Photo by Flickr user mattwi1s0n
Last November, my world fell apart.
I didn’t get sick. Nobody died. I didn’t have an accident. There was no big, explosive event that shattered the world as I knew it. No, my world fell apart with a whimper, not with a bang.
One morning, on a day just like any other, I woke up to find that the black tendrils of depression had snaked their way into the edges of my brain and made themselves at home.
Depression is nothing new to me. I have Bi-Polar Disorder II, and depression is a “normal” part of my life. The first time I had a serious bout of depression, I was eight years old. Since my diagnosis with BPD II, I’ve been aware that it’s not a matter of if I’ll ever be depressed again, but when and to what to degree. So those black tendrils didn’t scare me.
Not at first, anyway.
BPD II? Is that first-person shooter?
The world’s response to mental illness has changed a lot over the last twenty years. There’s generally a lot more understanding of depression and anxiety disorders (which I also have — gotta catch ’em all!) and a lot more acceptance of people with mental health issues. But Bi-Polar Disorder still gets a seriously bad rap.
I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has described how such-and-such is a bitch, and then finished with, “But she has bi-polar.” As though that explains it. As though rattling off a medical diagnosis at the end of a litany of complaints should make the truth of those complaints self-evident. As though BPD is scapegoat and divine judgement all rolled into one.
Spoiler alert: It’s not.
Bi-Polar Disorder I is a mental illness characterised by ongoing, often alternating, bouts of depression and mania. Depression is something we all understand these days (at least, to a degree), but ‘mania’ is a little less widely understood. Basically, it’s a state wherein the person has excessive energy, needs very little sleep, talks much quicker than usual, is intensely creative, and feels euphoric and bullet-proof. It’s these latter things that can be dangerous. Euphoria and fearlessness can lead to poor decision-making, especially in regards to risk-management. Coupled with sleeplessness, they can also lead to delusions and, in some cases, hallucinations.
Bi-Polar Disorder II is very similar mental illness, however depressive episodes can actually be much worse — sufferers of BPD II are at a much higher risk of things like self-harm and suicide — and the contrasting “pole” is hypomania, rather than full-blown mania. Hypomania has many of the same symptoms as mania, however they manifest to a lesser degree. It’s unusual for someone suffering hypomania to suffer delusions or hallucinations, for example, and while they still have impaired judgement when it comes to risk-assessment, it’s more likely to manifest as lowered inhibitions than straight out dangerous behaviour.
It’s almost impossible to manage BPD I without medication. Manic episodes may require hospitalisation. BPD II, on the other hand, while often treated with medication — and I strongly encourage trying medication if BPD II is affecting your quality of life — can sometimes be managed with sleep, food, and exercise coupled with self-awareness.
Your Mileage May Vary
Personally, I’ve come to love my bouts of hypomania. That’s probably not a very politic thing to say, but nevertheless. Spending 4-6 weeks (or, occasionally, longer) filled with an unending feeling of joy and optimism while creativity oozes from my pores is wonderful. I’ve learned how to mitigate my risk-taking behaviour–I call a friend or family member before making any decisions that seem different to ones I’d usually make–and I’m energetic and enthusiastic about life.
Depression, on the other hand, is freaking debilitating.
I can usually count on two or three episodes of depression per year, each one generally lasting for 3-4 weeks. Over the years, I’ve learned how to fast-track my recovery by making sure to get enough sleep, eating healthy, and increasing the amount of exercise I do. I try not to make too many decisions while depressed, because, if I do, I come out of my depression and discover that I’ve opted out of everything and am suddenly committed to being a life-long hermit. Instead, I plod along, doing my best to act the way I remember acting when I wasn’t depressed.
But, here’s the thing: It is an act.
When I smile, I’m not feeling happy. I just remember that I would usually smile at that point.
When I laugh, I’m not amused. I just remember that I would usually laugh at that point.
When I suggest that we get together for a coffee, I don’t really want to spend time socialising. I just remember that socialising is something I usually enjoy.
Now, this normally passes without anyone being any the wiser. I mean, anyone can pretend to be themselves for a few weeks, right? Going through the motions of life is easy enough when I can still remember what that life is usually like. And while I get a few twinges of guilt over my act, a lifetime’s worth of experience has taught me that faking it is easier on everyone. No one except the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Woods or Fraggle Rock willingly chooses to hang out with someone suffering depression. So even when I bravely tell people that I’m “a bit depressed right now”, I laugh at their jokes, and tell some of my own, and agree to social encounters that equally terrify and exhaust me.
Last November, my world fell apart
So, what was different last November?
