It’s been a while.
I’ve barely posted anything here in the past five months, and what I have published has been – if I do say so myself – shite. After a year of semi-regular, decently funny blogging, I seem to have fallen down the proverbial well into the proverbial underground lake of unfunny, rare content. Not to be overly critical, or whatever, but my recent output has been a joke – which you would think would be good for a comedy blog, but actually isn’t.
I mean, I promised myself I’d never revert to the dark days of spamming your timelines with haiku, and yet February was like a Japanese library.
(If you accept that Japanese libraries are full of half thought-out, largely unbaked haiku, and I’m not saying that’s the case. I’ve never been to a Japanese library.)
Anyway, I spent the last ten minutes blasting every memory of those second-generation haiku into oblivion, and pray God forgive me for my poetry transgressions.
So, like, what happened?
I’ll be honest, so far, 2019 has been really hard. Like, just stupidly hard. I don’t like to use medical-ish terms without fully understanding them, but I think it’d be fair to say that I’ve had a mental breakdown.
I suffered from depression quite severely as a teenager and during my first year at university, but my second and third years were great – I felt healthy, broadly happy, basically no longer weighed down by the world. Although I didn’t have anything concrete to attribute this recovery to – it seemed like my medication had just suddenly started to work better – I felt confident that this was the end of my mental health troubles. Depression, I figured, was just a very dark, quite long period of my life which had, quietly and without fuss, come to an end. If that sounds horrifically naive, that’s because it was: new year’s eve 2019 marked a crash I didn’t anticipate, the severity of which I wouldn’t have thought possible. It felt like overnight I went from being a largely functional person to just – not.
I’d forgotten what it was like to have severe depression, to have suicidal thoughts and a constant desire to self-harm, and to find even the simplest tasks difficult. I tell you what, I hadn’t missed those experiences. Suddenly everything was a thousand times harder; I realised why the stuff I’d achieved in 2018 had felt like such a revelation: this was what had come before.
Unable to e.g. dress/feed myself, unable to put my shoes on, let alone plan a curriculum, I quit my job as an English teacher and retreated into myself, spending days, weeks, even, at a time without seeing anyone. I even went home to the UK a couple of times for a few weeks each to let my mum take care of me and to pursue medical intervention.
This, unsurprisingly, has had a negative effect on my ability to blog; there’ve been entire months when I’ve not wanted to get out of bed, let alone pen the high quality, bland content you’ve come to expect from me.
I’d quite like to journal my experiences to some extent here – partly because I feel like it’d be weird to just go back to writing dumb jokes after such a dark time; partly because my therapist said it would be a good idea; and partly for my own sense of fulfillment.
That said, writing about depression is really hard for a whole bunch of reasons:
1. I’m not sure it’s interesting
and, what’s more, it’s fairly self-indulgent: after all, I’ve just spent *checks watch* three days writing about myself, and I’m not even part way done yet.
Writing a blog is self-indulgent at the best of times, but when it’s just about an experience that I personally have been having – it stretches the limit. Even worse – imagine illustrating a two-thousand word mammoth about your own suffering exclusively with moody selfies.
2. It’s definitely not funny
and this is, at its heart, a comedy blog.
3. I know the people reading this
and that makes it a bit embarrassing. I get incredibly detailed stats on my readership: graphs, heatmaps, the whole schabang. I know everything except your credit card details.
I can understand the value of this if you have a massive blog and consciously tailor your content to your readers; but I’ve got, like, 300 followers, so knowing where in the world you all are just feels invasive. I can’t wait until I get my first Greenland-based reader, though – that giant grey patch is getting me down.
The nature, I guess, of writing something insanely personal on a blog mostly read by people related to you is that you end up feeling really vulnerable in front of your family. I trust that if anyone reading this finds it too uncomfortable, given their personal relationship with me, they’ll just stop reading; but I feel like this is something I need to do. Whether you feel like you need to read on is, naturally, up to you.
