The last year of my life has been vitally important.
This time last year I was in a very dark place. Constantly alternating between crippling anxiety and feelings of complete helplessness, I was on the verge of a complete breakdown. I was afraid to speak openly about how I was battling and didn’t know how to seek help. Instead I created iron barriers around myself, baring my teeth at anyone who got too close, focusing all that negativity inward where it amplified and things began to fester.
Needless to say, the knock-on effect into all areas of my life was extraordinarily self-destructive. My relationships with those around me were souring faster than warm milk. I was burning bridges left, right and center and somehow always found a way to make it the other person’s fault. I was angry and I was miserable, and I was spiraling. One afternoon, I found myself in a no-bullshit feedback session with my boss, who was concerned about the dark cloud that I was bringing in to the workplace. Defensive and incapable of handling even constructive criticism, things became heated, and finally, I cracked.
In hindsight, that hour, in that boardroom, was the turning point.
Without any concern for what might happen next, I let the wheels fall off; crying and shouting, I opened up to my boss about everything. I told her about waking up sad, and lying awake at night, unable to switch my brain off and get some desperately-needed sleep. “I don’t know what to do anymore,” I said. “I just don’t know what to do.”
I will always be grateful for how she handled it. In her reaction, I found the help and understanding that I so desperately needed but never knew how to ask for. With warmth and compassion – and firmness, she explained to me that I needed to seek professional help, and outlined how and where I could find it. I was reassured that I needn’t worry about frivolities like sick leave, but that I should put my mental health first.
God, Allah, Jehovah – I thank them all for her.
The next few months are a bit of a grey area. I was trying hard at work to make up for how I’d behaved before my outburst, which wasn’t strictly necessary because I think the expectation to do so was more in my head than anything else. At the same time, I’d confided in a select few about my depression, which was a double-edged sword. On the one hand I was so relieved that it wasn’t a ‘secret’ anymore, like a weight had been lifted from my chest. I had this naive vision of being cradled by the people I lived with, spent every day with – tearful to have learned about my suffering and willing to help me on my journey to happiness. But in reality, I was disappointed when what I considered to be of ground-breaking importance, was barely worth putting down a smart-phone for, for many of those around me, who were almost harshly indifferent. Was I not describing it poetically enough? Was my struggle not romantically nuanced enough, or charged with enough melancholy? Do you realize how difficult it is to put the reality of depression into words?! (William Styron, one of my favorite authors, does an amazing job of it in his short novel Darkness Visible). I realize now that I let that hurt me because I was self-centered. Of course it hurt to learn that I wasn’t the center of anyone else’s Universe but my own. Growing pains…
At the same time, I was expecting the act of opening up about my depression to have more of a therapeutic effect. As though acknowledging to the world that I needed help, would be helpful enough in itself. Well, that was misguided, obviously. More growing pains.
I avoided the path of medical treatment, for a long time. All I knew about anti-depressants was what I’d picked up from gossip about other people who were taking them; that they were merely a means of numbing oneself instead of actually dealing with the issue. Harsh, and stupid. But, as so often happens, I started seeing the signs everywhere I looked. I had to admit to myself, crying in my car one morning, that I couldn’t overcome the darkness on my own, and the small measures I’d been taking to try and do so were not enough. So I opened my mind a little…. I started researching anti-depressants on my own, forming a more informed, less arrogant opinion about them. Guess what? There really is no such thing as a magic pill. It took a while to find the right medication for the job, which I’m told is often the case.
I’m not saying that anti-depressants are a one-size-fits-all approach to depression or anxiety. There’s no denying that they have some awful side effects. They can also be expensive, and in a lot of cases – ineffective. In my case though, with professional guidance and my finger constantly on the pulse of how my body and mind were reacting, they saved my life. I attended therapy sessions in conjunction with taking meds, which is highly recommended. All in all between my GP, my psychiatrist, my therapist, my boss, my family and my partner – I managed to get on top of my depression and tackle my anxiety – without doing too much long term damage. It’s been an extremely challenging time, but if I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t do a single thing differently.
I believe that the last year has been a defining experience for me. In learning to love and accept myself, I learned to love others more sincerely and became aware of what my own energy brings to the table. Rather than fixate on others and what I perceived to be their flaws, I had a close, honest look at myself and my own flaws, which is what I’d been seeing in others all along. Looking back, the medication was like training wheels, which supported me while I did all of the heavy-lifting that needed doing – allowing me to get through the process (and it really is a process) without buckling.
So here I am. I have good days and bad days, and I’m 13 kilos heavier – but I’m exponentially happier than I was a year ago. I might weigh a little more than I’d like to right now (the old Amber would have seen this as one of the worst things that could possibly have happened), but I’d take a little extra padding over hopelessness and self hatred any day of the week. I’m no longer on any medication. For now, I’m getting by without any – which I’m extremely proud of!
I’m not usually one to share something so personal on the Internet… I decided to write this post because I feel it’s important for everyone with experience of mental illness to be given a voice, and to feel like that voice is heard. I know I got off easy. There are so many people who have it a lot worse than me – but that’s neither here nor there, I think. This is my story, and I’m sure it doesn’t end here. Like I said, there are still bad days. Only now there are good days too – lots of them!
I have a whole new appreciation for my siblings, who really got it. I barely had to do any explaining – they were simply there; unwavering in their love and concern. Likewise, my mother, my boyfriend and my aunt have always been a reliable source of strength and comfort for me – especially when I am least deserving. Today, instead of wallowing in self pity and seething with anger – I am reveling in the love I feel for myself and those around me. I am so grateful for the people I have in my life, and no longer investing in other people’s bullshit. All it takes is a change in perspective, and it all started with my boss, who lent me an ear and held my hand at exactly the right time.