CW: mental illness, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-injury, one kinda graphic sentence about poop.
I’m very open with the fact that I’m mentally ill, but I hardly ever go into detail beyond that. I describe my situation using broad terms: depression, anxiety, eating disorders… Most of the time it’s because I believe it’s too personal to be anyone’s business. Sometimes, though, that has nothing to do with it. Sometimes there’s still shame and stigma attached to the greater details, as though if someone hears “depression” they might sympathize, but if they hear anything beyond that they’ll think, “Well that’s a stupid thing to be depressed about.”
And I’ll tell you right now, they’d be right.
The things I’m depressed “about” are all legitimate reasons to be sad, but they aren’t worthy of contemplating suicide. Depression is a cunning disease, though. It picks through our insecurities and latches onto things, turning minor (or major) irritations into immense weights under which we cannot abide, or beautiful perfections without which we cannot live. The problem is that once such a weight is lifted or a perfection attained, depression is quick to jump to another topic, bearing down twice as hard or lifting the pedestal twice as high.
Many of the details below will probably read as trivial to some — normal stuff that everyone has to deal with. And that part is true. But when dealing with them while suffering from a mental illness which is keen to make mountains out of every single molehill, sometimes just getting up in the morning is an Everest unto itself.
So today, since the Bell Let’s Talk campaign is in full swing, I’m going to go into more detail, not because it’s really anyone’s business, but to prove (to myself, really) that I’m not ashamed, because what I’m dealing with is an illness, not a character flaw.
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More specifically, Major Depressive Disorder. This has been the overarching diagnosis that has drawn all my other diagnoses together, allowing them to interact so thoroughly that I sometimes can’t tell which one is acting up. I can’t be sure when it started, but I had my first suicidal episode when I was thirteen, so I vaguely date it back to middle school. Part of the problem with the timing, though, is that a lot of the anger, sadness, and confusion it created were passed off as “normal teenage moodiness” and “a flair for the dramatic”. I didn’t feel like anyone took me seriously, which only made matters worse.
Depression isn’t just the glue that holds everything else together, it’s also the weight that pulls all of it down. It deprives me of the ability to feel actual happiness, and burns through a day’s worth of energy just getting me out of bed. It’s what takes all my other thoughts and symptoms and emotions and convinces me that none of them is worth living through. It comes and goes in waves, sometimes letting me function like other people, and then suddenly pulling me back under just when I thought, “Maybe this time it won’t come back.” For some people, depression is a brief period or a rough patch. For me, it’s probably going to be something I struggle with for the rest of my life. And that fact is, in and of itself, depressing.
At one point in my mid-twenties, I had one doctor suggest that I might have a form of Bipolar Disorder. I disagreed, not because I thought I knew better than him, but because he had only spoken to me twice, and the symptoms came along (and then disappeared) during a period when I started (and then was taken off) a new antidepressant. None of my other doctors has ever suggested it since then, so I’m chalking it up as a misdiagnosis. I may yet be proven wrong, but until then, it gets only an honourary mention.
A combination of General Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder. The former mostly manifests as a distaste for being in crowds, and, after many years of therapy, was shown to include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A mild case, to be sure. What I go through is not on par with what soldiers or abuse survivors deal with, but it boils down to the same psychological process: when I’m in a crowd, on some level my mind is not there. It’s back in my childhood experiencing a moment when I was lost, afraid, desperate, and ashamed to such a degree that it was burned into my brain for the next twenty-plus years.
My social anxiety disorder is a combination of extreme fear of judgement and extreme fear of physical contact. The fear of judgement manifests as what most people call “being shy”, but to a pathological extreme. It has given me a mean case of stage fright, both in the general sense of not wanting to get on stage, and also in less obvious situations, like having to warn my college teachers that I may very well have a panic attack during my one-on-one practical exams.
The physical contact side is darker, heavier, and more tightly knitted into my depression. One off-hand comment when I was five years old was enough thrust me headlong into the world of body shame. I wasn’t fat. The comment wasn’t even about being fat, specifically, but in a moment I became acutely aware that there was too much of me. I mentally became The Fat Kid. When my body started to catch up with my mind, I became the butt of jokes, both at school and at home, where my brother’s sense of humour often had a cruel edge, and my parents acted as though the real problem was my apparent inability to take a joke. Conventional wisdom told me to laugh along with the bullies to take the fun out of it for them. Soon enough, though, I was making the jokes before they even could. I quickly developed the habit of saying horrible things about myself on a regular basis, phrased in such a way that others were invited to laugh along. I essentially gave the people around me permission to laugh at my insecurities. It’s something I still struggle with today.
By the time I was eleven, I surprised even myself by realizing I considered my body to be “disgusting”. That was the exact word my inner monologue used. I was disgusting, and anyone unfortunate enough to have to make contact with me because of some polite social convention would naturally, I assumed, be disgusted by the experience. In high school, my friends knew I wasn’t a “huggy” person, but that was the extent of it. By university, I abandoned what would have been my first real relationship because I couldn’t stand to be touched even by someone with whom I was in love. She held my hand and I burst into tears. She told me she loved me and I didn’t believe her, not because I thought she was lying, but because I was convinced she had to be wrong.