Feeling edgy about being vulnerable is, I reckon, pretty natural and normal and not unhealthy; but I think there’s a level on which I also feel ashamed – exactly of what, I’m not sure, but I think of my general incompetence. What could be more indicative of my global failures as a person than my experiences over the last five and a bit months? Everything I have historically valued about myself has been undermined – from my ability to make friends and connect with people, to being able to support myself financially, to just the very fundamental capacity to care for myself as an adult in the most basic ways, like getting dressed, getting myself food. Stuff like that.
That’s something I don’t think is reasonable – it’s one of those naughty thoughts I’m meant to be combating – and by not posting this, I think that’s what I’d be listening to. Honesty and vulnerability are things I think people should broadly pursue.
To think of things from a purely logical perspective – which, admittedly, is out of character for me – you, the reader, fall into one of two discrete categories. You’re either
|internet strangers||my family|
|and being vulnerable in front of you doesn’t faze me; or||and if I’m going to be vulnerable in front of anyone, it should be you.|
I suppose I’m worried about writing something unexpectedly gruesome which might upset someone I care about; but there’s a simple fix to that –
Don’t write anything unexpectedly gruesome.
4. I’m afraid of romanticising mental illnesses
and it’s a trap I think people quite often fall into. School and university were dreadful places for this: it felt like, rather than creating a support group, people suffering from depression engaged in a weird kind of competition: who’s suffering more, who hurts themself more, whose medication has the worst side effects. Maybe that’s just my perspective, and I’m sure that some people develop really supportive networks in those kind of environments, but I felt a really strong my brain is broken = I’m interesting or even a hint of I’m more fucked up than you and that makes me more valid. But maybe I’m just projecting.
It probably doesn’t even bear saying, but having a mental illness isn’t romantic – it doesn’t make you special or interesting. Depression objectively makes me a less interesting person. Yet I fall into this way of thinking myself sometimes: it’s such an encompassing experience that it’s hard not to define yourself in that way – I’m Ro, 22, British, depressed – and once you start doing that, I think it’s hard to avoid feeling like this kind of suffering makes you important.
There’ve been moments when I’ve thought that I wouldn’t take the chance to be cured of depression if it were offered to me. I struggle to imagine what I would be without it – what would be interesting about Ro? Who would I even be?
I think it’s important for me to explicitly and categorically say that that’s bullshit. It’s clearly one of those evil thoughts that’s trying to ruin my life. But when you think that way, you really believe it. I’m trying to appreciates healthy aspects of myself, but it’s challenging when, overall, I’m still really not healthy.
5. I don’t understand it
and that makes it tricky to describe.
I’ve noticed this a lot lately. Since I’ve been feeling somewhat better/more functional, I’ve reconnected with some friends I didn’t see at all during those really dark months. Naturally, their first question is, “What happened to you?”
I don’t know.
I have some quite obvious physical signs of depression – or, at least, obvious to those that recognise them – and sometimes people (pretty insensitively, I think) ask things like, “Why’d you do that?”
(Actually, I don’t mind that question in itself. I get people being curious – it’s a curious thing if you don’t know anything about it. I just don’t like it when people I don’t really know ask me in stupidly public places, especially when I’m at work. After all, it’s pretty personal, and I’m tryna froth milk here.)
On a day-to-day, if someone asks how I am when I can feel myself getting sucked down, I tend to answer in euphemisms: “I’m blue; I’m down; I’m a bit low; I’m under a black cloud.” These are meant to convey that I feel depression soaking in and I feel helpless and afraid – but it’s a bit intense to say that in so many words, so I’d rather be a bit indirect about it. Perhaps that’s the British in me.
This is especially tricky when I’m talking to someone in Czech, because those metaphors don’t always translate nicely – and if I say, “I’m depressed,” that sounds too intense to me and too superficial to whoever’s listening. Depressed is such a big word if you mean it medically and so small if you mean it colloquially.
When I was in Sixth Form, I had an excellent counselor who I spoke to for an hour every week in a small room next to the toilets. Our conversations were interrupted every time someone used the hand dryer, which I reckon made them feel less overwhelming. It definitely injected a certain light-heartedness into the goings on.
