On getting help
‘Let’s begin where it all started.’ She sat up straight, her pen ready to start moving. When she heard me laughing, she looked up.
‘I’ve told this story over a hundred times. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to do it again.’ It was my third psychologist that year, my sixth referral; I had been walking around with my depression for more than a year and had received no help yet. Some months before I had visited my general practitioner (GP) for depressive symptoms and had landed in a jumble of psychologists and referrals. I had hoped that the medical professionals would share my patient file with my information in it so that I would not have to explain my story every week for the rest of my life. In that very moment, my hope faded. It felt as if I was stuck in base 1 of receiving help.
Not only had I started to lose hope as the months passed, but my friends and family lost it with me. Every time that I saw a psychologist or GP, they told me that these sessions were the solution to helping me get through this rough time in my life. And every single session I waited for something to happen. And nothing ever really did.
But you don’t even look depressed!
First of all, it had taken a while for me to convince my GP that I was suffering from a depression because I didn’t ‘look that bad’ and I was ‘able to smile and make jokes.’ Many times I saw them writing it down. Many times they told me straight to my face that I didn’t look like the ‘average depressed person.’ I heard it so often that I started to feel like I had to convince my psychologists how unhappy I was, even if it might not look like it.
I felt weird for having to say this to my doctors. Weren’t they the ones that were supposed to see through it? I’m sitting here in front of you, telling you what is bothering me. Why is that not enough for you to help me? And what is the ‘average depressed person’? Depression is not a ‘one size fits all’ type of illness. It presents itself so differently in different people that it is almost impossible to depict every type of depression. Sometimes it is completely obvious that someone is depressed, but sometimes you’d never in a million years guess that person ever even has bad days. Therefore, it is so difficult to wrap your head around this concept of depression. Someone can be beautiful and have a depression. Someone can be successful and have a depression.
In other words, someone struggling with depression may still be able to get up in the morning and go to their demanding, prestigious job or be in a romantic relationship, post the believable happy pictures on Instagram and regularly get together with their friends to have fun — that is, or generally passing for someone who doesn’t ‘look depressed’. But this same person may be gripped with a challenging set of symptoms invisible to those who love and know them. Symptoms that may greatly diminish their overall quality of life, their career, their relationships, and bloom into more challenging mental health concerns if left untreated.
For my friends it was a shock to find out that I was having a depression, because I was ‘always happy.’ And apart from the occasional emotional outburst and saying I wasn’t doing great after the breakup with my ex, I managed to finish my bachelor’s degree, continued working and shamelessly danced whenever a song came on. No one ever noticed how bad I was actually feeling. A feeling that was impossible to explain to anyone. A major difficulty in overcoming stigma, and indeed probably one of its causes, is that it is very hard, perhaps impossible, for those who have not experienced depression to understand what the individual with depression is going through.
If the psychologist doesn’t help, drugs might….
Getting medicine for my depression was excessively easier than getting psychological help. I was warned about the side effects of antidepressants and the dangers of abruptly stopping the intake of antidepressants. I had been taking them for a while without any effects (aside from a lack of sleep, nightmares whenever I did sleep, feeling like I had taken XTC while in yoga class, and a lack of hunger).
After a few weeks, my antidepressant supplies were running out and I had lost my confidence in the effect of the medicine. I had already received new medication that was supposed to help, but my faith was gone. I hadn’t made a decision yet whether I actually wanted to try new medication and therefore I stopped taking the current meds until the decision was made. Those three days were very strange to say the least. I had a big presentation coming up, so not stressing was not an option. However, the direct (noticeable) effects of stopping my medications made my body feel as if it was stuck in between different spaces. Every time I turned my head, it would feel similar to the sensation you experience when you dream of falling down when you’re going to sleep (also called hypnic jerk). I never mentioned it to anyone as a big problem because I was too stressed about my presentation.
There were also some direct effects that were unnoticeable, but very impactful. My negative thoughts had multiplied those 3 days, I felt like there was no escape and my life fell apart. The new medication from my GP was still somewhere in my room. A package containing 13 pills. On the third day of my ‘off-medication’ adventure, I lost my mind and I started drinking (alcohol) again. Something that I did during the first weeks of my depression but managed to get a hold of. To say the least, the combination of increasing negative thoughts and alcohol resulted in the very interesting decision that left the package of 13 pills completely empty.
Not being someone that asks for help a lot, that was the emergency call. It brought about some action from my GP and psychologist who now started to think that maybe there was actually something going on with me. For a while, it seemed as if I was going to get the help I needed. The support of my friends and family was the most I had ever gotten, but that support only reached a certain boundary. These people were able to support me because of the love they have for me, the friendship and sometimes a sincere interest in my illness.
The empowered depressed?
However, I am repeatedly congratulated for being so brave in talking openly about my depression. To me this shows how others view depression and that it is highly stigmatized: I, in fact, am a ‘performer’ and there is no bravery. I can’t handle my thoughts and consequently have been searching for distraction every minute of the day.
Every day is about surviving, being able to function.
I always found distraction in working, but had restricted myself to working twice a week, thinking that it would help me get some rest. As a consequence, I started drawing and got so caught up in it that I, because I couldn’t manage to do other things, started an exhibition. With that going on I was busy setting up a research in Africa that would help farmers to earn a reliable income for their products. Working twice a week, exhibiting my art, joining a feminist collective, and all the while writing a research proposal for a study in Africa was something so praised by everyone I knew. They were blind to my motivation behind all my activities. I had become very interested in all these subjects, but the reason I started was more one of distraction and the urge to ‘keep going’ than one of motivation.
Breaking the stigma: how to support someone going through depression?
My frustration, however, goes far beyond my own struggles. This mental health system should support people that are mentally ill and unstable. It seems as if it is forgotten that mental illnesses are deadly and very unpredictable. It is used as a dirty word to label someone as psychotic rather than someone experiencing psychosis. For people with mental health issues, the social stigma and discrimination worsens their situation. It can cause someone to avoid getting the help they need or it can stimulate isolation.
It’s already so lonely not being able to explain how you feel to others, getting tired of bothering people when you feel down again.
So as a girl who suffers from depression, I am here to help others and myself through the eradication of this social stigma by sharing my story and my thoughts however shocking they may be for the outside world. Mental illness is not something shameful that needs to be hidden. I promised myself I will be as transparent and honest as possible to people asking about it. Sharing this may reach a small amount of people, but it is worth sharing. Not only to inform people who feel like they have a depression that you are not alone, but also to inform friends and family about my experiences and advice.
If I can get anything out of this mental health awareness month, it is the importance of
1) EDUCATING YOURSELF. This may help you understand what your friend or family member is going through and help you to feel more confident in offering support.
Often when you are in need of help, love and support, you isolate yourself from the world and avoid human contact by pushing away the ones you love. Even if it seems like they’re trying to push you away at times, reminding them you’ll always be there for them is a really important part of helping someone with depression, so
2) STICK AROUND. People with depression can (because of the stigma) face a lot of unhelpful beliefs and negative attitudes. One of the most helpful things you can do is to 3) ACKNOWLEDGE their problems and let them know that they can trust you. Battling your own mind is already hard enough, let alone trying to convince people that don’t believe in your depression and anxiety.
Text and illustration: Chanti van der Kust