Calling a spade a spade

I was first identifiably depressed at 14, and first diagnosed and prescribed antidepressants at 16. I’m now 41, and for all these years, I’ve been ‘a bit down’, ‘things have got on top of me’, I’ve been ‘stressed’, ‘not having a good time of it’. For all these years, I’ve admitted that at times I suffer from depression but never told anyone the true extent of it, and never accepted that I have a mental illness.

Now that I’ve been on my medication for a good few weeks, I’m beginning to realise how far down I actually went. With me, and I suspect with many other people who suffer from depression, feelings of unworthiness took over, and I was unable to accept anyone else’s protestations that I added any value to their lives. And that is a very dangerous state to be in.

The extent to which this happens depends on how badly depressed I become. I’m beginning to clarify in my mind the difference between being unhappy, because of external events in my life, and being depressed, which is internal. Certainly the two can happen together, and sometimes external events will spark off a depressed phase which I’m unable to get out of without help, but they are most certainly not the same.

This has all led me to another important realisation – that for possibly as much as 27 years, I’ve been mentally ill. And terrifyingly, refusing to accept it and covering it up. There are many reasons for this – one being that I thought labelling myself as mentally ill would be detrimental, and lead to a deterioration in my mental health, and my ability to recover. I’m sure that for some people that is absolutely true, and they benefit greatly from refusing to accept a label of mental illness. But I never stopped to really investigate whether that was true for me.

Another reason for rejecting this idea was that I thought I wasn’t really ill – always the thought lurked at the back of my mind that I was just being lazy, selfish, needed to pull my socks up and get on with it, stop being self-indulgent. That compared to other people with ‘real’ problems, I’m just attention-seeking. It’s true that part of the reason I stopped taking the tablets each time was the side-effects, but also part of the reason was shame, and the thought that I should be able to manage without them. Other people do after all… and it’s not like I have a real problem…

But it’s not true. I do have a problem, a big problem, a mental health problem. When I am in a depressed phase, my thought patterns become disordered. I lose perspective. I see negativity and criticism of myself where there isn’t any. I begin to genuinely believe in my own unworthiness. I fail to see any purpose in life. Eventually, at my worst, I can become badly removed from reality. I’ve never yet ceased to function entirely but I certainly find my functioning impaired. I cease to look after myself. Eventually, if I leave it untreated, I self-harm, both mentally and physically. If that’s not a mental illness, then I don’t know what is.

Compared to other people’s problems and illnesses, it may well be a mild problem. And depression is certainly something I share with many many people – it sadly seems to be very common, and as I’ve said before, in my family at least, has a genetic component.

And yet, admitting to it, telling people about it, blogging about it, putting a name to it and accepting that I have a mental illness, has been very healing for me. Part of that is the support I’m getting from so many people, and I’m very appreciative of that. For me, the label is beneficial, rather than detrimental. It gives me the space to heal, it gives me room to love myself and care for myself enough to actually do something about it. It means I no longer beat myself up, tear myself apart for not being – whatever it is I think I need to be and am not. And when I’m not feeling bad, when the tablets are working, I am a success story. I have a mental illness which I am able to overcome and I have a happy and productive life.

So – I am mentally ill, and proactively managing my condition. If I had accepted this 27 years ago, or 20, or even 10, and kept on taking the tablets, my life may have been different. I don’t think it would have been that different, but maybe some of the hard times I went through would have been easier and maybe would have been over sooner.

I see no point in looking back and regretting anything though. It was all certainly a learning curve, and maybe I just wasn’t ready to accept myself as I really am until now. I am looking forward, and looking forward to a life I can enjoy fully, without constantly having to deal with the black noise in the background…

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11 Responses to Calling a spade a spade

  1. Rachel B. says:

    Wonderful post! You could have been telling me the story of my own life. Keep on seeking the bliss, girl. It is out there for you.

  2. Susan says:

    Funny that this post about mental health and depression is one of the sanest posts I’ve read in quite some time. Continue to feel better, Eleanor!

  3. This is a brave post Eleanor. Congratulations.
    Contrary to your humble comments, Depression is actually quite a major illness with a disabling nature. It is a thief of time and treasured energy, motivation and the will. Those who achieve while wrestling with their symptoms remaining uncontrolled – even small amounts in their own eyes have overcome much to get there. Medication is helping you now. The skills you learn with CBT will make enormous differences also. You have cast out the thief. You now need just how to live in his absence and how to watch and guard against his return.