At the same time that the black tendrils of depression invaded my brain, I suffered a foot injury. I developed plantar fasciitis, which is a relatively common soft-tissue and tendon issue that makes walking — or putting any weight on your foot — intensely painful.
So, as the black tendrils invaded my mind, I became physically unable to use my go-to depression-minimising activity of walking. I found myself locked inside a depressed mind, trapped inside a wounded body. I was doubly confined. My anxiety disorder reared its ugly head, and I found myself tag-teamed by Depression and Anxiety until I could barely breathe.
“It’s only for a few weeks,” I told myself. “Just fake it for a while, and the depression will go away. Just like it always does.”
So I smiled and laughed and went out for coffee with friends. I had a girl’s weekend away. I went home for Christmas. I enroled in a University course. I did all the things I new Normal Jo would want me to do, and I waited for the depression to pass.
But it didn’t.
It only got worse.
I was in my room one night, staring at my computer screen, trying desperately to figure out whether the FB message I’d just got from a friend meant what I thought it meant. Did they really hate me? Or was I projecting? Was it real, or was it the tendrils talking? An itch spread across my body, and centred itself on my foot. I scratched at the itch, still staring at the screen. Tears started to roll down my face. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know how to respond. Suddenly, I felt a weird, sticky sensation on my fingers.
I looked down to find the whole top of my feet was bleeding. My fingernails were coated in blood. A wave of relief hit me, and tension drained out of my body in time with the blood flowing freely from my wound.
A second after the relief came the terror. I’ve been down the self-harming path before. I cleaned and dressed the wound, cut my fingernails, and removed all potentially sharp objects from my room.
School started for the year, and I was forced into the social nightmare of school drop-offs and pick-ups. Twice a day, I sat in my car and forced myself to breathe deeply and find the strength to enter the throng of parents surrounding the classrooms. People I know and like were transformed into terrifying caricatures of themselves by my tendril-filled mind.
When they looked at me, their eyes were full of judgement. Their smiles hid barely-contained hatred. I tried to fake it, but it had been so long since I felt like myself, I couldn’t remember how people behave in social situations. It took all my mental energy not to turn and literally run screaming. I was a pinch away from pure panic at every moment.
I stopped trying to fake it. I felt like a monster trapped in an alien world. Nothing around me made sense. I had no peripheral vision, and was seeing the world in chromatic tones of misery, through a tunnel of pain. I didn’t know how to smile. People spoke to me, and I’d forget how to make words, my mouth opening and closing like that of a drowning fish.
I couldn’t sleep. I’d lie awake in bed at night, my mind forcing me to relive the most traumatic times of my life. Around and around and around. I’d fall asleep somewhere between four and five in the morning, exhausted, and drop into anxious and confusing dreams, only to be woken from them at 6:30 when my alarm sounded.
I couldn’t eat. The sight or smell of food made me retch. I made dinner for my children, and pretended to pick at my food until they’d finished and gone away and I could dump mine in the dog’s bowl. I drank coffee and forced myself to nibble on dry crackers — the only thing I could eat without immediately throwing up.
I was in agony. The pain in my foot from the plantar fasciitis wasn’t getting better. If anything, it was getting worse. I was in constant, chronic pain. I couldn’t walk through the house without crying. I thought about stabbing myself in the foot just to release some of the pressure — to feel something different to the constant aching pain — and I removed myself from sharp implements.
After months of averaging less than four hours sleep a night and not being able to eat, I was exhausted. I’d developed the shakes, and couldn’t apply eye makeup without getting it all over my face. Not that I wanted to apply eye make-up anyway. I was barely even aware of the meat-suit wrapped around me as anything other than a conduit for the pain in my foot.
I didn’t feel anything. Physically, I felt the pain radiating from my foot. Mentally and emotionally, I was numb. I was separated from existence by the smoky glass wall of extreme depression. Nothing felt real. I wasn’t even sure if I was real. Maybe I was a figment of my own imagination, trapped in a dream of a world that had never existed….
Help! I Need Somebody.
Eventually, I hit rock bottom. I needed help. If I didn’t do something, I was going to drown in the darkness. I called my doctor and made an appointment to go see her. I got a referral to a podiatrist to help me with alternate care options for my foot. I got sleeping pills so I could get some rest. And I started to see a psychologist to help me through my depression. And I started to get better.
During those months, I struggled with some big stuff on top of my depression. I lost friendships that I thought would last forever. I watched my son go through trauma associated with bullying, and was unable to help him. I suffered financial setbacks and lost faith in my writing ability. Would those things have happened if I hadn’t been depressed? Would I have recovered more quickly if those things hadn’t happened? Chicken and egg. Impossible to know.
