Rule No. 1: This is real.
Rule No. 2: You are allowed to be afraid, but not all the time.
That’s it. Those are the only rules. Easy enough to follow in whatever vague sense you decide to give them. I used to have to repeat these rules to myself a few times a day, and now I hardly even think about them. They’re nothing but shaky, faded handwriting in an old, forgotten notebook. They were a reminder for someone else, from another time. It’s hard to think that I wrote those out not even 4 years ago.
I was fourteen when I was first diagnosed with depression. Thinking back, it was years in the making, where I hadn’t noticed myself slowly sinking below the surface. One second I was the epitome of teenage mirth, and the next, it was like waking up submerged and disoriented, too deep to see the light from above. My soundtrack of choice was 4 different albums from the National on repeat for months. I took a liking to avoiding any kind of self-care, I could go weeks without washing my hair which was waist-long back then. Honestly, naming a project for my dance class “The End” should have been the biggest clue that I was losing my grip on my mental health, but I pride myself on being able to manage. To manage the stress of an impersonal private school, to handle being in an intensive dance-study program, to manage myself. I was coping, badly, I realize now. I was walking around like an empty, cracked vestige of myself, but when I looked in the mirror I could still make my lips curve in the way that made my face look like what I remembered “happy” feeling. That should have been enough. Apparently not. I got called in for a parent-teacher meeting. They sat me down, three of my dance teachers, and asked me if I was alright. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. I don’t think I answered, and if I did, I don’t remember. I think I just broke then. I cried, I remember that much.
My mom had been there, but she didn’t push me to see anyone. She gave me time to come to grips with what I was going through myself, and to ask for help. I had to make the first step. We were driving down the 20 highway when I told her I wanted to consult. I hadn’t looked away from the road, neither did she. She called my doctor and a week later my GP sent me to my first psychologist. The shrink was nice. She was French. I don’t remember her name. She treated me like a kid. She would sit me down at those tables that are too short for anyone over the age of 8 and make me colour with markers that didn’t always work. She would ask me what was wrong.
I was scared of dying. At the time it was my first instances facing the big terrible truths of life. In light of that a lot of things felt useless: school, friends, family, achieving deep emotional relationships that would only yield pain later on. I managed, and kept up face, but forcing myself into situations that felt pointless and masochistic, on end was draining. I couldn’t find joy in the abstraction from the unavoidable. Everyone else seemed to, and that somehow made it worse. I felt like I was the only one to be afraid.
Except I couldn’t put emotions into words when I was fourteen. I would sit there and cry and try to stutter out something, shrugging my shoulders as if that would be enough for her to understand the maelstrom in my head. I was fracturing, splintering, and I couldn’t get the words out.
I was asked if antidepressants might be helpful in addition to therapy and I said yes because I just want to get rid of that sinking pit in the bottom of my stomach. The pills left a chalky taste I couldn’t get rid of. My shrink made me do the Rorschach test and I said I saw dark figures with blank eyes rising from inky seas, and bunnies with inquisitive ears. Meanwhile, I was silently tearing at the seams. She would ask me to create stories from images and I would make up whole universes where boats capsize on their way to the Caribbean, stranding both aristocratic English passengers with slaves and natives, leading to questions about racism and elitism based not on social standing but on resources and knowledge. Other times I wouldn’t be able to describe anything beyond what was happening in the picture. I cracked and fissured more and more. I would draw her T-Rex wearing tutus, angels of death with a blood-red bow tie, and tiny sail boats on indigo and violet seas while she would sit and watch and must have wondered what on earth was going on in my head. To be honest, by the end of it I was messing with her. I couldn’t put things into words, but it was fun spending an hour a week watching someone who was supposed to be in control, squirm. That’s how I felt. Like everyone in the universe was in control, while my composure slipped from between my fingers like sand. She called me a paradox and I remember not finding that very helpful.
I switched shrinks eventually, mostly because I had started talking to my friends about the whole ordeal and found a few of them dealing with similar things. It’s an epidemic, in big fancy schools with big expectations, to have students crumbling under the pressure. Who’d have thought. We all agreed I needed a better fit, someone who could work around the Great Wall of China between my brain and my vocal chords.
The second shrink had a PhD on the wall of her office. She was English. I remember her name. If she treated me like a kid, I didn’t notice. She put a name on a lot of things that I hadn’t understood.
I told her things I had been too afraid to say to anyone else.
I told her about a time when I would wake up in the middle of the night unable to breathe and with a pain in my chest like I had been kicked in the sternum and I would just try to stifle the sound of my cries because I didn’t want to wake anyone up so I would lie there, curled up into a fetal position and whisper to myself that I was okay, and that it would go away soon, and that I was fine, and that I was not, in fact, dying. She called it a panic attack.
I told her about all the instances where I would blink and suddenly become apart from myself, floating behind, above my head, and watch myself do things like scream, and yell, and run out of rooms, or throw things, and I would blink again and I would come back to myself and find that I hadn’t moved at all, but time had slipped by as if I had. She called it dissociation.
