Dating When You’re Mentally Ill

I’m proud of what I’ve achieved.

For years, I struggled just to exist, with my depression rearing its ugly head at every corner. And I made it through. It took 3 major episodes, a hospital, and two psychiatric clinics. But I made it through.

Yet, when I started dating, I realised I’d entered a minefield. How much did I tell my dates? At what point did I share? Is it okay to be dishonest?

I understand that my experience with depression is different to those with other mental illnesses. I know that it’s the easiest illness for others to relate to. And so, what I’ve gone through is probably nothing like what people with bipolar disorder, BPD, schizophrenia, etc. go through.

Nonetheless, this is the balance I found in sharing my experience with depression while dating.

Withhold (lie)

The first date I went on after leaving my second psychiatric clinic that year, I spilled everything. I was so nervous about being rejected for it, that I feigned confidence and I disclosed my entire history.

Needless to say, I scared the guy away. I never heard from him again, even though we had what I thought was a nice two hour chat.

I didn’t have to agonise over what went wrong. It was obvious. Choosing to date someone who has just come out of a psychiatric clinic is a huge risk. Even I would have reservations about it, and I can see behind the stigma. Who’s to say I’m “cured”, and won’t fall back into a depression that takes it all out of me and everyone around me?

From then on, I learned to withhold. Not just to withhold, but to lie sometimes. When someone asked me what I did (a basic first date question), I did not tell them that I’d only started to get my life back on track. I told them an approximation of the truth. It’s like saying you’re an entrepreneur, even though you have nothing going on at the moment. It’s kind of true, but it is purposely misleading.

This might sound unfair. Was I trying to get someone to fall in love with me before burdening them with my illness?

Not quite. Someone doesn’t have to fall in love with you in order to accept the risks. They just need to see the potential in you. So, when I told Kyle about my depression, he could have walked away. But he already knew he wanted to give this a chance.

Think about your own requirements of a perfect match. You might want them to live in your area, share the same political views or religious beliefs, and want the same amount of kids as you. You may filter your dating pool according to these requirements, but they’re not necessarily deal-breakers. If you meet someone you click with, there are many things on your wish list you’re willing to let go of just so you can see where it goes.

Be honest (eventually)

That said, it’s important that you don’t keep your secret for too long. Not just for their sake, but for yours too.

Your mental illness is a major part of who you are, for better or worse. Managing it is part of your lifestyle. You might, like me, see it as part of what shaped you into the person you are, who you can admire. If your date is not going to accept that, it’s not going to work.

Once you’ve gotten to know each other – once you know that you have chemistry – share your story. At this point, s/he is probably not going to run away, but they will have a lot to think about.

If they think that you’re too high-maintenance or see you as a lesser person because of it, they’re not the right person for you. Chances are, you’ve dodged a bullet. Just because you have rapport with someone, does not mean you know how to support each other, and this person clearly cannot support you.

As with everything related to your mental illness, you’re going to have to take a risk. This is an integral part of your life, and a negative response to it will be a dating deal-breaker.

Let them be a part of it

Early on in my relationship, I mostly kept my emotional struggles to myself. Although Kyle knew my history, I did not want him to see it manifest in our present lives. I was scared he’d treat me with cotton gloves, like a porcelain doll that might fall apart with any wrong move.

Turns out, he had similar fears. He did worry about me, but he also worried about not being real with me. He did not want to treat me as fragile, but at the same time couldn’t tell when or if it was ever necessary (and sometimes it is).

It took a lot of personal work for me to begin opening up to him more and more. And what helped was making him a part of my journey. We had to navigate the minefields together, so that he could know me intimately enough to intuit how to relate to me. He learned that I’m a strong person, who does not need to be treated as anything but, and he also learned that sometimes I need a bit more TLC than the average person.

To this day, I still have the instinct to hide my struggles. When I’m feeling depressed or particularly anxious, it can take a lot for me to disclose it. But ultimately, I share, and it’s crucial that I do. Kyle is my partner in this, and remembering that is key to keeping our relationship honest and supportive.

Don’t compromise yourself

Ultimately, it’s crucial that you don’t compromise who you are. Yes, start with a life story that’s only something like the truth. But be sure to clear things up early on, before you get caught in a lie you can’t escape.

If, once you’ve disclosed your personal truth, the other person bails, so much the better for you. They’re not the right person anyway, and staying the course would have only led to problems later on.

In the end, you know you’re worth it, and you should never accept anyone who’ll run at the first sign of trouble.

