As the world mourns the death of the legendary actor Robin Williams, who battled for years at the hands of the silent yet devastating disease known commonly as  depressionMichele Campbell explains her own painful journey and how she got out again.

My fiancé broke up with me and I wanted to die. It’s not that those two things were necessarily dependent on each other, as I had suffered from a long bout of depression years before, but it certainly triggered a horrendous spiral back into depression’s clutches.

The breakup story itself isn’t actually very interesting. I was more in love with him than he was with me. I dragged him to a counsellor so we could work it out, and with the help of said counsellor, he was able to communicate that he wanted out of our engagement and had proposed to me because he wasn’t ready for a breakup at the time. Pretty brutal stuff. Something to grieve, of course. But a breakup isn’t a life-ending event; it’s just a breakup.

My friends and family were righteously indignant on my behalf, which was amazing. My best friend and I ate endless plates of nachos and came up with hundreds of clever and insulting names for my ex. I cried, I complained, I laughed when my students compared me to Medea [a woman in Greek mythology who seeks bitter revenge on her husband] – hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I grieved, I prayed that I’d get over it, and the months rolled by.

But then, I didn’t get over it. My ex and I parted ways in April and by the following October, conversation about the  ‘terrible sad breakup’ had gotten tedious for everyone, especially me. I tried putting on a happy face, going out on dates and talking about everything but the past. As far as anyone could tell, I was fine. This was the year Beyoncé’s Single Ladies track was released and I may have participated in an excessive number of karaoke rounds at slightly disreputable entertainment venues to blow off steam  – hell hath no fury like a woman singing about putting a ring on it.

Then, autumn turned into winter and in Minnesota, USA, that means cold, dark and snowy. My daily routine went from long walks by the lake after work and picnics with friends on the weekend to: leave for work in the dark, come home from work in the dark, shovel snow, scrape ice, and sleep. Nobody really notices if you’re more isolated in the winter than you are the rest of the year, because it is such a hassle to get anywhere, everyone goes out less. Also, I was a high school teacher and the advisor for our yearbook, so long hours at school left me with little energy for anything else.

When Christmas rolled along, it didn’t seem unusual that I wasn’t excited about it. When my birthday came, I didn’t have the energy to plan anything, even though I love it when people sing to me. At some point, a listlessness and complete disinterest in everything scooted into my life and I didn’t even notice. That is, until I was journaling one morning and I saw words come out of my hands that I had never written before: This isn’t worth it. I want out of here. I want to die.

And I didn’t really even care that I felt that way. It’s difficult to write a linear narrative of the experience of depression, because something happened to my experience of time and space that winter. Everything slowed down and felt like it lasted forever, and at the same time, days passed by so quickly that I didn’t notice the difference between one and another. I was able to show up for work every day, but couldn’t do anything but the bare minimum for my students. I wasn’t really hungry, but I ate all the time. I went to sleep at 4pm and woke up at 2am to spend the night watching mind-numbing television. I stopped returning phone calls, preferring to hide the fact that I hated the entire world and wanted to find a way out. And I cried, not anymore about my breakup, but about my complete and total lack of hope for a happy future.

Doctors would later tell me that a combination of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – where darkness and winter disturb the brain’s chemical balance – along with my “traumatic life event”, triggered the depression. But back then I was too empty to notice. My brain felt like it was filled with gears that wouldn’t turn. I couldn’t concentrate and became forgetful, misplacing important documents and constantly searching for my keys. I wept at the slightest things: not being able to find the right kind of cereal at the store, losing a scarf, bumping my toes against a door jam. My hair felt too tight. I gained over 10kg, let the dust gather on my gym bag, and avoided all social events. I felt that everyone in the world was happier than me. It was like being trapped under a heavy blanket in a swimming pool. The best I could do was tread water, exhausted, and try to keep breathing. I couldn’t find my way out and was so listless that self-care was beyond me.

My best friend saved my life by helping me to admit that I was really, really unwell and that I needed to do something about it. I started a course of medication and found a counsellor to give me some strategies to help change my behaviour, diet, and activity levels. My mental balance started to return. Slowly, over the following year, I found things to be hopeful about and channelled my energy into discovering new interests and left behind the old dreams for good. However my SAD kept returning, so years later I made a drastic life change by moving to the UAE. Sunshine and vitamin D! Who knew?

If you or someone you care about is suffering from depression, be kind: it’s a temporary problem that has a solution. Our fragile human minds and hearts need compassion to find a way out.

I still struggle with balancing  my mood and have to be pretty vigilant with my diet and exercise, but as long as I look after myself, I’m OK. Depression made me believe that I was no good, that I was unwanted and useless, and that no one would ever love me. Depression is a liar.


Trouble sleeping

Difficulty concentrating

Feeling hopeless

Losing your appetite or overeating

Inability to control negative thoughts

More irritable or aggressive than normal

Engaging in reckless behaviour

Thoughts that life isn’t worth living

If you feel you may be suffering from depression, see your GP for advice


Words: Michelle Campbell

 Image: Getty