Tell me what you did today. Did you get in the car and drive to work? Did you send someone a message? Maybe plan a trip abroad for the holidays?
My turn. Today, I went on a long road trip with my family. But before getting in the car, I had to decide where to sit. If I stay at the back and we get into an accident, then my husband dies. If I sit in front, then my kids bear the full force of any accident and they will die. I’ll be left to agonize over their deaths for the rest of my life. What should have been a choice between sitting in the front or the back of the car became a choice between being a widow or a grieving mother.
When I send a message, even for the most trivial thing, I word it so that I would be at peace with what I said if it just happened to be the last thing I said to that person. Don’t even get me started on plane rides. It’s a metal tube levitating over oceans. For every physics principle you throw at me, I say MH370.
I go through weeks when I feel like I’m in a haze. I force myself to get out of bed. I force myself to talk. I don’t feel close to anyone. I can feel so exhausted that I hope to disappear in a puff of smoke. There’s so much of me making the effort to do things or feel things that I am exhausted all the time. I would rather sleep.
I have been like this for as long as I can remember. But it was only recently that I got a name for it. It’s anxiety and depression.
Mental Illness in Real Life
Anxiety and depression, my therapist says, are two different things. Some people have one and not the other. For me, it seems that I won sad lottery and got stuck with both. Though they are different beasts, they are like cousins. My anxiety and depression feed off each other until they both loom large over me, plump from the nourishment of negative thoughts.
The best way I can describe my depression and anxiety is that my brain has turned against me. It’s just that my brain has become its own entity. I think to myself, “don’t be sad, don’t be sad, don’t be sad,” but I am still sad.
I think of the happiest memories I have and my brains twist it so that they become an absolute nightmare. Thinking about the birth of my children suddenly becomes a vivid daydream on what happens if they die. I imagine how small the coffins would be and what will I wear. I know what I will say during the eulogy, my tearful speech already written in my mind. When this happens, I can’t stop myself. I must go through it until my brain decides to let go.
If you’re still with me, you’ve read about 500 words and death twice. This is what my mental illness is like. My fears permeate all my thoughts and everything I do. When fear is a constant presence, it’s hard to derive any pleasure out of anything. It’s impossible to be carefree or cheerful, because I am always preoccupied with my fears. Tomorrow will be more of the same, so what is there to be happy about?
I think a lot of people would be surprised if they find out who I am. I am probably the most she-looks-so-happy-she-can’t-possibly-be-depressed person you know. My Facebook account is upbeat, filled with pictures of smiling faces and an embarrassing amount of animal memes. I travel quite frequently, despite my crippling fear of planes. I sometimes joke about depression, but my sense of humor is naturally self-deprecating that it can’t possibly be true. My childhood is picture perfect.
Depression isn’t always about openly weeping in front of others. It doesn’t always involve a traumatic event. Anyone can have it. This is the reason why it is so important – again, for emphasis – so important for people to seek professional help. A licensed professional can recognize signs that others might just gloss over and they can make a proper diagnosis.
In my case, I went to a mental health professional because I wanted to get help with my worrying. It was a particularly bad bout. I had barely slept in three weeks and I was tired. I was desperate for sleep, so as a last resort, I went to see someone. It took her one conversation to tell me I have anxiety. It was only after several sessions that she brought up depression.
“But I’m not depressed all the time,” I remember saying, strangely feeling accused. “I go through it for weeks then I feel okay.”
Sure, I did feel depressed, but I thought it was in the way the word “depressed” is used in the vernacular. The way you might whine to your friends about a disappointing job or a dead dog. But, it never occurred to me that my depression was of the illness kind. I never thought that it was something other than the way I was built, or the way my personality is. It took a professional to spot it, despite having lived with it all my life.
For a lot of people, myself including, the first encounter of mental illness is the description of Sisa, screaming out for Basilio and Crispin. The description is dramatic, tied to a legendary story of revolution. But the truth is that mental illness can hide in plain sight. It is in everyday life. It can be quiet and small and masquerade as everything is fine.
But it doesn’t make it any less real.
Editor's note: The author's name is withheld and would like to remain anonymous upon her request.