The Worst Day Of My Life

February 1, 2013

I’m finally back at the house. Today was a long one. I walk into my room and feel the weight of failure pressing down on me. It’s worse than failure. It’s hopelessness. I don’t know what I’m doing for the next hour, let alone the next week, month or year. And then the years after that. They’re all mysteries too.

I go to the kitchen and Rhandzu is there, getting ready to run.

“Hey,” she says. “How was your day?”
“I feel like shit.”

“Oh… What’s wrong?”

“Just depressed.”

“Do you want to come running? Maybe the exercise will help.” Everyone always suggests something.

“Sure.”

“Mia’s on her way with Thor…”

We stand around waiting. My chest is light, and it’s hard to breathe. I take shallow breaths and try not to pace. I wish Mia would just come already. I need this run.

Mia is taking forever. Every second feels like forever. I don’t even know what I’m waiting for. Mia will come and we’ll run and maybe I’ll feel better for half an hour, and then I’ll come back to this. Then what? Dr Schneider can’t see me today. My medication’s not working yet. It reminds me of April last year, when I was waiting to see Dr Nossel. There were still three hours till my appointment, and I went on a run around the block that took forever. I got home and it was eleven minutes later. I don’t remember what I did next.

When I saw Dr Nossel, he couldn’t do anything that we hadn’t already done. You have to wait for the meds to work. And they never work quick enough. I had to stay a night in a psych institution then. I don’t ever want that to happen again. I need a way out.

I consider taking sleeping pills. Three or four so that they knock me out for a while. But the problem is that it always makes me feel worse. That moment just before, when I know my solution will just be a timeout from this eternity of suffering. Then I’ll be groggy, and I can take more and more until I’m immune to them, and I have to be fully awake.

Mia has arrived, along with Thor, her dog. We run, but after ten minutes I’m tired. Exhausted. The run is not nearly over. We’re going up quite a steep hill. Mia and Rhandzu are talking. I can’t say a word. I don’t want them to worry about me, but I just can’t say anything. They’re letting me be in my silence.

After another twenty minutes, my body won’t let me run anymore.

“I’m too tired,” I whisper to them.

“Maybe you should take a walk back,” Mia says. “Are you alright?”

“I’ll be okay,” I say. It’s important that they think I believe it.

It’s a long way back. I don’t know how I’ll make it that far. I don’t know how I’ll take the next step. But I can’t just stop here. I need to get back, lie down on my bed, and then I don’t know what. I’ll smoke up. That might make me feel something.

When I arrive back at the house we share, I decide to shower. Before I get to the shower, I wonder how I’ll manage to get to the shower. In the shower I wonder how I’ll manage to get out of the shower. I somehow get out and get dressed.

I go to the kitchen. I will wait here until Rhandzu gets back. Then I’ll speak to her. She might help me feel better. She is taking a long time. I don’t know if she’ll ever return. I don’t know if I’ll still be here. I pace, breathing quick, shallow breaths.

Eternity.

Rhandzu arrives back.

“How are you feeling?” she asks.

“Worse,” I say. “I think I’ll just smoke up and go to sleep.”

“Can I join you?”

“Do you smoke weed?”

“Sometimes,” she says. She goes to shower. I walk back to my room. I pick up the wire dog that I hang my keys on. I stick my hand underneath, into its stomach, and pull out my bag of weed. I went through a lot to get this bag. I drove around for two hours trying to find the dealer. I was groggy from the sleeping pills, and I guess I just don’t know Cape Town well enough. Eventually we met in a wide, empty alley. It felt stupid, like a cliché that’s just not meant to be true for me. The dude had just picked his kids up from school. A girl and a boy. Around four to six years old. He was sweet. Told me not to worry about the time it took us to find each other. Hard getting used to a new city. I told him I was groggy from the pills. I didn’t want to seem like a loser.

Now I sit down and take a Rizzler out of my drawer. I lay it out on the desk. I shake weed into my grinder, and grind it into much finer granules. I knock it evenly onto the Rizzler. I cut a small piece of cardboard off the Rizzler box, and fold it into a filter. I place it at the end of the joint and roll the paper, lick it at the end, and stick it. It holds up.

I thought the process would calm me, but I’m still agitated. I still don’t know how I’ll get from here to the door. I still don’t know how I’ll wait for Rhandzu. I still don’t know how a joint could possibly help me.

Rhandzu and I lie on our backs looking up at the sky. I light the joint and take a drag, and immediately I get that 3D effect of the world that weed gives me. Like I’m only seeing it for real now. That usually my world is flat. I pass the joint to Rhandzu.

