Let me start right off by saying that I can't tell you what it's like to live with mental illness, not because I don't do it every day of my life, but because everyone experiences it differently. What I can do is tell you about my experience in a way that might help you understand what's happening when a friend or relative goes through something you don't have first-hand experience of. Here are a few things I learned from going through a shitty, shitty time:
- You can have high-functioning depression
Those who understand that depression is more than just being sad all the time, may still be under the impression that it'll turn you into a couch potato. And in many cases that is true. Depression sucks away all your energy, very much like Dementors in Harry Potter suck out souls. Actually, almost exactly like that. You don't want to get out of bed or bother with food (ice cream is food, right?) or shower or breathe, because it's all just so much effort. But some of us manage to do it anyway even though we feel dead inside. I remember during a particularly bad depressive episode in 2015 I went to work every day, sat at my desk and stared at nothing. I worked like a robot. Later, during my more recent depression, I wrote a piece trying to describe that feeling. What I was describing was actually bipolar mood disorder, but I didn't know it yet. One of the worst parts of functioning well even though you can't feel a damned thing, is the realisation that you could be so good at hiding it, not a single person will notice. Not one. Because you're going on as you always do, putting on your fake smile and delivering good work and pretending you haven't been unable to sleep for god knows how long.
Dementors are literally a metaphor for depression.
- Depression is and is not context-related
There are different things that influence the development and onset of a depressive episode. Scientists think it could be genetic in some cases, and environmental in others, or maybe even a cocktail of the two. The thing is, people expect those suffering from mental illnesses such as depression or bipolar disorder to have chaotic and generally trash lives. And it is very true that depression can lead to those things, because it doesn't just make you sad, it makes you listless and unproductive and irritable and a whole host of other undesirable things. It changes your personality and behaviour, and that can be disastrous. Some people though, like me, don't crash and burn. In my case it's because I'm high-functioning. I was doing a PhD and getting married and then getting divorced (and dealing with the PTSD from that abusive relationship) and writing for M&G Thoughtleader and getting good scholarships to spend time at a good graduate school in Berlin working on my PhD and even finishing the damn thing in three years flat, all while flatlining inside. I was being awesome AF, but it wasn't enough to keep me from wanting to die. When the chemicals in your brain just aren't doing what they're supposed to, you can have the best life in the world and none of that matters in the slightest.
- You could have the wrong diagnosis
I had been on medication for depression for just over a year when the question of bipolar disorder came up. Psychiatrists are wary of misdiagnosing bipolar partially because it generally means medication for the rest of your life, whereas depression can be a situational episode triggered by a traumatic life event and may not recur. Bipolar also needs a different type of treatment to unipolar depression. So I was on a low-dose antidepressant for about a year when the shit really hit the fan in a big way. The discussion of bipolar disorder came up but my doctor, understandably, proceeded with caution and we started trying out cocktails of medication. Funsies, but not really. Instead of getting better, I went into big mood swings. I remember there was a pretty bad one during which I was super creative and played with Garage Band for four days straight making some shitty music that I thought was awesome. That's how hypomania works. It makes you think you're the best thing alive, it makes you fantastically creative, it makes you productive... in all the wrong ways. You focus on yourself, not on work or relationships, you spend all your money, you do reckless things, and then you crash. And the crash is brutal. I fell so hard I ended up in a psychiatric clinic. That's where things finally started getting better.
- Admitting you need help is harder than you think
It's frustrating dealing with someone who you know needs help but won't accept it. It's hard to tell someone that you think they should go see a therapist and see them blow you off, even though you have the best intentions. The problem is that you can't make this decision for someone else. Depression is a bitch. It convinces you that everything you do is a waste of time. That there is no hope. That you can't be helped. And that is a lie, but you have no control over what your brain is doing when the chemicals take over. Getting to that point where you say "okay, I'll go see a doctor", "okay, I'll go to the clinic" is hell. Few people get there without support and love and people who listen and try to understand. That's what we need most, even if we try to push them away.
Mental illness is not a joke or a trick or a call for attention. It's a real physical health problem and it will suck you dry. It can and does take lives. But damnit, you can get better too.