How I'm Discovering the Silver Lining in My Struggle With Depression
Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
Sometimes, when I am deeply distressed, highly suicidal or desperately hopeless, I say that my mental illness “ruined my life.” But when I take a moment to really think about it, I know that, given the choice to have a mental illness or not, I would choose to have one. If I could go back in time and change things, I wouldn’t. Because my mental illness has not only made me who I am today, but has also taught me so much — about myself, my values and what it means to really live.
Without my illness, I would have never discovered the gift that is psychotherapy. Over the past two years, my therapeutic relationship with my psychiatrist has allowed me to grow and flourish. Being in therapy has taught me so much — about shifting perspective, cherishing your health and the value of reaching out for help.
As a result of therapy, I have grown up to be a 20-year-old woman who isn’t afraid to engage in fearless self-appraisal. One doctor told me, I have this “curiosity about myself,” and even though it may come off as being self-absorbed or self-indulgent, I would tend to disagree. Because of therapy, I am more insightful, intuitive and thoughtful. Because of therapy, I have learned to befriend myself. I have explored the deepest and darkest corners of my mind and I’ve shed light on long forgotten traumas.
How many people can say they’ve allowed themselves to peel off emotional layer after layer, shedding pain along the way? How many people can say that they’ve retrieved deeply buried traumatic memories, revealed the most raw aspect of themselves and risked exposing themselves to criticism and judgment? How many people can say that they’ve taken an honest look in the mirror, without distorting the picture? How many people can say that they’ve embraced their flaws and reflection in the glass? How many people can say that they’ve felt unbearable struggle and owned what happened to them?
Therapy, from my point of view, has been a life-transforming experience and a healing process. In therapy, I have felt safe and accepted. I have gained permission to be myself, as broken and damaged as I may have felt. I have taken risks to engage in emotional exposure by reading journal entries out loud to my therapist. I have learned that I am, indeed, worthy. That’s pretty fucking brave if you ask me.
Through therapy, I learned how to identify maladaptive beliefs and harmful fundamental patterns. I learned to name my emotions and identify my defense mechanisms. I worked hard in order to adopt new, healthy adaptive skills, as well as coping strategies. I learned how to sit with my feelings, which was by far the hardest part. I avoided my feelings until I had no other choice but to feel them. With the guidance of my therapist, I went ahead and felt my feelings. They felt like shit, but I learned that sometimes, the only way out is through.
In a nutshell, I got to know myself really well. I am keenly aware that not everybody has the opportunity to get to know themselves inside and out. Not everybody gets the chance to examine their ways of being, thinking or feeling. Not everybody gets the chance to make their world a better place, and not everybody gets blessed with a therapist who practices unconditional positive regard and believes in their ability to get well.
I am lucky. I am blessed with an amazing support system, and that is a direct result of my illness. Without my mental health struggles, I would have never met my psychiatrist, my peers from support group and my friends from the hospital. This past year alone, I met dozens of brave, caring and wonderful people. Whether they were clinicians or not, it didn’t matter; everywhere I went, I was reminded of the kindness of strangers.
Another thing my mental illness has taught me is the value of self-care. I have learned, and am still learning, that taking care of myself is not an easy process, but it’s also not an impossible one.
My mental illness has given me purpose. Through my writing, I have shared my story and reached out to others. Without my mental illness, I would have never started writing “Mind Your Mind,” a column focused on student well-being that is published in my university’s newspaper. Without my mental illness, I would have never published articles on “The Mighty,” a website dedicated to facing disability, disease and illness together. Without my mental illness, I would have never become a peer-facilitator.
As a result of my illness, I feel things more deeply and experience things more intensely. I understand that nothing in life is guaranteed and that being both physically and mentally healthy is a privilege denied to many.
When I was admitted to the hospital, I was certified under the B.C. Mental Health Act. Being sectioned meant that I lost some of my most basic human rights. People are so used to coming and going as they please, wherever and whenever they want, that they often fail to realize that just walking out and about is a privilege. The same way choosing an outfit in your closet or wearing your favorite pair of flannel pajamas isn’t a given right, but rather a privilege you might have to earn.
