Support group helping to lift the shroud of anxiety and depression

Despair
Despair

Depression develops like the incoming of the night: it seeps in at first, an intruder slipping in while you’re busy with your day’s work.

And then, as if from nowhere, it appears all at once like swathes of fog, a riddling bleakness as suffocating as a shroud.

SUPPORT: Sue Ashmore, a co-ordinator of The Comfort Zone. (S)

SUPPORT: Sue Ashmore, a co-ordinator of The Comfort Zone. (S)

I’m 26 now, and was diagnosed with depression more than a year ago. But I’ve battled with my mental health for at least 10 years. My grandma thinks, at my age, I shouldn’t have a care in the world. But depression doesn’t discriminate against age.

At school I was an A* pupil, topped my year in GCSEs and left with a number of awards. The world, as they say, was my “oyster”. But I was burnt out - I no longer had the energy to hunt for pearls. Here’s another thing the illness doesn’t discriminate against: supposed success.

In fact, it doesn’t care if you’re a model, an astronaut, a new mother, a married man or the life-and-soul of the party.

It’s something Ann Cooper, reduced by the illness to an echo of her former self, knows all too well.

You can take a tablet for a headache and put a plaster on a cut but the brain is the organ people know so little about

Ann

A Burnley resident who travelled around the world, she rarely left the house while consumed by the condition, couldn’t face being behind the wheel and was unable to cross the road without dissolving into panic.

Once a successful business woman with an active social life, she became fearful of answering the phone or visiting a shop. No-one saw her; friends thought she was away on holiday. Her home had become her prison.

Isolation

Isolation is the lifeblood of depression. Some people, like many of the elderly, live alone, struggle with mobility and rarely see their loved ones. Others - young or middle aged - have a car, a busy job and several friends to hide behind. Either way, depression tricks you into thinking you’re on your own. I, for example, have always had terrible self-esteem, believing myself to be a burden, unlovable and unworthy of people’s time, despite having grown up in a loving home, having wonderful friends and a childhood free of trauma. As a girl, I hadn’t seen the goodness in my introversion, and as society tended to look unfavourably on it, I was scared of the rejection that seemed inevitable if I was to ever be myself. I felt my only option was to keep quiet, put on a mask and pretend I was alright. Since I was shy and studious - two things seeming slightly more acceptable than introversion - I could easily hide my mental health issues, hauling myself up in my bedroom where I’d have the privacy to unravel.

Unfortunately, habits, including self-abuse, form deep impressions: my adult life followed the same course and I found new ways in which to measure my inadequacy. And as my responsibilities grew, I came up with further excuses to put on a “brave” face. This is another lie we tell ourselves - only honesty is courage. In fact, I think it was actually my insistence on continuing normal social engagements that made me feel all the more different to everyone else - fragility, after all, makes us all the same, and yet society in general persuades us to present our lives as perpetually fun and glossy. All this front does is make you feel like a fraud, backing up your beliefs of being an exile.

Ann can understand the isolation that comes with depression and chronic anxiety, the overarching theme for her being loss. “The contributing factors came quickly, one after the other. Up to about four years ago I had a busy life but when I retired my children left the nest and I had a string of bereavements: I lost my mother, my sister 12 months later and six friends in six months. I also had a relationship breakdown and medical issues. I began to fear the future. Along with everything I’d known before, I also lost my sense of self-worth. I thought I was inadequate. As a result, I lost a significant amount of weight and had bad sleeping patterns”.

Stigma

She knows, therefore, the importance of talking about mental health.

“You can take a tablet for a headache and put a plaster on a cut but the brain is the organ people know so little about.”

Lancashire, she believes, lives by the mantra: “Pull yourself together”, as if you are the puppet master of your own life. That’s all well and good, but depression makes the strings seem like a tangle of split ends.

Ann explained: “People tell you: ‘Everyone gets stressed’. But I could handle stress; I thrived off it. I have a degree in business management, so I could problem-solve under pressure. But depression took that ability away. So when someone says it’s just stress, you feel weak; the stigma stops you talking about your mental health.”

“The illness builds up slowly. Mine took three years to manifest itself. I ignored what was there because I had both good and bad times. I didn’t tell anyone about it for six months due to fear and embarrassment and as a result I felt further isolated. The key was to start breaking that vicious circle”.

Changes in society

Through a career spent working with families, Ann has seen the eradication of nets placed within the community to catch those who might be slipping: employment was more readily available, schooling was simpler, and there was a greater sense of neighbourliness.

She said: “The structure of society - communication, the workplace, a person’s environment - has changed. There are more pressures on family units. Politics is ruled by fear. Workers are controlled by gossip.”

New Support Group

Swamped in depression and waiting seven months for six sessions of therapy after consulting her GP, Ann had nowhere to go. Mind Matters in Gannow, she noted, the first port of call for referrals by GPs, is over-subscribed.

Wanting to help mend the fissures in our medical services - and build a dam stemming the tidal wave that is depression - Sue Ashmore (pictured) became one of several coordinators for The Comfort Zone, a peer-led support group that launched on Tuesday, June 7th. Inspiration for its format came from Ruby Wax’s drop-in “Frazzled Cafes”: while counselling is not available, residents are given a safe place to chat about their experiences over a brew, helping them to regain control over their lives. It’s about, Sue said, helping people before it’s too late.

Ann, predicting it will take another 12 months to recover for the main part, handles her illness through exercise classes like tai chi, and meet-ups like film and bucket-list clubs. She believes herself lucky to already have tools in place - her long-standing status in the community, her strong personality, her financial stability - to help her cope beyond therapy.

But, she added: “Not everyone has them. Depression is an extremely destructive disorder, a hidden killer. To cope, for example, some people overeat while others starve themselves. The keys, however, are friendship and honesty - as well as learning to accept that ‘bad things happen’.”

That’s why support groups like the one in Burnley are rafts and oars to people who, perhaps saved from drowning by the life jackets of therapy and medication, are still drifting in a sea of depression.

Meetings are held at St Catherine’s Community Centre every Tuesday from 1-30 - 3pm.