Shaped by what I read and watched, I had an idea in my head of what insanity looked like from an early age: screaming, violent tears, loud confessions of inner torment, an inability to get out of bed or falling into a catatonic episode. Van Gogh cutting off an ear, Woolf with a pocket of stones to weigh her down, Hemingway trying to throw himself into the propeller of an aeroplane. There were clear signs that no one could miss. They were insane and we knew it.
During my first major depressive episode, I did nothing of the kind. To my addled mind, that meant I was fine. I got out of bed every morning, would get through the day, telling myself to just put one foot in front of the other, make it home to release the despondency into a measured period of crying, before sitting through dinner and idle conversation until I could escape to bed. There I would lay, contemplating what exactly had happened. Where had I gone wrong? For me, guilt is intrinsically linked to my depression and anxiety. I drown in it. What right do I have to feel that way? People throughout the world suffer significantly more than I do; their lives are harder, outlooks bleaker. I have no excuse.
The guilt only makes things worse. Even now, knowing better, I still fall victim to it from time to time. Because from guilt comes a determination to hide your failure. During that first episode, I formed a mask of such perfection that as I stared into the mirror I couldn’t see a trace of my own despair. Lying became second nature as a consequence, spouting out whatever I thought someone wanted to hear. Why aren’t I hungry – oh I had a big lunch. Allergy season must be close, have you seen how red my eyes are? Sorry, I zoned out there didn’t I – I was just thinking about my geography assignment. Cracks showed only a handful of times. A friend once caught me in a bout of tears and was openly disturbed by how quickly I collected myself when another friend approached, waving off my appearance with a quick lie and forming a well-practised smile. Nevertheless, few questions arose.
As the episode continued, my symptoms worsened. Intense paranoia, for instance, convinced me that people were always watching my every movement and that every laugh originated from a joke made at my expense. My appetite fluctuated wildly, as did my ability to fall asleep or wake up. I began to dissociate and panic attacks would wake me in the middle of the night. The symptoms scared me, yet I still looked nothing like the picture of insanity in my mind. I waited for the proverbial last straw to snap, for the outburst which would reveal to everyone around me what I had successfully hidden. I look back on that episode, the worst I ever had, and see a lunatic in myself. Perhaps a harsh assessment, but that harshness reminds me to never repeat such self-destructive behaviour again. It pushes me to seek help when I need it.
My idea of insanity was wrong. Before my twenties, I had no idea that someone could be highly functional during a depressive episode. Back then, as I was still able to sit my examinations and successfully pass them it had to mean I was fine. I could plan a friend’s birthday party or go on holiday and smile at the camera. I was fine but I also didn’t want to live anymore. Death seemed like the only escape from the cruel voice at the back of my head, tearing at my soul with a constant stream of vicious attacks. I couldn’t quieten it; I couldn’t imagine life without it. There’s nothing in the world with more power to hurt you than the darkest recesses of your own mind, and unfortunately I’ve always been quite good at crafting an insult.
The cracks became more apparent. A panic attack was witnessed as a simultaneous period of anxiety began, tears escaped at inopportune moments, and the cruel voice fought its way outside my mind to speak its viciousness to innocent people. I finally sought help from my doctor, although not much support was given. The urge to project a façade of competence was strong and I’d worn my mask for too long. Lies slipped out to hide the worst of my symptoms and no one could pry the truth out of me.
I know more now. I know people are not insane but instead experience or live with mental illnesses – all of which come with many options for treatment or management. Over time I began to recognise early symptoms and I know where to go when I need help. I feel less compelled to hide or lie, and, as more people feel comfortable sharing their experiences, I find the stereotypes of the past begin to fade. Nowadays there are more positive representations of mental health found on the page and screen, which allow people to learn more about these conditions. With the erosion of stereotypes, I have become comfortable attending therapy or taking medication. There is no need to whisper the truth, instead, the conversation can happen openly.
My friends and family know the truth now, and I’ve learnt that I was less alone than I’d originally thought. I’ve met and talked to people with similar experiences and the more I hear the more confident I am discussing what happened. After that first episode, I resolved to never look back on it; I locked it all up in a box and shied away from the oppressive emotions connected to that episode for years. With the combination of dissociation and repression, I have lost a lot of memories from that time and I initially preferred it that way. The longer I avoided it, however, the more that box turned into a void. A chasm that stretched across my life, a blight that stopped me from moving forward. The metaphor of the black dog lived in my mind and I waited for it to bite back.
I felt ashamed when there was no reason to be. No one chooses mental illness. The only thing we can choose is how we manage it. For me, it’s still a journey. Lies and the urge to pretend sometimes slip out and I occasionally favour repression over acceptance. Yet, with every year I get better. I doubt I’ll ever be cured, but I will survive. I just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.