Introduction: Living with mental ill-health
I got up today.
Not only did I get up today, but I showered. I got dressed. In clothes, not just pyjamas. I put on shoes. I even put on some makeup. I washed my hair. And then I brushed my hair. I tied it up.
And then I left the house.
Ok, I didn’t go far, just down to the coffee shop on the corner, where this first paragraph is being typed. I probably won’t stay here long, but that’s not the point. I am up. I am out of bed. I even managed to interact with strangers and I think they believed I was a normal human. Well, apart from the Darth Vader Christmas jumper and the pink hair in Princess Leia buns, but, y’know. A normal human for a given value of “normal”. I managed to ask for a coffee and didn’t cry in public so it’s all good.
Of course, ‘tis the season for not getting dressed and forgetting to shower and having to google to find out what day it is. Those sleepy limbo days between Christmas and New Year for those whose workplaces or colleges are shut down, or those on holiday, can be like that for many of us.
But for people with depression, this can be a daily checklist of success at any time of year. When my depression was at its very worse, opening my eyes and keeping them open for any length of time was a result. Getting up was Herculean. Doing anything other than sitting staring into space felt worthy of note. I am ambivalent about these limbo days between Christmas and New Year because while I welcome the opportunity for some guilt-free napping and having chocolate for breakfast and cheese for pudding and turning off my alarms, after a few days I feel a dull panic settling in that I am getting too used to not getting dressed, that I am slipping into an uneasy comfort of inactivity; that if I don’t get myself out of my front door (even if it’s just to catch that Pikachu that keeps hanging out at the pokestop 3 minutes’ walk away) the harder I will find it to leave the house when I actually have to; when reality reasserts itself and I can no longer justify planning my day by the Christmas TV schedule.
I have been (relatively) mentally healthy for a few years now. I still struggle in the winter and have a SAD lamp; and I have medication for panic attacks and anxiety – but largely my mental health is as under control as I feel it ever can be. That doesn’t mean that I have stopped worrying about it. One of my biggest, most secret, darkest fears is that The Bleak will come back; that I will breakdown again and become uncontrollably depressed. That I will forget how to be happy, how to hope, how to believe that Things Will Be OK Again. I will forget that I am a good person, worthy of love and deserving of friendship and kindness. I will once again believe that I am a terrible burden to my friends and family, that I am a blight on existence, a mistake in the fabric of my reality.
Sounds over the top? I agree. I can’t remember what it felt like to have that be a logical way to think – but I remember thinking that way. Have you ever broken a bone, or torn a ligament? Or maybe just stubbed your toe really hard or caught your thumb in a door. You remember it hurt, right? You remember that the pain was borderline unbearable. You remember crying, or swearing, or trying to control your breathing, because it just hurt so damn much? But you can’t remember the actual pain. Whatever else you remember about the pain, the actual physical pain itself isn’t something you can recreate. Depression is like that. I can remember what it did to me, how it affected my life, how it made me think about and act towards others. I can remember my behaviours, my symptoms, and my wonky thoughts. I can’t recall the absolute conviction with which I held those thoughts, or the overwhelming deadness of my hope.
I started to try to explain a small aspect of how depression affected my life to someone else recently, someone who is watching someone they love go through a similar depressive episode to mine. They asked me to make sense of how their loved one was behaving. I pointed out that I could only speak for myself, but that while their behaviour made little sense to a healthy person, if I put my mind back to me when I was unwell I could totally follow their logic. My friend was grateful for the insight, if puzzled, as they’ve never been unwell in that way themselves, and asked a few more questions. At the end of the exchange they said “thanks for putting it so clearly. You should be a writer or something.”
I’ve struggled in 2016 to put fingers to keyboard, to write regularly. But those words set a fizzing in my brain. Would I be able to put into words the little ways in which depression affects your every day life? Would I, now I am healthier, be able to articulate what depression is like? Would it help others who are suffering to know they’re not alone, or those who have loved ones suffering gain some insight and help them find comfort or understanding of how to be a friend or ally? Would it help me to process my own struggles, when I have bad days? The idea sat in my head, poking me occasionally, while I ignored it. Why? Self-esteem? Lack of confidence? Fear of failure? Laziness? I suspect all of the above.
And then the day before I wrote this, we lost Carrie Fisher. The woman who showed me as a child that Princesses could be rebels and shoot bad guys and rescue themselves; and who showed me as an adult that mental illness was no barrier to being a badass, that struggling with self image affected us all, however smart and funny and assured we seem. She spoke so unashamedly and honestly about her struggles and was one of the leading voices making it OK for women to talk about our demons.
The idea bubbled to the surface again – trying to put into words the everyday ways in which mental illness can impact our lives, and how we learn to fight it, work around it, live with it. I could never hope to be as wonderful a writer as Fisher (if you haven’t read her work, I recommend you give “Wishful Drinking” a go as a starting point) but that’s no reason not to try.
So this is intended as the introduction to an ongoing series about depression, anxiety, survival and recovery; and the everyday small ways in which mental illness can affect your life. If 2017 is going to be anything like 2016, I might just need to write it, if only as a guide for myself.