Reprinted from "Supported Education" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, No. 17, p. 14-15
Mental illness. Depression. Obsessive-compulsive Disorder. Words that, prior to my own experience, meant nothing to me. Or, probably more realistically, meant ‘happens to others, to people who can’t get it together, who need to pull up their socks.’ Perhaps that’s just a general feature of illness — until it touches you or someone you love, it’s uninteresting, someone else’s problem, misconceived. But this very lack of awareness, combined with misperception, is what, in my case at least, made depression so difficult to diagnose and treat. It led to a ‘what’s wrong search’ lasting far longer than it needed to, to series after series of unnecessary diagnostic tests and, ultimately, to a much longer, more intense depressive experience.
Not that diagnoses of mental health problems are trivial or made with ease. In all fairness, I was always a moody kid, sometimes displaced in dark clouds, more difficult to appease than my siblings. But I was never, as far as we were concerned, mentally ill.
Abnormality just crept up, quietly tiptoeing past a threshold until, retrospectively, we seem to agree that, by my senior year of high school, I was officially suffering from some serious mental health problem. Manifesting itself in my work ethic, as an addiction to academic overachievement, I became a full-blown study nut. In preparation for exams, I had entire textbook pages memorized — word for word. There was never enough time; I never felt prepared; no amount of effort would do; and, of course, there were just too many distractions. I even remember thinking it perfectly reasonable to ask my parents’ guests, rather curtly, to keep the noise down so that I could study. At night, multiple tablespoons of Gravol became essential in order to shut off my mind and escape into sleep. Looking back, it is obvious indeed that the seams of my sanity were beginning to bulge and tear apart. At the time, however, nothing of the sort crossed our minds.
By my second year at university, whatever coping mechanisms I might have developed were failing. Insomnia was attacking with a vengeance not even Gravol could curb. It was time to seek help. The on-campus GP suggested sleeping pills, which, in the beginning, seemed the answer to my prayers — half a pill and I was comatose. Problem was, after a few months, I began waking up in the middle of the night to take some more, and more, and… By the time I stopped sleeping completely, I was up to triple the original dose — with no effect. For five days straight I stayed awake. There was no sanity. Thoughts were impossible to process. Everything scared me. My eyes couldn’t focus. No sentences. Static. Just blurry.
Somehow I — little veggie girl — made it on a plane and into the arms of my mom. I couldn’t have conversations since I couldn’t keep up. Opening my mouth, I forgot what I was saying mid-sentence. Even television commercials were too long to follow. All in all, I was exhausted. When you feel as though you no longer inhabit yourself, when you’ve been taken hostage by your own mind and your spirit disposed of, then it’s over. Looking back, I must have broken mom’s heart telling her I didn’t want to be alive anymore.
And so, I was in the doctor’s office constantly — a biology major, yet I thought I had the AIDS virus from the time I used the outhouse at an outdoor concert. I knew what it was! — a vitamin deficiency — so we tried beta-carotene. Maybe melatonin. Check my thyroid. Check my iron. Check my… “I think you’re depressed,” he said one day. “Is it treatable?” was my response; since “yes” was his answer, I was fine with whatever he wanted to call it. Three weeks, he said; the Zoloft would take at least three weeks to start working.
Chemically, things started returning to normal — whatever that was. I could follow entire conversations, sleep, eat, watch TV. At home, things were more difficult. It was hard for Dad to accept that his perfectly normal-looking, academic superstar daughter was mentally ill. Too heavy a label, it wreaked havoc in our home, straining my parents’ marriage as well as my relations with my siblings. It was decided I should try and head back to school. “Slowly,” I promised the doctor.
I continued to improve. Amazingly, the gray shadow that had been stalking me lifted. My concentration was better; I could put things into perspective; life wasn’t a chronic emergency. I returned to myself, and was keen to get living again. The only thing was that during these years my misconception of depression, and the stigma surrounding it, prevented me from accepting that I had a mental health problem, that this was what I was being medicated for. Indeed, as far as I was concerned, depression was what weak people had, and involved a lot of crying for no reason and wanting to sleep all the time. It was just a coincidence that antidepressants worked for my ‘sleep disorder.’ And so, as far as I was concerned, the weighty label of ‘mental health problem’ didn’t really apply to me.
As a result, after a few years without insomnia, I decided, no doubt influenced by pressure from walk-in clinic GPs, that there was no need for these pills. After all, there were horror stories; goodness knows, if I kept on them forever, I might turn into a monkey or something. I remember mom telling me that if anyone found out I was taking antidepressants, they’d think I was depressed, and then I’d never get a job, let alone be admitted to medical school. So we did it — cut the dose in half, and then in half again, and then… an enormous crash and back to square one.
To cut a long story short, it was back on the meds. This time, I knew it was serious. This time, I needed to acknowledge that, yes, I have a mental illness. This time, a psychiatrist was even involved. He warned me of the severity of my illness, that I would be on meds for the rest of my life, forever. But I can function. I can reason. I can live rather than simply exist.
So that has been it — thus far. Many things have changed besides my ability to function and enjoy life. I am motivated in a balanced way. I can put things into perspective. I can socialize without having to beg my mind to allow me to concentrate. I don’t have to wrestle with chronic bombardments of worries about never sleeping again, about my mind never ever shutting off.
People tend to assume my experience with depression has been entirely horrid. Quite the contrary, really. One of the hardest — yes; one of my biggest struggles — yes; but also, one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. For starters, I honestly care much more about people, about their pain and their struggles. I am less judgmental, aware that surfaces of grumpiness and irritability might well be reflections of pain. Second, my experience has given me a path — something to be interested in, passionate about. On winning a Rhodes Scholarship, I decided to pursue a Master’s in Policy, investigating issues faced by people with mental health problems in the workplace. Onto my second Master’s degree here at Oxford, I’m looking at cross-cultural perceptions of depressive symptoms.
Third, and most importantly, I am so appreciative of those who’ve supported me. Whatever suffering I experienced, my mom took on tenfold. She was steadfast in her commitment, despite my irrationality, irritability and intense selfishness. My family supported me as best they could, learning about depression alongside me, and eventually shedding the stigma that we all started out with.
I know I am so lucky. I have heard others speak about how they struggled for decades. I live among people who care so much about me, who celebrate my recovery. I live in a time when great treatment exists and I have an amazing GP. Depression is hell; there’s no questioning that. But the value of the experience is tremendous. I honestly don’t think I could fully appreciate the life I’ve been blessed with, had depression not been a part of it.