I told her about feeling like nothing was real, like everything was fabricated in some illustriously complex way, by some fragment of my imagination, and that I was in fact very alone, even sitting there, telling her this, which was utterly pointless because she was just another one of the things my brain came up with to keep me occupied, but I did it anyway because the alternative, that of being utterly alone in this insanely big universe my unconscious had created, was too frightening to simply accept. She called it psychosis.
I told her about talking to myself in voices that increasingly didn’t belong to me.
I did not tell her about the cutting. I knew that would get me a minimum of a one-week stay at a nice psych ward at the Children’s. I had school, and dance, and people who worried about me enough as it was. People said it helped release the pain you felt inside, it helped them cope. Honestly, it either didn’t work for me, or I was too much a wimp to go the necessary distance. It hurt, geez! I did it anyway, but only because I didn’t have any better way of coping, or pretending to cope. There was no point in telling the shrink about it. If I couldn’t even do self-harm properly, I wasn’t about to kill myself and I knew that to be the real issue. Instead I listened to “Don’t swallow the cap” from the National and closed my eyes and thought of what it would feel like to finally have the space between my ears go quiet.
I still had to go to the psych ward, but only for a day, to get assessed by some psychiatrist. It was a blur of off-beige and faded yellow. I remember heavy Plexiglas everywhere, and mean looking nurses, and blank-faced patients walking around in sweatpants that had the cords removed. I remember someone having to ask an orderly to open their closet so they could change. I knew it was for their safety, but I quite like my closet unlocked thank you very much. I was given a stack of forms and questionnaires to fill out as I waited for hours. The plastic chairs were hard and there was no comfortable way of sitting in them. How anxious do you feel on a day to day basis? I guess maybe a 7. Do you have any family problems? Never have. Do you have problems in school? I keep my grades beyond reproach. Do you commit self-harm? I pull down my sleeves of my cleverly chosen sweater and answer no. Do you ever feel the urge to hurt others? Of course not. Do you sometimes feel like you’re watching yourself from afar? Well, I guess, yes. Do you hear voices that incite you to do bad things? I look around at the patients walking by and try to imagine myself here, high on antipsychotics, wearing shoes with no laces. Not per se, no. Not bad things. Not really. And the questions repeat themselves in convoluted ways, for pages, so as to confuse me into answering inconsistently if I’m lying. I’ve gotten good at keeping my story straight at this point. I talk to a psychiatry student who does a precursory analysis. I talk to the attending psychiatrist then. I wait a few more hours. They tell me I’m not a danger to myself or to others. I’m free to go.
The thing with the voices wasn’t that they were hallucinations. I’ve had a few of those, the normal ones, when you’re about to fall asleep. The voices aren’t like that, they don’t feel the same kind of real. They’re in my head, I know they don’t exist beyond the confines of my skull, but I also know they don’t belong to me. My mouth moves and mouths the words when I speak to them, but it doesn’t when they answer back. My terrible coping mechanisms have reached their epitome and I’ve created people to keep me company in my misery. I don’t know the name for it, no one ever told me. If they did I don’t remember. I heard the psychiatrists talking about schizophrenia, my shrink talk about psychosis so assumed I must land somewhere in the middle. It’s all tangled and messy, but I’m also learned to work with it. I’m not a danger to others, nor to myself, at least not enough that I couldn’t fool a trained professional. I’m in control, and I want to know how to fix it, how to cope properly. I want to know how to keep myself from falling so far down the rabbit hole that I start making friends with the people inside my head. Not that they were very friendly.
So, I make the rules. First and foremost, this is real. I remind myself every day, for years, that everything I see, and touch, and feel, and hear, is real. It had to be, because the alternative almost had me interned and my strings confiscated, and that’s not something I wanted to live. Rule number 2 has more to do with dealing with the mounting anxiety and panic attacks. I remember barely sleeping for months because every time I would start to fall asleep my head would get flooded with everything I had been pushing back that day, whether it be the voices, the fears, the helplessness. It was a never-ending tide of despair that would wash over me the second I closed my eyes. I’m sure the insomnia was great for the psychotic symptoms. But it slowly started to ebb, between the anti-depressants and a year’s worth of therapy and soon the subjects we covered in my sessions were less centred around my round-table meetings with the voices and uncontrollable midnight panic attacks, and more with school and my social life.
I saw a neuropsychologist next because the shrink suspected an attention deficit disorder if anything I said about how much I listened in class was to go off of. Turns out, I don’t have an attention deficit disorder. In fact, I have quite the opposite. I was off the drugs for the course of the testing so I was exhausted and loopy and I actually fell asleep during one of the tests where I was supposed to repeat back numbers depending on the sequence. Yet, even though all that, I still managed to make the neuropsychologist sad. He had my file and knew I was depressed and I’m pretty sure he saw the cuts on my forearms when I fell asleep on his desk, and he seemed so sad when he gave me my IQ results. He seemed to think it was quite a shame to waste good intellect on someone who was just using it to dig themselves deeper into a hole. Or maybe, he meant that it was a shame that people with good intellect have a tendency to use it to dig themselves into deep holes. People always say I’m smart, naturally talented, and I like to agree with them sometimes, but then I wonder if those thoughts of grandeur are only a symptom of a deeper psychosis. My deep seeded fear of failure comes from that, if nothing else. The second I stop performing, stop being instinctively skilled, then I am only psychotic. People with high cognitive abilities have greater tendencies to develop depression and mental illness, so I’ve been told. But if I suddenly stop being a prodigy, then I am left with nothing but the voices in my head, and those are such great company…
I told my mom about the cutting which, at that point, I was mostly still doing out of habit. She cried. I stopped after that. Shock therapy, I call it. We bought a punching bag anyway and I go at it when I would usually pull out the blade. Sometimes, I would take off the wrappings and go until my knuckles bled. I don’t know if it was habit, but it felt nice to do something familiar when other things started to spiral out of control. I never cut again though.
