Mental Illness and Me: a Testimonial

I am mentally ill.

Despite having been mentally ill for much of my adolescence and most of my adult life, it is still not an easy thing to admit. Nor is the word ‘depression’ something I’ve ever really been comfortable owning.

The Black Dog, the Cancer In My Mind, the Darkness That Never Seems To Let Me Go – all of those seem better somehow, more free from the stigma of depression. I’ve spent my life trying to pass it off as something else – genius twinned with madness, a self-destructive temperament, a personality disorder. Depressed? No, never that.

Luckily for me, I was diagnosed with autism, which is one of the best ways of avoiding facing up to your illness. You can attribute all of your problems and difficulties, whether motivational, social, functional, emotional, behavioural or cognitive, to that umbrella term. Don’t want to leave the house? Autism. Always interpret things in a negative way? Autism. Feel you just can’t cope anymore as a husband, a father, a human being? Always the autism.

And so I’ve spent the better part of a decade denying that I suffer from depression. I take antidepressants to tamp down the overactive sensory and central nervous system responses caused by my autism, I say. I take anxiety management and mindfulness courses to address my social phobia, I pretend. I wrestle with the urge to self-harm because I’m a father and I don’t want them to take away my kids, without ever asking why I even have those urges to begin with.

Why do I never admit I have depression?

Because I hate depression and I always have, ever since I was first formally diagnosed with it at 17. Because despite repeated assurances to the contrary, I always felt it was a weakness, something that happens to melodramatic teenagers and socially incompetent adults, and not real people. And because, as an illness, it’s just so self-centred, indulgent and sick.

Most of my prejudice comes from within. You’re a wimp, I think. Just get up and do it. Everyone else manages, so why can’t you? You haven’t got anything to be miserable about. Why are you just wallowing? Why can’t you take steps to get yourself out of this funk? Stop being such a fucking baby.

And yet the big secret, the one that nobody likes to admit, is that deep down we actually love our depression. Because it’s ours, and it’s been with us all our lives, our constant companion, and we don’t want to lose it. We get off on just how miserable we are. It’s part of us, and we look on those who ‘get better’ as traitors to themselves, because it’s not real, there’s no ever getting better, this is who we are, depression is what makes us special, and we think we can coexist with it, channel it, control it.

Until we reach a point, as I did a little over two weeks ago, where we realise that it has taken control of us, and it’s eating us alive, and there’s no place else to go but down.

I wish you didn’t have to reach rock bottom to get that epiphany. I wish there was a way that the insight would be granted you before you’re at the point of desperation. But there it is.

I went my doctor with a care worker, and as I started to tell her how I felt, all the denials fell away, and even I hadn’t realised how bad I’d become. As I put into words all the thoughts and feelings I’d bottled up, I discovered just how much I’d been holding in. For forty minutes it kept pouring out of me, the emptiness, the misery, the tears I had never shed. And bless the doctor, even though the appointment massively overran, she gave me the attention that I desperately needed at the time I needed it most.

She prescribed a new antidepressant, in addition to the one I’m already on, referred me to the Community Mental Health Team and sent me for blood tests for possible ME. And despite being hit by a multitude of side-effects – dry mouth, tiredness, nausea, diarrhoea, and a sudden dizziness that comes on every time a dog barks, a door slams or my phone vibrates in my pocket – I feel like a different person. Whether it is because of the pills, the distraction of the side-effects, the outpouring of emotion or some kind of placebo doesn’t matter to me at all. All that matters is that I’m not where I was.

What is astonishing is the change I’ve seen. It’s almost like an out-of-body experience. My thoughts are clear, my heart is stilled. The guy who walked into that doctor’s office a week ago – that angry, bitter, resentful, miserable, broken wretch of a person – is gone. And I’m glad. That guy wasn’t me. I don’t know who he was, but he wasn’t me. A veil has descended over him, as over the dead, and I struggle even to connect him to me. It is as though Gillan died, and I am what has been reborn in his stead.

So finally, with the clarity of thought to reflect, I look at him, this agitated, toxic, troubled soul, and I think: how the hell did he get like that? How did he get like that and how did he manage to keep going so long?

The second question answers the first: he got that way because he kept going so long.

I read a book a few years ago entitled Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong, by Dr Tim Cantopher. The central premise flips the received wisdom on its head – people with depression are not the weak ones in society but the strong. The weak encounter something difficult, unhealthy, damaging, and they run away from it, quit, give up. The strong put up with it, and press on, and keep going, long after they should. The weak do not endure long enough to get depression; the strong keep going, with no let up or sense of quit, until they’re used up and literally can’t go on any more.

That’s why Gillan got to where he was two weeks ago. He was too damn strong for his own good.

But now he is me, and I will no longer deny it.

I am mentally ill.

I am depressed.

I won’t be quite so strong in future.

And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

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