Time for some good old-fashioned introspection. This is going to involve some chats about things like depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, so if that’s not your bag, it would probably be best to turn back now.
I had a piece in mind about a week ago. It was going to be a retrospective on depression. I was going to talk about how weird it is to look back on a time when I was so lonely and tired and sad that cutting my arm open with razor blades was a normal thing to do and suicide wasn’t just an abstract concept but a very real idea that passed through my mind at least once a day. I was going to do a really clever thing where I would take that alien feeling I get looking back and relate it to what it must be like for someone who has never suffered from depression to try and understand it. It was going to be a little bit emotional, but ultimately it was going to be written from a position of detachment, from a point of view where those feelings were firmly in the past.
I can’t write that piece right now. I can’t get that feeling of detachment. I feel too close to the way I felt back then, a couple of years ago, when I was Bad. If you’re reading this and you’re a friend/family member, don’t worry: I’m fine. I don’t have depression again. I haven’t cut myself for over a year and a half and I intend to maintain that streak. But for the last couple of weeks or so, I’ve been feeling some of the Bad Things again. I can’t get out of bed in the morning. I find it harder to enjoy the things I normally love. Today I broke down and cried for very little reason at all.
So instead of the piece about how hard it is to empathise with someone who’s going through depression if you’ve never been there yourself, you’re getting this instead. This is a piece about the blurred lines between feeling awful and being depressed, and how hard it can be to negotiate those lines. This is a piece about how, as someone who’s suffered from depression, it can be hard to just feel sad without worrying that you’re slipping into a depressive episode again. It’s about how the emotions you feel don’t seem to have any legitimacy anymore unless they’re framed in terms of an illness. It’s about, I think, being a recovering depressive.
The problem with mental illness is that in many cases the symptoms which characterise it are just exaggerations of normal behaviours and emotions, extremes of things that flash through our minds daily. Obviously this isn’t the case with self-harming or suicidal behaviours, but the sadness, the feelings of loneliness and anxiety and stress and despondency – all of those are things that every person feels, to varying degrees. One of the major reasons for the stigma that surrounds mental illness is that there’s often quite a fine line between just being really sad a lot of the time and being depressed, or between being careful what you eat and becoming obsessive about your diet and appearance, or between having a stressful life and chronic anxiety.
The temptation for people who’ve never been diagnosed is to dismiss themselves – and others – as people who just couldn’t have depression, because their lives are too normal, their conditions too good. Depression is for people with real problems. But that’s not how it works – depression can hit anyone. Part of the problem is that once you’ve taken on the label of someone who has depression, it’s very hard to get rid of it, both in your own mind and in the eyes of other people. It’s an illness, but it’s also something which is with you a lot of the time, which affects the way you behave and how you respond to things and what you feel, and that can make it seem like it’s part of your identity.
So when it goes away, it’s confusing. You might not have depression now, but will it come back? If it just went away for no well-defined reason – not drugs, not counselling, not therapy – then it’s hard to know whether (or indeed when) it might return. In the meantime, it’s hard to deal with negative emotions. When you were A Depressed Person, you could write off extreme sadness or the inability to get out of bed or just plain existential despair as part of The Illness, something which you shouldn’t really be feeling and which normal people don’t have to endure. But now that it’s gone, how do you deal with those times when you’re feeling down for no real reason? How do you deal with those days when your brain just won’t let you get out of bed? How do you deal with the dark times in the middle of the night when you want to go to sleep but you can’t because your mind won’t stop thinking about the future and the universe and your inevitable death and your total and utter insignificance in the grand scheme of things?
It’s a question I’m trying to answer for myself. I think part of the answer is that a little bit of the depression never really goes away, and you kind of have to accept that. You’re always going to be someone who’s susceptible to these kinds of things, who might end up depressed again. But I think part of it is due to the way that being depressed gives you a label for all of the awful things you felt, and it’s just really difficult to deal with those things when you no longer have a neat little box you can put it in. Sometimes we just feel terrible and there’s nothing we can really do about it other than watch terrible horror films on Netflix and eat tubs of ice cream. The difficulty comes in recognising that those emotions are things that humans from time to time have to feel – and you, as a recovering depressive, may have to feel them more than most.
Recovering from depression, like any mental illness, isn’t easy. There are days when I feel exhausted and hopeless and just really, achingly sad. But I think in part it’s a numbers game. The days where I’m able to do the things I want to do and I’m able to enjoy those things vastly outnumber the really bad days, and I know enough about myself now to know how to pull myself – or get others to help me – out of the murky gutters of sadness.
I’m not sure that depression ever really goes away, but it can get better. A lot better. If anyone reading this has suffered from depression or any other mental illness, I’d love to hear from you – whether it’s about recovery or the illness itself. Comment below, hit me up on twitter, whatever. Let’s chat.
The image for this article is a blue bunny because there are no images for articles on mental illness which aren’t banal or offensive. Blue bunnies are neither of those things.