May I Have Your Attention Please

I am putting something on the table. The thing that I’m putting on the table is my brain.

This is a bit awkward for me. I’ve wanted to do this for ages and it’s really hard and weird—I’m doing it now—this is the thing: I have a bit of a mental illness. Surprise!

A few weeks ago, I emerged from the worst depressive episode I have ever experienced in my small life. The crux of it lasted for maybe three months, and I stayed with my Mum that whole time because I couldn’t look after myself. My Mum is very good at looking after me. It was about three quarters a relief and one quarter a source of anxiety though, because I don’t want my Mum to see me be sad.

That’s the issue really. I’ve spent a great deal of my life not wanting anyone to see me be sad. I like people. I want them to be happy, because that’s what you’re supposed to want for people you like, and also for yourself. That’s the goal, and it makes total sense. Being happy feels nice. Everybody knows you’re supposed to want to be happy. When other people are sad, that makes me sad. I didn’t want to make people sad, so I didn’t want people to see me be a sad person.

So I used to always find it very hard to talk about about my sadness. I’m certainly a lot better at it now. I used to be sort of proud of my ability to appear Not Sad to the people around me.

I was quite shocked when people started telling me that they were sad. Not just ‘sad’ but real sad, as in they were Depressed and had Depression. I thought people only talked about that in young adult books, at the same time as talking about drugs and sex. Those things were for seventeen-year-olds who had had bad things happen to them in their childhoods, or something. I was sort of impressed, and I thought that my sadness wasn’t real because it didn’t have a special title or a special justification. Which was another reason not to broadcast it.

I did tell my Mum once, and she booked me in to see a counsellor. I told the counsellor I couldn’t see the point in being alive and she told me her son used to feel like that, but then he had a baby and that made him feel better. Then she tried to get me to do this thing called ‘the journey’. I feel like that’s all I need to say about that.

I should say now, I haven’t really had a proper diagnosis—not like an official certificate of depression—but the psychiatrist at the CAT team said in a letter to my doctor that I have had dysthymia with major depressive episodes. There’s a term for that actually, which is ‘double depression’, which I think is a very cruel joke, like you can get my brain at a supermarket.

What it actually means is that I’ve had a sort of chronic low mood for several years, punctuated by periods of something that I always rather lamely call ‘a very bad time’. So in the year or so following that lady’s insinuation to 15-year-old me that I should have a baby to give my life meaning, I was in a dysthymic phase, which is like being a sort of useless lump of dry glue. I mean, it’s not completely awful; it’s definitely bearable. You get to thinking it’s normal, especially when you’re a teenager and everyone around you feels like shit too. And obviously you have nice times and you have chill times, and even exciting happy times, but in between them you’re just glue. It’s very drab.

But you don’t really want the world at large to know this. I mean I didn’t. I wanted the world at large (i.e. my high school) to think I was a happy, confident, charmingly self-deprecating joker with a good attitude. I wanted this because, despite being quite certain then that I was garbage, I had this very deep and kind of insane desire to be Head Girl. But Head Girls can’t be sad! Head Girls have to be happy and make everyone else feel okay about school and how weird and scary everything is. I was very happy the night I was told I was allowed to be Head Girl, but what followed was a year of deep and spirit-crushing self-hate. I would just look at my sadness and go ‘this doesn’t deserve to be Head Girl’ over and over, and watch it get bigger each time.

So the seventh form turned out to be at once the most fulfilling and the most damaging experience of my life. I already had seriously unbalanced self-esteem, and trying to be this ideal person—which felt so important to me at the time—did a very good job of unbalancing me even further. I sort of think the whole of my final year of high school was me creeping as slowly as I could to the very edge of what can be considered balance, which is where you can make yourself appear to be functional but really you are imagining screaming and tipping up tables and smashing windows and breaking your head on the floor all the livelong day.

People say that everyone goes through some form of this stuff. Everyone has their ‘little thing’. I don’t have a measure for how normal my experience is. I always feel as though mine is the one that makes sense, even when it is actually incomprehensible. I think it makes sense to have incomprehensible experiences fairly regularly in the process of living a human life. I also think it makes sense to be really, really sad about a lot of stuff, mainly the fact that you’re going to die and your friends are going to die and your family is going to die and your family friends are going to die and your acquaintances are going to die and all the people you’ve never met yet are going to die too, and all their pets, and every other thing on the face of the Earth, even cockroaches. And it makes sense to be really confused too sometimes, mainly because, even though you’re sad about mortality, you know that there couldn’t be a better situation, because never dying would be worse than dying. And every other imperfect bit of your existence gets piled on top of that—like disliking people, and misunderstanding people, and making mistakes, and trying to find home—and gets wound up in your head with the fact that it’s all going to completely end one day. So I think whatever kind of screwed up reaction you have to that is fair enough.

