I’ve been nominated by a dear friend and fellow Klingon-speaker to participate in the 22 Push Up Challenge, but due to my ongoing spinal issues I’ve decided to take it up in a modified form. So each day, what I’ll be doing instead is mental push-ups, of a sort: each day of the challenge I’ll be writing a candid reflection on an aspect of my own experience with mental illness, to show that mental illness can and should be talked about openly, that the stigma surrounding it has persisted for far too long and needs to be shattered. I’ve decided to make this blog my venue for that writing, not only to keep me on track to continue writing here, but also so that I can pour out my insights (such as they are) and experiences with anxiety and depression to you
poor bastards good folk. If that helps someone, then I will have succeeded twice over, I think. And in the spirit of candid discussion, do feel free to ask any question of me, at any time. And not just in this challenge, either.
Day 1. An early reflection.
Depression is insidious. Depression is sly. It can be with you for years upon years while you don’t even realise it, while you flagellate yourself with the idea that you’re weak or insufficient or pathetic. Though I was diagnosed first in 2011, subsequent to a painful and protracted romantic experience with a woman whose name I’ve now committed to damnatio memoriae (though the event itself I’ll talk about more later on, since it’s the event that triggered me to seek out professional assistance in the first place), now that I know what I’m looking for I retrospectively recognise signs – what Frank Herbert called in his epic novel Dune the “petit betrayals” – in the way I behaved and felt, that suggest I was probably suffering from depression and anxiety since well before that, perhaps as far back as primary school. There were a couple of older students who threatened once to “dob on me” after seeing me in the playground, and for the life of me, I have never been able to work out what it was they were threatening to dob me in for. Nonetheless, it was entirely enough that they made the threat, and every time I passed them on the playground in subsequent days and weeks and months, they would say the same thing to me, so formulaic that it’s been seared into my brain. “If you’re not too careful, I’m dobbing on you.” That’s certainly not the only event that ever happened to me to nurture my anxiety, but it certainly assisted in its development. I was in year 3 at that time, I think, and that pair in year 5, because one of these kids only later turned up in the upper level of a mixed-age class of which I was the lower (5/7O at that time – later 4/5O when they realised the ridiculousness of a two-year gap in class ages – with Rosemary O’Brien, Satan incarnate in a floral-print dress). I nearly peed myself the first few times I had to go into the classroom with this kid, though he’d either forgotten or stopped caring about tormenting me and thenceforth never gave me any strife. But the damage was, largely, done. And that was just in the peer environment of a primary school playground. I can only imagine what the peer environment of the military – an arena in which overt strength both mental and physical is not only an aim but a competition of sorts, a province where old traditions die hard and to show vulnerability is often to make oneself a target – could do to foster anxiety, depression, and psychological self-imprisonment, particularly once one re-enters from the military back into the psychologically quite different world of civilian life.
Day 2. Feeeeeeeelings.
Or perhaps a lack thereof. For the misunderstanding about what depression comprises is rife even now, in a time when information is easier to access than ever (even if the utility of the information itself, especially on the Intertubes, is often open to rich question). Certainly, before I was diagnosed I was one of those who would very often talk about being down in the dumps, or being sad and upset, as feeling “depressed”. In our culture the idea of mental illness remains very little discussed, even despite many public campaigns seeking to ameliorate the situation, and depression is poorly understood by most as a consequence, even where a commentator or some institution of the mass media sometimes travels a path that takes them achingly close to the truth. One of the only two films, for instance, that have ever made me cry (and not the odd tear and tightness in my chest that I get at the drop of a hat, but deep uncontrolled wracking sobs) is, of all things, a Pixar outing, last year’s animated film Inside Out. It’s a spectacularly done film, and I encourage you all to see it. But in particular, it showed a scene – not the one which made me weep, to be fair; all of you who’ve seen this movie know which scene caused me to cry
BING BONG NOOOOOO! – in which the five characters representing emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger) suddenly noticed that as their human, Riley, ran away from home, their emotional console and its brightly-lit buttons were slowly being taken over, and disabled in the process, by a creeping but nameless blackness. The anonymity of this creeping darkness was, I felt, an unfortunate waste of a perfect opportunity: for that’s an almost perfect visual metaphor for depression. That blackness that infects the entire emotional working of your brain, that stops your usual ON switches from working properly, that causes the needle on your emotional meter to stutter slowly backwards to zero – that is depression. It’s the creeping loss of pleasure from eating a previously (and objectively still) delicious food. The gradual ebbing of your favourite music’s ability to move mountains within you. The disappearance of your drive to seek experience. Depression isn’t the opposite of happiness, though many misunderstand it as though it were. Happiness and sadness aren’t two sides of the same coin; they, along with anger and worry and joy and fear and disgust and love and wonder, they all occupy spots around the rim on one side of a coin on which depression covers the other side. And when the depression ebbs, everything else begins to flow once again, like the melting of alpine glaciation allowing creeks and rivers to trickle back to life once more, even if only for a short while before the return of winter.