A Personal Battle (Or How Depression Is Never One-Size-Fits-All)

Have you ever woken up with your head on fire?

I don’t mean in the literal sense. I mean, suddenly you’re awake and every thought you’re going to have that day is alight and rapidly burning a path through your brain, destroying every positive emotional response as the flames rush through.

Maybe you’d prefer the electrical analogy, where your brain consists of thousands of televisions, each turned on to a different program and each with the volume blaring so loud that the sound waves shatter any remnants of happiness and pleasure you’ve been hoarding into tiny, tiny shards that seem like they can never be recovered, let alone be reassembled into something meaningful.

These are my bad days. These are the days when getting out of bed is the biggest hurdle to be overcome. Everything after that is a little bit easier but still stupidly difficult.

I may seem like I’m being melodramatic, and to a point I am, but these are experiences I can’t talk about in half terms. When you spend the first hour of waking howling on the bathroom floor about how pathetic and flawed you are, toning down the way you express what you’re experiencing doesn’t just feel like lying; it feels like you are just confirming the cycle of failure the voices keep insisting you are doomed to repeat.

In my last post, I talked about taking advantage of the good days. Fortunately for me, I was lucky enough to experience two remarkably good days following that entry. I got bundles of stuff done for Gigs Out West, minded some of my small cousins, and even made a public performance at an Open Mic Night. Just a week ago, all of those were unthinkable, but my sudden awareness and dedication to the good days meant that I not only wanted to do these things, I felt I had an obligation to do so.

On Saturday, the clouds started gathering again. I woke up restless, my brain whirring on every topic I had managed to avoid on the two days previous, and getting out of bed before noon was impossible. Nothing got done. I didn’t leave the house until well into the afternoon, and when I finally did, the clouds whirled me into a frantic attempt at retail therapy that ate far too deeply into my dwindling savings. The final tally: a Chiko roll, a bottle of water to negate said deep-fried disaster, two cans of deodorant, Pokemon Heart-Gold and Soul-Silver (they were on super-special!) and a Nintendo DS (well, no point owning the games if you don’t own the console, right?). I ended up spending over $200 that I really shouldn’t have, and that I will probably need in the coming weeks and months, but none of that matters when you’re just desperately looking for something to fill the hole that exists right here and now.

Sunday was worse. It took longer to get out of bed, and when I finally did, it was only because I had a sudden babysitting obligation. I have no idea how I managed to gather the patience to get through those couple of hours, but the fact that the pair of brothers I was looking after were chirpy and already liked me certainly helped. By the time Mum got home and picked them up, I was completely emotionally exhausted.

Again, none of the things that I needed to do got done. I was meant to write a blog and prepare a playlist for Cheaper Than Rubies and attend a gig to support the Dubbo Jazz Club. On Friday, all those things had seemed vibrantly possible. It took less than 48 hours for the reality of things to reveal itself.

The worst of the storm came on Monday. I initially woke at 11am, but everything was so bleak that I just turned over and went back to sleep. The day didn’t feel like it was worth my time. My mind was running at breakneck speed, throwing up everything from Matt Smith-faced triplets, to the guilt of not having written anything the day before; from the varying applicability of Paul Kelly song lyrics, to the heart-wrenching reminiscences about an old flame and how I really should have stopped missing him by now. The noise was only broken by the sleep I would occasionally slip back into, before I found myself awake again, mentally running for my life all over again.

The only reason I got out of bed was because I got a text from a local musician asking where I was: I had completely forgotten I’d arranged an interview with him. He was already at the café where I had said I’d meet him.

It was easy to understand how I’d done it: Dad had been in hospital all week, waiting for an operation on a broken foot, so things at home had been a complete shambles since the previous Monday. Add my own personal mood-based rollercoaster to the mix and it’s not hard to comprehend why I wasn’t keeping a particularly close eye on my diary.

Nevertheless, I sprung out of bed, completely disgusted with myself, communicating back and forth with my would-be interviewee, conveying my sincerest apologies. At the same time, I was verbally berating myself, calling myself every name under the sun, eventually ending up on the bathroom floor, pawing at the tiles and letting out massive whoops of despair at yet another spectacular life failure.

And still, my brain was running races; only now the thoughts were all vindictive and bitter and hurt rather than just melancholy and ridiculous. I was painfully aware of how much I had fucked up. I went from being overwhelmed with everything in existence to being surrounded and taunted by a gang of imagined thugs, all out to get me with their own spectacular variety of aggression.

Thankfully, the guy I was meant to meet was remarkably kind and allowed me a raincheck. I told him that Dad was in hospital; I didn’t tell him that at that moment, I was having an emotional meltdown in my parents’ bathroom. For some reason, even though it was the more legitimate reason of the two, I simply couldn’t say it.

It’s odd that this feeling of taboo still persists about depression and other mental illnesses. There are plenty of campaigns that tell us it’s okay to talk about it: beyondblue is almost 15 years old, R U OK Day floods my Facebook feed every year with the same four letters repeated over and over, and I have lost track of the number of times the two amazing Hyperbole and a Half depression posts have been linked to me either directly or via the great void that is social media. Tumblr is awash with different communities helping (and sometimes hindering) people in their struggle to come to terms with what mental illness means for them.

But the biggest problem I have with my personal journey is this: it feels melodramatic, and therefore it feels like it’s not genuine. When it hits, it’s not always lying in bed feeling loathsome and hating the entirety of existence. Sometimes it’s explosive, like it was yesterday, with the pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth and wailing and crying and noise and all of those televisions flashing, flashing, flashing and all I want to do is just make it all stop. Sometimes it turns into a seizure, other times it just peters out into exhausted numbness, and other times I just fade into a kind of auto-pilot where I can at least give the impression that I’m back in control again.

Eventually the good days come back, sometimes sooner than expected, and I finally feel well enough to walk outside into the world. I wander around, feeling perfectly human, and people see me and wonder what all the fuss was about. See? All better now.

The thing about depression and other mood disorders is that nobody wants to talk about them when they’re outside the media-endorsed box. You must be sad, or empty, or numb. That’s what it is. That’s all it can be, and it has to be consistent. The concept of “good days” doesn’t seem to register; it’s the end, not something that can occasionally happen in the middle.

It’s time to call that perception what it is: complete and utter bullshit. I have heaps of friends who’ve experienced depression and none of them have had the same experience. Some do what I did when I was living in Canberra and just soldier on, just using all their strength to keep the public weeping to a minimum. Some withdrew from society completely, like a wounded cat, and I’ve done that too. Some have gone on self-destructive rampages through the lands of drink and deviance (been there, done that), and others have howled and wailed and beaten walls in despair (wow, that sounds awfully familiar). Some have months or years of consistent blackness, while others experience it in short, intense bursts.

No matter how it’s faced, it always feels huge and unbeatable, especially when choruses of voices are telling you that your experience isn’t good enough for the label. These judgements can come from inside the head of the sufferer, the medical profession, or from the community that claims to support those stuck in the depths. Where the dismissal comes from doesn’t affect the final result: they just make it harder to get better.

Our inability to comprehend that depression isn’t a one-size-fits-all condition is a massive issue. Sure, there are some who self-diagnose far too willingly, but that shouldn’t be a free pass for everyone else to discount whatever it is their fellow human being is going through. Depression isn’t one easily labelled thing; it’s a patchwork of dreadfulness, and it needs to be acknowledged as such if those in the hole are ever going to get out again.

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