But I also know that on some level, my experience has not been normal—or perhaps it would be fairer to say it hasn’t been typical. I know this because when I go to the doctor I have to do a depression test, and sometimes I score in the high 40s when 50 is the severest depression that the people who made the test could think of. And if everyone were like that, then it wouldn’t be called severe anymore. Is that right? It would just be normal, I think? So even though a big thing that people say to you when they learn that you are regularly unhappy is ‘don’t worry, you’re not alone’, people don’t all react in the same ways to the difficulty of being alive. This is where there are some weird misunderstandings, and misunderstandings are a big part of people not wanting to tell other people that they are sad.

I want to tell you the three biggest misunderstandings I’ve encountered—one that came at the front end of my big sadness and two that came quite recently.

Misunderstanding #1: You can cure sadness.

I think this is wrong and dangerous because if someone says it to you and you believe it, and then you get better, but then you get sad again, then you might think you are the wrong manner of person. This is something that we tell (or insinuate to) young people very especially and often. I suppose it is understandable, because old people don’t like to see young people get world-sadness so early on, so they try to make the load less by saying it won’t last forever. They say ‘everyone goes through this at some point in their life’ and that makes you think that your sadness is a nasty singular point like a pimple, and if you stop eating chocolate (as it were—this is an extended metaphor) then the skin of your life will go all smooth and luscious forevermore. But this may very well not be the case.

You can manage sadness and you can alleviate it and you can medicate it and you can wallow in it and you can distract from it and you can give in to it and you can miraculously emerge from it for a while, but you can’t cure it, because it grows out of little bad thoughts in your head. Or at least, that’s my experience of it, and I’m a very run-of-the-mill girl.

Misunderstanding #2: The worst kind of sadness is the kind that leaves marks.

Everyone, including me, thought at first that this recent episode couldn’t be as bad as the previous one because I wasn’t hurting myself. It was quite shocking to me to discover that there are things that feel worse than thinking I should die.

Misunderstanding #3: This misunderstanding is about suicide.

A year ago, a person who amazed me and whom I loved very dearly—and who always helped me to see and understand and love my self—caused his self to die. For a while I thought that if such a person wanted to die, then I certainly had no business keeping myself alive. I felt a kind of incommunicable guilt about not wanting to die. But I came to realise, only very recently, that if someone has caused their own death, it doesn’t mean that they were just a person who wanted to die. That’s terribly reductive. It means that, in that moment, for that whole person, there were just no other options. And in a backward way and a very, very sad way, that gave me a bit of comfort.

I should say why I’ve written this, if you’re still reading. Why make my little thing so public? Here is my reasoning:

  1. It’s too exhausting to try to cover it up.

When it’s really bad, it’s really effing bad, and I’d rather spend my energy on things that will help me get better.

  1. I’d like the people who think they know me to actually know me.

Some people are proud of me and some people look up to me and some people think I’m kind of worthwhile. I hope those people won’t change their minds based on knowledge of my mental illness. I can feel good about myself despite my slightly broken brain, and if other people can’t, that is quite disappointing to me. And if it doesn’t change their minds about me, I’ll feel good, and I really like feeling good.

  1. I don’t think I should have to feel embarrassed about it.

I spent ages feeling guilty and embarrassed for feeling sad, which is laughably pointless. I was already feeling sad. The embarrassment is one layer of negative feeling that I have managed to extinguish, so, power to me.

  1. It is possible that someone who didn’t know this about me might be going through similar things, and they might not feel as though they could tell anyone about it.

If that is the case, then the two things they might possibly get from this are that it’s worth telling people (I know that’s true because I told heaps of people and now I feel awesome), and that if you still feel like you can’t tell any of your main people, you can tell me. I’m just putting that out there. I’ll be your plan B set of ears. Might be better than no set of ears, you know?

  1. This probably isn’t the last I’ll see of my sadness.

Here’s my super selfish reason. I’m desperately scared of the very bad time coming back. I can’t assume that it won’t. I’m doing really well at the moment but I’m stuffed full of antidepressants. I’ve got a whole other series of feelings about that. But my theory is that the more people who care about me that know about my sadness, the greater my support network will be if I get bad again. I don’t deal with it well on my own. I get better on the backs of other people’s kindness. I promise I’ll give each of you my kindness too, when you need it.

I think that’s about it for now. If this has made you feel worried about me, now’s not the time—I feel better than I have in years. I’d forgotten that it’s possible to feel generally Good, as opposed to generally Not Sad. The difference between the two is bigger than I can conceptualise in words. I just wanted to say this, okay? Because fuck silence. We can do that when we’re dead.

1 thought on “May I Have Your Attention Please

  1. HI Freya. Your blog, your insights and honesty are inspirational. This weekend I went to the Youth Civic Awards – had I known you, I would have put your name forward! I was in as inspired by the teenagers people performing as by the Award recipients – especially by a 16-year old who played piano and sang like an angel. The initial shock of realizing he was complely blind gave way to admiration for his spirit.

    I don’t know if you have ever tried mindfulness meditation but in your writing there are echoes of Buddhist concepts of suffering, impermanence and compassion. Through exploring and accepting, rather than denying, we can find peace and happiness. Go well.


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