Those sessions were always something I really looked forward to: going to school was incredibly difficult and speaking to her was a relief from everything else. I think I was probably the oldest person she talked to, since I was in the last year of school, and she did like to use techniques that seemed to be intended for younger teenagers and children. I’m not complaining, though, I think they really helped me. One of the things she asked me to do was to draw a picture of what I thought my depression looked like. We had poster-size sugar paper and felt tips, but I opted for a biro and a page torn out of my notebook; it felt a bit odd to use the same material for self-expression as I would’ve for, say, a Year 7 geography project. I drew a picture of a giant spider holding a caricatured Rosie in its legs.
It was so strange – when she suggested the exercise, I thought it was a bit stupid. I couldn’t really separate the depression from myself (maybe that was the idea) and it seemed contrived to imagine this creature that was meant to symbolise all these things I was feeling. But when I’d drawn that spider and was sitting looking at it, I had this visceral, panicky reaction, like I really was looking at something that I recognised, that I knew caused me harm. She asked me if I wanted to tear it up, but that felt needlessly symbolic so I just left it there.
My therapist now, similarly, seems to want me to conceive of the unhealthy thoughts I have as separate from me, like independent, malevolent beings that exist in order to make me suffer. “These thoughts are really good at convincing us of things that aren’t true” she’ll say. She talks about those thoughts as wanting to make me feel a certain way.
Like everyone, healthy and unhealthy, I have better days and worse days. What’s really unsettling is that when I’m bad I feel disassociated from Ro who feels good, or who is even capable of feeling good; and when I’m feeling lighter, I can’t remember what those low moments feel like. As in, I remember my actions, and I know that things must have been pretty bad; but it’s almost like it’s something that happened to someone else and I just heard about or read about in a book. If I think really hard, I can muster up a conception of feeling both empty and hurting, but I’d rather not, I suppose, try too hard to remember those feelings.
I think that’s why, despite being depressed on a medical level, I don’t think it’s inaccurate to describe me as a cheerful person. When I’m fine, I really am fine. It’s just when I’m not OK that it’s a problem.
I don’t remember how I felt as a child, but I suspect I’ve been depressed for at least all of my adult life, to varying degrees – not that I suppose it’s especially important to put a start date on it – and with that in mind, given my general love of the written and spoken word, it’s extraordinary that I’m finding this so hard to describe.
To give you an idea, I’ve been writing this single blog for *checks watch* four and a half days and counting.
I suspect that’s at least partly because it’s so hard to separate longterm mental illness with your own personality – how many of these difficulties are because of, say, Serotonin deficiency, and how many are just because of Ro? And what’s the difference, anyway?
This is one of the scary things, I guess, about mental illness: it’s hard to grasp what’s happening to you. My therapist has suggested it’s fruitless to try and conceive of depression when I’m having better moments – so describing it is hard. Maybe it’s pointless to even try, but I’d like to.
But the needle swings a bit when you compare it with these reasons to write about what’s been going on:
1. Depression affects piles of people.
We’re getting better at talking about it, but we’re still not great. I think it’s something we should talk about more openly; it’d help people suffering feel less alone and less monstrous. As it is, I struggle to express myself properly even to those people I love the most in the world – I don’t think I ever really verbalised to my dad that I have depression in so many words; I think he just saw medication on my dresser and scars on my arms and put two and two together. The one nice thing, I suppose, about having such visible, obviously self-imposed scars is that I don’t often have to pronounce the words, “I’m depressed.”
I appreciate that people find talking about stuff like this uncomfortable, and I think that people are often trying to be sensitive to my feelings. I don’t know if I’d rather people avoided the elephant in the room or tried to talk to me about; it depends on the person, I guess.
Friends and family sometimes ask what they can do to help, and I really, really don’t know. If I knew, I’d ask for it – I’d do it. I do, genuinely and deeply, want to get better, but the hard thing is knowing how. I don’t know what I need from people or what I need from myself.
2. They say you should write about what you know
and, even though I just spent a million years telling you how hard it is to write about depression, this is something I’m pretty well-versed in.
3. I think it’ll be helpful.
I’ve been doing significantly better lately. I’m still not well, that’s for sure, but I’m not in the same dark place I was. Even so, I’m still motivated to pursue things that I think will make me feel more secure; maybe that goes without saying – after all, what that effectively means is, “I like doing things that make me feel better.”
