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…