Monthly Archives: January 2013
note: This piece also appeared on stage as part of the play Shattered!
Every day, we see things that remind us of how fragile we all are; we see roadside headstones, nursing homes, cancer treatment centres, and hospitals. When we see these things, we often think of those affected, and perhaps about how difficult it might be for them, and if there is a way we can help (dropping some money in a collection box the next time you see one, volunteering at a nursing home, etc). We are living in a time of open and honest discussion about medical affairs, where there are any number of campaigns advising people to check for lumps, bumps, and rashes, to help early diagnosis of cancers, infections, and chronic problems. Even with all this, I would rather admit to almost anything rather than tell people that I have suffered from ill health. Why? Because they are problems that you can’t see – they don’t take the form of a broken leg, a sprained wrist, or a swollen gland – even though they are every bit as debilitating.
Like so many people in Ireland, I have experienced mental health problems – namely, depression (bipolar disorder, to be exact, with a tendency toward depressive episodes). I have also become adept at hiding this fact from many of those around me because, despite living in an ostensibly modern society, I am keenly aware of the fact that “mental health” and “depression” are dirty words; we don’t speak about them, we don’t acknowledge them, and we certainly don’t tell people that we are experiencing them. Mental health is the last bastion of the taboo in Ireland – spoken about only in hushed tones, lied about to friends, family, and co-workers, and denied to the very last, even if it costs people their lives.
It is almost certain that, in your group of friends, at least one person has dealt with a mental health issue, even if you don’t know about it. That’s because mental health issues, unlike people, don’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter if you have the most loving and supportive family in the world, or if you were a lonely child; it doesn’t matter if you wanted for nothing, or scrimped and saved for everything; it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, or how old you are.
Depression hits like a hammer. It can come on suddenly, with little or no warning, and once it has arrived, it digs in roots that make it harder to remove. Depression is more than just feeling a little sad; it’s like feeling that you’ll never be happy again, or that you’ll never feel anything but this again. It’s crippling and debilitating. It makes it difficult to perform the simplest of tasks; it’s difficult to eat, sleep, wash, or care about anything at all. More than this, it wreaks havoc on your system, causing headaches, migraine, stomach irritations, digestive problems, changes in appetite, weakness, extreme tiredness, insomnia, etc., but then, what illness doesn’t? Like any illness, you can receive treatment to make yourself better, in the form of medicine and/or therapy. Unlike any illness, however, you are unlikely to receive the support and sympathy of many of your peers. This is because depression, unlike any other illness, is somehow “your fault”.
I’m not sure that it’s possible to completely describe what depression feels like in words, so I’m not certain that anyone who has never suffered from it will fully appreciate how truly awful it can be. Of course, the same could be said of a broken leg – after all, those lucky enough to have never broken a bone are unlikely to know what that pain feels like, what it is like to hear and feel the snap of the bone, what it is like to struggle to do things properly until you’re recovered – but when you break your leg, people look after you. They open doors, they help you eat, dress, shower, and get around. They make accommodations for you, and help you through your recovery. They are patient and understanding when it takes you longer to perform simple tasks. And regardless of what you were doing when you broke your leg, no one ever tells you to “snap out of it”, or tells you that it’s your fault.
Mental health issues are just like any other health problem you may be having. Just like an asthmatic may take inhalers, or a diabetic may take insulin, people with a mental health problem may take medication, because each condition can be debilitating and even fatal if left untreated. Similarly, once controlled, people with asthma, diabetes, depression, or any similar illness can live full, happy, and healthy lives that are mostly unaffected by their condition.
We need to stop thinking of mental illness as separate and distinct to non-mental or physical illnesses. There is no gulf to cross, no barrier to break down – illness is illness, whether it takes the form of something physical, or something mental. To take medicine for a mental health problem is no different than taking insulin, and to need to take a day or two to recover from a depressive episode is no different than needing a day or two to recover from the ‘flu.
I am a young woman who has dealt with mental illness. I also have a successful career, a healthy social life, a number of hobbies, a BSc, and I’m studying toward a Masters degree. Mental illness is not a life sentence. It’s not something to be ashamed of. And it’s about time that we stopped treating it that way.
My name is Rachel. This is the story of my depression and self-harm, and the few bits about my self-harm could be triggers.
I first realized that something was wrong with me when I was 14. I was so sad and anxious all of the time that I was barely eating or sleeping, let alone doing my homework and just generally functioning. When I was 15, I cut myself for the first time. When someone asked me about the marks on my arm, I blamed my cat. Either I was a really good liar or they just really wanted to believe me. I stopped cutting and started scratching myself because I didn’t want to have to worry about being caught with a knife. I didn’t want to be caught, but, at the same time, I must have because I told a friend what was going on, and I also told my brother. My brother was clever and used it to blackmail me into lying when he broke a rule, and I was scared of how my parents would react so I usually went along with what he wanted. Eventually, I got tired of keeping everything together and lying to everyone, and I told him that he could tell whoever he wanted. I didn’t care anymore, and I wouldn’t stop him. He got mad at me and he told my mother (conveniently, avoiding being grounded).
My parents confronted me, asking if my brother had told the truth. I said that he was, and that things had been bad for months. They helpfully told me that what I was doing was stupid and that I needed to get my crap together. I was crying and yelling, and they asked if I wanted counseling. They asked in such a way that I knew my answer was supposed to be no. I said I did not want counseling. I did not get help for my depression. I somehow made it through high school a complete mess. I turned my sadness and anger and frustration inward, and my self-harm became worse than ever. I still have scars from all of the times I hurt myself to avoid yelling or upsetting anyone. I realized that I was out of control, and I did not want to go to college still harming myself. I made the conscious choice to stop harming before I went to college. I stopped cutting and scratching, for the most part. (Fun fact, I starting grinding my teeth so badly while sleeping and during stressful or triggering situations that I now need a night guard so I don’t damage my teeth anymore. More damage and I’ll need veneers or caps of some other sort.)
I was optimistic going into college, although I dealt with some home sickness. I got involved and started going to youth group meetings and church, hoping that making friends would keep me from having another bout. What it did was make me realize that, although I’d never thought about it, I was an atheist. I stopped going to churches, and started making friends outside of religion. I started having fun, and I spent most of the next year happy and healthy. I still did not deal with stressful situations very well, and had difficulties controlling my anger, but I was trying very hard to be happy.
The fall that I was 20, I started having emotional issues again. I wasn’t going to class or doing homework. Most days I didn’t leave my dorm room other than to go get food. I spent most of my time sitting on my bed crying, and wishing that I could drop out and run away from everything. With the encouragement of my boyfriend at the time, I sought counseling. While I felt that it wasn’t very helpful because I didn’t trust my counselor enough to talk about my self-harm, I did realize that my anger was a manifestation of my depression. With the encouragement from my counselor, I came out to my parents as an atheist, and let them know that I was seeking help for my depression. My mom mocked me for the counseling, my atheism, and the drop in my grades, so without the support of my family I muddled through it again. I didn’t drop out of college, or start hurting myself (besides the whole teeth grinding thing) or do anything but make it.
I graduated last year. I’m currently dealing with some anger and depression surrounding issues with my job, but I think things are going to be better for me this time around. I have a boyfriend who loves me and wants me to be happy, my crafting, and my friends. I did not sink as low as I have before. They are helping me make it through, and I will.
I will not be defined by my depression, just as I will not be defined by my atheism. They are parts of the whole, but they do not explain my whole story. I am doing better, and that’s really all that matters right now.