I have been struggling with depression for more than a year now. And I mean, struggle. I haven’t felt depressed for a year, I have been struggling through one of the most painful experiences of my life. People can be so well-intentioned, especially with mental illnesses, they just want to help. Have you tried… Yes. Maybe you should… No. My cousin usually does… Shut up. I am taking medication, and yes it is working. But no, it doesn’t cure my illness it only makes it slightly more manageable. I am seeing a psychologist, and yes it is working. But no, it doesn’t cure my illness it only makes it slightly more manageable. I try to take a walk when my body allows me to, I try not to isolate when my body allows me to. Even if you try all the beautiful socially approved coping mechanisms, there is no guarantee that it will ease your struggle. Every day is a new day of trying trying trying.
Trying is made so much harder by the financial cost of a mental illness. Do you have any idea how much a psychiatrist costs in South Africa? It’s uhm well, a lot. And then there is the option of turning to state health care, but so much documentation is required. When you are struggling to get up, you will most likely struggle to get to banks, printers and police stations for the paperwork you need to access state mental healthcare. I was recently fortunate enough to be institutionalized in a free state mental hospital. But again, paperwork and lots of it. And what happens when I get out? Where do I go now for prescriptions? Psychiatrists? Private clinics might have a bit more of a sustainable system but they are pretty much unaffordable to the average South African.
Recently, I’ve realized that my depression reminds me a lot of the abusive relationship I was in when I was younger. Depression pushes me to the floor, pins me down on the bed, isolates me from friends and family and ultimately is poison to my self-esteem. I am currently doing my PhD, and on my good days I have so much hope for the researcher I think I want to be. I am excited for the conference I will be attending in the UK, I am beside myself for the opportunity to interview journalists in China in 2016. But, depression. What if you arrive in Nottingham and you can’t get out of bed? What if you try to engage with fellow researchers and you are unable to utter a word? What if you are asked questions about your presentation but you are unable to focus and it makes you look incompetent?. Most people with depression know, these fears are real. You have very little control over when a depressive episode will strike and how. There is no magic Red Bull to drag you out of your mind for just that conference, just that interview, just that conversation.
For many people with depression, the illness is about a lot more than just feeling down or feeling completely hopeless. It is often coupled with severe anxiety. I wake up anxious about the stack of books next to my bed I need to read for my dissertation, but my depression tells me I can’t read anything. I can’t do anything. So here I am, caught between being anxious about something and being unable to do anything about it. Depression is also often accompanied by physical reactions – fatigue that you have no words to explain, pain all over your body, inflammation in your muscles, tired arms and tired legs that wobble when you walk. It is incredibly hard not to pity yourself when you are feeling incredibly depressed. It is also hard to fight suicidal thoughts. Sometimes when they appear, I am really surprised and I think: “where did you just come from? I’m not suicidal!” But then they persist and eventually you believe that maybe you are suicidal. My depression has just convinced my brain that I don’t want to live anymore. It is in those moments that you have to reach out until you are blue. Be honest about your feelings, the people who understand will know and hopefully tell you that you will get through those moments. Make your gratitude list, think about the potential of a beautiful life that you know exists just beyond this low. Overcoming those moments in itself can be traumatic: you realise that you were considering ending your life but you know for a fact that you really don’t want to die.
I am writing openly about these thoughts because I know for a fact that I’m not alone in this struggle. This could be read by my employers or my students and could make me seem incompetent, unprofessional, etc. Unfortunately I am dealing with this struggle first and foremost right now and communicating my experience is more important to me than how I am perceived. I am a human being, I am trying to survive and only then am I my career or my relationships. This is part of the realization of how important loving myself is even though depression often makes me forget.