Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Mental Illness

So, it seems as though it's Mental Illness Awareness Week down in the states.  It also seems as though I can only write when I catch wind of a topic other bloggers are hitting.  At any rate, mental illness is a pretty ugly thing, and so is the stigma attached to it.

Like many people, I have suffered from mental illness.  I have been depressed on and off for about as long as I can remember.  Sure, there are good days.  I can go for months or maybe even a year or more and almost forget it was ever an issue.  Generally speaking, life is good.  I'm pretty content at the moment, save for the extra hormones in my recent depo shot making me a little loopy, but hey, what's a few crying fits and bouts of irritability in exchange for three months of reduced cramps and bleeding combined with better emotional stability and a lack of babies?  (For anyone else on depo, do you feel awful right after your shot, or is it just me?)

As far back as I can remember, I've always wondered how on earth everyone else always managed to seem so damned happy.  Most of my peers were so energetic and outgoing, while I would sit alone and read, quietly observe, or get lost in my thoughts.  I remember identifying with the descriptions given in antidepressant commercials on tv, but also hearing that said antidepressants were best only taken by those over 18.  Since that was about a decade away from my age, I decided that I must actually not be depressed, as the tv made it sound like it was something that only happened to grown ups.

I also have a history of self harm.  Never any cutting, I was always too chicken for that.  It started with simply hitting myself when I thought I'd done something wrong, or thought something I shouldn't.  When I was about seven or eight, I realized that as my peers and a family member often said, I was fat.  What do fat people do?  They eat.  I started eating until it hurt, and then I'd keep going, because I thought that was what I was supposed to do.  The next chapter of my self harm story came some time later.

It started mostly as an innocent bit of curiosity.  Around the fourth to sixth grades, I'd wondered how deep into my skin I could get with just my nails.  Scratching for a moment or two didn't do much.  Was it possible to go deeper?  In the fourth grade, I tried it briefly as an experiment.  I didn't get far before I stopped.  I tried it again in the sixth grade, going a bit deeper.  Somewhere around the eighth or ninth grade, I started to get more serious about it.  This is when people got worried.  I started wearing long sleeves all the time to cover it (out of sight, out of mind).

Around this time, some of my friends were cutting, actually cutting.  My older sister told me to stop what I was doing before showing me her own scars from cutting.  Surrounded by so many people who I felt were doing self harm so much better than I was, I felt inadequate.  So I did my own casual little scraping that much more, to punish myself for not being able to do more.  Depression sure does put you in a peculiar mindset.

I did manage to stop, after a little over a year (which felt like forever at the time).  The marks on my arm have gradually faded for the most part, save for the big main one which I attacked most often.  When I don't bother to shave my arms, the hair there does a decent job of hiding it a bit.  With my gender fluidity, I usually just let most things grow, until there comes a day when I feel super feminine and I repulse myself.  Then I'll either cover up as much as I can that day, or shave my arms and legs like there's no tomorrow.  Then I'll often notice the small pale marks on my arm, and wish to cover up anyway, but I usually manage to convince myself that old scars are nothing to be ashamed of.  To quote Papa Roach, "our scars remind us that the past is real".  No one seems to notice them, but if someone did ask about them, I like to think that I'd be able to explain them calmly.

I can't tell you when exactly it clicked for me that I was indeed depressed, that it was something that could happen to people younger than what the tv antidepressant ads said was the "right" age.  I remember finding a book in the school library about coping with depression when I was in the seventh or eighth grade.  I ended up not reading it and feeling ridiculous for having taken out such a book in the first place.  However, one thing I know I'll never forget from that experience was when my dad went through the contents of my bag (as my parents did daily), finding the book, glancing at me, looking back at the book, and asking if he could borrow it when I was done, before walking away.  Looking back now, all his yelling, irritability, and tending to be bit withdrawn should have suddenly made a whole lot of sense.  At the time I thought he was just trying to make some kind of mean, nasty joke.  That depressed mindset really does distort things.

I could easily sit here and rattle off bunches of people I've known who've had mental health problems.  I could tell you about the Christian girl from the perfect family who never wanted for anything, but ended up struggling through a bout of depression, and kicking herself for it all the way; I could tell you about my first love who had a family history of mental illness and was bullied so badly that she ended up going home crying on a daily basis and tried homeschool, moving, and the school's alternate program before finally dropping out and cutting contact with everyone; I could tell you about the close friend of mine who I mentioned before in my body confidence post, who couldn't bear to keep going to school, and no one in his life seems to have any idea what's going on; I could tell you about my sister, my circle of friends, and the girl with the mentally handicapped older sister who acted like she had a position of authority over her younger sister who had lost her dad in a car accident.  I could tell you about my young teenage niece who is showing signs of mental illness, but these signs are being taken as simple cries for attention, drama queening.  I could tell you about my boyfriend who, like me, struggles with depression and crippling social anxiety, but lives mostly in denial of it.  I could tell you about so many other people, but it would barely scratch the surface.

Mental illness affects a great many people, from many different walks of life.  I remember watching a video on Upworthy about a class of sixth graders, many of whom admitted to being suicidal.  The result?  The teachers actually altered the curriculum to include more self-love and positive thinking.  I think that's a huge step in the right direction.  So many people who suffer from mental illness are told to just "snap out of it" and that they don't need their depression medication, or people will tell them that they're getting real sick of their "anxiety bullshit".  Let's put that into perspective.  Would you tell someone with cancer to just "snap out of it"?  How about someone with diabetes, would you tell them that they don't need their insulin?  Would you talk about how you're so sick of someone's "asthma bullshit"?  No?  Thank you.  Apply those thoughts to the first cases as well.

Someone very close to me used to always tell me to just snap out of my depression.  After she lost her husband to cancer, she stopped saying that.  I guess she realized it wasn't that easy.  I will say that I absolutely did need to be on medication for a while, otherwise I'm sure I wouldn't have graduated.  School was always hard for me, and all that extra work I had to put in and the extra pressure was just way more than I could handle.  A friend of mine used to make fun of my emotions saying things like "Life is just a swirling black abyss for you, isn't it?" before making a sound of derision.  Eventually,I realized that this was her defense mechanism against her own mental health issues

For your further reading, I'll post the two items which inspired me to write this

Boosaurus Mental Illness Awareness Week: Oct. 6-12

^There are some great links in the above post.


I also just found this.  Since I suffered from mental illness all through my childhood, I think it's very important that people know what to look for, so other children don't have to live in the dark like I did.

Thanks for reading!  Have you or has someone you know struggled with something similar?  If you're willing to share, please do so in a comment!

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