The scariest thing to ever happen to a person, I believe, is for them to one day look at the mirror and not recognising the person staring back at them. Even though I do not wish this to happen to anyone, I do believe it is something that we will all go through at least once in our lives. The question we should ask ourselves, then, is “will I be ready for it when it eventually happens to me?”

There’s a way it happens, though. I know because it happened to me a few months ago. Here’s how:

Like the proverbial thief that comes in the night, you never see it coming. It creeps in slowly, and when it does, it always starts off as small alterations to your normal routine. It might start with you not being able to sleep through the night; or you feeling tired all the time; or you losing interest in the things that once sparked a fire in you; or any number of things that make you feel like something is wrong, even though you don’t know what.

This thing eventually builds into a sinking feeling that you can’t explain. You feel yourself sinking into a dark hole, but whenever people ask you what is wrong, you never have the words to explain to them what is happening.

Once this sinking feeling has put its arms around you, like a crying baby clinging to a leaving parent, it doesn’t let go of you until it is satisfied that it can’t do anything else. You start feeling like it is the only you you can live. You believe that the sleepless night are normal, that feeling tired all the time is how it should always be for someone who is doing a lot of work, and that losing interest in the things that once made you happy is a sign that you are growing.

Eventually, you give in to this feeling and pick up habits that that justify its existence. You might turn to drugs because they help you cope with feeling tired all the time, or start drinking a lot of alcohol because passing out from doing it is the only way you can sleep more than five hours at a time, or even take a few hours a day to cry because that is the only time when the load you are carrying feels a little less heavy.

One day, after a drunken night out with friends, you look at yourself one more time in the mirror and realise that the person staring back at you is not you; that they are a complete stranger. You try to smile at them, hoping you will somehow recognise them. But this doesn’t work. The smile, somehow, makes it worse. You realise that you don’t know them, and this scares you.

To put yourself at ease, you go seek help because, over the past few weeks, you have become a complete stranger to yourself.

You speak to a friend. They ask you what is wrong, but you can’t give them an answer because you, yourself, don’t know. They tell you to take it easy for a while. “No more alcohol for you,” they say. But you know you can’t do that because without alcohol you can’t sleep. You agree to do it anyway, and it works for the first few days. But, when you start recognising the man in the mirror, the sleepless nights return. You go back to tossing and turning the whole night, listening to the silence of others peacefully resting.

So back to the bottle you run. But this time, you go seek help from a professional. You wake up one morning, the alcoholic stench of the previous night relentlessly clinging to you even after a long shower, and go to the doctor’s office. The receptionist greets you as you walk in. Her smile is soft, welcoming. She asks you how she can help. “I need help,” you respond. “Fill out this form,” she says, and for some reason, you start feeling alone again.

“I need help, not to fill out a form,” you think to yourself, but do it anyway.

They say you will only know how alone you are once you go through a tough time, and when the receptionist turns to you, her warm smile now replaced by a colder and more professional look, and says the only appointment available is in five weeks time, everything sinks again. You plead with her. “But I need help now,” you say, only to be reminded that the office caters for over 20 000 students, so there’s nothing she can do.

You go back home hoping the next five weeks will not be your last.

But, as the weeks go by, more and more people reach out to you. While you still feel alone, the hands reaching out to you remind you that you are not. People you haven’t spoken to in years reach out, mainly because they see in you the same hopelessness they once felt a few years back. They tell you it will be fine, and for some reason you believe them.

So, you go on. You go back to your family who, while not knowing what to do, do all they can to help. The love you feel from them cocoons you, and you feel safe again. The feeling of loneliness slowly dies away, and you start to feel like yourself again. Their words of encouragement cushion your fall, and you start remembering what it is like to be yourself again. You begin to laugh again, and when you look in the mirror, the person staring back starts to look familiar.

“There’s still a long way to go,” you tell yourself. But for the first time in a long time, you feel ready to face whatever comes your way. IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY! You know it! You believe it!


Tell us: have you ever felt this kind of depression yourself? How did it go away?

Note: This article forms part of the new #Todalavida Mindspace series in which writers reflect on their personal experiences.