This one’s a bit dark. Sorry guys.
This piece has languished in my drafts folder for a while now. I’ve scheduled it to post a few times. Cancelled it from publishing just as quickly. It was hard to write, like really difficult. If it weren’t for an incredibly genuine, kind and supportive LBloggers Chat yesterday with Polly and the tweets that prompted me to hit publish from Dippy Writes, Polly, Justine and Jennifer, it might have never have seen the light of day (I’ve started to dip my toe into the world of twitter chats and let me tell you, lbloggers are lovely people).
So. Let’s talk about mental illness.
I’ve started this piece a few times. By few, I mean I’ve started it once a week for the past five months. Written in my Evernote app when I have a moment. Scribbled in a work notebook. Planned in a list and annotated. I’ve written these first sentences, or ones like them, time and time again.
I’ve referenced my own experience of depression before. And in May, which was mental health awareness month, I started to think about it, and consider devoting a full piece to it. Really think about it, which isn’t something I do often.
I wasn’t sure if I would, or could or should write about it. I wasn’t sure about putting myself out there with something so personal. I didn’t know if I could do the topic justice. I worried about who would read it. My family, who I don’t really speak about it with; my friends, who don’t all know about it; my friends who do; strangers, who might think badly of me for it; acquaintances, whose scorn has the potential to be a lot closer and more real than that of strangers on the internet. Eventually I decided I would write about it anyway, because I think it’s something people should talk about. I get angry when people are dismissive of mental illness, but if I don’t talk about my own experiences, then I’m just as bad in a way. It’s not something I want to hide.
Growing up, no one spoke to me about depression, No one went into detail on the importance of mental health and how many people suffered from it. I know why they didn’t: no one likes to think about it. The idea that your own mind can betray you like that, change the chemicals it produces, change the way you act and feel in such a quiet and insidious manner. Make it feel like business as usual when you’re actually drowning.
And that was my experience of mental illness. It was a silent and gradual change. It went unnoticed at first. My depression became my constant companion and by the time I realised it, by the time anyone realised, it was so deeply entrenched in me that I found the very notion ridiculous. This was who I was, not a mental illness.
“It’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be”
Popular opinion didn’t help either. As a nation we are not kind to the idea of mental illness. We resent it. We can’t see it, so we find it easy to dismiss. We don’t understand it, so we struggle with the idea of it. There is no one way to cure it, there are so many varieties and so many varying symptoms. It is such a an odd thing, and so strange and frightening, to accept. I remember so clearly the people who told me that it “wasn’t as bad as I was making it out to be”. I remember the deep down anger I felt when they said that…and I also remember stamping that anger down and believing them, accepting that they were right, and hating myself for being so selfish and stupid, for bothering anyone with my problems. Hating myself for thinking I had problems at all.
Because I didn’t have problems. Not the type that would have offered a rational explanation (depression isn’t rational, but oh boy, did i try to rationalise it). I had a great family. I had some wonderful friends. I was young, slim, not exactly unpretty, smart. I had a lot going for me. Except for the part where I miserable and paranoid. There was a horrible bleakness that settled over me with alarming regularity, where I struggled to leave the house, or eat, or function as a normal member of society. There were other times where I was manic, and would do anything to leave the house, just to try and escape my own thoughts.
“It’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be’ became a mantra that stayed with me, despite the many lovely and supportive people I also had, until, eventually, I stopped trying to talk about it. For years, any time I thought about talking to someone about how I felt, I would tell myself it wasn’t as bad as I was making it out to be. Even when it was, even when I was so desperately unhappy that I thought I would never ever feel better, happy or content. I quietly took my antidepressants. I avoided counselling because (after one counsellor early on told me she didn’t think I was seriously depressed and suggested I book a holiday) I was afraid they would dismiss it. I mean, a professional had told me she didn’t think I was depressed and suggested I book a holiday, I believed they absolutely would dismiss it. So I just tried to be better. I was so so lucky that I had an incredibly supportive GP who acted as a counsellor, even though she didn’t have to. I had a lot of support. I have a lot of support.
And even though I know depression is a real and serious illness. Even though I know there are times in the past few years where I was dangerously close to falling back into it, that mantra is still here with me. Any time I feel down for a long period of time (the point where you start to worry is the ten day mark FYI) I tell myself I’m overreacting. I tell myself I’m fine. I tell myself that other people don’t want to hear about what’s wrong with me. Intellectually, I know any of my close friends or family would be there for, to talk about anything. On the occasions when I manage to talk about it they are. Nine times out of ten, that mantra keeps me quiet. I’m not saying nine times out of ten I’m depressed, but I am afraid of being depressed, and of the reactions of others. I watch myself so closely, all the time. Those early dismissive attitudes towards my illness are still in my head, and I wonder how I would react to my down periods now if I didn’t have those early negative impressions of depression, if I’d had a better counsellor, if I’d talked about it more with the right people.
It’s a difficult thing to talk about though, isn’t it? Feeling horrible when there are no visible reasons.
Looking back, I sometimes don’t recognise the girl I was. I feel angry at the problems she faced. That one, horrible counsellor. Those few dismissive people. I feel sad about the people she alienated and blessed for the ones who stuck around. My brother, puzzled over an exes depression, once told me he didn’t think I’d lost any friends when I was depressed, but I did. And I don’t know how many of them would have drifted anyway and how many would still be around if I hadn’t went through what I’d went through. I do know that the way I was drove a lot of them away. The wild mood swings, the quiet, low points and the hysterical manic points.
I can’t imagine being her again. The way she felt is so distant to me now, almost incomprehensible, but still there. So, I feel like I have to write it down. I have to remember her before she fades away. Because it’s important.
That’s the thing about depression. It’s your constant companion. It’s easy to slip into, it’s incredibly easy to dismiss. I worry that if I forget completely how I was, I might find myself there again. Waking up in the morning and not seeing a point to anything, crying at everything because I can’t see a reason to be happy, acting unreasonably and totally unaware that it’s not normal.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense to those of you who made it to the end. I don’t know how relevant it is, and I know that not everyone will have the same experiences with depression and mental health as I have. I guess I just think it’s important and I hope it helps someone or that someone else out there can relate to it.