I’m staring a monster in the face.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen this monster. We’re old companions, it and I. It’s one of those sly, shape-changing beasts, sometimes sitting on my shoulder, tiny and whispering things to me so quietly I almost don’t hear them; other times the large black shape that blocks my doorway and stops any thought of escape. It’s tenacious, letting me think I’ve beaten it back, only to surge forth again once I’ve let my guard down. I’ve seen its tricks, I know that voice. It’s FFVI’s Ultros/Orthros, whom you fight and defeat, only to have pop up again later in the game, dogging your footsteps, wearing out its grudge against you.
“I’m kind of an asshole that way.”
I’m facing my fourth major depressive episode.
I knew this was coming. You can only fight the monster so many times before you learn that it will come back. The only questions are when, and how. There is no if.
It’s a nice narrative to think that people facing mental illness like depression only do it the once. You feel sad and alienated, eventually reaching the point where you feel like dying because dying has got to be less painful and lonely than living, and then someone notices, and helps you, and you recover and move on with your life. A little bit sadder, a little bit wiser. You look back on that time and think, “Boy, am I glad that’s over with.” The narrative gives hope, it tells you that this too will pass, that you just have to keep fighting and someday you’ll be happy and normal again.
The narrative is supposed to keep you inspired to work toward better days. Unfortunately, it does double-duty, painting mental illness as something like chicken pox: you get it once and then you never get it again. And that it always follows the same pattern of getting sad, then sadder, then saddest, and then you begin the long climb out of the hole.
The narrative doesn’t tell you about all the people who don’t want to hear what happened to you. It doesn’t tell you that the climb out of the hole might take place over the entire rest of your life, because you may backslide every once in a while. It doesn’t tell you that you may be watching over your shoulder every day for signs that the monster might be nearby. The narrative tells you that you get better, and that’s the end of it.
I’m not better.
I may never be better.
I may have reprieves, times that are better than others, times where the monster retreats and lets me get on with things for a while. But by this point, I expect that this fourth time won’t be the final time. I’ll still spend years on the lookout, working every day to dodge the spectre, trying to stay one step ahead of it so that when it does rear its ugly head again, maybe I’ll see it sooner, fight back more quickly, defeat it more easily. Maybe next time won’t be so difficult.
Last time, the monster sent me delusions that people around me were dead and just didn’t know it, that I was the only one who could tell. It sent me phobic attacks that kept me awake at night, sitting in the living room in the dark, staring out the window, watching for zombies until sunrise, because as much as I knew zombies aren’t real, what if I’m wrong, and me watching constantly is the only thing that gives me enough warning to run? It sent me the voices whispering from the bushes, from the shadows, not saying anything I could understand, but letting me know that I was being watched, all the time. It gave me nonphysical pain so unbearable that all I could do to lessen it was the claw skin from myself, because the physical pain was easier to recover from and made the mental pain fade for a little while.
Last time, it nearly cost me my job, when I dared to be honest about what was happening to me. They deactivated my swipe card — twice — before I could go on long-term leave, telling me both times that it was an accident. They told me I wasn’t to talk about my mental health with any employee. They delayed me coming back for two and a half months, resulting in my health benefits running out so that I had no income and yet wasn’t allowed to earn anything until they let me back in the building. They made me get notes from two doctors declaring me fit to re-enter the workplace, something that both of those doctors deemed unnecessary. I was openly mocked when I told them that what they were doing was discrimination.
The first time the monster surfaced? My moods were peaks and valleys, ranging wildly from hour to hour. I can look back at old journal entries from the time and see myself write that I feel like dying, that I’m worthless and horrible and don’t deserve to live, and five hours later I’m writing about how much I love such-and-such movie and I’m having a great time watching it again. From the top of the world down to hell, on a bungie cord, always bouncing. The physical scars of that time have faded over the years, but you can still see them when the light’s right. The pale lines on my wrist. The paler marks on my arm from the time that using a box cutter to see myself bleed seemed like a welcome alternative to anything else in life.
When my parents found out, they were furious. My father’s attempt at helping consisted of telling me that if I tried again, he’d have me locked up. Send me away to a place where they wouldn’t even let me have shoelaces or pencils. He didn’t care if it meant me flunking out of school.
To a child whose only sense of self-worth came from the idea that high achievement in academia could make my parents proud of me, this was crushing.
They took me to a counselor. In the one and only visit we had, the counselor spent more time talking to my parents about me — me in the same room, listening to how my problems really weren’t that serious and that I was just a teenager acting out — than they talked to me.
The episode went on for years, with me assuming that everything I felt and did was just normal and I had to hide it to avoid inconveniencing everyone, before anyone actually convinced me that there was actually a problem.
The first time I was prescribed medication to treat depression, the side-effects were almost immediate. I couldn’t stay awake. I wanted to sleep all the time, and more than that, I was on the verge of falling asleep almost all the time.
I recall being at work, my head on my desk over my break, struggling to keep my eyes open and failing. My supervisor came to me and said, “You can’t sleep at work.”
“Watch me,” was my reply.
The next time I was prescribed medication — the same medication, I might add — I figured I knew what to expect. I took it at night, before bed, figuring the worst of the side effects would be gone by the time I had to get up.
No such luck. This time, the effect was insomnia. I couldn’t sleep. For days and days I struggled to get a few hours of sleep a night, wanting to cry at how tired I was, knowing that I didn’t have a choice but to keep pushing onward because really, who’s going to give me time off work because the pills that are supposed to help me stop feeling like I want to die won’t let me get enough sleep and I’m exhausted.