What was so scary about new year’s was how quickly the life I’d built and the stability I’d cultivated both collapsed. Sure, before that night, I’d felt an onset of depressive thinking, but everything was still manageable: I was coping. It felt like a few hours destroyed however many years of improvement. I was left asking myself the question, “How did I get better last time?”
And, honestly, the answer to that question is that I don’t know. I don’t remember how I got better – it seemed to just happened. I mean, I did go to various therapists and counsellors, and I’ve been taking Citalopram since I was a teenager, but I don’t remember what I, Ro, did to help myself out. I couldn’t call on any techniques or coping mechanisms because I didn’t remember having any.
Journaling these experiences, then, seems like a smart move for posterity: at least this way, I’ll know what happened. I think through describing things we understand them better, and I’m the kind of person that needs an audience, even if it’s a contrived one.
What do I mean when I say, perhaps ignorantly, that I feel like I’ve had a mental breakdown?
It’s hard to analyse the last few months with any semblance of clarity; after all, it’s really hard to see patterns in yourself, especially without the benefit of hindsight. Instead, I’ll describe January and February through an anecdote. This is the most concise, least brutal memory I have to illustrate the place I was in:
I was in my flat, and the lights were off, and all the dishes were dirty and my clothes were on the floor. I hadn’t been outside or opened a window in a couple of days, and the air was stale and thicker than it should’ve been. I was sitting on my rug; I’d taken all the cushions off my sofa to make a nest under the kitchen table where I spent most of my days. My phone had run out of battery and the silence was deafening – I’d been trying to fill the flat with noise, listening to endless podcasts and clips from panel shows I’d already seen a bunch of times. I couldn’t stand music – it seemed to cut through the flesh of my brain and invade my being – but I needed to hear something other than the sound of my own breathing and my own thoughts. My phone charger was plugged in on the other side of the sofa, and I was sitting and looking at it and looking at my dead phone. I remember writing in my diary that I felt like a hole had been drilled in my head and that all my willpower had drained out. A car drove past and I abruptly heard loud American voices from the bar across the street as someone stepped outside for a cigarette; the door closed and it was quiet again. I didn’t know what time it was, but since the bar was still open I guessed it was around midnight. Time seemed to flow differently – sometimes a whole day passed without me noticing, but more often hours stretched out achingly empty in front of me.
I reached out to take a drink of water, but my hands were shaking and I knocked the mug; it fell with a loud clonk but didn’t smash. The water spilled over the floor. I lifted the mug away. My throat felt unbelievably dry and I stared at the puddle. I didn’t remember how long the water had been sitting there, probably hours, but in my mind it was the freshest mountain lake – you know you’re properly thirsty when you start fantasising about gulping down a glass of water. Fluorescent orange from the streetlamp outside was leaking in through a chink in the curtains. I could see flecks of dust floating in the puddle.
I keep my towels on the floor of my wardrobe. The wardrobe door was open and my clothes were spread about the room in piles, clean mingling with unclean, but my towels were still neatly folded from whenever I last brought myself to do laundry. I needed to reach out and grab one of the towels to wipe up the pool. They were slightly more than an arm’s length away; I didn’t even have to get up – I could just tilt my body and I’d be there.
Some of the water had been soaked up by the edge of the rug. I imagined getting up and grabbing a towel. I knew what it’d feel like, the texture, and I knew what I had to do to get one – but I felt too tired. I felt achingly, deeply exhausted, not physically, but in my soul. I didn’t have the willpower to lift up my arms and cover that short distance, and, instead, I just sat still, thirsty, barely blinking, and watched the puddle dry up on its own as the sky got lighter outside.
I don’t really feel like detailing the medical interventions I’ve pursued. For one thing, they’re not that interesting – perhaps with the exception of my visit to a Czech psychiatric hospital, which was an incredible culture shock – and for another, they were singularly upsetting and, frankly, humiliating. I feel like I’m filling this post with trite phrases, but medical intervention is just so invasive.
