Note: This piece was written on 30 December, 2014. But I feel like maybe it’s time to let it out into the wild. I don’t handle stuff quite the same anymore (less sitting under my desk, more sitting on the kitchen floor, but samesame).
I think the first piece I ever read that really explained how depression affects me was this one by Hyperbole and a Half. I’m writing this post because I just started another one about anxiety and ended up sitting under my desk and crying for an hour. I can’t explain why, but small, enclosed spaces make me feel safe when I’m overwhelmed by sadness. Well, that and sitting on the floor. Maybe it’s because it makes me feel more melodramatic and helpless. Maybe because it’s easier to hide. Maybe because it’s easier to curl into myself. Maybe it’s because I can be really grounded.
Anyway. This is (some of) the story of my depression and maybe someone out there will read it and relate and feel less alone and instead of crying on the floor will leave a comment or message me (Twitter handle and gmail addie are in my about page – message me. I’ll listen.).
I think I started suffering from chronic sadness (can you call it depression at such a young age?) when I was in primary school. My parents were attentive and picked up on it and I went to play therapy for quite a while with a lovely lady who had a bunch of Persian cats. Apart from playing a game with chickens that needed to find their way home and Guess Who, I really liked those cats and it’s probably why I kept going for a long time. Because cats.
Anyway. Things stabilised for a while and my family moved to Cape Town when I was in the middle of Grade 7. I was never happy in school. I was bullied in primary school and had all the drama of friends turning against me and the backstabbing of girls. And in turn I wasn’t nice – in fact I just probably straight up bullied other girls when given the chance to be part of a group – I’d do anything to not be rejected from a group. And I’m not proud of it. I’ve tried to make amends, but I can’t undo the hurt I inflicted on others. But when I moved to Cape Town and thought that this was my fresh start, that I could be a new person, hell, even make some friends.
But that didn’t work well, or for long. Grade 8 started and I was inevitably uncool. And somehow made it onto the cool girl hit list. There were two groups of cool girls, The Sunshiners who were all blonde and lithe and sporty and The Stormers, who had dark hair and were a little edgier, the ‘bad’ girls. But they all hated me. Towards the end of my Grade 8 year I had two run ins with The Stormers, I muttered ‘whore’ under my breath at one of them (she heard, whoops) and later in the week I was talking about another friend (girls), calling her bitch as a Stormer walked past. I mistakenly made eye contact and she thought I was talking about her. The rest of that day became pure hell. They followed me everywhere I went to try hide from them – the bathrooms, empty classrooms and even the library. Eventually one of my friends – and I will never forget this kindness, Joss, really, not ever – took me to the counsellor’s office, and called him out of the staff room at lunch. That man, Mr Derek Wood, then saved my life. He called my parents, and advised them to take me out of the school I was in and move me to another school. Immediately. He said I should never come back to that school – because it would break me.
Thing is, I remember being out of school for a few days after that. But I wasn’t. I was out of school for almost three weeks – even more, for the rest of the final term. I have zero recollection of this. I don’t remember it at all. I guess it’s what you could call my first breakdown. My mother’s since told me that at the time, the school counsellor even advised them that it was possible I’d need to get inpatient help at one of the southern suburb’s many addiction/mental health clinics. But whatever happened, I somehow clawed my way out without going into a clinic.
As an aside, I should probably add that it had been a bad year emotionally before the bullying day from hell. I began self harming that year – cutting and burning myself. I know now that it was a way to deal with and process the emotional turmoil that I didn’t have words for. This habit of hurting myself lasted throughout most of high school and began to peter out in varsity, the last time I intentionally hurt myself was several years ago now, and I’m lucky that I don’t scar easily, so the mistakes of my youth have left no marks. I have a few, but they’re faint and hidden. That’s the other thing about self harm, I became an expert of making sure I did it so no one could see. And it’s strangely addictive – something about the endorphins and adrenaline from the injury makes you feel high, calm – and happy – for just a bit.
It was never about killing myself. I never tried to kill myself. I thought about it, a lot at one stage. But I couldn’t bare the guilt of what it would do to my family. And I had enough guilt on my little soul already. So instead I thought about it and hurt myself and kept living. And I’m pretty glad I never tried – I’m glad I’m alive.
