Many people connected with the University of Cape Town were deeply shaken in July 2018 when its enormously respected head of medicine, Professor Bongani Mayosi, took his life. His family revealed he had been struggling with depression for two years. Depression is, of course, not a Cape Town issue but a global epidemic that has now been named the world’s leading disability. No respecter of age, education, gender or culture, this oft-hidden condition has impacted people as diverse as Trevor Noah, Winston Churchill, Gwyneth Paltrow and J K Rowling, and is slashing increasingly ugly gashes in humanity’s side.
Forced underground, depression can grow even more pervasively. So today, Thislife Online starts a series of interviews investigating how people navigate their depression, just as they would have to deal with any other illness. Our sincere hope is that this will not only help others experiencing similar devastation – and those supporting them – but also encourage a culture of openness. So often it’s an exposing light that initiates healing.
Andiswa, Arthur, Jared and Jo, we salute your bravery in opening up about what you have gone through and are still going through. Here’s our first courageous interviewee, JO FOTHERGILL
JO FOTHERGILL (58) was born in London and grew up with three sisters in Sussex, UK. She studied economics at Cambridge University before working in stockbroking in New York and the UK. She is married to Richard, an Anglican minister, and has two adult daughters. They spent a number of years as a young family in Cape Town. Here, she tells THISLIFE ONLINE how she first experienced two brutal depressions following the birth of both her children, and has learnt to live with less severe depression to this day
Jo Fothergill: ‘My depression has been a massive learning curve that’s changed me as a person. It has made me more compassionate’ | Photo: Nicky Elliot
‘WE WERE THRILLED when our daughter Anna was born in August 1993. It was two weeks after Richard, who’d previously been in advertising, had taken up his first church job as a curate at St Stephen’s Church in Twickenham, London. But what should have been the start of a wonderful time in our lives became the start of a long, dark and traumatic journey for us both.
Within a few days of Anna’s birth, I found myself unable to sleep and feeling very panicky and fearful. I had no idea what was happening. After 10 days I was diagnosed with ‘mild post-natal depression’ and put on medication. I remember thinking at the time that if what I was feeling was mild, I couldn’t imagine what severe would be like. A week later I discovered, falling down further into a very desperate state in which I constantly contemplated suicide. I was terrified. It felt as if my brain would burst and I was unable to function normally, let alone look after my new baby.
When Jo and Richard married, depression was the furthest thing from her thoughts and experience
My doctor wanted to admit me into a psychiatric hospital but our wonderful senior pastor’s wife, Cynthia, asked if I could be cared for at home. The doctor agreed to this on condition that I had someone with me all the time. Amazingly, Cynthia and Richard then organised five ladies to do shifts taking care of me, even at night. They also arranged a full-time maternity nurse to take care of Anna.
hell on earth
For three months, I didn’t sleep at all, with my body constantly reacting as if in a state of terror. I felt I was walking through hell and was in permanent survival mode, just trying to get through the next five minutes. I spent much of the time wishing I could die and contemplating how I would take my own life. Finally, after three months of ever-increasing meds, I started to come out of the pit. It was a very slow recovery and while the suicidal feelings reduced, I continued to experience moments of hopelessness and trauma, lacked energy, and mostly had no joy or zest for life. I found it hard to enjoy my baby daughter and was often overwhelmed by motherhood with a constant sense that I was failing in it, as well as in every other area of my life.
Jo was whacked by severe depression after the birth of both her daughters and as they grew, it never fully receded. ‘I felt guilty and kept trying to come off my meds,’ she says
The unconditional love of my husband and the love and support I received from our church family were invaluable. Their constant message to me was that I was loved and accepted by them and by God, just as I was. They also had to reassure me continually that it was my illness, not me, that was causing me to feel the way I did. I struggled to believe this, and felt it was all my fault, that I just needed to be more positive. Fighting guilt and self-condemnation was a constant battle.
I had a strong faith in the love, power and guiding hand of God and Jesus. This had been sparked off by an accident when I was ski-ing with my boyfriend at the age of 24. An avalanche buried us both but he came off worse and was buried unconscious, in snow for 40 minutes. I wasn’t really sure God was there, but prayed to him in desperation and believe He answered my prayer and saved my boyfriend, a miracle in the circumstances.
Today, Jo still has ‘bad patches’, but cherishes family times and is a very involved mother of Helena (left) and Anna
That led me on a spiritual search which culminated in my becoming a Christian a few years later. However, when my initial depression began lifting I couldn’t pray for months, though I did read every book I could find on where God was in the midst of suffering. I appreciated the fact that Cynthia and other church friends never gave me answers and just cared for me instead, allowing me to do a lot of crying on their shoulders! Gradually I began to come back to God, sensing Him still there for me, even if I still had many questions as to why I had been through this.
I continued to struggle with depression for the first few years of Anna’s life and was on constant medication. I kept trying to come off my meds, never really sure they made a difference, though Richard assured me they did!
After nearly three years, despite my not feeling fully well, we started thinking about trying for another baby. We were keen to have another child and the memory of the horrors of the months after Anna’s birth had faded slightly. Also, as I prayed I felt God reassuring me it would be okay. I became pregnant quite quickly, and put in the care of a consultant psychiatrist specialising in post-natal illnesses. He told us there was a 30% chance of post-natal depression happening again and suggested a new treatment involving hospitalisation for two weeks after the baby’s birth and high daily doses of oestrogen.
