Burdened by shame and fear Karl Mercer hid his depression from his family for years, until last Christmas
Depression is ugly and mean. It’s like Donald Trump having a Twitter tantrum inside your head; all the thoughts are horrible and illogical but there’s nothing you can do to shut them up. Yet, unlike the luminous troglodyte currently running the USA, depression is completely invisible. Most people I know who suffer from it hide it with such astonishing skill they could work as international spies but, they don’t. Instead they expend their energy simply trying to function day to day, whether that be forcing themselves to cook a meal or discovering the courage inside themselves to leave the house. Believe me when I say, it’s exhausting.
I hid my depression for the longest time. It’s only recently I’ve learnt to become more open about it and yet, despite being able to share my experiences to even you, anonymous stranger, I found it impossible to tell my parents. The crushing fear of what they might say, do or think paralysed me whenever I came even close to telling them. That was, until last Christmas. This is my Christmas story.
Like many people with depression Christmas is a hard time of year for me. I think it’s the expectation that I should be happy when largely I’m not. So, I’ve always avoided drinking around Christmas because being sad is the worst mixer you can add to gin. Last year though I threw caution to the wind and got utterly wasted.
We went to a bleak function room where the staff and the food looked as miserable as I felt. It was Boxing Day at my Gran’s that tipped me over the edge. Sick of answering questions about why I wasn’t successful and feeling like an utter disappointment I made the active decision to get drunk, despite all my better judgement, knowledge and experience. Family are amazing, and I’m lucky to have one that loves me so much. But, that doesn’t alter the fact that they know exactly how to get under my skin more than any other humans on the planet and when you couple that with ongoing mental battle with depression you’re in for a bad time. Being banned from playing a Catchphrase style game, because I’m too good at it, was the last straw.
Lubricated with booze, every pretence of happiness crumbled away and underneath I wasn’t just sad, I was angry. At my family, at the bullshit season of forced jollity but most of all, I was angry at myself for having the damn audacity of existing. After a hushed and heated argument with my parents, in which I refused to come home for Christmas ever again, myself and my little brother escaped to the local Wetherspoons. We bought a bottle of the cheapest rosé each, and I started ranting at him obnoxiously, without pause and full of self loathing.
At this point, things started to veer wildly off kilter. Looking back now I see the rest of the night as a series of ever sadder snapshots. There’s me, in the Wetherspoons toilets crying. And there’s me again, smoking though I don’t smoke and telling my brother’s friends how disgusting Christmas is. The next is me buying McDonalds and then 10 minutes later throwing it over a bridge and screaming. Then I’m walking home ringing my girlfriend Jenny, apologising, venting, not listening properly to her caring words or the fear in her voice. Until we come to a photo of me stood by train tracks wanting to jump.
I was exhausted of pretending to be okay and even more exhausted of not being okay
Stood there, contemplating the tracks in front of me, my first thought was, “Fuck, I wish I hadn’t thrown my McDonalds away.” Then that frustration was compounded when I realised that no bloody train was going to be belting through my tiny town at 3am on Boxing Day. Just as I started cursing the world I heard my brother calling to me, “If you throw yourself in front of a train I’ll fucking kill you.”
Defeated, I sat myself down on the ground and he sat next to me. I was exhausted of pretending to be okay and even more exhausted of not being okay. We sat in silence until my brother, without being prompted, told me about his bouts of anxiety and how he had struggled. Listening to him speak helped me order my thoughts and together, there in the cold, I told him about my own mental health issues. It felt good to be honest and not censor myself, to say I felt shitty and that things seemed pointless. Then he gently suggested I tell our mum and dad how much I was struggling. Well, I say gently, his actual words were, “Fucking tell mum and dad.” So, when we got home, I did.
Through tears I told my parents everything. How I was ill, how I was sorry, how I’d struggled for years, that it wasn’t their fault, that I was sorry, and ashamed, that I didn’t want to disappoint them, that I was seeking help but that sometimes I felt so sad I just didn’t know what to do, that I was sorry, that I was so, so sorry.
My parents cried too. I felt terrible for upsetting them and they told me not to. They asked why I hadn’t told them but I couldn’t articulate it. After confiding everything in one huge torrent I felt kind of stupid for not telling them before and I could tell that I had hurt their feelings. That they just wanted to be there for me and look after me and by keeping my depression a secret I’d robbed them of the opportunity to help. I think the idea of me suffering alone and them not noticing was what upset them the most, which in turn made me feel guiltier. I said sorry for maybe the hundredth time, then went to bed.
The day after, I shuffled downstairs dreading all conversation. The thought of looking my parents in the eye and talking about the night before filled me with shame, fear and embarrassment. I expected a Gestapo level interrogation. Instead, I edged into the living room to find a bacon butty and a cup of coffee waiting for me. The only thing my parents asked me was what I wanted for tea later.
It was awkward. Or, rather, I felt awkward about it. After everything I’d kept from them and everything I’d drunkenly spilled I was certain that things would be different between us, that I had somehow severed some invisible thread of understanding and trust. But, nothing had changed, at least not for the worse. The crushing fear of disappointing my parents, losing their respect and love, hadn’t happened. On the contrary, I felt even closer to them.
Later in the day my Dad came up to me in the kitchen and gave me a huge hug. He told me how he had often struggled with ‘black thoughts’ and that he’d never told me or my brother because he wanted to protect us. I realised that my Dad had been suffering in silence just like I had and that by being open with him I’d given him an opportunity to be open with me. He said, “I’m not angry at you for not telling us. I understand why you didn’t. But just know, you’re not alone, we’ll always be here. Even if we do annoy you, it’s tough shit ‘cause you’re stuck with us.”
I couldn’t see it at the time, my head was engulfed in dark and I was blind to everything other than how I felt. But, at every moment of my hellish night I had someone willing to listen, wanting to be there for me and make sure I was okay. I had a support network of people that I assumed would run away at the first sign of my depression but they didn’t. I felt the worst so I had assumed the worst, which is stupid. Yet, when I realised this the first thing I thought was, “I don’t deserve them. They’ve made a mistake. I’m not a good person.” I felt so scared and worthless that I couldn’t accept the help I never thought existed in the first place because I felt I was a waste of their time. Everyone I loved had to hate me because I hated myself and if they didn’t they were wrong and it was my fault for conning them.
When I told Jenny this she said lots of amazing things because she herself is pretty amazing, but one of the things that stuck out in my mind was this: “If I left you because you got depressed then I’m not the sort of person you should have in your life anyway. And that’s true of all people.” And she’s right.
So like all good Christmas stories this has a happy ending and some lovely lessons to take home with you. Firstly, don’t drink if you’re sad. Secondly, Christmas is the season for sharing, so tell your loved ones if you feel like shit. And thirdly, regardless of what your head may tell you, you are not alone, you deserve to be heard and there is always someone willing to listen.
If you need support over the Christmas period you can call Samaritans on 116 123 or visit their website.