Depression is such an awful illness, it’s sneaky, and it lies, and it takes people from us all the damned time. Almost all the writers who inspire me write wonderful accounts of their life with depression (Wil Wheaton, Jenny Lawson, and Allie Brosh jump to mind first) which makes me wonder if surviving depression pushes some people to become more compassionate but funny.
As such, I tended to post fairly regularly on social media about depression and mental illness. It’s not shameful and it’s vital to talk openly so people know they aren’t alone. The most helpful resources I’ve found are the wonderful Black Dog YouTube cartoon, the comforting Boggle the Owl (an empowering account to follow, this was the first of their cartoons I saw), and helpful campaigns aimed at giving people practical tools to support friends and family who may be suffering from depression, like the Make It Okay project.
So clearly I was being a Really Good Mental Health Ally! I’m open about mental health! I’m ending the stigma! I’ve found all these good resources to share, both for people living with mental illness, and people living with people who are living with mental illness! Yay me! Do you see what’s missing? I still felt too ashamed to talk about my own experiences with mental illness.
Looking back, I can recognise that my depression started before I knew what depression was, around my early teens. I assumed that depression was something to do with feeling really really sad all the time. I didn’t feel sad all the time, so I clearly didn’t have depression.
This is when I started to wish I had depression.
If I had depression I could get treatment, I could see a professional for talk therapy, maybe take some medication to help balance out the problematic brain chemistry. But I didn’t have depression, I was just an awful person, there’s no treatment for that. I was so disgustingly lazy that I neglected basic personal hygiene and slept so much. I never met deadlines, my homework was never ever on time, I was so forgetful, and seemed to struggle so much with really simple things that everyone else had no problems completing. I was such a useless garbage person, it didn’t seem fair to make other people endure the burden of my presence, I was a monster but not THAT much of a monster, so I kept away from regular humans as much as possible. If only I had depression!
It took two children, occasional flings with antidepressants, and an uncharacteristic level of self awareness, but I came to understand that I did have depression, and my depression is linked to hormones and my menstrual cycle. When the children were still babies (my body reeling from building and expelling two people in an irresponsibly short amount of time, plus chronic sleep deprivation), I had two weeks per month of gradual escalation of despair, utter desolation, and bursts of terrifying rage. Somehow I found the kindness to permit myself to take antidepressants again, and allow myself to keep taking them, though there was still self loathing. I suspected that everyone felt the same way, but they just get on with it. I ought to be better than this, I ought to do better than this.
The happy ending (and to cut short a long exciting story full of dragons, battles, true love, and probably ninjas) is that I made some pretty huge changes in my life, with a lot of help from my wonderful husband. I’m gradually learning that the world doesn’t actually end if I find ways to have my own needs met, and sometimes that actually makes other people’s lives better, and has nothing to do with being a selfish garbage person. With a lot of therapy I came to accept that it’s okay to disappoint people sometimes. My hormones settled to the point that I was able to stop taking antidepressants about 5 years ago. I implemented various coping mechanisms for the few days of my cycle when I was feeling complicated: usually telling my hubs that my period was due so he didn’t worry too much if I got fixated on some tiny thing because I’d convinced myself that if I didn’t stay up until 2am to finish making those cupcakes then there was an unavoidable domino effect which meant that our children could never go to college.
Has it all been sunshine and rainbows ever since? Of course! However mental health is a wonderful and exciting journey, as your body ages and its biochemistry changes there are always new things to learn about your own mental health, and new connections you spot.
Part two of this blog post will be published soon, in which I’ll open up for the first time about being recently diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder. Am I the only one who had no idea that panic attacks come in many different flavours?