We talk. I tell her about my past depressions. I tell her that I’m gay. I tell her that coming out has to be done over and over again. I start to feel better. She tells me about her life. She tells me that… I don’t know. I didn’t listen to what she just said. Now she tells me about how she doesn’t think she’ll finish her Masters by the end of February, even though she has a job offer starting in March. She tells me about her family. The township they live in in Pretoria. Her mother is a doctor. Her father is a lawyer. Her brothers, who she loves, are moving in a direction she can’t recognise. I lose focus.

I think about the depression I felt so strongly just ten minutes ago. I feel great now. I think about how life can be perfect. I realise what I’ve been doing wrong. It’s that I haven’t been doing. Tomorrow I’ll wake up early and get started on what I’m here for. My expectations have been too high. I wanted to write the whole day, a ridiculous expectation for a novice writer with no clear plan. I’ll set an amount of pages to get done. After each page I’ll take a break. In the afternoon I’ll go explore somewhere. I’ll do this every day. Tomorrow will be Hout Bay. I’ll go experience the beauty there. I’ll look at the sponges and figure out what the fuck they actually are. I’ll figure out why they react differently to drinking water than they do to seawater. I’ll feel interested in life. I won’t ever be bored. I’m going to be okay.

Saturday

It’s going exactly as planned! I’ve been writing the whole morning, taking breaks with every page I finish. I just have one more page to do today, then I’ll go to Hout Bay.

I write about my main character, Danny Clark, feeling depressed. He rolls a joint because the process sometimes calms him. It works, unlike it did for me last night, and he doesn’t even need to smoke it to feel better.

I realise that this is not about Danny Clark at all. It doesn’t fit into his character arc. But who cares? It’s good writing, and it’s a start to my career. I’m fine. This day has started amazingly, and every day will be like this. I just need to keep to my plan.

I get into my car, and drive towards Hout Bay. Some of the malaise returns, but nothing I can’t handle. Once I start experiencing the joys of the natural world, I’ll be back on top of things.

I arrive at Hout Bay beach. I leave my slops and singlet in the car, and walk towards the sea. My chest is light again, and it’s getting harder to breathe. I take quick shallow breaths, trying to stay calm. I’m scared. I’m at this beach, around people I don’t know and can’t relate to, and if I panic now, I’m stuck here. There is no one to take care of me.

I move more quickly towards the sea. If I can just get there, I can do what my psychologist once told me – appreciate nature, the grooves in the rocks, study the sponges. That will stop the monotony, won’t it? I take in the beauty of each individual wave. It’s so boring. I walk towards where I last saw the sponges. They’re still there. I pour water on them. They’re boring. I don’t care about sponges. Why did I think this could help? Just because there are lots of details to life, doesn’t mean it’s not boring. It’s too boring to distract me from this indefinable pain that sits at my core. It’s an emotional pain, but it’s physical too. I can feel that the chemicals aren’t balanced. It’s my fault for stopping with Cymgen. If I knew I could feel like this… but I should have known. I’ve felt this way before. I just forgot how bad it was.

I don’t know where I’m going to go, or what I’ll do when I get there. If I get there. There’s nowhere to get. Nowhere to run. This is inside me. Maybe I’ll write again. That helped this morning. But then what happens when I get bored with that? Or have to stop to eat. This is the worst beach to be stuck at. These are all pretentious aristocrats, leading a life I would hate. A life of boredom. I really need to be home, safe. What more powerful a place is there than a beach to make you feel all alone? I was so fucking stupid in coming here.

I get back in my car and drive towards the house. I groan from the pain. I can’t stop groaning, not even to make a more apt noise. I arrive back at the house. I phone my mom. She’s a last resort, because I know she couldn’t help even if she was here. My dad could make things better, but he’s dead. She’s now worried about me. She keeps phoning me. Calling her was a mistake.

I remember that, last night, smoking weed helped. I roll a joint. The process does not calm me. I smoke it halfway, then stub it out. I walk to a beautiful spot nearby, with a small lake, surrounded by trees. A little distance away is a father with his kid or kids and maybe his wife and maybe others. There is an indeterminate amount of related people, is what I mean to say.

I sit and smoke. It makes me even more disoriented than I already was. Despair and panic build up in my chest. This pain will never leave, because the world is full of pain and I know it for a fact. I know it for a fact because I feel it, and the feeling is the most real feeling I’ve ever felt.

