I don’t know when my depression started, and I also don’t know when it stopped. My first memory of feeling very low is an awkward conversation with one of my sixth form teachers. Pushing in my plastic stool as the class filed out, he pulled me aside for a chat. “Everything okay?” he asked, with a huge, sympathetic upward inflection. “You seem like you might be on a bit of a…” he blew a raspberry and gave a slapstick thumbs down, “…downer.”
I was on a bit of a downer, but I didn’t have the tools to understand that at the time, let alone know how to admit it to someone I considered a grown-up. I was 16 and spending afternoons huddled in the corner of the common room fulfilling the teenage Plath-reading stereotype, when I should have been in biology. When I was forced to go to lessons, I would sit in the back and do the bare minimum. I was not surviving well.
By university, instead of afternoons off it became whole days in bed – living away from home meant I could get away with it. I’d always been very anxious and often sad, but the feeling was mounting, and with first year exams hurtling towards me, I walked to the practice adjoined to my college and got a diagnosis. On the questionnaire my GP had peeled off of a stack in her desk drawer, I ticked a lot of answers that said “most of the time” and “not at all”. I got given a glossy leaflet to go home with, with the big word “depression” spelled out in sans serif.
Four years, one mental health crisis and many therapy sessions later, I am okay, often very good. But things aren’t the same. After having been there, sadness has a different significance. Is it part of the package of having dealt with a serious mental illness, of knowing of how bad it can get?
I’m aware this isn’t just me – societally we talk and think about mental health more than we used to. While being on the lookout for symptoms can be incredibly positive, for myself, and many of my friends, increased awareness can mean increased anxiety. Whenever I’m sad, alarm bells go off. I know sadness is a part of life, but it can feel like a dangerous omen when it pops up before bed, or on the train in the morning without warning. I worry a lot about what will happen if I lean into it. Without therapy or medication, sometimes being out in the world alone with your sadness is scary.
Diagnosis is an intensely medical concept – the rules that state who is and who isn’t “mentally ill” were invented by psychiatrists, and are
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