Andy May discovers that when it comes to Clinical Depression, there is a very fine line between refusing to talk about your problems and being ‘manly’ about them.
It started with headaches. Before long, I found that I couldn’t sleep, I kept bursting into tears or getting filled with rage, and my concentration was so shot to hell that it was taking me an hour and a half to read a single page. Being sixteen, I had no idea what was going on, and naturally enough neither did my parents. There were a few false starts, diagnostically, and some reluctance to accept the situation on my own part and that of my family, but eventually we found a doctor who understood what was happening, and who would explain it in terms that we could accept. It was nothing serious, just a case of depression. Clinical depression is how it was described, from the outset, to make it clear that the condition was an illness, rather than anything which could possibly have been avoided or foreseen. I was given a course of what were then called ‘fast track’ antidepressants, which we were assured would clear up the problem in next to no time.
They did not clear up the problem at all, in fact they nearly killed me.
There are several advantages to explaining depression as a disease like any other. First (especially with younger sufferers), it prevents people from being blamed either for causing it, or for allowing it to happen. Second, it means that the sufferer is freed from some of the stigma relating to the disease. When you explain to somebody that your depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain, a lot of people will stop telling you to buck up or snap out of it, and it can help parents to understand that it is not something which can be fixed by trying harder.
Third, it can let you off the hook when somebody asks you why you’re so desolate, and you have no easy answer. Unfortunately, like any analogy, it does not give you the full picture. Of course there are kinds of depression which are a simple case of chemical imbalance, and in some of those cases pharmaceutical intervention will be all that is needed, but in my experience the vast majority of cases are a mixture of chemical imbalance and what I call ‘situational depression’. For most sufferers, merely being medicated is not going to cure anything, because it is just going to help them ignore the other factors which are contributing to the problem.
For me, these factors were absurdly commonplace; marital strife between my parents, academic pressure which I could not cope with, and loneliness. After six years apart, my parents decided to try living together again, and I moved countries to make it possible. Due to ill health, my mother was not able to travel until a couple of months after me, which meant that there was nobody familiar to me in the country. The sudden change of lifestyle took its toll.
Being a young man, and armed with the ‘disease’ model of depression, I felt that the most sensible thing to do was to keep myself to myself. There is a very fine line between refusing to talk about your problems and being ‘manly’ about them, and another between being honest about how much you are suffering and whining about it. At the time I did not have the experience, the ‘social calibration’, to pull off being both manly and honest, so I went for the safest option: silence.
I tried to wait out the advertised, but steadily worsening, side-effects, hoping for them to pass, and did whatever I could to cope in the meantime. As anybody who has recovered from a mental illness will tell you, it is hardly ever a case of simply waiting for things to improve. The process of recovery is a long and seemingly thankless task. It is an endless succession of impossible choices, between comfort now and health later, between asking for the things you feel you do not deserve and doing without the things you know you need. It takes years, and every step of the way is both terrifying and mind-numbingly boring.
By allowing myself to just sit there and wait for things to improve, I caused myself far more harm than good. To escape from the world in which I was suddenly failing classes, to escape from the world where my family home was full of spitting, silent hatred, I started telling myself stories in my head, and letting myself sink into them. In order to stay silent, and keep from upsetting my friends and family, I ended up spending more and more time daydreaming, until the day came when I couldn’t tell the difference between my daydreams and reality.
The medication, which caused side-effects including, but by no means limited to, confusion, feverishness, sleeplessness (again), and suicidal tendencies, had made it easier for me to drift away from reality, until eventually the school nurse informed my mother that, without intervention, I was unlikely to be alive at the end of the year. The medication was immediately discontinued and, after a period of withdrawal lasting six months, I began to heal. I was sent, briefly, to a psychologist, but once it had become clear that inaction was not the key, and that my gut feelings were not unfounded, I had the direction I needed to find my way back.
I don’t mean to imply that men have it worse, in terms of the way mental illnesses are treated, but I would not hesitate to say that we have it bad in other ways, and that this is one of them. Without the expectation that I would not talk about what was going on inside my head, without my friends leaving the room every time I tried to explain what was happening to me, things might have turned out differently. As it happened, I believe that the breaking point I reached made me confront some things which would have caused more damage had they gone unchallenged, and that I am stronger and healthier now than I could have ever been otherwise, but the requirement that I go through it alone caused a lot of unnecessary pain.
It took a good four years for the worst of the side-effects from the medication to subside, and ten before I would say I crossed the line between ‘recovering’ and ‘recovered’, but for me it was a natural part of growing up. Like most transitions into adulthood, it was neither easy nor painless, but I am grateful for the ways in which it has forced me to know myself better.