I walk back to the house and panic. I roll around on the bed. The despair has closed in on me. The world has nothing for me but pain. No beauty can brighten that darkness. The pain is a fist around my heart, slowly squeezing. I take sleeping pills. I fall asleep. I wake up. I’m totally disoriented. Every moment is hell. Hell times a thousand. A second is much worse. A minute is too much to think about.

I phone Aron. He doesn’t answer. He calls back. I tell him I’m depressed and I can’t handle it. He tells me I can pick him up if I want. I do that. Stupid, stupid.

“Let’s go to Clifton,” Aron says. “Clifton’s the sort of place that makes you happy. D’you know what I mean?”

We go to Clifton and stand by something that looks like a cave. It’s probably a rock. I can’t focus. He smokes a cigarette, and I tell him how bleak life is. I don’t know what I’m saying. All I know is I need to get away from here. I need to get back home, away from Clifton and away from Aron too. But I don’t know how I’ll do it.

I get to the car, somehow. I drive him back to the res at UCT. He’s worried about me. I drive home. I lie on my bed. I stand up. I pace. I take some sleeping pills. I lie down and roll around. I panic. I call my mom again. She’s going to book me a ticket home for tomorrow. I don’t think I can make it through the wait at the airport, and definitely not the flight. But I tell her to book.

I phone Dr Schneider. He doesn’t answer. I message him that I’m really desperate. Later he messages me that I can come by tomorrow morning and he’ll help me out.

Rhandzu asks if I want to go with her to Mia’s place. I go, have a glass of wine, get totally disoriented but feel much better. I’m barely awake as we walk back to our place and I get into bed and fall asleep right away.

Sunday

I wake up, somehow feeling worse than ever. How is it that I can feel something worse than infinite pain? I don’t know, but it’s no exaggeration. I get to the clinic Dr Schneider told me to meet him at. He tells me that he’ll put me on the waiting list there. I tell him to do so just in case.

He gives me a prescription and says that I’ll be feeling great in an hour. I drive to the pharmacy.

“Can I give you Truvalin?” the pharmacist asks.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a generic,” he says. “It’s exactly the same, but cheaper.”

I worry that it won’t be the same. I’m not motivated enough to have this conversation. He gives me the meds and I go to the car, get inside, and take them right away. I used to be on a variation of this. I don’t know how it will help me in an immediate way though. I drive home. I lie on my bed, roll around. After an hour, nothing has changed. I take sleeping pills. I roll around on my bed. I miss my flight.

Greg Gelb is here. I must have called him. We’re sitting in the kitchen. He makes scrambled eggs and does magic tricks for us. I appreciate his efforts.

Sobel comes over. I must have called him. He comes to my room and I lie in bed. I must have fallen asleep because I open my eyes and he’s cleaned most of the room for me. This is not the worst day of my life.

Monday

I have an appointment with Dr Schneider. I’m groggy from all the sleeping pills. I arrive at Dr Schneider but I don’t remember driving. He comes into the waiting room, and sees me half-alive.

“How did you get here?” he asks.

“I drove.”

Sobel arrives. I must have called him. He drives me to the house, with the receptionist following in my car. I pack some clothes and they drive me to the hospital.

I’m sobbing. I can’t stop. It feels better than not sobbing.

“It’s okay,” Sobel says. “Don’t cry.”

The nurse says the same thing. Maybe only one of them says it. Sobel’s gone and I’m alone in the hospital bed.

They haven’t taken my sleeping pills away from me. I take some. I feel infinite pain. I take some more. Nothing works.

I ask the nurse to give me something. She tells me I’ve already been overdosing. I tell her I need something. She is busy. I beg her. She won’t give me a moment. She says she’ll get to me. I go back to the bed. I roll around.

An eternity of infinitely painful moments later, Greg Gelb arrives, with brownies made by Leeanne, his wife. He also has some series for me. I watch The New Girl for the first time. I hate every moment of it, as much as every moment of anything else.

I take more sleeping pills. I roll around. This is not the worst day of my life.

Tuesday

This is the worst day of my life. It is infinitely worse than yesterday’s infinite pain. I don’t know what makes it worse. I wake up in the hospital at 5AM to have my blood pressure taken.

My mom will arrive later. I make a courageous effort at giving a shit about anything, and I shower and shave. Somehow they forgot to take away my razor. I get back to the bed and my mom is there. She looks miserable. She doesn’t recognise that I’m doing slightly better at this moment in time, having managed to get up and shower and shave.

Dr Schneider has informed us that there is a spot open for me at Kenilworth Clinic. He is one of the founders of the clinic. An ambulance takes me, with two young paramedics.

