend, classmate, colleague or lover. This made me practically reclusive, only having one or two friends, and I would be anxious around strangers.
I worked for two more years in a bookshop after Junior College, and enrolled at University at the age of 20 in a course specialising in Film Language and English. I spent most of the first year at University alone, reading or just walking around campus by myself. I loved the course but I felt constantly pressured to be my seemingly inexistent better self. My depression and low self-esteem was much more powerful than I’d imagined, and eventually I made the decision to drop out after the end-of-year exams in 2015. I was simply too sad to continue.
After I dropped out of University, I started looking for my first ‘adult’ job, stumbling upon a secretarial job in a law firm. I started working full-time to try making it by as an average, nice, seemingly cheerful person. But I was never happy with this job. I was very stressed at and unusually sad. My co-workers weren’t particularly nice to me, I’d take every bit of criticism and banter personally, and I’d cry myself to sleep every night.
"I would lock myself in the bathroom at work and just cry until my eyes hurt and my body was numb. I had no motivation, I wasn’t seeing my friends and I was finding it difficult to either sleep or get up in the morning"Claire Attard, blogger and mental health campaigner
This inevitably led to problems in my relationship at the time with my then-boyfriend. His approach to my sadness was harsh – suggestions to "buckle up", wear more make-up, change how I dressed, and to not listen to my parents and cut them off, were his go-to responses. But he did eventually encourage me to seek professional help, some ten years after I started displaying symptoms of depression.
The reason I hadn't done so sooner was lack of self-confidence. I was constantly shrugged off before being clinically diagnosed, always being told my low mood was “a phase”, or to just “cheer up”. The most commonly used saying was that “others have it worse” – which I knew full well, but when you are depressed and stuck in a world where you feel helpless, you think of nobody but your own problems, you can't help it. It is part of the illness and something some find hard to understand.
I finally decided to speak up and made an appointment to see my family doctor. At the time he said that there was a low chance that I had a thyroid problem that was causing some of the symptoms I was displaying, but after a couple of blood tests ruled out that option, it became clear that I was suffering from clinical depression. You would think that I’d be either relieved to finally be diagnosed, or concerned about the diagnosis but I felt neither. I was simply numb, as I had grown accustomed to being. I was prescribed antidepressants, but I noticed no particular difference in my moods in the following weeks.
"I became really good at hiding my sadness from colleagues and friends"Claire Attard, blogger and mental health campaigner
My family and my best friend were supportive when I told them the news of my diagnosis, even though I felt my family judged me pre-diagnosis. I found a job as a Teaching Assistant in a boys’ school, which was when work-related stress stopped. But my personal life took a huge knock. It was in March 2016 that I reached my lowest point. Just a few weeks after my 22nd birthday, my ex- broke off our relationship. We’d already talked about a potential future together, so when it was over I was frantic and in disbelief.
I was completely overwhelmed, and was displaying alarming behaviour to the point I had local authorities questioning my wellbeing. After taking me to a medical doctor, I was hospitalised for a week. I was at the lowest point in my life. I was in crisis.
Hospitalisation seemed like a living nightmare. I'd been kept there for my own safety, under constant surveillance in case I did anything silly. I’d speak frantically, stutter, twitch and cry uncontrollably for seemingly no reason. I also felt numb, and would stare blankly at hospital personnel when spoken to. The staff were all lovely, and kept encouraging me to be strong, and my dear mother was there by my side through it all, holding my hand and kissing me goodnight. I don't know what I would have done without her and I felt terrible and foolish for having cut her off from my life previously. I was offered another alternative whilst in hospital – to be submitted to a psychiatric ward. But I refused, thinking of the effects it would have on me, my family and few friends. I vowed to get better, no matter what it took.
After hospitalisation, I spent two days at home resting, writing stories and watching crime dramas – which calmed me. I soon got back to my Teaching Assistant work, and have since told my fellow workmates about my illness. Soon after I left hospital things started looking up and I met my current boyfriend, who himself had a traumatic experience in the past, so he understood my situation and has been extremely supportive.
At this point, still seeing no notable difference from the meds I had been prescribed from my GP, I plucked up my courage to call a psychiatrist. This is when the major changes started dawning. This specialist guided me towards new remedies that were aimed at curing mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, OCD, autism and more. I began a treatment called Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.
RTMS works by using magnets which are applied over specific parts of the person's head, to stimulate tired and depressed brain cells, which promotes recovery. The improvement is noted within a short period of time and it has no known side effects which is what makes it so appealing. RTMS sounds extreme but there is no contact with the scalp or any needles, pills, anaesthetic, no shock treatment or risk of memory loss. This therapy worked like a charm for me.
I was finally able to open my eyes on life, and how I was still loved by the people around me. My new relationship was making me happy and motivated me to be a better person. And I was also making amends with my family and with my close friends. It sounds like a cliche but I also found yoga to be a powerful tool to cleanse my mind from negativity, whilst also improving my posture. When you're at your lowest, the last thing you want to do is even think about getting out of bed, let alone exercising, but it has been proven to work wonders for improving your mood and sense of wellbeing.
In May 2016, I decided to start my own blog, From Claire’s POV to chronicle my recovery and self discovery towards happiness and inner peace. The blog was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Not only did it help me to release my own problems, but also helped others, who would contact me, thanking me for being so brave to talk about mental health.
"I'm finally feeling better after treatment and looking forward to a happy 2017"Claire Attard, blogger and mental health campaigner
I still see a therapist every four to six weeks. My blog is doing well and my relationships with my boyfriend and family couldn’t be any better. The only thing I would like now is to be completely medication free. But until that happens I keep myself active with my job, my relationship, exercise and social life, all the while putting myself first and foremost.
I would suggest to anyone who thinks they may be suffering from depression to talk about it with someone you trust. You might think that others will judge you, but rest assured that most people will understand and want to help by any means possible. If you still feel helpless, it's imperative that you seek help from a professional, I wish I'd done it sooner. Your life matters more than anything.
In case of a mental health crisis, contact Crisis Resolution Malta on 99339966. You can also check out their Facebook page for more information.