What’s more, although I’ve certainly felt the benefit of having my medication increased, I’m not sure any of the other medical routes I tried have had such a lasting effect. I’m sure that for some people something like the psychiatric hospital would’ve been a godsend; but as it is, I’d attribute any improvement up to this point to medication and CBT, as well as to my friends’ and family’s unending support.
I’ve taken the same medication – Citalopram – since I was eighteen. Citalopram is an SSRI, or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, which works by preventing Serotonin from being reabsorbed into the brain.
Please don’t quote me on this. I’m a humble barista and don’t really have any business talking about drugs. That said, though, a lot of people who should know a lot about antidepressants seem not to. Before I started taking Citalopram, I told my counsellor that I was feeling edgy about taking medication when I didn’t know how it worked. She replied, “Oh, no one really knows how they work.”
Like, dude. Come on. Although, to be fair, the more I read about antidepressants and other neuroactive drugs, the more I accept that no one really knows exactly how they work. Still, not a comforting response from a mental health professional.
A couple of very close friends who feel comfortable enough to ask this kind of question have wanted me to describe what antidepressants are like. Is it, as is so often said, a numbing of everything? Are the lows less severe, but also the highs levelled?
I don’t want to seem like I’m trying to speak for everyone: I am one person who has only ever taken one kind of medication, at varying dosages. My experiences with Citalopram have been largely positive; I’ve experienced some side effects, but nothing as bad as *cough* untreated depression. Taking the right dose of Citalopram seems to shift my base level from dreadful to OK. That sounds pretty weak, but when you’ve had a few months of feeling dreadful, feeling OK is amazing.
That kind of context – ie I’ve only felt the effects of antidepressants after, obviously, having been depressed – might explain why I don’t relate to the idea that antidepressants lower your capacity to feel good. When it’s been so long since you’ve experienced a high of any kind, it feels kind of by-the-by to have that capacity limited. I’ve heard people who are hesitant about taking antidepressants cite that as a reason – that they don’t want to have their emotions limited, or have the possibility of experiencing intense happiness taken away from them. It’s a matter of perspective. I don’t feel like antidepressants have had that effect on me, since I was already so limited anyway.
The worst thing about taking this medication is the way I’m affected if I skip a dose. I’m sure a large part of this is placebo, but I’ve definitely noticed massive effects, both on my mood and on my body. Missing one dose makes me more anxious and prone to feeling depressed, but I also sweat more, shake a bit, and even get the sensation of electric shocks through my body. I’m told this is normal. Skipping one pill isn’t really the end of the world, but it’s very physically uncomfortable, and it’s always accompanied with much stronger feelings of, to put it theatrically, doom.
Missing several doses is a lot more serious. I’m certain that this was a contributing factor to what I’d term the Y2mentalbreakdown – I’d had a stomach bug over Christmas and it occurs to me that I couldn’t keep water down for a few days, let alone a cheeky antidepressant. It’s significant, I think, that it wasn’t until I’d had the right dose of medication in my system again for a good few weeks that I started to feel any better.
A couple of weeks into February, I remember waking up and being overwhelmed by the sensation of feeling OK – I lay in bed and savoured the innocuousness – nothing hurt. If depression feels like a huge, aching emptiness, then being on the right level of medication is like being filled with neutrality. You don’t feel good, but suddenly your resting state is just fine. And fine, after a long time of feeling dreadful, can be euphoric.
I’m not in crisis at the moment. The last month or two have been much better, although still not good.
- I’m holding down a job (this would’ve been impossible even relatively recently, and I feel truly proud of myself every time I have a shift);
- I’ve been pursuing some creative hobbies (which would’ve been unthinkable when tapping into my creative side sounded like a terrifying prospect);
- I have a full and vibrant social life (which is a hecking success); and
- I’m working on developing positive thinking patterns and strategies to help me when everything feels bleak.
The not so good
- I still struggle with thought patterns I recognise are unhealthy; and (as a result)
- I’m still self-harming regularly, perhaps even more seriously than before.