58 Days Later…
I’m doing better now. I’m still healing — some of the emotional injuries are still raw — but the black tendrils of doom have withdrawn from my brain, and I’m no longer feeling disconnected from the world. I’m back. The depression has receded. And it feels good.
I imagine there are people who will read this and say: “I had no idea you were depressed! Why didn’t you tell me?”
Because, yes, life kept going. I kept loving and caring for my children. I kept posting status updates on Facebook. I kept writing articles for Writer Unboxed every month. I kept entering writing contests (although I didn’t do well). I kept teaching my novel-writing course and participating in my monthly writing group. I kept studying, and did well at Uni. I did my absolute best to maintain the appearance of being me. And it largely worked.
So, why didn’t I tell anyone? Because, for all the general awareness of depression, people are still uncomfortable with it. They don’t know what to say to someone who is depressed. They don’t know how to react. And I feel guilty and pathetic enough when I’m depressed without having to watch the discomfort on someone’s face when I explain that everything is grey.
Telling someone you’re depressed doesn’t feel like telling someone you’ve injured yourself. It feels like unwinding the bandages covering your injury and forcing them to stare into the wound, in all its horrific grossness, while simultaneously telling them that you did it to yourself on purpose.
What if someone I know is depressed? What should I do?
Look, I can only give you my perspective on this; I can tell you what I need. If you know someone with BPD or someone who suffers from chronic depression, try asking them this very question while they’re not being eaten alive by the darkness. But if that’s not possible, here’s some general guidelines.
- Acknowledge that they feel depressed, and accept it at face value. Don’t question whether it’s real or serious. It doesn’t help to have someone ask if you’re really depressed, or whether this is serious depression or if they’re just tired. The fact that they’ve even told you means they trust you implicitly. That’s a big deal.
- Accept that there is no easy fix to depression. You can’t say the right thing and magically cure your friend. What you can do is be there for them, as much as they want you to be. But (and this is important) their depression is not about you.
- Please don’t ask what you can do to help. If they knew what would make them feel better, they’d do it. As soon as you ask what you can do to help, you put the weight of your assistance on their shoulders. I know that’s not your intention, but that’s how it feels. Instead, tell them what you can do to help, and then ask if that’s okay. “I’m making a casserole for dinner tonight, is it okay if I drop some off at your place for you?”
- If you offer them help and they say no, accept it. Just let it go. There are a whole range of reasons they may have said no, and none of them are about you. Just make a different offer next time.
- Accept that social interaction is hard for someone who’s depressed. They are rarely, if ever, going to initiate conversations — whether in person or via text/online — and will opt out of as many social situations as possible. This doesn’t mean they don’t like you. In fact, it’s still not about you at all. It’s about them protecting their fragile sense of self and hording their limited energy for more important things like breathing and not self-harming. Don’t make them feel bad if they can’t participate the way they normally do, but keep letting them know that they’re welcome to join in when/if they’re able.
- Let them know that you’re happy to listen, even if you don’t understand what they’re going through. And then actually listen. Don’t try to cure them, don’t tell them that it’s not as bad as they think it is, just listen.
- Encourage them to seek help, but don’t push them into it. No one wants to be depressed. Everyone wants to feel better. But getting help is scary, and they may need your non-judgemental support to be able to do it.
The main message here is that your friend’s depression is not about you. About fifteen years ago, someone said to me: “So, does that means you’re allowed to treat me badly when you’re depressed and I’m not even allowed to be upset by it?” No. No, it doesn’t. If your loved one is depressed and treating you badly, then you should absolutely call them on it. (Although be prepared for them not to know with how to deal with that.) But, first, ask yourself if they’re actually treating you badly.
If your friend developed a physical illness or disease, their behaviour would change — and you’d accept it without question. You wouldn’t expect them to keep partying with you on Saturday nights, or calling you every day to talk about your latest date. You’d undertand that they needed time to heal, you’d worry about them and offer them help, and you’d be there for them when they recovered. If your friend is suffering from depression, the same things apply. Depression is not a state of mind or an inconvenience, it’s a real, debilitating sickness.
That’s why they call it a mental illness.
To everyone who stuck around for this whole, insanely long post, I thank you. I’m doing much better than I was, and continuing to heal from what was the worst depression I’ve suffered in at least ten years. I know my blog has been abandoned during that time, but I’m hoping to post once a week from now on. There’s been a lot happening in my life — beyond my mental health — and I’d love to share it with you.
Happy travel, my friends.