This post is something I’ve thought about doing for a long time. I didn’t know whether I could put the indescribable into words (and I’m still not sure I do, so bear with me), but discussing this topic is something so important that my reluctance to do so has become a very low priority. In light of the New Year and taking inspiration from the awe-inspiring Isabel Kempner (whose far more coherent video is linked below) I’m writing here to talk about my experiences with mental health. While I hope this will give me some catharsis, what I’m really trying to do is encourage the open and frank discussion that is so, so necessary in order to dismantle the stigma that still surrounds mental health. If one person reading this can relate, recognise or gain any understanding, then my purpose here is served.
Whilst no one finds it easy to talk about their battle with mental illness, for me, this is the closest I ever have come to talking about my ’99 problems’, of which a bitch is definitely one (me). While I don’t think sticking a label onto something goes any way to defining or understanding it, part of my problem was recognising I had a problem, that I wasn’t just a neurotic drama queen with a dodgy bathroom habit; I was bulimic, and suffering with depression.
In case anyone has any illusions, there is nothing romantic about having an eating disorder. I will spare you the excruciating and literally nauseating details, mostly because I can’t actually find the words to express the repulsive routine I found myself in, the torture I put my body through and the guilt I felt in doing something that deep down, I knew I’d do all over again tomorrow. How I went from a baby-faced teenager crammed full of carbohydrates to crying into a toilet bowl every day is a topic better discussed another day, but can essentially be summarised by thinking “if I look a bit better, maybe I’ll hate myself a bit less”.
This is as far as I have come to understanding how the two pillars of my mental instability collide, tied together by a twisted bond of constant and consistent self-loathing, which descended together into a downward spiral throughout my second year at university…or at least I think so; depression doesn’t have a starting point, and it definitely doesn’t have a finish line.
It’s hard to describe it a way that does it justice, but for the purposes of trying to help people lucky enough to escape the ‘common cold’ of mental illness, I’ll try my best. ‘I lie in my bed and cry all day’ is so inadequate it’s almost funny, until you try and imagine that as your entire life. I was doing nothing other than staring blankly into space, and yet even this was the most difficult thing I’d ever had to do, and I knew that I’d have to do it every second of every day for what felt like eternity. Existence was its own punishment.
A therapist described to me how self-loathing has the same effect within the brain as a physical beating, it shuts down to protect itself from further torment (similar to how people in catastrophic accidents often can’t remember feelings of intense pain). Telling a person who is depressed to try harder, get up, get dressed, do the things that they know will probably help, is like telling a person in a wheelchair to get up and walk. It’s an impossibility. Unless you’ve experienced the physical agony of constant misery, you’ll be lucky enough not to understand how simply being alive can be absolute relentless torture.
If you know someone with depression, please don’t blame them for their actions. At its worst, I pushed my friends away with a cruelty I barely knew I was capable of, but all with the genuine intention and certain knowledge that they would be so, so much better off without me. I knew that despite my illness, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by people I will never deserve; two of whom I would be doing a disservice were I not to mention specifically. Firstly, my now ex-boyfriend, to whom I stopped being a girlfriend and became a responsibility, a burden that needed everything and was grateful for nothing. Secondly, my wonderful mummy, who put her life on hold and suffered alongside me. I have never and will never meet someone so selfless and full-hearted, a woman who would and could and did everything possible to pull me out of my own living hell.
If you are someone who can recognise this is someone that you know; I know you don’t know what to do, I know you’ve tried for so long and I know they’re pushing you away as hard as they can. Don’t let them. Even if they tell you they’re just tired, or just coming down with a cold, even if they’re still posting stupid tweets like nothing is wrong. They’re trying their best to convince you they’re fine, and they’re good at it. Please, please be there for them, because being alone is everyone’s greatest fear; mine was realised on the day my illness drove away the person I thought would never leave, they day when my dependence was shattered for good. At the time, this seemed like the worst thing that could have ever happened, but it turned out to be the best; once you’re at rock bottom, there’s only one way to go from there.
I wish I could say to anyone going through this horor story that it can get better overnight, that you can see a doctor or take a pill and it’ll all go away. I wish I could say that you’ll go back to ‘normal’, whatever that is, and that you won’t have moments where the darkness will reappear. What I can tell you, as someone who was absolutely certain this was how it would always be, it won’t. For me, this came with the realisation that I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, and that no matter how much I hated myself, I couldn’t wish it on myself. This break in the clouds was a minor moment or relief from the ongoing drudgery of self-hatred, but it was enough to break through.
Whilst no one’s experience will mirror my own (depression is a fun path we carve for ourselves, and mine is by no means the atypical experience if such a thing exists), I hope exposing my soul to the whims of the internet will put a dent in the stigma surrounding mental illness, even for just one person. I hate clichés like the plague, but they exist because they’re all true; depression is not a deep dark secret, it’s pure, unadulterated shit, but it’s an illness like any other.
I thought, with every fibre of my being, that it would always be as bad as it was, and I can confirm even more resolutely that I now know it won’t. I can’t say its all rainbows and smiles, but I can say that everything I just described sounds like, as Isabel puts it, “a weird nightmare” compared to my life now. I realised I have some unbelievably amazing people around me, and that I have the potential to do some really good things (bet Barack Obama didn’t know all of this hot mess was sat just 10ft away from him this summer), but more importantly, I have the potential to be happy.
I shall end this here in case my mum is reading this and drowning her iPad in tears, so for once I’d surrender the last word. Firstly, Caitlin Moran, who said “nine times out of ten, you probably aren’t having a nervous breakdown – you just need a cup of tea and a biscuit. You’d be amazed how easily and repeatedly you can confuse the two. Get a big biscuit tin”. And the second piece of advice, from the woman I admire most in the entire world, is you don’t have to do it all at once; illness, recovery, stress and anxiety make you feel like the world is falling down on top of you. You only ever have to do the next minute, the next day, and the next thing as it comes along. Just breathe, and take it one step at a time. It’ll be okay.