Involuntary admission also meant that I couldn’t refuse psychiatric treatment. It meant that I couldn’t leave the building unless the doctor said so, and it meant that I was deemed incapable of making informed decisions related to my medical care. To put it simply, it meant that the doctors could administer whatever treatment they wanted without my consent. So when the nurse handed me a cup with a red pill I’d never seen before and I resisted taking it, she threatened me with an injection. When I refused to eat my meals, she threatened me with an IV. The thought of being restrained and given an injection in my butt cheek terrified me. So in the hospital, I was a “good patient.” I didn’t fight. I was compliant. I did as I was told. But inside, I burned with rage.
I think there’s a reason why forced psychiatric treatment is a highly controversial and debated topic. On the one hand, clinicians have a duty to keep their patients safe. On the other hand, excuse my language, but who the fuck are you to tell me what I can and cannot do?
Today, I treasure my freedom and agency. I had to lose those things first until I was able to truly appreciate their worth. Today, I cherish my daily routine and the small, ordinary moments. Being able to brush my teeth, do laundry and shower is an unexpected blessing. When I hit rock bottom, I did none of those things. I stayed in bed all day during the days preceding my hospital admissions. I barely ate and only got up to pee. I didn’t shower, didn’t talk to my friends and certainly didn’t comb my hair. I laid in bed for hours, head under the covers, wishing I was dead.
In the midst of my depression, food stopped tasting like food — even my favorite foods tasted like dirt. But now? I savor every single bite of every single meal. And oh, how I missed chocolate dipped strawberries and chicken breasts stuffed with cream cheese wrapped in bacon. The array of flavors, the delicious aromas — I’m so grateful for my tastebuds.
Because of my illness, I have learned to focus on eulogy virtues vs. resumé ones. Resumé virtues are external and are are often what is deemed to be most valued in our society; like professional achievements, outstanding grades and academic success. They are skills that give you fame, wealth, status and sometimes a bigger paycheck. On the other hand, eulogy virtues are the aspects of your character that others will most likely remember when you pass away; like kindness or humility.
When I die, I don’t want to be remembered for my number of academic achievements. I don’t want people to remember me as the person who was so focused on her grades that she forgot her friends and family. I don’t want to be remembered as the person who worked extra long hours at the expense of her sanity. And I don’t want to be remembered as someone who measured her worth based on her performance or abilities. I want to be remembered as someone who was brave, compassionate and resilient.
Because of my illness, I have discovered that I have the potential to cultivate all three of the above qualities. Because of my illness, I am more brave than I’ve ever been. I am more brave because I have learned to value vulnerability and I am less afraid of being myself in front of others. I know that I am terrified of emotional intimacy and getting attached to somebody, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that you can be scared and do it anyway.
Because of my illness, I am also more compassionate — toward myself and others. I can envision putting myself in other people’s shoes. I will never be able to walk in them, but I can imagine what it must be like to travel along a muddy path wearing a worn out pair of sneakers. Because of my illness, I have learned to value active listening rather than advice-giving. I have learned the importance of validating my peers’ struggles without comparing them to mine. Comparing struggles is a losing game; there will always be someone worse off than you, the same way there will always be someone better off than you. For a long time, I was focused on convincing others that my circumstances were worse than theirs. The reality is, everyone struggles. And what’s the point of comparing? After all, struggling is struggling.
Because of my illness, I have learned to value authenticity. For me, that means learning from my mistakes and embracing failure. I believe that I am now wiser, kinder and stronger. I have a different definition of happiness and success, and I understand the importance of taking baby steps. I am learning to honor and enjoy the journey instead of focusing solely on the destination.
When I die, I hope that people will remember me as someone who was brave because she allowed herself to be vulnerable; someone who had empathy for others, as well as compassion for herself; someone who cultivated resiliency in times of adversity.
For some, this may be hard to understand, but the truth is, depression robbed me of everything. Depression stole every last bit of happiness I had left inside me. Depression took away every ounce of joy and hope in my body. At times, I seriously thought I had “lost my mind.” The beautiful thing about recovery is being able to say that I found hope when all hope was lost. I found the light in the darkness. I have endured excruciating pain for months and months because of depression. I have felt so much desperation, self-loathing and hopelessness because of depression; to the point where I contemplated taking my own life. And yet, here I am today, alive and OK.
