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Content warning: This article discusses depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
This Easter holiday, after getting steamrolled by the pressure of my dissertation, I finally cracked and talked to my family about my mental health. I did not want to play the blame game, although there certainly is a lot of it to go about: high expectations, a lot of pressure…
These are normal things that don’t leave most people crippled with anxiety in their adulthood. However, for me, they had created such a paralyzing, pervasive sense of panic, that three days before my deadline, all I could do was stare at my data tables and dry heave, convinced I would never amount to anything in life, and so I should just end it.
“But we’ve not been that scary, have we?” my mother wailed, after I explained to her that I have been taking sertraline since November to manage my increasingly worsening low periods. “You’ve had a good life!”
It’s true. But even though I had a happy childhood, I was not a happy child. I used to think that I wouldn’t live to my eighteenth birthday. I remember being very young – young enough that I could still only write in uneven block letters – when I penned my first suicide note. Death, and thinking about dying, and being dead, were constantly at the back of my head in some form or another. Every road crossing was a game of will-I-won’t-I, every bad grade was an unguarded window ledge.
Every day after I turned 18 was a magical surprise. I was faced with the sudden and terrifying realization that my life had not somehow stopped, and that my existence was a continued thing that now had to deal with. Every single choice – conscious or unconscious – that I had made while certain I wouldn’t be alive long enough to see its consequences, was sending me barreling into a future I wasn’t entirely prepared for.
I wanted things, I think, in the way we all want things: vaguely. To get into a good uni, to have good times with my friends, to do a job that I don’t completely hate. I wanted to write poetry, and go to fun, interesting places, and meet fun, interesting people. But more than anything, I wanted to function. I wanted to not be depressed. I believed that there was a clear-cut path to healing. There were steps I had to take from point A to point B, and afterwards, I wouldn’t be depressed anymore. I would become, finally, an active participant in my own life.
I thought going to university would fix me. I was sure it would. I was so ready to get there and be immediately this magnificent neurotypical version of myself, you know? Sleeping the normal amount, being able to eat the right foods at the right time (as opposed to running out of groceries after three weeks of not leaving my room, and just eating plain tortillas with BBQ sauce at 4.45am in the morning), engaging in the normal kind of conversation that does not revolve around how sad I am for no apparent reason: just normal stuff.
Well into summer term, I was only leaving my room once a day to collect my takeout order from Cartmel Bar, and my interactions were limited to speaking with whoever I ran into on my way in and out. I slept for sixteen hours a day, and ate the exact same meal, and I wasn’t happy, or sad – I just simply wasn’t.
My flatmates were worrying about us finding a place to live for second year. I was not. I was, once again, firmly convinced that I wouldn’t be alive long enough for it to matter what house we did or did not rent.
By the time summer rolled around, I had secured an internship at an incredible newspaper, with a lovely editor to supervise my work. Was I excited? Yes. Could I allow myself to enjoy it? Absolutely not. I was terrified. I was in tears almost every day, convinced I was failing at every task, feeling rotten, and knowing I was not good enough to continue.
On several occasions I talked myself into believing I would be fired the next day. And then second year came around, and once again, I thought: “This is it – I am going to be fixed now! I will live with my cool hip housemates in our cool hip house and be very cool and hip!”
Already, I was two years past my self-imposed expiration date. Making long-term plans for my own life was no longer optional, and old dreams about the future, when suicide had been a less prevalent plan at the forefront of my mind, had to be revisited.
I did extra-curricular activities and read my poetry to (please let me say this) great acclaim. I won an award for a writing residency and was invited for a job. I got onto the modules I wanted – things were looking up. I was going to become shiny and new, and turn all my assignments in on time, instead of being gripped by panic. I would sleep without waking up in a cold sweat every hour or so, and I might even start exercising!
I think you can tell where this is going already. I came home for summer, and for four months crashed so hard and low, I don’t even want to remember most of it. I was miserable, and because I was miserable I was angry. I didn’t have the energy to do anything, but I was bored out of my mind.
I viciously fought with my parents for absolutely no discernable reason, just because I was so damn unhappy, but the idea of confessing to them that I was brutally, monstrously depressed, seeing no way out of the tunnel, made me even more snappish and irritable. I was furious that they couldn’t see how hard I was struggling, or worse – a part of my brain supplied – that they could see and just didn’t care.
Looking back on it now, I know my parents were just as baffled as I was by my own behavior. I was able to recognize its toxicity, and yet unable to stop myself. In a feat of defiance, I applied to attend a conference in Beijing, and then promptly forgot about it, until I got the acceptance email.
I had always wanted to go to China. When I was a little (depressed) child, anytime I felt scorned by the world (so, all the time), I would declare loudly, “Well, I’m going to China!” China, at the time, was the furthest I could imagine going.
And I did! I climbed the Great Wall, looked down at a sea of green, and thought: “Okay. This is it. I’m cured now. If this doesn’t cure me, nothing else will. I have to be cured now. I have to get better.” I had achieved one of my most far-fetched dreams, although it had never seemed likely because of my crippling travel anxiety (Beijing Airport is a great place to have a bit of a crying meltdown).
By the time I came back to start my third year, though (so, literally three days after I got back from China), I turned 21, and one of my other big (and less far-fetched) dreams came true: my housemates greeted me with a surprise party, a home-made cake (thanks, Liv), and a massive card. I was three whole years past my self-imposed deadline, and I hadn’t killed myself yet, but I also wasn’t happy, and I sure as hell wasn’t functional.
I did counselling, then I spoke to my GP, and then I started medication. Okay, magic pills, I thought, do your magic now. Make my brain good. I am lucky in that the first medication I tried turned out to be the right one to manage my symptoms. I was still adjusting to it over Christmas, but I certainly functioned better than before. In the Lent term I got offers from all the universities I had applied to, including Durham. Durham would have been my first choice for undergraduate study, if I had had the grades for it. Okay, I thought, the meds are helping, but this will definitely make me better forever.
I am sure you see where I’m going with this. You can do most of the things you want, even all of them, but that doesn’t really fix you. Relying on those arbitrary, self-imposed goals and milestones, convincing myself over and over that I would be happy if I could just do one more thing, was the greatest disservice I could have done myself. It robbed me of being able to just experience the good things in my life for what they are.
Now that I have finally turned in my dissertation, and am working my way towards my final deadlines, I don’t expect a whole lot from my academic work. I will certainly be relieved to not have them looming, but I am no longer sitting at my desk and chanting to the turnitin button, “please heal me, please heal me, please heal me”.
I take my pills, and I talk to my counsellor, day in and day out. Some days I still don’t leave my bed or muster the energy to talk to my housemates. But on my good and better days, I am not waiting for that magical moment of healing when the heavens will open and I will suddenly be so deliriously happy it will be like I have never been sad at all.
And even though every morning that I wake up and I am alive continues to be a bit of a surprise, I sometimes am able to look back at that child, writing suicide notes in block letters, and departing in her mind to China, and I thank her for giving me a herculean to-do list. That keeps me anchored, even if it doesn’t necessarily do much by way of curing me.