“I was supposed to be having the time of my life.”Sylvia Plath, from Bell Jar
***Trigger warning: mental illness
The moment I finally stopped lying to myself and knew for sure something was not right with me was 11am on a weekday morning almost two months ago. I had been in bed, the cover over my head, for four hours, fully awake, frozen. Those four hours was how long it took for me to finally gather up some tiny shreds of energy to leave the bed and go brush my teeth.
With my partner’s support and encouragement, I set up an appointment with my GP. A week later, I was holding three sheets of A4 paper stapled together, the first an official diagnosis that I was having (am still having) moderate-to-severe clinical depression and anxiety, the other two a plan for medication and therapy.
Prior to that morning, I had been doing well, or so I thought – on the surface. My Honours study had been having its usual ups and downs, mostly ups. My circle of family and close friends had been nothing but supportive and loving. Many times over the past two to three years, I had had doubts that I was at least slightly clinically depressed, but every time, I would tell myself to get over it. Because I had nothing to be depressed/sad/upset about.
Like any average person, I googled descriptions of depression. Scrolling through WebMDs and Headspace and BeyondBlue articles, I was still in denial. Until, intrigued by a Reddit comment, I started listening to an audiobook copy of Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Her description of her depressive state as being trapped in a bell jar – sensing the world through a layer of solid glass distorting sounds and feelings and images, suffocated with brief spells of relief when the bell jar is momentarily lifted up – triggered memories of my own that I had been suppressing.
I was floating through high school, and then through university, doing just well enough for no one, even myself, to notice that something must have been wrong inside my brain. I could never describe the feeling of being depressed as eloquently and beautifully as Andrew Solomon did in his TED Talk (“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment”). When I reflected upon the experience with my GP, I recalled it being how as if for the past five to six years, I had been stumbling through life, through every moment, every experience, trapped in a thick fog that would only dissipate long enough every now and then to let me have a fleeting glimpse into what actually living life could be. In those fleeting moments, I could see and feel things clearly and wholly, before being plunged back into the fog.
Depression slowly crept up, unnoticed at first, then debilitating all of a sudden. I would wake up in the morning and could not find a single reason to get up and start the day. By the time I would lock the door and start my uphill walk to uni or my commute to Sydney for work, fully dressed, teeth brushed, face washed, bag packed, I would already be mentally drained.
The problem was that the fog was so constant and had been there for so long that I – as pointed out by my GP – thought that it was the default. That it was normal to have to exert tremendous effort just to get through the basic logistics of being a clean, clothed, functioning human being. That it was normal to feel empty and detached.
A huge part of the reason I did not let myself believe that I had depression was how I have never been suicidal. Yet at the same time, I did not realise that wishing to simply not exist, to be asleep forever and never have to deal with life, was not a constant thought on the average person’s mind.
After some very amateurish research and confirming with my GP, I learned that what I have is likely “high-functioning depression“. This is especially common among high-achieving, even ambitious individuals, since their willpower to reach their goal and to appear on top of things could still escape the grip of depression for long periods of time. They stretch and stretch and stretch their mental capacity like a rubber band held by one end by depression, until it snaps. And the fog turns from translucent to fully opaque.
I have been taking my medication for the past month, and althought the side effects have only slightly subsided in the past few days, I am feeling better. I am slowly starting to truly live, not just getting by. I cannot find the words to describe the change directly, so I would have to resort to another simile. Ten days ago, I pulled a finish piece of crocheted daisies decoration off the hook, and I was overwhelmed by a sense of clarity, just as I felt fifteen years ago when I put my first pair of glasses on. The world was vivid. Life was vivid. And I want to live it.
In a recent conversation with my supervisor, we talk about how grief, for what could have been had diagnosis come earlier, had the cure been more effective, seems an intrinsic part of illness – both physical and mental. I am learning to accept my grief for what the past years of my life could have been had I gone to a professional earlier.
Three days ago, I left a tattoo shop with a daisy on my upper arm. The first tattoo I have ever had, done in 20 minutes while I was listening to Yellow by Coldplay on repeat. The first permanent mark to remind myself that I could live with depression and not let it overtake my life.
Now, I’m writing this to remind anyone who came across my story that you don’t need a reason to be “acceptably” depressed, just as that you don’t need a reason to justify that a flu, a cold, a broken arm is “acceptable” and “legitimate”. Just because you are still “functioning” does not mean that you have to deny the symptoms when they show themselves.
I hope that by talking openly about mental health and mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, these subjects will become less of a taboo to publicly discuss.
I would love to talk with you, to hear your experience with mental health and mental illness, in the comments, or through my Twitter DMs (@thespecsofmia).
Thank you for reading this far.
Mia Minh-Anh Do
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, these resources might help:
- A great TED Talk to show someone not having experiences of depression to understand the illness better: Depression, the secret we share | Andrew Solomon;
- The Black Dog Institute website;
- This TED-Ed animation, featuring the “black dog” metaphor for depression;
- The Bell Jar, a novel following in detail the course of depression. I especially enjoy this audiobook version.