It’s Mental Health Week over on Frenzied Fangirl. I’m raising money for suicide prevention because it is a cause very important to me. Please give if you can.
This piece was originally written for the amazing non-profit organization To Write Love On Her Arms, inspired by this blog post by Jamie Tworkowski: You Should Write. October 20th will be a new National Day On Writing, and you will hear more on the subject then. For now, let me fight stigma by writing openly about my experience of mental illness.
A lot has been written about the experience of depression. “Depression is the flaw in love,” says Andrew Solomon. Emily Dickinson describes depression by saying: “I felt a funeral in my brain.” David Foster Wallace wrote: “When the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors.” I myself have often said that depression is like carrying a dead soul inside a body that refuses to die. We know that depression is terrible, and that words, no matter how carefully selected, can never quite describe its horrors.
However, there is something else I want to talk to you about, today. This is something that, while vitally important to the conversation about mental health, doesn’t get half as much attention as the actual illness. I want to talk to you about recovery.
Recovering from depression, I thought, as I was slowly recovering from depression, should be a piece of cake compared to the actual experience of depression. I was wrong. Recovering from depression is hellish in its own unique way, and I want shed some light on why that is.
After the experience I had with depression in 2015, most of who I was as a person had been stripped away. The characteristics I had used for twenty years to define myself were gone, and I had to invent an entirely new person from scratch. The old Julia was someone who cared more about academic success than almost anything else in the world. The old Julia felt guilty when spending money or eating candy or putting herself before someone else. The old Julia was constantly flagellating herself for not being better, more disciplined, more perfect.
Then, around Christmas of 2014, that girl died. She had exhausted herself. All the ways she was being untrue to herself suddenly became apparent. Everything was revealed to be an elaborate sham. The things that had once made up her personality fell away. Under the influence of the worst illness I have ever experienced, I became an empty shell; an unfeeling robot. Every action was delayed, in a sense, like my life was not really happening to me.
Then, I went on medication. I saw a therapist weekly for over a year, and she helped me climb out of the emptiness. This was particularly hard because for a while, I did not want my health back. Don’t get me wrong, depression is agony. But facing the fact that you’re a completely different person than you thought you were, that the things that gave your life meaning are, in fact, meaningless, and that you need to find new certainties to hold on to, that’s downright impossible.
Yet I did it. I have never been prouder of myself than I am for this; for recovering from depression. Very, very slowly, I began to unveil the parts of my life that could pierce the outer shell of desperation. I rediscovered my creativity as an emotional outlet. I found out how much I care for animals, and how they always succeed in brightening my day. I became compassionate. I no longer held myself to impossible standards. I suddenly understood that reading and learning have an intrinsic value. The pursuit of knowledge is more than a way to excel, to stand out from the crowd. What others think of you is utterly unimportant compared to how you feel about yourself.
Now I have my health back. People ask me, sometimes, if I’m afraid. A relapse into depression is a possibility. But I think I have shielded myself, in a sense, from the absolute dispair. I’ve dropped the pretense of perfection and accepted the reality of who I am; not perfect, but human.
This is what recovery is: it is to accept that you are human, rather than perfect. A person with a good mental health allows themselves, sometimes, to be sad or angry without feeling guilt over it, the same way that a mentally healthy person allows themselves uncomplicated joy. Maybe we should all embrace the reality of our daily lives, look at the people we are rather than the people we want to be. That is the only way we can ever experience uncomplicated joy: by accepting that it goes hand in hand with uncomplicated sadness.