I stop taking the antidepressant cold turkey one summer morning because I was done with it. Mostly, I just forgot to take them most days anyway, so I just stopped. Not all my decisions were logically founded. My GP wasn’t exactly glad, but she didn’t find out until a few weeks later.
The voices left on their own, eventually. They just stopped being so loud all the time. I stopped searching them out when I didn’t want to be alone. They still come back sometimes, when I’m stressed, or losing control over a situation, or myself. When the depression goes away, it leaves behind a space just begin enough for things like anxiety to set in. I can’t make the voices leave but I can dim the sound in the back of my head, the same way that I can now keep the onslaught of impending doom out of my mind when I’m trying to fall asleep. It’s all practice and coping mechanisms, breathing techniques and grounding exercises, and time. It took years. It took long enough.
I stopped going to therapy, and I cut all my hair off in the summer after I turned 16. It’s been growing out ever since, for close to four years now. In that time, I lived in London for a couple of weeks, I took a train without bursting into tears at the thought of getting on, I saw the National in concert last summer and they played “Don’t Swallow the Cap” and I cried from the cathartic effect of the moment. The rules have grown rather loose now. I don’t have to remind myself every day that this is real, I just go with it at this point. I’ll enjoy it as long as it lasts, and when it stops, I’ll figure out what to do then. It’s not the best plan but it gets me through most days. I still carry around noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs with me most places, for when things get too loud and I can’t control the sound in my head anymore. I can’t go to movie theatres without having panic attacks half the time. I’ve been a lot better at going outside to places I’ve never been, or into unknown situations, to talk to new people. I’ve learned that to cope, to manage, to control, I had to let go, just a little bit. I still had a panic attack a few weeks ago in the middle of an Organic Chemistry laboratory because I messed up a recrystallization. The TA let me use someone else’s data and my report was fine in the end, but I still had to find a quiet niche where I could hide out for a half hour until I could breathe properly again after the lab. Looking back, it seems so silly, but what was worse was that I hadn’t been prepared at all, I didn’t have my headphones, or an exit plan. I was out of practice because I had lulled myself into the comforting idea that if I wasn’t seeing my shrink, or taking pills, that I was now a perfectly functioning neurotypical human being. I mentioned this to someone back when I had to see my shrink again last year, when I was having an especially tough time dealing with university applications and international internships and the long dark days during the winter months. I told them that I felt weak needing someone to talk me through my emotions and life situations, that it was unfair that this was probably something I would have to go back to whenever my life got too stressed, that these were issues I would have to live with my whole life, that would keep me from certain situations and life experiences. They told me about how crappy it is to have to carry around and inhalers for asthma, or an Epipen for food allergies. Those were things that they would have to carry around their whole lives, that kept them from participating in certain activities, like snorkelling, and eating crunchy peanut butter. And I realized then that just because my illness was mental, did not mean that it wasn’t as valid as any physical illness. I was stigmatizing myself. I’m not perfectly functional, I’m well adjusted, and that takes practice and upkeep.
Honestly, I lucked out big time. Take your pills people. Don’t be me, don’t be an idiot who thinks they know better than everyone. Be honest on your psych quizzes, don’t try to outthink the system. I got lucky, so damn lucky. It’ll take time, and it’ll be rough, and most of the time, it never fully goes away, but these are things you just have to learn to live with, to make the best out of. There is beauty in the words people throw like daggers, in things like “psychotic”, “depressed”. I now feel happiness with such intensity, it’s as if I never truly appreciate the way a smile felt on my face until I hadn’t done it in months. Every time I go skating now, I am reminded of the first time I ever felt happy again, after months of being crushed by this oppressive force. We went with my family, in Toronto, on Boxing Day, and I cried and couldn’t explain why. Have you ever eaten something that tasted like spring? I’ve had a sip of coffee and found myself standing in an old barn on an Irish hill after heavy rain. I can simply think of the time my father and I scaled a hill in pouring rain to glimpse at icebergs in a bay in Newfoundland, and I am there, wet, cold, shaking from the adrenaline, from the oncoming hypothermia, laughing and out of breath, wind pelting my face with half-formed hail, icebergs so close I could simply dive from our view point and swim out and touch them. And I blink, and I am back, here, typing this. There will always be the big, ugly terrible things, but there will also be good, and one day, maybe, I’ll call them my friends.