I felt caught between a rock and a hard place. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Even getting help was excruciating. I was on meds, I was supposed to be improving, and here I was trying to figure out how to make it through just one more day, only for entirely different reasons than before.
It was the early 2000s, and as far as I knew, nobody talked about this. My only option was to keep my mouth shut and push through, hoping, as always, that it would get better soon.
I wish that mental illness fit that nice neat narrative, that I could spend a few months feeling miserable and then know that the skies would clear and things would be fine again. But the truth is, I don’t fit the narrative. People don’t fit the narrative, because that narrative always includes everyone being shocked but helpful, only making thoughtless hurtful comments before they know there’s a problem, never reacting badly and never making mistakes. People don’t work that way.
People want that nice story for two reasons, I think. One, because it gives them the very hope that it’s meant to. If you’re depressed, it will get better. If someone you know is depressed, they will get better. And two, because it means that their role in the story ends as soon as the depressive episode ends. No more work to do, everything’s fine again. My friend isn’t depressed anymore, so what could they possibly need to talk about? My child is better now, so I don’t need to do anything else. The narrative doesn’t tell them that it can happen again.
More devastatingly, the narrative doesn’t tell the person with mental illness that it can happen again.
It happens the first time, okay, that’s normal. It happens a second time, oh god, what’s wrong with me, why am I so deficient that the thing that never happens to anyone twice is happening to me twice?
That hope that it ends is a great message to give to people who need to hear that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it also serves to blindside us when comes the time we find ourselves in a tunnel once more.
There’s increased talk about mental illness these days, and how trained professionals are there to help, and that’s great. I love seeing that, because maybe that increased awareness will help stop someone from suffering for years and blaming themselves along the way. But there are far fewer stories from people who face depression multiple times. Generously, I can say that might be because people in need of help might not get it if they don’t think it will actually end. But cynically, I can say that it’s also because people generally just don’t want to to deal with mental illness already, so dealing with it twice? Three times? Nope, I don’t want to hear it. Stick fingers in ears, put on the blinders, and go about your life secure in the knowledge that nobody needs you right now, because if they didn’t you’d know it. It would fit the narrative.
There’s not enough talk, also, about the fact that depression can and often does manifest with a side-order of psychotic symptoms. I have to dig to find people talking about it. Official information told me two years ago that psychotic symptoms like paranoia or delusions are very rare. Now comes a bit more information that it’s actually far more common than previously believed. Plenty of people experience that with mood disorders like depression.
But few people talking about it means that chances are the people struggling with it are going to say nothing about it, thinking themselves far more damaged than they thought, thinking that nobody will believe them, that they’ll be locked up in a place with no shoelaces or pencils because isn’t that just where crazy people go?
I want to believe that someday, I’ll be able to live live without keeping a close watch for signs of the monster’s return, or that heavy inevitability that things have progressed too far to handle on my own. I’d love to think that what I’m facing right now could be cured with a few months of pills and maybe talking it out with someone in an office filled with impressive-sounding textbooks. That I just have to make it out of this one tunnel and then there’ll be no more.
But the reality is, there will probably be another tunnel. And I will always have to keep watch. I will probably always need some help.
My narrative is not the narrative. It’s not the nice neat story we like to tell ourselves about depression, nor is it the story of every person who has experienced depression. It’s painful and lonely and, sadly, it’s not always skewed emotions that are telling you nobody really wants to talk about what’s happening.
I could sit here and unpack all of my problems to you, but that’s not what this post is about. Everyone’s got problems. Plenty of people have some of the same problems I have, and some of them are not contemplating oblivion just to escape them. Depression isn’t about the problems you do or don’t have. It’s not about who has the most pain or the worst situation. That’s another painful part of the narrative that I see a lot. People talking about how so-and-so’s problems weren’t bad enough to warrant suicide, or self-harm, or such a reaction. Those reactions make me want to scream, because anyone saying that has utterly missed the point of the thing they’re reacting to, and also it’s another very loud message to people with depression that nobody understands, and nobody really wants to hear you talk about it.
This isn’t the message we should be sending.
This isn’t the story that should be told.
So as I face my monster for the fourth time, I don’t bother to hope that after this it will be over for good, because I know it probably won’t be. I don’t bother to hope that I will get outpourings of sympathy, because I’ve had so many instances in the past where honesty has been met with awkward silence or discrimination. I don’t bother to pretend that it will be easy to deal with, for me or those around me, because depression is a brutal monster that will kick your ass to the curb and the shockwave will impact those close to you.
That’s not the narrative of hope. That’s the narrative of reality.
But I am still here. I am still alive, and I am still fighting, and I will keep fighting until there’s no more fight left in me. I will weather the storm and I will watch the horizon for another. I will encourage others to fight, because even though the fight is exhausting and may or may not even end, it’s still worth fighting.
I’m not here to make people feel good and tell them it’ll always get better. My story, at this point, isn’t that story. It hasn’t been that story for a long time. I will not always be strong. I will falter, I will fail, and if all I ever accomplish is this post telling people that their hopeful story of mental illness conquered has actually done harm and needs to be send back to the editors for work and expansion, then so be it.
I am not fighting alone.
You are not fighting alone.
“I’m nothing more than a stupid octopus!”