Trigger warning: this post contains open discussion and description of suicide, self harm, and eating disorders.
I haven’t posted on here for a couple of weeks because I’ve unfortunately been really struggling with my mental health. Depression is something I’ve struggled with for several years, and doctors are increasingly convinced that I may suffer not just from depressive episodes, but from a rapid-cycling form of bipolar disorder. I’ve alluded to my mental health in a previous post, and I’m generally fairly open about it with my friends, but I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and written – or said – the whole story.
I want to first clarify something that a lot of people are, sadly, not quite aware of. By ‘depression’, I don’t mean simply that sadness and lowness of mood that everyone feels every so often. That’s a perfectly normal part of the human spectrum of emotions. Depression is a clinical illness, and we are realising more and more that it has a strong physiological basis. Studies are even being done into the efficacy of MRI scans to detect depression: they work 80% of the time. I find it very useful to view the problems I have with mental health as very solid and tangible diseases. Some people prefer not to, but for me, recognising the illnesses as chemical imbalances which are affecting the functioning of my body and brain helps me to separate them from my sense of self, to make a disconnect between my brain, which is a functioning organ that can go wrong, and my mind, which contains something essential about me and my character. A lot of therapy is based around the acceptance of mental illnesses as a part of ‘you’, and while I do accept this to some extent, I want to think that there is still a distinction between the way my illnesses make me act and my actual, true ‘self’.
Secondly, depressive episodes are not necessarily linked to traumatic or upsetting events or circumstances. There is no specific reason that I started cutting myself when I was 12, and have done it on at least a semi-regular basis ever since. In Hangover Square, an excellent book by Patrick Hamilton, the protagonist has some form of mental illness, most probably schizophrenia. The description in the book of the way his episodes manifest is probably the closest I can get to an explanation of what it feels like to have a mood disorder. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the book to hand, but from memory: there is no explanation, and no triggering cause, for Hamilton’s protagonist. The text represents the switch from ‘normal’ to a world described as distant, foggy and colourless with just a single word: ‘click’. That’s it. The brain goes ‘click’, and the world is altered. Some people experience their swings between different moods as a far more gradual process, but for me it certainly isn’t. I can be perfectly fine and happy one moment, and the next, for no apparent reason, ‘click’. This is the nature of depression and several other mental illnesses.
As for my personal experience, I’ll try to lay it out as simply as I can. On my good days, I’m incredibly talkative and outgoing. I love the world, I love people, and love being around them. I have my off days, when I can’t really be bothered to do anything, or I’ve had some bad news or argued with someone and decide to mope and binge on Netflix, but for the most part I’m pretty much fine. I have ‘bad days’ perhaps 25% of the time, and on these days, I literally cannot bear to leave the house. I feel physically sick at the thought of another human being looking at me, because I absolutely despise myself. I feel too exhausted to pull myself out of bed and get dressed. Even if I did have the energy, I fail to see any reason to engage with the world. I can’t imagine a worse human being than me. I feel entirely alienated from the entirety of the human race. I will never experience what other people experience, because I’m not capable of being human. Strong suicidal feelings come along with this, and I have tried to kill myself twice in the past. Even if I don’t try to end my life, I experience intensely strong suicidal ideation: I plan what I would do to end my life, and I think about the ways I could do it in order to make sure it minimises the pain to other people. When I’m not suicidal, I still tend to self-harm during these periods, typically by cutting myself. Over the past 12 months I’ve also developed a lot of anxieties around food, which seem to feature more and more in my depressive episodes. I go through cycles of binging and purging, and find it almost impossible to have a healthy attitude towards food. Even when I’m not feeling at rock bottom, I feel anxious about food and about eating – something about it feels invasive and unnatural, and I can’t reconcile myself to it. This, in turn, reinforces all the other anxieties I have about myself and about the world, and the cycle continues.
It’s so hard to explain to someone that you might be gregarious one day and unable to leave the house the next despite nothing in your circumstances having changed. There’s no physical pain, no neurological trauma, nothing, as far as anyone else can see, that would affect your ability to go outside and have a conversation. I think it’s this that makes depressive episodes in particular difficult for others to understand. When I’m ill, there’s nothing tangible that I really can explain. This also makes it so, so difficult to accept myself. Why have I felt compelled in the past to constantly harm myself with increasing severity, even attempting last year, in all sincerity, to take my own life? I think people can often forget the peripheral issues that come about as a result of suffering from an illness that will cause you, at worst, to kill yourself. It’s a deeply uncomfortable topic to talk about, and one of the reasons that I often feel so desperate to put up a wall between the ‘real’ me and the ‘ill’ me. I don’t want to accept that I am a human being who willingly and deliberately harms myself and tries to take my own life. I believe wholeheartedly in the sanctity of life, and all the uncomfortable connotations of that sentiment. How, then, can I be so hasty to desecrate the one life over which I have total control? The only answer I can find that allows me to sleep at night is that I don’t have control. That’s what my mental illness takes away from me: the control that I once felt I had over my life. I can rationalise every single reason why I shouldn’t do something, but then my neuropathy goes ‘click’, and I’m helpless.
This is a bit of a messy blog post, and deliberately so. It’s tempting to go back through it and polish it up a little, to try to restructure it and make it read more fluidly and prettily, but I think it’s important for discussion on the topic of mental health to be raw, honest, and perhaps a little bit vulnerable.