To me, cultivating resiliency means advocating for myself, my health and my happiness. In the past year alone, I had to cry, beg and scream for help. I didn’t stop shouting until I received the proper care I needed and deserved.Throughout this journey, I have learned how to be more accepting of reality. Because of my illness, I have found purpose and meaning in my struggle. Because of my illness, I have honored my inner child, stepped outside myself and volunteered at Writer’s Exchange, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to get inner-city kids excited about reading and writing.
My illness came with unexpected benefits and lovely surprises. As a result of my struggles, I learned how to reach out to others in times of need; I battled my inner demons and faced my biggest fears; I learned to cherish my loved ones and I learned to recognize the inherent goodness in others.
More than once in my life, I have taken my education for granted. Today, I know that being able to sit in a class, listen to a professor and absorb difficult material is truly an experience to cherish. I feel lucky to be able to write this post, because in the depths of my depression, I couldn’t put a a single word down on paper. I feel lucky that I still have my creativity.
As a result of my mental illness, I have gained self-knowledge and awareness. Now I feel empowered and in control, and I know who my real friends are. I am especially grateful to my support group, because those people are the strongest people I know. Not only were they there for me throughout my hospital stays, but they are still standing next to me today. They are soft spoken and kind and loving. They always ask before giving suggestions and never offer unsolicited opinions. They have been there, so they know what it’s like. They know what it’s like, and yet, instead of running away as fast as they can, they choose to stay. My gratitude for them is unbounded. I’m grateful for these people the way I’m grateful for the ocean, sand castles and polished sea glass. I’m grateful for my relationship with my psychiatrist because I don’t know how I would have survived the last year without her. I’m grateful for my family, and I’m grateful for Cheeko, my stuffed animal fox with big eyes who was given to me during my first hospital stay. He was my companion throughout the past year, the one constant throughout my several admissions. He still sleeps next to me today.
Even though I still have a long way to go, I now understand that I can change and grow, and hopefully make a difference in other peoples’ lives. I am more conscious of my actions, thoughts and emotions. I am more mindful of my interactions and how my decisions can impact those around me. I am more comfortable in my own skin and I can hold myself accountable without resorting to self-blame or self-loathing.
Even though depression is awful beyond words and my symptoms are slowly lifting, I don’t want to forget. Perhaps some people may choose to follow a different path after facing trauma or distressing events. Perhaps some prefer to process their emotions and then move on without looking back. I want to do that as well, but I do not wish to forget. Being aware that my symptoms could come back at any time is exactly what keeps me feeling grateful. The threat of a mood episode keeps me in check, because I know that my feelings of wellness may not last.
Although I’m beyond excited to live a life where my mental illness isn’t the center of everything, I’m scared that one day I’ll end up trivializing my experiences. I want to make sure, as I move along in my journey, that I don’t forget what it’s like to be depressed. I don’t want to minimize my struggles or the number of challenges I have faced. And I certainly don’t want to become that person who interacts with other people struggling with mental illness and think, “I got over it, so they should too.”
One friend in recovery said, “When you get used to feeling well, it’s easy to forget how sick you once were.” Other people might forget it too, and adopt the attitude that it wasn’t that bad. Yes, it was that bad. It was terribly exhausting and excruciating and words can’t describe the intensity of my struggles. Yes, it was that bad. It was so bad that one night back in January, I almost took my life. Yes, it was that bad.
I will not dare forget it.
Lastly, I want to say that even though I wouldn’t take anything back, my intention here isn’t to romanticize mental illness or glamorize suicide/self-harm. Yes, my mental illness has, at times, led to positive outcomes — but I only discovered that in hindsight. It’s important to remember that in the midst of my depression, I lost perspective and it was impossible for me to focus on acceptance.
At times, being mentally ill isn’t a choice I got to make. This post is simply an attempt at finding the silver lining, while acknowledging that the cloud is still black. Circumstances are almost always out of our control, and I can’t change what happened to me, so here I am, attempting to make lemonade out of lemons. In short, I don’t wish mental illness or this amount of suffering on anyone else and I don’t think you should either.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
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Unsplash photo via Sasha Freemine