It’s strange, then, that even though the self-harm (which is what people most quickly recognise as a sign that things are not OK) is worse, I’d still say that I’m doing better. I think this is linked to the idea that people have that self-harm is in and of itself a problem, which I don’t think is really accurate. The greater problem is the depressive thought patterns, which sometimes, but not always, leads to self-harm. Strangely, although I’m getting better at dealing with those thoughts, I’m cutting myself more regularly. I expect that as I get even better at combating those naughty thoughts, I’ll feel the urge to hurt myself less, or be able to withstand the urge better. I hope.
Self-harm, naturally, really freaks people out, but depression is bigger and more frightening than those relatively superficial wounds. However, depression is less visible.
I owe a lot of any even minor recovery to people who support me. Caring for a person with depression, be it as a friend in a relatively casual capacity, or on a more day-to-day bring-me-food-and-hug-me level, is really demanding. I recognised that even when I was putting loved ones through genuine hell, not that knowing that made me any less of a burden.
I’ve made an album of all the lovely things people have said to me so I can look back and feel loved. I was going to share it here, but that level of PDA made me gag so I’ll leave it. I’m so grateful for my friends and family, though. They’ve shown patience in the face of me being seemingly endlessly rotten, and I look back on those messages often. Sometimes I feel very alone, but I have an entire album of evidence: Ro, there’s people that care about you.
Prague feels like home now, and a lot of that is down to the people I know and love here – people I can talk to about my darkest thoughts, but also share joyful moments with.
Work is both an indicator of and a reason for the fact I’m doing better. I mentioned before that I quit my job as an English teacher – partly for practical reasons (couldn’t leave the house) but also because teaching is pretty physically and emotionally draining. I took a lot of pride in teaching in an interesting way; I’ve been a languages’ student for long enough to know just how shit bad language lessons are, and I was determined to be the kind of teacher I’d want.
I got pretty decent feedback from my students and from the schools I worked at; I was inexperienced, sure, but I do think it’d be fair to say that I was a decent teacher. I have a good grasp of English and being a student of languages means I’m fairly well placed to explain the intricacies of our language beyond the classic native speaker line: “It just is.”
After I came back from a particularly long break in the UK (which I spent, mostly, in or under my bed), I translated my CV into patchy Czech and sent it to every café in a two region radius of my house. Although the thought of going outside was still deeply troubling, I sensed that I’d spent enough time breathing my own air. This was probably a week or so after the not-having-the-strength-to-grab-a-towel incident; it’s strange how quickly things can change after having been the same for, seemingly, ages.
I got a job at Prádelna, a café round the corner from my house. I love my job. The girls I work with are singularly lovely, and now I have a concrete reason to get out of bed. Plus, and I know this doesn’t make my mother happy, I’m completely addicted to coffee, and working as a barista gives me near-endless near-free access to espressos. Best of all, the job provides me with victims to test out my shoddy Czech on – I now speak, if not well, at least reasonably quickly and with a somewhat less obnoxious accent. This, as I see it, is a success.
Language learning, I think, is quite humiliating – possibly especially when your first language is English. Not only do I struggle through even the most basic Czech phrases, but I’m also acutely aware that almost everyone I speak to would be able to communicate with me better in English. That said, once you get to a level where you can express your personality and get across most of what you want to say, there’s something exhilarating about it.
I’m not a very good barista – I can froth milk now, but latte art still escapes me – but I love café culture – people are kind, the stakes are fairly low, there’s down time for me to catch my breath if I ever feel overwhelmed. I expect that this will be the most laid back job I’ll ever have, not that I anticipate pursuing any kind of high-powered career. Imagine me in a blouse.
I’m not really sure where I want to go from here in a where’s-my-life-going sense, but on a day-to-day, I feel pretty secure in what I want from life. I want to
- work in Prádelna;
- get better at photography;
- write more; and
- spend time with people I care about.
Luckily my lifestyle allows me achieve all of those things, so that’s all positive. I have to leave Prague in September at the latest to finish my degree, which feels pretty brutal since I feel like I’ve only just started building a life I enjoy for myself here. Still, university terms aren’t that long and, as I’m reminded by adults in my life, Prague’s not going anywhere.
Even though I had some really shaky moments last week, I’d say that I’ve started to feel something other than bleak about the future.
The truth of the matter, I guess, is that life’s a combination of the lights and darks, but I seem to only be able to see one at once.