CW: mental ill-health, depression, anxiety, suicide
It’s a constant pendulum swinging back and forth to the rhythm of my mind. It swings between anxiety and depression, never slowing down or halting. This pendulum has existed for as long as I can remember, because my experience with mental ill-health started at a young age. Extreme anxiety and unstable moods, coupled with my lack of self-worth and hopelessness for the future, left me spiralling into depression. This began about five years ago, and is still ongoing.
I have tried various treatment methods since then. Cognitive behavioural therapy didn’t unlock the pathways to changing behaviours or thought patterns, while meditation cemented some very destructive ones firmly in the centre of my mind. I’ve tried at least five antidepressants and a range of other medications; I have only recently found one that works for me. Continuing to struggle whilst seeking effective treatment methods can make it harder to keep on going – but the victories, both big and small, make me push on.
Through trial and error, and the process of moving to a new city this year, I have found that talk therapy grounded me and gave me a mirror with which to see my mind differently. However, I realise that this is an option for very few, due to both cost and waiting times.
There are so many things I can’t do because of my mental ill-health, and even menial tasks can often seem impossible. Sometimes I think that the fog in my mind incapacitates me. But in reality, most of the time, it lets me see myself as who I am, who I want to be, and the versions of myself I hope to never become. And this makes me constantly strive to be stronger, braver and relentless in keeping the pendulum in my mind in check.
Mental illness is not like a cold – you can’t just catch it, take some medicine, and get over it. Mental illness is a new struggle every day.
It’s the day you get a diagnosis, and immediately feel like, somehow, you’re wrong, rather than sick.
It’s when people dismiss your absences as laziness.
It’s the decision you have to make when you can’t get out of bed, but you also can’t bring yourself to bail on your friends yet again.
It’s the times you feel so sick of feeling inadequate that you stop taking your medication, only to feel even worse.
It’s when you desperately want to be healthier, but you can’t care enough about yourself to eat or exercise properly, if at all. The piles of junk in your room get higher and higher, because you just can’t care enough to look after your environment.
But you learn. You seek help, you take your medication, you learn how to live your life around this illness. People will still tell you you’re weak, or you’re taking advantage of the system. It takes years of work to get a handle on it.
But, even when you finally think you’ve figured it out, mental illness shifts and evolves with you.
Five years later, a new diagnosis and a new prescription of medication. Every way you know to manage your life is suddenly wrong – not by much, but enough that it destabilises you.
And so, you start again.
Mental illness cannot be cured like a cold. You don’t just “get over it”. You fight. You learn to manage. Sometimes you fail – and that’s alright. You just have to live your life as best you can, and you can’t let anyone judge you for it.
It was in March, during my final year of high school. One night, I just snapped. I raided the medicine cabinet, took most of my father’s prescription pills and wrote a text message to a friend, telling her goodbye. Little did I know, she happened to be awake at three in the morning.
I don’t remember much after that March; all I can recall is seeing doctors who tried to find out why I did what I did, and having to try many different drugs in an attempt to control my depression and anxiety. But, I somehow managed to take all my exams, graduate in June, and receive several awards from both the sports and the fine arts departments. I started university as planned in August, and just went on with my life. I saw a counsellor regularly and stayed on my medication. Somehow, I got better without ever having to talk about what happened in March; instead, I learned to speak about things as they were happening, and how to keep myself calm in times of worry.
It’s almost five years later and I’ve just come off medication. I may still have some depression looming within me, and I most definitely still have anxiety, but I have learned to cope with this. I have a great alternative chiropractor, and recently started seeing a psychologist so that I can control my emotions. A major part of me being and feeling better is due to me re-evaluating my life. I go out and keep myself busy with different team sports, music and community engagements. I regularly tell myself that my health is so much more important than a stupid grade for an essay – trust me, I still want that HD though! I also remind myself how much better I feel once I go out and see my friends.
I try and discern when my anxiety is speaking, and try to rationalise to myself that it’s not my voice. When it does happen, I sometimes tell my friends that I’m not in a good spot and need some time by myself to calm my system down. Instead of the anxiety and depression controlling me, I try to control how I react to these feelings. It takes a lot, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of doctors, friends, family and me recognising that this is not me speaking. To the outsider, it looks like I have a busy schedule and see a bunch of specialists, but, to me, this is my way of trying to take control of my life and not letting it get as bad as that night five years ago in March.
My heart beats in my hand; it’s a sensation I cannot stand. How was I to know the road before me would be so difficult, and so different to what I had expected? Every day I see people pass by on the street, at school, at home. Each have their own perspectives and experiences, but how was I to know that mine would be so grey, and would stay for so long? It’s an illness of 12 years and counting. Nobody else’s mental illnesses were visible to me.
You see, for me, mental illness is a family affair. All four of my full-siblings and quite likely some of my half-siblings suffer from depression, to some degree, coupled with anxiety. We grew up in a bubble of distress, raw emotion and uncertainty. My mother had an alcoholic father and could not communicate, my father struggled with paranoia and a difficult World War II upbringing – they divorced when I was four. The divide between households was anything but amicable, marred with childhood molestation, psychological and emotional abuse, and confusion.
By the age of 13 I found myself wanting to die, writing such things in my backyard dirt as: “Why am I here? ”, “Why do I HAVE to be HERE?! ”, “Why am I NOT HAPPY?” and “I am not worth anything.” I began to feel myself withdrawing, and so the infestation of negative thoughts in my mind continued to grow.
For many years, after I decided to stay about, I have been teaching myself how to cope with, and hopefully one day overcome, my mental illnesses. I’d like to share with you the things I’ve learnt in the process:
- Be kind to yourself – you are only human after all!
- Try to catch your negative thoughts and reframe them in a more realistic way. For example, turn “I can’t do anything right” into “I am not very good at ___, but I will work on it”.
- The three amigos – exercise, a solid diet and sleep – are so vital to processing what you are going through, and beginning to alter your thought patterns.
- The benefits of regular meditation – that is, breathing to calm your limbic system and thoughts – can also not be underestimated.
- Have good people in your life. They say that the five people you spend the most time with effect who you are, and I believe there is some truth to this, as you absorb the energy of other people. So, choose supportive and loving partners, friends and acquaintances.
- You know yourself best. You know when you need some R&R. Don’t be afraid to let the people around you know this – they want what is best for you.
- Last, but not least, keep a journal! Use this to blurt out your thoughts, to work through negative feelings, or to plan your daily tasks … Use it for whatever you and your mind need!
From a caring soul who’s been through it all.