A 26-year-old man describes his battle against depression, anxiety and self-harm
Sometimes, even the most banal and trivial of incidents can reveal the depths of the caves sufferers of depression and anxiety disorders live in.
At times, these incidents can reveal a particular streak of misanthropy. It is not that we hate humankind or that we hate certain people. It is that we get so angry when people act like we should be ‘normal’.
For instance, when I was shopping a few weeks ago, I was stopped by a department store employee. She was trying to do her job well and given that my face conveys various allergies, she probably genuinely thought that their Dead Sea products would help me look and feel better. However, the poor woman didn’t know that I was the last person who would give a damn about the condition of the skin on my face.
Given that it was a reasonably ‘good’ day, I managed to extricate myself gracefully. What I really wanted to say, and would have said if it was a bad day, was, “Lady, I have to pay several hundred euros a month on medication just so that I don’t self-harm by punching myself until my face turns to clay. Do you really think my problems can be solved by eliminating a few blackheads on my nose?”
I usually manage to keep my cool and save my venting for later in the privacy of my room or in the security of the office of my psychiatrist and psychologist. However, I admit that sometimes I snap at people who try to get me see the bright side of life.
When someone once told me that my moody expression doesn’t exactly fit in with the summer, and I should try to be more cheerful, I growled, “would it be better if we mentally ill people just hanged ourselves so that everybody else could go to the beach to swim, sunbathe, build sandcastles and play beach volley without having to worry about our disposition?”
Even when I appear to be calm, it is really false. Recently, I had a delicious Belgian Chocolate Creamy Mocha Cooler at Costa. You would have thought by my air I was in a state of tranquillity, enjoying the summer. Really, I was still under the influence of the general anaesthesia that my doctor administered before my endoscopy to diagnose ulcers at the ripe old age of 26. Obviously, if you are running depression and anxiety software, you can download ulcers as an app.
It is often easy to suggest ways to depression and anxiety sufferers on how to recover. What is not so easy to comprehend is how those with the most serious afflictions see our world.
I often use this rhetorical device to get our point across. “We find ourselves in a dark and dangerous cave on a snow covered mountainside. Through misfortune and/or foolishness, we end up triggering an avalanche that completely covers the entrance to the cave, blocking our way out. We not only lack food, but we also lack the necessities that would help us navigate the cave so we can find an alternative way out, including maps, compasses and light. We do have a radio and perhaps some fancy tech stuff that could enable us to get help. But what if the help doesn’t find us in time, or has limited understanding of the exact situation? In other words, many of us fear dying in the cave, alone, without any hope.”
I have been fighting mental illness to some extent since my unstable childhood. It marked me out as different from my peers as I was very anti-social. I was never a troublesome character in the traditional sense of the word. I was distant and quiet. I participated in class and was gregarious on the odd occasion, but I kept to myself. My mental life was not helped by the fact that I was a sickly kid in a family that generally viewed illness as a stigma. There were a lot of arguments.
A recent Washington Post op-ed, titled, “What doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger”, stated that troubled childhood experiences could contribute to a weakened immune system and greater susceptibility to a range of mental and physical ailments. My first thought on reading it was, “my history could help her research.”
Eventually, I developed a severe chronic, autoimmune intestinal disease at the age of fifteen. If people knew I wasn’t the embodiment of relaxation before, boy did I show them what real anxiety looked like upon getting deathly ill. My anxiety level soared as I experienced long term educational disruption, near complete isolation from my peers, and the almost hostile reaction from certain relatives.
None of this helped me in the initial battle with the illness. Sylvia Plath knew what she was talking about when she wrote her poem “Wuthering Heights”, in response to touring the Yorkshire moors that inspired the Bronte novel. She saw “the grass beating its head distractedly”. She was the grass. I became like the grass, at first just mentally, then literally.
The cortisone steroid and immunosuppressant that I had to take to control my intestinal illness sent my anxiety to the stratosphere. Aside from having to cope with the new problem of an already weak immune system being suppressed, I was basically a mentally ill teenager who had never sought treatment and didn’t know what to expect from taking the stress hormone as a pharmaceutical. It became a vicious Minotaur’s labyrinth. Somehow I had to stay alive, even as my increased anxiety exacerbated my ailments, meriting more cortisone and…more anxiety.
