This week I have begun a new job, been to my GP, started a higher dose of my antidepressant, returned to my psychologist, apologised to a commissioning editor for royally fucking up in terms of keeping up contact and tried to get back to a normal sleeping schedule. I’ve still got a long list of emails to reply to, invoices to send and people to inform with regards my realisation that everything not writing has become so difficult for me because depression steals motivation, enthusiasm and energy. People who know me, if you’re reading this – this is why I’ve been able to be online and ignore emails. This is why it’s so fucking hard for me to send a couple of forms so people can pay me money for doing something I love. (I’m not even talking about the fucking IRS forms for Smashwords, which are actually genuinely annoying and off-putting – and one day I’m going to write about all the hoops one has to go through to be a self-published non-American author who wants to make any kind of income from their words.) Depression. How does something so intangible render so many things difficult or impossible?
I have two things going for me. I’m able to talk about my shit to other people, which isn’t easy after almost three years of practice, but at least gets a little more natural after a while. I’m also surrounded, these days, by incredibly kind, supportive, amazing people who are patient, tolerant and accepting of me and my struggles without pathologising me or diminishing me for my illnesses. That’s not something I’ve always had, and I will never stop being grateful for the existence of these incredible people in my life who are content that everything awesome in me comes hand-in-hand with failures, struggles and challenges.
(I think the most important life lesson I have ever learnt – and I am speaking as a perfectionist mortally afraid of failure – is that there is a powerful and amazing magic in saying to people that I have fucked up, these are my reasons, this is what I’m trying to do about it, please forgive me for my failures to be the person you expect. It hasn’t let me down yet.)
I said to my psychologist that I write, of late, because it’s the only way I can feel alive. When I am not writing – when I am trying to do anything like dishes or laundry or cleaning my house – I am flat and miserable and guilt-ridden. I can’t bear it, so I bury myself in the words. Can you blame me? Is there anyone in this world who wants to feel unhappy? For me, it’s not dissimilar to any other addictive hide-from-reality behaviour, save that as a writer I can’t very well quit writing: I need to find a balance. (Writing is my self-expression, and the eighteen months I spent unable to do much of it due to my hands drove me to suicidal depression. Telling me to quit the thing that is my reason for being in the world isn’t going to help me; my creative psychologist understands this, thank heavens.) I need to not feel miserable so I don’t have to hide from my life and myself. It’s really not complicated.
I’m not suicidal and I’m not going to self-harm, but I woke up last Monday with the acute and horrific realisation that all the things that I have struggled with this year, in a year where otherwise things are actually going pretty well for me, are just too fucking hard to be explained away by laziness. Last year it wasn’t hard for me to do the laundry: I just got up and did it. The dishes got done. I could get changed out my PJs. I went to class and did my homework and it wasn’t hard, somehow, to do all the things I want to do, all the things I know are within my ability, but those days feel like a hundred thousand miles away. I think this is, in a nutshell, depression (and even anxiety): this sense of very simple things feeling out of one’s reach, an insurmountable mountain. Where did that ability to pick myself up and get started go? I had it, once – I had it for a couple of years, even – so why can’t I find it now?
It’s hard for my depression to be taken seriously by others because I look like I’m motivated and hard-working. I wrote (and redrafted, redrafted, redrafted) a novel! I’m blogging regularly! I’ve self-published a couple of books! It’s hard for me to take my depression seriously when I can tell myself all I have accomplished. I can lie: I can say I didn’t check my email because I was too busy doing other things. I can spend six months ignorant of the fact that I’m struggling to do the dishes by conjuring the many things more important than dishes, and, even better, I can enjoy the praise I get from other writing people impressed by my writing output, motivation and dedication. I can live in ignorance of the fact that my life is spiraling well out of control until I’m down in the pit crying at the thought of trying to clamber my way out again, overwhelmed by it all, because, to the world, I don’t look ill.
(It’s the same response I get from people telling me that they’re impressed I can operate in such pain. No. The fact I’ve learnt to ignore my pain is a bad, dangerous skill I shouldn’t have developed, because it is a chronic failure of self-care. Likewise, the fact that I can be chronically and severely depressed that I can’t manage basic self-care routines but can still create is in no way a good thing: my output is a result of obsession, avoidance and illness, a maladaptive coping mechanism.)