I got better, after that, for a while at least. I started seeing a therapist and started taking medication. I was fourteen at the time I was first diagnosed with major depression. My second breakdown wasn’t as bad as the first, but it happened when I was 21 after Sebastien and I broke up. I lost time. I lost the ability to concentrate. It was during my third year final exams, fuck knows how I passed because I know I spent a lot of time just staring at my notes without registering a single word. I remember coming out of an exam and a classmate asking me what I said for a certain question. I didn’t remember even seeing that question let alone answering it. And by no means was it Sebastien’s fault that my sanity cracked. Our messy breakup was the final straw to my delicate state of mind and I just snapped.
In the years since I’ve had good times and bad. It’s like living on an ocean and never knowing when the storms are going to come. I stopped going to therapy when I left varsity and started working, but I’ve continued taking medication since then – although I’ve changed so many times it’s hard to keep track . And it’s been a struggle to accept that I need to take it. Often I still feel like I shouldn’t need it – that I should be strong enough to beat this on my own, that it’s all in my head, it’s all chemicals, it’s not beyond me to “fix” it. But I try remind myself when these thoughts come that if I had something like diabetes – I would take the medication. And depression is like diabetes. My brain, for whatever reason, doesn’t deal with serotonin and dopamine the way that it’s meant to. It just doesn’t. And no amount of yelling at myself is going to change it. [2017 note: Stopped medication in 2015, started therapy again in 2017]
I’ve kept my battle with depression to myself for the most part, only my closest friends know about it. Even the exes, although exposed to some of the spectrums of it, have never been exposed to the deepest pits of the storm. It’s because when I’m in those darkest places I am so afraid and so alone and so vulnerable – and convinced that no one else could cope with it or want to see it. Or should have to. Maybe if I’d lived with one of them they’d have seen it. Luckily for them, that wasn’t the case. But here’s a picture of what a bad day is like:
I’m quiet and withdrawn for most of the day. I struggle to concentrate or make any kind of conversation. I’m on the edge of tears for hours and when I finally get home and can lock the door, I almost immediately melt onto the floor and cry. And not like pretty girl in the movies crying. Sobbing with all my heart in that snotty, red-in-the-face, can’t-breathe, shaking sobbing. And it can go on for an hour or more and there’s really nothing that will comfort me. It only stops when I’ve exhausted myself or given myself a major headache and my body physically cannot lose any more moisture through my tear-ducts. I’m overwhelmed by waves of hopelessness, loneliness, darkness, gut-wrenching sadness. And then the numbness comes. And it’s a relief. It’s a kind of calm, but a calm where I feel nothing. It’s an emptiness almost, like I’ve poured out every emotion I have. And it’s so much better than the crying that I welcome it. Usually by this stage I also get cold and start shivering. I wrap myself in something warm, make myself tea or coffee, climb under blankets, have a hot shower, and watch mindless TV and fall asleep. And when it’s really bad, the next day will be exactly the same. And the day after that. And I can’t find the words to tell anyone or ask them to sit on the floor with me and just hold me.
Does it get better? Yes, it does. It gets better. And yes, the storms always come back. But I know that I can be happy, and I can survive the darkness if I just hold on, even when holding on still feels impossible. Nothing lasts. Not the happiness but not the sadness either. Everything will change and it’s the possibility of change that keeps me going.
If you’re in the darkness, you’re not alone. No matter how much it may feel like it. If you can’t ask for help from friends or family, below are some numbers where you can call in and get anonymous help. Call them. What’s the worst thing they could say? But taking your life or hurting yourself – that’s not the answer either. I’ve lost friends and family to suicide. Don’t choose that path – I promise you, your family, friends and lovers will never be better off without you.
South African Depression And Anxiety Group (SADAG): 011 234 4837 (Monday-Sunday, 8am-8pm)
SADAG 24-hour Suicide Emergency Helpline: 0800 567 567
LifeLine, 24-hour emergency call center: 0861-322-322
Image: main – weheartit.com; darkness – my own based off this.