I sat around at home feeling paralyzed and numb
Petra, 46 years old
“Even the slightest movement was unbelievably exhausting. It felt like trying to walk through thick, sticky mud.”
I already had signs of depression a long time ago, when I was 17 or 18 years old. I’m 46 now. Back then I didn’t consider them to be signs of an illness.
My performance at school got worse and worse
I always used to get good grades, or even very good grades, at school. But I started finding it harder to learn and concentrate around the 10th grade. My performance plummeted. I couldn’t keep up and didn’t have a clue why. After school I did an apprenticeship, and everything went well again, no problems. Then I started studying and the problems returned. I could no longer cope with the demands of my life. It all got too much for me. At home too. I sometimes started crying for no reason, really sobbing violently. Looking back I’d say I had a lot of small nervous breakdowns. But I always managed to pick myself up after a while, and got my college degree in the end.
I thought just had to pull myself together
After graduating I had to start looking for a job. Instead I spent months at home, sitting on the sofa and staring into space. I simply couldn’t bring myself to send off any applications. My boyfriend at the time went out to work while I sat around at home. The thought that I might be ill never crossed my mind. It felt more like I wasn’t functioning properly, not like other people. Then I managed to pull myself together again: I climbed out of the hole, sent off job applications, got a job and started living a normal life again. But I always felt different to my friends and colleagues, even when things were going well. I had less energy than they did. And I kept falling into these deep holes.
At one point a friend’s boyfriend had severe depression and was in therapy. I asked my friend if she thought I might have something similar. She just said: “No, not you. You’ve just got to pull yourself together.” That was like a slap in the face. But I believed her. It really affected me for many years, and made it hard for me to get help.
Then I got physically sick too. Whenever I went through a personal crisis I got an eye infection. The doctors did a thorough check-up but couldn’t find out what was causing it. But the infection kept coming back whenever something in my life wasn’t quite right.
I went through good and bad phases
I had depressive phases and good phases. I’d often get along just fine for two to three years. And then there were times when I couldn’t cope for months. After my relationship back then ended, I actually went to see a psychiatrist because I collapsed into crying fits and felt paralyzed. It was clear to me that it was more than just a normal reaction to a break-up. The doctor mentioned depression and therapy for the first time. But I got scared, didn’t want to hear it, and didn’t go back. I sat around at home, I was a total mess. Memories came back to me. I knew that things had gone wrong in my childhood and teens, and bottled it all up. Back then I thought that if I allowed the memories to surface even a tiny bit then they would overwhelm and suffocate me. I didn’t want to face that and decided to cope with things on my own.
A few years later I had a big argument at work with my boss. He crossed a line and something inside of me snapped. After that I started getting ill all the time, kept getting infections and things. I was totally out of whack. Then I didn’t know what to do with myself at home and was always happy to get back to work after holidays and sick leave. But I started making stupid mistakes at work, didn’t get stuff finished on time, felt like I couldn’t keep up and wasn’t able to concentrate.
The idea that I might have depression now felt “right”
The situation at work kept getting worse. But I carried on going to work and thought: “I have to perform, I can’t let my colleagues down!” Then I got an unjustified warning at work too, but didn’t have the energy to defend myself. During that time a friend of mine asked me whether I might be suffering from depression. I felt like he might have a point. It felt “right” and I told myself that something had to change, that I had to get help.
So I started looking for a therapist. It wasn’t difficult to find one where I live. I cried my eyes out during the first session. I was a total wreck – we talked about things that I had been bottling up my whole life. I felt like I was losing control and wouldn’t be able to cope, and thought it might not be right for me. But I also thought that therapy maybe just had to be that way.
After the first few therapy sessions I had another breakdown, and cried and shook for hours. It was so bad I couldn’t stop. My friend made sure that I went to see a doctor, and I was given a sick note. Then I sat around at home feeling paralyzed and numb. Every movement took an incredible amount of strength. I literally sat on the sofa and didn’t move. Even the slightest movement was unbelievably exhausting. It felt like trying to walk through thick, sticky mud. Even just going to the kitchen to get a drink was sometimes too much for me. Shopping was a big project that would take up the whole day. I simply couldn’t manage to do any more than that. Things carried on like that for weeks. My employer fired me during that time, which actually came as a big relief to me.
I found the right therapist for me
I then stopped seeing my first therapist and contacted a different therapist who a friend of mine had recommended. I knew right away, in the first session, that she was the right therapist for me. I felt at ease with her from the start. But by that point I was in such a bad way that my doctor referred me to a hospital first. I spent three months in the hospital. During that time I finally dared to face my traumatic childhood and teenage memories. It was the first time I had ever spoken about things and allowed the memories to come back. I realized for the first time that I was traumatized. When I left the hospital I started outpatient therapy.
