Have you struggled today?
To struggle can mean a lot of things. For example, one could struggle to get out of bed in the morning. One could struggle with this because of a heavy night of drinking, staying up too late to watch the new episode of a certain TV show involving kings, queens and dragons or one’s struggle could be a symptom of depression. To struggle could also mean to be anxious because of an exam or because of an anxiety disorder. We all know the symptoms of various mental illnesses without having to have one. Yet, one in six people would answer this question with “Yes, I have struggled today.” At first, it seems like such a big number, but then I look around. I look at myself, my family, my friends or my workplace. Let’s be honest: We all know someone who has mental health issues. Let’s be honest one more time:
Talking about this is not easy. It is not an easy conversation.
It’s not an easy conversation to start, to have or to finish. No matter which side of the conversation you are on. I have had this conversation as a friend, as a professional and as a patient. But there is one thing I can tell you: it gets easier.
So I will sit down with a lot of people and have this conversation. And I will share our conversations with you. I was lucky enough to find friends and strangers who would talk to me because they wanted to help raise awareness. Whether you are struggling yourself or whether you know someone who struggles, we hope to give you some perspective on the matter. Thanks to a lot of brave people who have agreed to be interviewed about their struggle. We are working together on removing the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
[If you struggle with self–harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering.]
Conversation #1 about depression
What would be the title of your autobiography?
Most likely “In Limbo”.
When did you realize that you struggle with something not everyone struggles with?
I had a very happy childhood, even though I was a bit more nervous than most kids. During my teenage years, I was a model student, school representative, I had excellent grades and was very socially active. When I was about 16 years old, I suddenly began to feel depressed. It was as if someone had just flipped a switch, and I couldn’t keep up with anything anymore. I lost interest in my hobbies, in school, in my friends. Although my symptoms were quite severe, I hid my illness extremely well. It took a long time for my friends and family to notice that something wasn’t right. I refused to let anyone know that I struggled. Life started to become unbearable, but I was very confused why I even felt that way. That’s why I kept to myself. It took about two to three years until one of my teachers finally pushed me to open up. By then, I was severely depressed, had serious self-harm injuries and was feeling suicidal. After talking to a doctor, I was hospitalized immediately and spent most of my senior year of high school in a hospital.
How does it affect your everyday life?
It took me a long time to get to where I am today, where I have achieved a certain balance and participate in a normal life. I spent my late teens and early twenties trying to figure out how to deal with the illness.
The illness affected my studies quite a lot, it took me almost twice as long to finish them as the average student. It was hard to follow a schedule when you have very little power over when the next depressive episode will come. There were days when I couldn’t go to my courses in college, and it was very hard to explain this to the professors.
The other thing is that because of years of self-harm, I have very visible scars all over my arms. I stopped self-harming years ago, but the scars are still there. People frequently ask me about them. Sometimes it’s hard for me not to feel self-conscious about them. Not only in relationships, but also with regard to how they affect my interactions at work. I am a teacher and I sometimes feel that colleagues judge me for my past or think of me as less mentally stable.
How did your family and friends react when you told them? What impact did this have on you?
I honestly consider myself very lucky, because I had a wonderful support system around me. The hardest part was learning how to open up to them. I hid my illness so well. Because I had always been such a happy and accomplished person, it just didn’t make sense to anyone. I was so secretive about everything because I did not want to hurt anyone. When a teacher finally managed to talk to me, I did not consent to him going to my parents. He got me an appointment with a psychiatrist, and I even went there by myself. I was hospitalized when my parents were on holiday, and I did not tell anyone until the day it was time to leave the hospital.
In the years to follow, my family has always been supportive and loving, but apart from my sister, I don’t really talk to them about anything. My big sister helped me a lot with medical things, but my guilt over her having seen the worst parts of my illness still gets to me. My friends were great when they found out, they visited me in hospital and helped me with everything, and mostly with feeling like a normal young person whenever I felt better.
What was the most valuable advice anyone has ever given you?
I had an amazing therapist, who helped me a lot during the most severe periods of my depressive disorder. She made me accept that my illness is not likely to change, and she helped me with accepting that it is always going to be a part of my life. This sounds harsh, but it helped me a lot when getting over the part where I was constantly looking for an answer, something to “heal” myself from and rid myself from the disease. But chronic depression doesn’t work that way. It is about surviving the hard times and enjoying every second when life is good.
What did you discover to be a helpful coping strategy?
For me, it’s self-care, sleep and preparation for difficult episodes. I try not to fight the days when I feel powerless, when I just want to hide and sleep; I let myself do it, because it helps me to cope and get through the difficult parts. I also try to refrain from watching anything too tragic or listening to sad music when I feel down, because it usually leads me down a rabbit hole when I’m already vulnerable.
How did it feel to reach out for help?
Did anything make it easier for you to do so?
Reaching out for help is never easy. I think it’s because mental health is still stigmatized a lot. What made it easier for me was that the first help I got was from someone outside of my family and friends. I was afraid and ashamed, very young and I probably would never have talked to them about this. No matter how loving a family is, it is hard not to feel like a burden to them in such a situation.
Could you describe in one sentence what’s it like to live with depression?
It feels as if I am constantly in limbo between life and death – sometimes I float closer towards life, and some days I feel like I am floating further away.
Is there anything that still bothers you about having to live with depression, but that you have made your peace with?
I think what I still tend to struggle with is taking medication every day. Over the years, I reduced my medication as much as I could, but I don’t think I will ever be able to live without it. For years, I had to take a lot of medication, since finding something suitable is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. It was physically and mentally draining.
What’s something you want people to know about your condition?
I think people often think of depression as a form of sadness, and that is why they often don’t understand why it’s so challenging for an individual.
But everyone feels sad once in a while, that is normal and a part of life. If the opposite of sadness is happiness, then the opposite of depression is vitality. Depression is an utterly paralyzing state, which can suck every bit of life out of you. It’s not just a mental state, it also manifests itself in your body.
What’s a positive thing about your illness? How did it have a positive impact on the person you are today?
It makes me value the little things, the times when life is just normal. I don’t need any adventures or to feel excited to be happy, sometimes just an ordinary week where everything feels normal is the best thing in the world. Depression gives me perspective somehow – it teaches me not to get upset about tiny things that go wrong in life.
Special thanks to my first interview partner. If you recognize yourself or someone else in this conversation, don’t hesitate to reach out to a psychologist, therapist or psychiatrist!