Today, in her addition to work that brings spiritual refreshment to rural parts of the UK, Jo finds pleasure and purpose in supporting an African feeding scheme. She and Richard annually bring a team of British volunteers to South Africa to support NGO Hands at Work in its work feeding and caring for hundreds of vulnerable children and families (read here how one extraordinary man started this scheme). If she does not sleep well when travelling, she finds herself prone to low moods and has learnt that a prescription sleeping pill is an excellent insurance policy
Helena was born in March 1997, but sadly the treatment failed to work, and three weeks later I was having constant suicidal thoughts. I remained hospitalised for three months and again needed 24-hour supervision most of that time. Despite this, I occasionally managed to persuade the hospital staff that I could be left alone, and it was during those times that I made three, thankfully rather pathetic, attempts to end my life.
Finally, after increased doses of anti-depressants made no difference, it was decided that I should be given electroconvulsive therapy. This involved being anaesthetised for 10 minutes and given short electric shocks to the brain. It sounds terrifying, but for me the idea of being anaesthetised was quite an attractive option. I just wanted to stay in that state permanently!
Jo has learnt to live with moods that blindside her and makes the most of the good times such as this Christmas family time. Anti-depressants are not always enough to keep the bad days at bay so she navigates these with regular exercise, ensuring enough sleep, a calmish schedule, forcing herself to contact a friend and and above all, prayer, she says
Thankfully this treatment turned the corner for me. After four sessions I emerged feeling low but no longer suicidal, and started coming up slowly out of the darkness. I came out of hospital a few weeks later, again feeling traumatised, confused and extremely fragile but this time, for reasons I can’t explain, I didn’t question God or my faith but held on to Him.
Shortly afterwards, we moved to Cape Town in South Africa, where Richard took up the post of curate in a church called Christ Church in the suburb of Kenilworth. 18 months later, with the encouragement of Christ Church, we planted a new church nearby called Church of the Holy Spirit. The church grew quite rapidly, with many new families coming in all the time. We loved being a part of it! I continued to struggle with depression on and off for the first three years, but again our expanding church family and the friends we started to make were a huge support during the low times. We loved living in Cape Town: the place, the weather and the people were so wonderful. By the year 2000, when Anna was seven and Helena was three, I finally started to feel well and more like my old self. We were in Cape Town for nearly seven years in total and it was a very healing time for me.
Fresh perspectives! Jo and Richard recently moved to the UK’s Lake District, which offers many opportunities for open-air activity – the most uplifting kind of exercise, research indicates. She took this photo of her husband Richard while cycling with him
We have now been back in England since 2004 and Richard and I now head up a ministry called The Filling Station. This supports local rural churches and sets up Christian renewal meetings in non-church venues where people can have a fresh encounter with God. There are currently 95 meetings, including seven abroad in France, South Africa, the USA and Sweden. Most days I feel very happy and fortunate. I have a number of fantastic friends and I really enjoy playing tennis and running. We recently moved to the Lake District and while I miss my daughters, Richard and I are loving its beauty, and regularly hike and cycle in this stunning piece of England.
I often felt, and sometimes still do feel, sad and guilty that I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be to the girls when they were young, but I’ve now accepted the fact that I can be prone to hormone-induced depression. This is part of my life journey, and I may have to stay on anti-depressants for the rest of my life. Medication cannot always suppress all the symptoms, so I have learnt to cope with them by recognising them and taking preventive measures such as taking regular exercise, ensuring I get good sleep, trying not to put too much in my diary and, above all, taking time out to be with God. When the bad days come, I know that putting up a Help, God! prayer, going for a run, having a good cry and pray with Richard, and forcing myself not to withdraw but rather call a close friend are all things that can help. I’ve also learnt not to allow self-condemnation in, and to try and be kind to myself.
More purpose-driven times with the Hands at Work feeding and care scheme for orphans and vulnerable children
I also know how dependent I am on God and staying close to Him. He says in the Bible that He will never leave us or forsake us, and this has been my experience. Even though I rail at Him when a bad patch hits me, when I look back afterwards I always see how He has helped me and carried me through. Richard and I don’t know why God has allowed this to happen to me and so many others, but we accept it. I believe if you seek God’s help it can only strengthen you, and encourage anyone who is suffering not to close this door. He’s there!
Doing something like an Alpha Course like I did as I searched spiritually is great if you’re feeling rusty or have never ‘got’ the Jesus thing. It’s so friendly, is full of people who feel like you, and it’s very relaxed, usually with a meal involved. People can’t always seek God for themselves when they are at their lowest but others can pray for them. I know that many hundreds of people were praying for me during both my critical periods of illness, and since, and for that I’m so grateful.
Post-swim glow: Jo and Richard spent nearly seven years in Cape Town and when she visits she rarely lets a day go by without a swimming in the sea, even when she doesn’t feel like it
The experience of going through depression was a massive learning curve on every front and changed me as a person. I was a competent, ‘together’ woman until this hit me. But until that experience, nothing major had really gone wrong in my life and it was not easy to fully appreciate other people’s struggles. Now I feel I have far more empathy and compassion towards those who are suffering, whatever the cause. While I would never wish anyone to go through what I experienced, I do believe, and can see in my own case, how God can bring good out of everything. I believe only He is able to do this fully.
I believe God has used, and continues to use, my depression to help others. Things are changing but in society, including the church, mental illness can still be misunderstood and avoided. I’ve often shared my story in different church contexts and each time, people come forward to say how much it helped to hear about it. Often it allows them to admit openly that they’re suffering.’