For World Mental Health Day, I wanted to reflect on a truth not always acknowledged: sometimes, mental illness doesn’t go away.
I hoped for the longest time that my mental illness might be temporary, like a broken bone or a bad bout of the ‘flu. I hoped that it could be something I would look upon later with a pensive but detached eye, as ‘a thing that once happened to me’ rather than ‘a thing that always is’; something very firmly past, never potentially present. I was buoyed when I read stories that used the words “beat” and “overcome” because I believed I could have the same for myself. In my mind I could picture a triumphant finish line and I thought that as I took the final step I would be lighter, somehow. My illness was a predator to be outrun or a beast to be defeated and by definition, therefore, there would always be an end.
I thought I was cured when I was prescribed my second antidepressant. Not the first, which made me sweat and shiver and gave everything around me a strangely detached quality. The second, though, made me elated. I felt almost permanently the sun on my face and a thrill in my chest. It was so far from what I had come to define as unwell that I didn’t consider I could be anything other than entirely better. I could interact with people again. I was motivated to do things other than lie in bed and contemplate my awful existence. I wanted to run marathons and pull all-nighters and make absurd, risky choices because I finally felt alive and I didn’t yet know the meaning of the word ‘hypomania’. I dipped again shortly after.
Here’s the thing about depression. About anxiety. About any kind of mental illness. There might be a root cause, or an easily identifiable set of triggers, but it doesn’t always dance to the tune of logic and reason: sometimes it sneaks up on you and leaves your head spinning. I have stood in rooms full of people who make my heart sing and felt the creeping tendrils reaching, inky black, in the periphery of my joy. I have celebrated great achievements only to return home to the tug of a familiar emptiness. I have felt such seismic changes in my mood that I believed my entire world was collapsing, and have fought to retain my version of stability with great consequence. Sometimes, the uncertainty is the devil, protecting a fragile state of ‘okay’ with such fearful attention that every second is half-wasted. Living life with an eye constantly trained at your back becomes a necessary, but ultimately futile, coping mechanism. You feel like a slave to an illness forcing you to exist at all times with a foot in the past, always scrutinising and ruminating and waiting for an inevitable collapse. Every step back feels like a failure whilst a step forward seems a monumental task.
I have made peace with the fact that my mental illness will probably never be thoroughly cured. I don’t remember when, or how, but the words now roll off my tongue as a matter of fact rather than a proclamation of a scripted fate I’m still fighting. I appreciate my better days whilst never forgetting the worst, and I am learning more about my mind whilst acknowledging that, despite my best efforts, this is not always within my control. This is not a thing likely to one day be forever vanquished, and acknowledging that brings me a quiet power. Let’s all just try the best we can – and accept those times that we can’t.