personal essay, mental health, mental illness,

I Am Bigger Than This

By My BFF

The first time I felt depressed was after my parents split up. I had just turned ten. My dad and older sister moved halfway around the world and I would speak to them on the phone at the same time each day – 5pm my time, 9pm theirs. At first I used to cry myself to sleep but eventually I think I stopped feeling as a coping mechanism.

I became very closed off and had obsessive thoughts. The main thing I can remember thinking over and over was ‘I can’t be bothered’. This wasn’t linked to anything specific either – it was a general, overwhelming feeling. I couldn’t be bothered to be happy, to feel.

When I returned to school and started Year 6 a month later I remember the class had been told about my family splitting in half, with one side moving away. . I was in denial about pretty much everything, squashing down the sadness until there was nothing, only numbness. I didn’t know I could feel that way.

I suffer from depression and anxiety – even mania sometimes. The depression isn’t the same every time. Sometimes I just cannot stop crying with overwhelming feelings of helplessness and worthlessness. Sometimes I just stop talking and engaging with any kind of emotion as a knee-jerk reaction to a trigger: I go into self-preservation mode and completely shut down to avoid being hurt. I hibernate.

Sometimes it’s obsessive thoughts. The worst times are when the obsessive thoughts are suicidal ones: What if I jumped off this bridge into the Thames? Or in front of a tube train? Or off a high building?

For me, anxiety is a mixture of repetitive thinking, feeling trapped, desperately wanting to be on my own but being afraid to be alone. When I have a panic attack I experience the usual symptoms; increased heart rate, shallow breathing, dizziness; but because I’m used to them I know I’m not going to have a heart attack and die. This isn’t always comforting. It feels as if I know what I have to do to make myself feel safe, yet I am not able to do it – I am paralysed.

When I’ve felt manic I feel like I understand why people do drugs. Hypo-mania is an amazing feeling – the obsessive thoughts that run through my mind when I’m high are I’m invincible and I feel on top of the world. I’m more charming, more clever, more beautiful – myself multiplied and magnified to an extreme. The downside is the increased speed I feel myself running at – it’s exhausting. I speak too fast, sometimes words even come out in the wrong order. I don’t feel hungry because I’m running on adrenaline and I can’t sleep because I’m jittery.  

Being diagnosed was a relief at first – thank goodness that it’s a recognised illness, that I’m not alone, that people have been through this before and survived. Thank goodness there are medicines and treatments for this – maybe I have a chance.

this stuff is golden,

Over time my feelings towards my diagnosis – whether it’s depression, generalised anxiety disorder, type II bipolar – have fluctuated massively. I’ve been to counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and have recently started seeing a psychiatrist. One interesting (and sadly very true) thing my psychiatrist said to me was that I have become attached to my depression, almost in the same way substance abusers are attached to drugs and alcohol. Depression had become like an addiction for me. When I told this to my closest childhood friend she said she’d sometimes not understood my relationship with my condition, and that sometimes it seemed as though I was proud of it – as if I wore it like a badge of honour.

I’m working to detach myself from these thoughts. I am not my illness – I am bigger than this. It’s not always easy to believe this though.

I remember a few years after my parents’ split saying to my mum that I thought I should speak to someone about my feelings. Whether it’s a false memory or what actually happened I remember her saying to me, “Do you think that’s necessary?” Was she saying that to make herself feel better – pretending I was okay to absolve her of any feelings of guilt?

Years later when I was a teenager and my mum started trying to encourage me to speak about my experiences. I had shut down and was not willing to open up at all. On the surface I was fine – I had friends, did very well in school and had hobbies – but on the inside I was never really happy. I was nineteen when I finally broke down into a deep depression and left university to try to begin to deal with my feelings.

My family have swarmed around me in a protective bubble, full of love and support, but it’s been challenging figuring out the right way to deal with my feelings and my relationships with them. Where I’ve been very close to my mum, dad and sister it’s also been very hard to finally tell them the truth about how I feel about them after so many years.

My teenage boyfriend didn’t really understand my illness. My boyfriend from the age of 21 to 23 was better. Close friends’ understanding has varied – I personally think it’s very hard to understand a mental illness unless you have yourself experienced one. I’m very lucky that two of my very close friends (unfortunately) do have experiences of depression and anxiety – and I can always open up to them and they can always speak to me in return.

My dad hasn’t always been the most supportive, despite previously being a psychiatric nurse. He has previously used words to describe me including ‘weak’ – something that one never wants to hear when depressed. It only escalated how badly I thought of myself.

Nowadays however I’m more able to tell him how I feel about him using words like this.

I’ve always been terrified to tell people, but haven’t (yet) had a bad reaction. Friends, family, work colleagues, boyfriends – they have all been incredible. It makes me feel lucky – although I know it shouldn’t, because everyone should have positive and supportive reactions from others when talking about their mental health.

The thing that has surprised me about my experiences is how resilient the brain is in trying to protect you from your own feelings and memories. When I’m depressed the happiness I feel ‘doesn’t stick’ and I can’t remember what it’s like. But it works the other way too – when I’m feeling balanced and happy I don’t remember what it’s like to feel depressed.

this stuff is golden,

I don’t know that I have found a preferred treatment yet. I’ve been on three types of  anti-depressants (Citalopram, Sertraline and currently Fluoextine) and have experienced three different types of therapy – counselling, CBT and seeing a psychiatrist. The drugs certainly take the edge off, talking about it helps to an extent but after experiencing depressive moods on and off for nearly fifteen years, I’m not sure I’ve found something that really works long-term for me.

In all honesty I have no idea how I picture managing my mental health in the future. I have various coping mechanisms – routine, exercise, eating well, sleeping, staying away from alcohol when down. I have a great job that I love and can focus my efforts on. I have brilliant friends who I love. But after six years on and off medication, in and out of therapy, two experiences that have threatened my university education and two more that have threatened jobs, I don’t always have confidence in myself that I’m managing it at all.

Sometimes it goes away and I don’t think about it at all but I’m scared it’s just dormant, waiting to catch me out next time. I’m currently in the ‘recovery’ phase – after a breakdown and six weeks leave from work over Christmas – but the pattern from here goes to normal and content, before something else will happen.

My psychiatrist has said he doesn’t think I currently need psychotherapy. I hope I’ll have the chance to go for it – I want to try everything.

One high point was my last CBT session on my gap year. I had left university just before starting second year. I was a crying depressed mess from July through to January. I started CBT in spring and went weekly. Three months later I felt ready to move on. I walked home through town crying happy tears and feeling such a release.

There have been plenty of low points. The worst was my first breakdown.

The summer before second year I had decided to stay in my university town. I would walk around on the phone to my mum, my dad, my then-boyfriend, to try and distract from the pervading feelings of anxiety and depression. Getting to sleep was a struggle every night, but waking up and realising I had to face the day, which was even worse. I cried what felt like hourly.

My mum, granny and little sister came to visit for lunch one day. I ordered mussels but only managed about a quarter of my dish. My granny told me I looked thin – but I said I was fine (I weighed just over six stone at this point). When they left I went home and had a panic attack. I was crying for hours and hours on end, curled up in a ball in the corner of my room. I was on the phone on and off to them – eventually at gone 8pm my stepdad said he’d come to get me. The two hours it took for him to drive to my uni town felt like forever. I cried all the way home.

Instead of giving advice to others, as my self-esteem isn’t quite there at the moment;  I’ll say to myself – and others can overhear. I am not alone. I do not ‘deserve’ to feel this way, and I won’t feel this way forever. There are things that are worth living for. I am loved and I love a lot of people. My tattoo sums it up – have ‘courage’.

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