How do you tell people that you’re not okay when you don’t even know it yourself? When you think yourself lazy or unmotivated? When you’re ashamed to mention the state of the sink or the laundry covering half of the lounge room floor? When you are not told enough messages by the world that your behaviour and your mindset is a serious, fatal, devastating illness, not a lack in one’s personality?
To begin to recover from depression takes an incredible act of will at a time when that will most escapes us: we need to get up, make a phone call, see a doctor, email a psychologist, leave the house, stammer through an explanation of our self-harming thoughts.
To do those things we need to know we are depressed.
I think I have been depressed for the best part of the last six months. It’s only in the last month that things have become so bad I’m struggling to live with myself, but I haven’t been myself for a long time. I’ve been falling for six months; I only hit the ground six days ago. If I didn’t know, speaking as someone in therapy for most of that time, speaking as someone who has had mental illness diagnoses for the past three years, speaking as someone who has good healthcare professionals on my side and people who care about me, speaking as someone who writes and has some sense of who I am, how can someone without those things know they’re suffering from an illness that is by its very nature invisible? How can they get up and get themselves help – and this is something we can do with support, but we are the ones that have to make the journey – if they don’t know? If even the people with all the skills to identify this illness in themselves still don’t know they are falling?
(And this, I interrupt you to say, is why I look back at Oscar’s character and think, yeah, I got that right. She should know what’s going on with her, and she doesn’t, because seeing mental illness from the inside is harder than viewing it from without … and most of us are so good at hiding it from others and ourselves the chances of anyone seeing our illness and our crazy from the outside before we hit the bottom is almost impossible.)
I am able to get up and get myself help because I am lucky. I understood what was happening to me before my life fell irretrievably apart. I am in pieces, but I can pick them up and put them together again with very little negative consequence. I’m not feeling good, yet. It might be a few weeks or a month before I am, if I am. I’ve got to muddle through life in the meantime and hope I get there again, because I’m tired of living the way I am. I’ve got to hold onto the hope that every time I’ve gotten up and made something happen, the universe has responded with things working out the way I needed them to. I’ve got to have faith that this will happen again – hell, I’ve got to figure out what faith means to me, because I’m not sure I know. At the very least I am not alone, and at the very least I can have honest and meaningful conversations with the people whose kindness, patience and support I most need right now while I try and figure my way back to being the person I know I am. This makes me incredibly, amazingly lucky, but not everyone with this illness is as lucky as I am.
People die because they are not as lucky as I am.
(Do I say this every post of late? I don’t care. People are dying. This isn’t said enough. If this makes me a one-trick pony, I don’t fucking care, because I will not stop saying this until I live in a world where it no longer needs to be said.)
This is why we need dialogue. This is why we need (honest, important, realistic) representation. This is why heroes with mental illness (heroes who are every single possible way of being human) need to encompass all genres and all forms of creative media. We, as human beings, know who we are because of what we see in the world around us. Stories tell us many ways and shapes of being, the many struggles a person might face – and, sometimes, how they might be overcome. If not that, though, they tell us we are not alone in the world: they give us words and names for what we are. Heroes with mental illness can not only break down that isolation at a time when we crazy folk are beset by illnesses that carry with them damning insinuations about our character, personality and strengths if they are recognised as illnesses at all, but they can paint the image we need to identify our illness in a world where that identification is so important and so impossible. Possibly, just possibly, we might be able to percieve and understand our illnesses before we end up in the psych ward, before we end up in the possession of a life so shattered restoring it is beyond actuality, before we end up dead.
Representation gives people the ability to identify and talk about who it is they are. I want to see a world where it doesn’t take me six months to understand that the things that have become so hard for me shouldn’t have been so hard in the first place. I want to see a world where I don’t have to lose so much time to struggle, pain and unhappiness because I am not appropriately mirrored in the words that surround me. I want to see a world where it’s not so very difficult for someone to understand that they suffer an illness that isn’t easy to fight but can be fought, even if it means a lifelong war with successes and failures alike (because right now I need to hear that).
Remember – and never forget – that I am one of the lucky ones.
If representation makes my life better, what will it do for the very many people who can’t even look at themselves in the mirror and whisper those frightening, true, liberating words to themselves? For those who don’t even know?
I have depression, and right now I’m sitting in my PJs at 5:00 PM on a Sunday afternoon because finding the motivation to get up, get dressed and do the dishes feels like a pipe dream.
Now, please, if you have any inclination to creativity at all, remember us in your art.