Anxiety became fully acquainted with her two sisters, self-harm and depression during the last year of high school. When it became clear that there was no hope I could graduate on my own terms, free of physical illness, I snapped. All I wanted was one year of relative tranquility and a chance to prove my worth. I was absent from class so much, I nearly failed to graduate. If it wasn’t for my teachers’ willingness to help me regroup and if it wasn’t for the fact that I attended an independent school, I would probably have left school without a diploma. I still had to take my A-Levels late.
In spite of everything, I got into a prestigious British university. However, I fell extremely ill again. It was the closest experience with Death that I had ever experienced. It was pneumonia, the result of mistakes that were made by a mind only half present.
Half of the mind was absent because I did not know how to navigate this whole new world safely. I was not at ease. Although the university staff and my friends all tried desperately to reassure me, asking me to trust them, I kept thinking that I didn’t really belong there and that they would be glad to be rid of me.
As the pneumonia was destroying my body, I was destroying my spirit. I wanted to take out the emotional turmoil inside me by bashing my head against the wall of my room. I wanted to punish myself for getting so ill when I needed to be at my best to fulfil my dreams.
Although the academic year was lost, I managed to overcome the anxiety to some extent with the help of the student welfare system. They kept me from hurting myself over the course of four months; my longest ever stretch of sobriety. It was widely expected that, after coming home, I could recuperate from the pneumonia and return to start afresh. People still had faith in me and I had faith in myself.
However, life had other plans. There is a difference between the paralyzing anxiety people like me face and the humdrum anxiousness about work and life that people wake up with in the morning. When a remotely menacing challenge to our health and wellbeing arises, we go into full blown panic mode. We freeze. We implode. We explode. We see no way out. We sometimes see a way out that could save us, but we are too afraid to take a bold leap, for fear of emerging in another disaster.
Sometimes, in our darkest moments, when we are self-harming, we see the ultimate way out, into the darkness. There are many who do not normally seek to kill themselves, but their frenzied sense of hopelessness drives them towards it.
My psychiatrist explained that this is common among anxiety patients. The terror that takes hold of them prevents them from successfully overcoming challenges that mentally healthy people are able to deal with calmly and deliberately.
Within weeks of returning home, I found myself and my family evicted by our negligent landlord. I was thrown for it. We had another home that we owned, but it was far away in the country, and moving there would have meant losing contact with my support network. I never learned how to drive because I am simply too anxious to drive.
I began self-harming again. It wasn’t so much on the physical side. It was more on the mental side. Remember, I was already in a weak state from suffering with pneumonia for three and a half months. I had to withdraw completely from the university that I wanted to go to since I was fourteen.
I found out that to get back to university, I would have to retake exams. Given that my mental issues cost a lot of money, this was a big blow. How on earth was I going to pay for attending courses to get my life back on track?
As I write this, I keep thinking of my favourite poem from high school. I love “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” because I identify with the eponymous character. My life with anxiety is like treading fearfully along “streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent”. Like Prufrock, I often feel helpless, like “a patient etherized upon a table.” I know the feelings of anxiety tinged indecisiveness too well. I have been through the “hundred visions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” I often tell myself that I must not give in to the dread fears that haunt Prufrock and that I should have the daring to “disturb” my own individual universe. Yet, I still give in to my anxiety because I am always seeing “the Eternal Footman holding my coat and snickering”.
As I try to do all the tasks I need to do to get back to university, I keep plaguing myself with questions of self-doubt and self-loathing.
My life was always an anxious one, but I feel I used to cope better when faced with my personal challenges. Now, with all of the experiences I have been through, I do not know if I can rise again. I do not know if I still can be who I used to be, if I can achieve all I ever wanted. Yet, all of these thoughts are collectively weighing me down.
I wrote this because I felt that someone had to stand up and say, “Yes, anxiety disorder is a serious disability, and we deserve help so we can become survivors and contribute to society.”
If one has to take several pills to prevent oneself from smashing their favourite mug into their face because they are so anxious about the course of their life, like I had to the other day, doesn’t that qualify them as disabled?
I hope that this article will give others out there the knowledge that they are not alone in their hurt. Do not be ashamed of seeking help. If you are experiencing escalating challenges to your mental health, don’t ignore it. Face it. It will be a hard journey to mental well-being, but eventually, you can get there. I hope I will, eventually.