First-class depression

SENSITIVITY WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS CONTENT AROUND SELF-HARM. ONLY READ ON IF YOU ARE COMFORTABLE WITH THIS TOPIC. THANK YOU.

Leaving the Past Behind

Credit: Linda Jean

Mental disorders, like other invisible illnesses which go against what the human body and brain are accustomed to, are hard to acknowledge if inexperienced.

Neurotypical reactions are slightly different to those about blindness or being deaf. While you would ask someone what it’s like not to hear or see, you would more likely tell someone they’re just not dealing with their emotions right.

I would know; I’ve received advice on my brain’s inner workings for over 5 years. Between depression, social anxiety and just low self-esteem, it is hard not to depend on others to support and validate you. It is also hard not to believe them when they say you just need to suck it up. Then you’re frustrated because it doesn’t work.

My story, like the rest of the contributions to our Mental Health May, is unique and renders psychology that much more intriguing.

I grew up in China and Belgium, had a predisposition to depression and only lived in France – my birthplace – for three years before I went off to do my Bachelor’s in London.

For years, I asked my parents when we would move to France. In China, I would ask when we would go home to Belgium and vice versa. Each time, I received a very specific response: “We’re not going back, because we’re not from there.” That single phrase, burned inside my brain and unbeknownst to my parents, hurt me for years. They were denying me my very identity because they’d not had the same upbringing and therefore didn’t realise that raising a child in a culture made the child a part of that culture.

I wonder if that’s only affected me, or if my brother – 3 years my junior – has been concealing it, too.

My family is very conservative. Going to an international school in China, my peers were laid-back teenagers and I did not understand their attitudes to life. Rather than try to understand, I judged. They judged back, launched a few rumours and thus began the bullying. I don’t believe I’m entirely guilt free, but I do believe that the reactions to my tendencies were harmful and a textbook example of why we need to talk about mental health. They laughed when I began to see suicide as an option.

In 2008, the financial crisis broke out and a parent at my school killed himself. My mother worried about my father and told him we’d always be by his side, regardless of his career. Suicide, which I think I had always known about, was at the forefront of Western culture, but nobody bothered to tell us why.

We knew it was because work was hard. We knew adults killed themselves because they couldn’t deal with it anymore. We weren’t told there was a brain dysfunction that led to a blockage of serotonin, and that people were no longer able to feel happy or reject negative thoughts, so they ended their lives instead.

I was 19 when I realised I’d been experiencing depression for 5 years. At the time, I was in South Africa and reading the Harry Potter books. Life was treating me with the greatest kindness and for the first time, I felt like someone had turned the light on in a room at sunset.

My mental freedom lasted over a year.

I realised around the age of 20 that I had social anxiety, which was the reason I beat myself up constantly about meeting new people. I couldn’t be in a social situation without resorting to my emergency cutesy attitude and remarks. It charmed some, but I never really liked myself doing it. This attitude I owe to fictional character Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, and I have reasons to believe this isn’t entirely neurotypical.

My mental health has been a roller coaster since I found out I had depression, but it has gotten much better lately (after a very rough Scottish winter). If I could help someone, I would say this:

  • Stop caring what others think. For a full term, I would have panic attacks before going to a Thursday lecture. I was being taught by the crème de la crème of the legal and trade fields and I could barely function. One night, I turned spiteful and thought “You’re never going to like me and quite frankly, I don’t care. I am damn smart, I deserve to learn from you.” (Give or take a few profanities) It sounds simple and in a way it was, but it did something crucial for me. My nightmares stopped, I started doing work on time and for myself. I was okay around my lecturers.
  • Be happy being you. My housemates decided at the start of 2017 to list three things they were thankful for every week. I haven’t taken that approach exactly, going instead for actually looking at my life and appreciating how great it is. I grew up abroad, in a bilingual family, learning Spanish, Chinese and Dutch. I learned to scuba dive in Malaysia and have been to two film festivals. I have friends from everywhere who are happy as I am not to talk every day. That’s cool. So are you. 
  • What’s the worst that can happenPanicking is a sport I was once well-acquainted with. Now, I can’t bring myself to break down and cry at every resort, because there’s nothing to cry about. So I did something, so what? Is someone going to judge, and if they do, are they really the sort of person I want to be around? You’re at an age where people now trust you to make your mistakes and learn from them. They no longer need to ask for your apology and send you to your room, because they know you’ll have consequences to learn from. As for you, those consequences, let them teach you rather than scare you.

I am infinitely better today than I was a few months ago, although there are rough patches still. Now, my biggest struggle is being away from people or not having enough physical contact. I’m not sure exactly how to deal with that, other than reminding myself that just as I’m living my life, so are they. When we see each other, it’ll be a magical parentheses before we get back to our things. That does not mean they don’t care.

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