A while later I went back to a hospital for two months. The symptoms had started again: I felt out of place, couldn’t concentrate, it all got too much for me. During my second hospital stay I talked in depth about my past again and gradually felt more stable.
I was off work sick for a long time in total. The acute phase of severe depression lasted two years. During that time I also had daily outpatient treatment in a hospital for three months. One session of therapy per week wasn’t enough for me.
The hospital helped me get onto an occupational rehabilitation program and – after two years of sick leave and two years of medical and occupational rehabilitation – I was able to start working again. But I can’t work full time any more. I simply don’t have the energy. I’ve been working part-time since then and am semi-retired.
I can live life again
I haven’t had acute depression for quite a long time now and can live my life again. I’m going to therapy again – analytical therapy combined with trauma therapy – and am learning to live with what happened in my family. One important issue for me is setting boundaries in my life and taking care of myself. If other people ask me for help, I still find it hard to say no sometimes. I also still find it difficult to accept that I can’t do as much as I’d like to, and need to take a lot of breaks. You always compare yourself with others, but it’s important to stay “in tune with yourself”.
I also tried out behavioral therapy once. That wasn’t quite right for me. The depth-psychology-based approaches felt better, more suitable, for me and my past. It took a while for me to get used to going into so much depth during therapy. But I realized that it was a road that I had to go down in order to work through important issues in my life and my past. It’s a long road. But I’m already much better at setting boundaries. And I’m always proud of myself when I manage to do so!
I still couldn’t do without medication
I also take medication. Back then the antidepressants gave me the chance to do therapy in the first place. I wouldn’t have been able to talk about things without them. I still need medication now. If I forget to take my tablets I notice a difference. Then I become more and more withdrawn and feel like I can’t cope. It’s clear to me that I need the medication and I have to take it regularly. I haven’t ever had any side effects, apart from putting on a little weight. But that doesn’t really bother me.
Depression has nothing to do with pulling yourself together
Depression has nothing to do with pulling yourself together. Anyone can be affected by depression. There is no need to be ashamed. I don’t tell everyone about my depression. But if I’m ever in a situation where I feel I have to, then I tell people why I can’t do certain things. That could go wrong I guess, but I’ve always been lucky so far. People have always accepted it, which often made things easier between us. I’m extremely lucky where I work now. My boss and colleagues are totally understanding. For example, it’s usually not a problem if I take a few days off work at short notice because I feel like it’s all getting too much for me.
There were times when I couldn’t see a future for myself. My life consisted of the next three days. Thinking beyond that scared me. I was never really in danger of committing suicide, but I often thought about it, sometimes even daily. If those thoughts started taking over, I looked for help. For instance, I went to see my doctor or called a helpline. Those chats helped me out of the tunnel of negative thoughts.
More pleasant moments, more joy
Treatment has helped me feel better and enjoy things again. I used to go riding a lot. And now I’ve started taking care of a young horse again. I really enjoy doing that. And that joy was missing from my life for so long. I had forgotten how it felt to enjoy life. But I’m still very scared that things could go back to how they were when the depression was so bad. If you’ve ever felt that bad in your life it’s not easy to forget. It takes a long time before you can feel strong again. But what I learned in therapy has made me feel more positive about the future.
At first my problem was diagnosed as recurrent depression. Over time it developed into chronic depression. Because of my difficult past, I also have posttraumatic stress disorder and a dependent personality disorder.
I think it’s important that people aren’t afraid to get help. It can take an incredible amount of strength and courage. And therapy is pretty hard work too! You usually have to wait weeks to get a therapy appointment. But you mustn’t give up. You might get an appointment sooner than expected. If needs be you can ask someone else to make an appointment for you. And it can take a while before you find the right therapist and feel like you're in good hands. Sometimes you have to be very patient and persistent.
Self-help groups also offer support. Therapy comes to an end at some point. And self-help groups can be good for people who do not get a therapy appointment straight away and have to wait. It can be hard to take the first step and contact a self-help group. But the people there are very familiar with depression and understand where you’re coming from.
Some people are more open about their depression than others. It’s totally up to the individual to decide. I chose to talk openly about it and that’s working out well for me.
Our real-life stories summarize interviews with people who are affected by the medical condition. Our interview partners have given us permission to publish their stories. We would like to express our sincere thanks to them.
The real-life stories give an insight into how other people cope and live with a medical condition. Their opinions and comments are not recommendations by IQWiG.
Please note: The names of our interview partners have been changed to protect their identity. The photos are of models.