October 17, 2016

Depression not something you beat

I had my first serious bout of depression when I was eighteen. I’d been trying to get my A-Levels, after some missteps made me realise that yes, I actually am quite academic and not an artist, but I had to leave the course. I eventually overcame this depression with pills and time; I got some A Levels and I finally got in to university, five years behind most of the other people there. I struggled to see this as an achievement in itself, and instead worried about age and how other people seemed to be so much more put-together and normal. 

I have thought about my depressive episodes as periods from my life which have been taken away from me, voids of time I have wasted. I think that this has actually made me more of a perfectionist, more insecure about wanting to succeed, whatever that means. As I’m approaching thirty and now have yet another bad bout of depression behind me, I’m, at times, left thinking that I have wasted my twenties. I compare myself to people who have gone down different paths and probably have many of their own problems. I think we’re encouraged to put out the best view of ourselves and to hide our perceived bad parts from other people. 

I was insecure about my own depression. Firstly, I was focused on how people would react to it. This became easier the more I talked about it and society has become a lot more amenable, in this way, in the last ten years. It seemed more of a big deal, in most cases, in my head than it did when I actually talked to someone about my illnesses. I rehearsed talking about my depression to my now-fiancé for weeks; I made it into a confession. He said he’d had a similar thing, which shocked me!

But still, many of the mental health stories that you hear are from people who “overcame” their problems. They’re better now, mental illness is something that you “beat”. Perhaps in the midst of the worst of it we are unable to tell stories properly, and we don’t want to dwell on the bad times when we are well. We are used to telling ‘character overcoming hardship’ stories and, of course, mental illness is hard. But it is very difficult to capture. We are telling these stories now, but only in ‘everything is okay now’ ways. Social media is particularly to blame here, I think. 

We have come a long way in understanding mental illness in recent years. But we need to develop a more nuanced way of looking at mental illness. Sometimes, a lot of the time and for many of us, these illnesses are with us for life: less like a broken leg, more like a chronic condition. At the moment they seem to be seen as something to overcome, which is a dangerous narrative for somebody who feels like they can’t fight anymore. 

I found antidepressants helped me (again) immeasurably over this past winter and spring but, as someone who is doing a master’s degree in Creative Writing, it was a problem that I could not write on them. So I gave them up and my various thoughts and feelings have returned. They numbed my curiosity and, although some sadness and anxiety returned when I stopped taking them, I felt IQ points return too. I didn’t want to try any other brands – they did what they promised. It’s just that when you stop taking medication for other illnesses, most of the time you are cured. 

My bouts with depression are not something I have to gloss over, even when it gets better for a bit. People are very vocal about their success, particularly on social media, but we're not so comfortable with the perceived failures, things we're still working on, things we might live with on and off forever.

We are changing that, slowly, whenever we’re honest and show our vulnerabilities, we can change the way people think about mental health.

Katharine

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