  4. Alan Garde says:

    When I first met you, before we became friends, you were very obviously seriously depressed. That was pretty obvious and you were in a bad place. You managed to get on top of it as much as you could, stop it from taking over your life at that moment and we got to be good friends the next year.

    One reason we became friends was because I so admired the change around in your life. How you hadn’t been whiny and poor me and pity me, but had been the opposite. You had taken responsibility for yourself, your actions, your feelings and had done your best to say ‘I have demons, but they don’t define me’. I admired that a lot, that you didn’t give in, that you made a difference and that you still had enough heart to look out for others. That was very defining of you, that you still wanted to give. I am pretty sure the black times make you forget just how much you give and how much a difference you make (and I know telling people with depression that, never helps, so I am telling it to you now whilst you can listen and appreciate it :)).

    Probably in fact (thinking back) you were the first person I’d encountered with major depression and the first I’d seen have the strength to keep going and turn themselves around a bit. I was actually (shamed facedly) heading to suicidal at the end of that second year at University and at the end of it drank quite a bit to forget and not feel. The example of how you’d dug yourself out and carried on the previous year had a big impact on me, and helped inspire me to give myself a kick up the ass and start surviving in the hope that might lead to living.

    I bet you never knew that how you coped with depression, survived it, beat it down showed more about you than the being depressed did?

    Anyway back to the point. I agree with you totally. Calling a spade a spade is very healthy and beneficial as it stops all that wasted energy in self-denial and pretence and hiding. Wow, have we wasted a lot of energy we could use on healing in self-pretence upto now? Though, I prefer to think ‘I have a mental illness’ as that implies something which can be contained and managed, rather than ‘I am mentally ill’ which I think would define me. Depression doesn’t define me, it’s just something there to deal with (just like one ear sticking out more than the other, which means glasses wobble – that’s not who I am, it’s just something to work with). It may sound pedantic but it works for me, and as so much of the bad about depression is ‘perspective’ I am actually really cautious now about the power words can have without realising what we are saying to ourselves.

    When I first went to the doctor and went on anti-depressants (fighting against the societal preconceptions that this only happens to people that can’t cope) one of my friends that talked me into going said ‘when your car is broken, you go to a mechanic. you have a mental illness, you go to a doctor’. I really couldn’t argue with it in that black and white, that I wanted to be fixed or at least slightly less disfunctional. She also tackled the ‘well it’s only a mild problem compared to what some people tackle’ and pointed out how stupid that was and it was like saying my arm was only slightly falling off, by the time you wait for it to be a major problem it’s too late and it didn’t matter anyway as it was the problem I had.

    Yes, I am blogging on your blog. But unlike the saying that ‘misery breeds misery’ I truly believe shared experience of surviving, coping, dealing with depression breeds strength. I’ve learnt more about respecting myself by seeing how those who I admire have gone through similar dark things but you know, I kinda think they are great people… and they did it, and I did it, so wow maybe I’m a lot stronger than I thought too.

    Keep on this path and if knock backs come (as they can) remember these blog posts. Remember the journey you’ve been through, and how far you’ve come and I promise, promise, what you’ve written will remind you it’s just a setback and it won’t take you down again. What you are doing here aren’t blogs, they are revealing yourself, putting stakes in the ground and going ‘this is where I am, I’m not going back’ and giving foundations to lean on.

    • Thanks Alan, you’re very kind, and I think this emphasises that when we are in this kind of bad place, we fail to see any good in ourselves. What strikes me most from reading this is how much we all hide from each other. I knew you weren’t in the best place at the time, but I didn’t realise how bad things were.

      I also really like your way of putting it – I have a mental illness, but I am not currently mentally ill, because I’m managing it. Perhaps I’ll say the former in future, and leave the latter for times when the depression has actually taken hold…

  5. I think that all treatable mental illness has can have a cyclic element to the treatment. You notice the symptoms, you take treatment, you get better, you stop treatment and it all starts again. If the treatment has unpleasant side effects and there’s an external element as well then it’s only natural that you’ll want to stop and start treatment over the years.

    Making this realisation means that you’ll be able to keep on a much more even keel from now on!

    • Well, you should know, having lived with me and my mental illness for 22 years:-) Babe, if I ever show signs of wanting to stop the medication without very very good reason, please sit me down and make me reread my blog:-)

  6. Nikka says:

    Great realization and great work! You are amazing!

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