Having read the above paragraph, it shouldn’t really surprise anyone that an eating disorder would eventually rear its ugly head. Oddly, it wasn’t the one you might expect. At least, not at first. Shortly after finishing university, I developed Binge Eating Disorder. Food became my favourite source of comfort and escape. I had always been a fan of generous portions, but I suddenly moved on to eating a dinner large enough to feed a family of four in a single sitting — not even as a meal. Often my binges would be mid-day snacks on top of my three (super-sized) squares. This was around the same time that my depression evolved to include Self-Injury. I kept blades and bandages on hand everywhere I went, just in case I needed to escape reality, even if that escape was into pain.
Several years later I suddenly snapped back in the other direction, quickly developing Atypical Anorexia Nervosa (Binge-Purge Subtype). I would starve myself for four to six weeks at a time, allowing myself nothing but water and a daily multi-vitamin. Eventually even the vitamins were cut out. Between “fasts” (as I called them, putting a holistic, healthful spin on what I was doing to myself) I would binge. My brain, starved of nutrients, would demand food, making it the only thing about which I was allowed to think. I did six fasts before reaching the point of Recover Or Die, and just before the last one I was so ravenous that I gained thirty pounds in just nine days. I tried to combat the binges with laxatives, which only managed to confuse my digestive process. I would down a dozen or more after a binge, but they did nothing. On top of that, my body stopped processing food, which often came out having been so minimally processed by my body that I could still identify what it had once been.
At the same time, I struggled with Body Dysmorphia. I genuinely had no idea what I looked like. At one point, years earlier, I had lost eighty pounds, but even when my Before and After pictures were held up side by side, I could hardly see a difference. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but when I developed and was diagnosed with anorexia, it became quite apparent. I knew I was smaller, but any time I looked in the mirror, I still saw an absolute cow.
To make matters worse, many people didn’t register the fact that I was losing weight at a dangerous rate. Since I’d started at such a large size, even at my smallest I was never underweight. People would commend me on accomplishing such an amazing feat. They would ask me for tips. They would compliment me on the way I looked — something that had rarely if ever happened when I was overweight. My sick, distorted brain took that as reassurance that I was nothing if I wasn’t skinny. Even though my hair was falling out in clumps, my teeth were loose, I was constantly fatigued, often near the point of fainting, constantly shivering, unable to climb a flight of stairs due to the loss of muscle in my legs — that didn’t matter; I was skinny so I was worthy of praise. Even with my years of therapy, I still struggle with getting that thought out of my head.
I don’t talk about this one as much, because so far it has been limited to just two incidents. Twice in my life I have had brief but terrifying separations from reality — Psychotic Breaks. During the first, I ceased to exist. During the second, the world around me became monstrous — literally, I perceived a monster in the room with me. I wasn’t a child with an overactive imagination when it happened; I was almost thirty years old, and despite being a rational, analytical, intelligent person, I was absolutely certain that the woman sitting just a few feet away from me was not human.
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The thing I find I must most often explain to people about mental illness is that it is not just “emotional”. The emotions are just a symptom of a physical illness of the brain. Mental illness is the result of chemicals in the brain going haywire. We are denied the chemicals necessary for happiness. We are flooded with the chemicals which tell us we are in danger. Our brains mistranslate the signals received by our eyes: the eyes perceive a “skinny girl” but when the brain converts that to electrical signals, our inner monologues are given the words “fat girl”. Sometimes these illnesses are transient and pass like the common cold. Sometimes they are stubborn and stick around for years. Sometimes medication can restore the brain’s delicate balance. Sometimes psychotherapy can teach coping mechanisms, or help us unravel a complex web of emotions we never even realized were interrelated.
What’s important is that people realize that mental illness is an illness, as legitimate and deserving of sympathy as any other. Telling a person whose brain is depriving them of serotonin to “cheer up” is like telling someone with broken legs to walk it off. Telling an anorexic to “just eat something” causes the same flood of adrenaline as handing someone a loaded gun and telling them to eat the bullet. What’s worse, there are so many of us. This is not some rare, unheard of disease. There’s no reason we should collectively know so little about it. It’s everywhere, and yet so many people still labour under the assumption that it’s simply a lack of self-control, a moral shortcoming, or a weakness. That stigma is what keeps many people from seeking help, because it would mean admitting to someone that they’re mentally ill, and open themselves up to character assessments from strangers who don’t know the first thing about it.
So this is me, opening myself up to whatever anyone with an internet connection thinks of me, because I believe that visibility is an important step in recognition of and education about mental illness. I’d love to say I’m not afraid of being judged; the truth is I’m terrified of what some people might say to me — or behind my back — after reading this. But I firmly believe that the gains that can be made by being visible and vocal far outweigh any losses I might incur.
EDIT: Updated 29 January 2016 to correct some poor sentence structure and grammatical errors.by