A year ago today I took my first pill, the start of the complicated journey that is called treatment. Many assume that medication is a magical thing, you take it and all is well with the world again, or at least with the way you see it. Others believe that a pill just makes you drowsy and numb or that it is no solution —of the two groups I used to belong to the latter and I am guilty of all the wrong approaches that I now disapprove of and get frustrated by. I used to believe that we all have the resources within us to fight whatever is bringing us down. I was one to try to persuade my undiagnosed borderline, depressive friend not to take any medication, I profoundly believed he could fight the thing that had no name, all by himself. He was strong enough, or so I thought —thankfully he didn’t listen to me.
The day you realise that not only your friend, your lover, your acquaintance, is the one who needs help, but it’s also you, is a very hard day. Through the years, I had come to understand that some people need medication to fight depression, but never had I thought that I belonged with “those people”. That conviction becomes so strong that sticking it out, getting back up on your feet after a low point, going down again and trying desperately to find the fuel that will bring you back up, becomes a mechanism, an overpowering belief that this is what life is supposed to be. And with that belief you become ruthless on the outside and wildly vulnerable on the inside —and that’s okay as long as the rest of the world doesn’t know. In that respect, I may have been the victim of the 90’s, the last fortress of the unaware. Within that fortress, struggling becomes so “normal” that you don’t think to second guess it; if you’re lucky enough you’ll find a couple of people that experience something similar and if you fall, you’ll get back up on that horse until someone comes along your way, who will point out that this crusade is really against none other than yourself.
Among these misconceptions I was lucky. Upon quitting smoking, panic attacks and way too many sleepless nights, I happened to go to the doctor and the doctor happened to read right through me. At first we addressed it as withdrawal syndrome, but still, going back home with my prescription that day, I was trying to wrap my head around the fact that I had identified all of the symptoms, but was unable to put the puzzle together. To this day, these symptoms are often so compartmentalised, that sometimes swallowing that pill doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.
Since starting my treatment I have gone through a lot of literature and articles on depression and so many calls aiming to raise awareness. As enlightening as most of all of this is, I have rarely read something that truly resonates. Perhaps because it differs from person to person or because one prominent characteristic is the very fact you genuinely feel that no one understands you. Even if you’re able to rationalise this fact, the conviction will still be there to keep you up during lonely nights.
Writing about depression can feel like an exorcism, like you’re bringing out the inner demon that haunts you in order to strangle it or at least to declare to the world that this is not you. The truth is, however, that the demon is a part of you that you somehow have to accept and cease to see as an evil entity that you can magically get rid off by reciting bible verses. For me it was that part of my soul that I had concealed for so many years and that pushed me to tell my loved ones that I was going on treatment when my exact words should have been “I need help”. It was the immense, overwhelming guilt that came with (and still does) every effort to declare this need against the sadness, the helplessness it invoked to my loved ones and all their efforts to help me.
One year later, I have come to realise that I can rationalise, but it is still not easy to get in line with these rationalisations and make them an emotional experience. This is what takes time and this is why treatment and therapy are two separate things that need to go together. Getting better is a learning curve, there is a lot of work into it. For me it has been about letting go of self destructive behaviour, finding the triggers, exploring my reaction to them. It is an active process of rationally going against your very instinct, your most profound emotional patterns, in order to emerge with new ones or what other people seem to call healthier ones, even though they may not necessarily feel that way. Ultimately it has been about finding meaning or combating those moments that the lack of one is despairing to the point it makes you numb to your very core.
Raising awareness a lot of the times comes with the message of seeking help and, to me, that seems to be the catch. In many cases there is a certain selective blindness that hinders you from seeing the greater picture, of putting whatever crisis you’re going through into perspective. Suffering can feel very normal, so much so that you even forget to cry. And this catch extends to those around you who cannot see that greater picture either, because they are unaware, they love you too much to accept what is happening to you or simply because you overcompensate by projecting a very composed and motivated image of yourself. Or all of the above.
It seems unfair, but it is also very true, that not everyone can deal with all of this and we are not nearly careful enough with the judgement that goes into this fact. It is not always the lack of understanding nor the lack of awareness that makes people distance themselves from the dark pit that is depression. It is a painful truth, that also causes a lot of guilt to the depressive —and I have come to know this from within and without— that not being able to help is a massive and agonising burden that often invokes as much helplessness and powerlessness. Those who distance themselves are often shoved away in reality, and where understanding is impossible, forgiveness can be healing.
In the end what gets to me the most is not the loneliness nor that unfathomable pain, but the unfairness that is imposed on you and your loved ones that is, most of the time, impossible to untangle. In that sense, writing about this dark pit is cathartic and goes hand in hand with the acceptance that it is a realm beyond reason. Summing up this year in treatment has also revealed the amount of progress, that is often compartmentalised as well. Three months in, I was able to observe myself and my reactions better, five months in as I upped my dosage I was able to start sleeping better, seven months in I moved to a foreign country —a dream of mine that I had come to dread. I also experienced for the first time in 18 years what it is like to fly without being accompanied by paralysing fear and to take a step back when I come up against a trigger. Assessing this progress is certainly encouraging. It is also important, in the era of growing numbers of anti vaxxers, to showcase that treatment leads to progress, that your own doctor is not there to get you, that modern medicine is not just about overmedicating. And this is, perhaps, the most important aspect of raising awareness: seeking help is hard enough as it is, we need to stop demonising the science that goes into providing help on top of this difficulty.