The male one says that he wishes he could spend some time there. He is trying to make me feel better. I get taken to a room. I see other pathetic losers walking around. I have no idea how they have any motivation to do anything. I am told I will be here for three weeks. I can’t believe I’ve fallen that low. I want to leave, but I know that I won’t be okay to do so anytime soon. I don’t know how it is possible that I’ll ever be okay. I know far too well that life is a futile, painful hell.

I sit with my mom and Dr Schneider in a room, discussing me. I can’t sit still. I have waited for this little meeting to happen since I arrived an eternity ago. Now I am waiting for it to end.

“He says that he feels he might be gay,” my mom says to Dr Schneider. I don’t know the context. They continue talking with each other and me. I don’t know how I manage to say anything. Maybe I don’t.

I roll around on yet another bed. This is the worst day of my life. It is coming to a close. Tomorrow will be only slightly better. I look at my toiletries. They forgot to take my razor away. They took my sleeping pills away, but I’ve been put on a bunch of different meds.

This is the worst day of my life. It ends.

Tripping On Shrooms: Why No One Understands Chemical Depression

In September 2012 I took shrooms for the first and last time.

My friend Ari and I consumed the (revolting) magic substance at the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens. The setting: lying on the bank of a dam, looking up at the treetops. Seeing shapes and faces, even before the shrooms kicked in.

Then the world changed pace, and Ari took out the map he’d appropriated from an old video game.

This nonsensical map would guide us through our little world for the next few hours. Along with the substance, it allowed us to see magic in every corner.

We frolicked in a pool of ankle high fountains. Waterdogs, we called them, because they looked like puppies jumping up at us for attention.

We made our way across the vast landscape, moving from point to point in our quest for we knew not what.

Along the way, we made up different races of people, categorised whoever else we saw enter our world, and even asked some of them for directions. They dutifully helped us get to the next stage.

And eventually, we ended up in a place with trees locked away in cages, found the tail of a Pking – a creature we had made up – and completed our journey.

As we felt the trip wearing off, we drank orange juice and smoked weed, in an attempt at a smooth transition to sobriety.

I took a drag on the joint and suddenly felt an irritating nausea. Something that did not usually accompany weed. It did not matter – I just closed my eyes to try to ward it off.

Behind my eyelids I saw spirals. Spirals that would not stop turning, that made me want to throw up, that made me start to sweat. I opened my eyes and the spirals remained. I could barely see and my breathing had gotten shallower.

Suddenly, I was panicking. At first, I had no rational reason for it. What does a bit of nausea matter? But then thoughts entered my mind. I realised that although Ari sat just inches away from me, he could never really know me or what I was going through. We’re all alone in the world, I realised, to navigate this terrifying existence on our own. This terrifying existence that would only end in death, and possibly an eternity afterwards, and how could eternity be anything but suffering? How could it be anything but lonely?

I was sinking into another major depression, I realised, one which was my fault for taking an illegal substance. How would I get out of this, or even get from here to a safe place where I could lie in a fetal position and try to numb out my existence? I had to do something to save myself.

I remembered my psychologist telling me to ground myself in the beauty of real life, and I reached out in my mind for something to care about. I found the tail of a Pking, the fact that we had found a part of a mythical creature, and that to us that tail was very real. I started laughing, and suddenly felt wonderful.

There are different states of being

The depression or panic attack or whatever exactly it was, lasted two minutes at most. But it felt like it lasted multiple eternities.

That’s because it was not a feeling. It was not just strong fear or extreme despair. It was its own state of being.

That day, I transitioned through 3 states of being. The normal, everyday state. The trip, brought on by the shrooms. And the depression.

There is no way to fully describe any of these states, which you can only understand when you’re in them. After taking the shrooms, for example, I went on a nonsensical adventure. I knew it was nonsensical. I saw no hallucinations and was under no delusions. But the state the shrooms put me in made it possible for me to take it seriously anyway.

When I sank into the depressed state, I may as well have never been in the previous state. Yes, it left its memories and effects. But I wasn’t just one feeling away. I was in a completely different world. One which truly did have no meaning and no kinship and no hope.

And then once I was back in the everyday state, I could only vaguely remember the previous two. The impact of that two minute depression lasted. For a couple of weeks I did not feel like myself – the memories haunted me. But at the same time, I did not feel anything that resembled the depression itself.

It’s impossible to understand depression

This is why those who haven’t experienced depression cannot understand it. They cannot see how something good happening can fail to make you feel “better”. They can’t see how what they imagine is a feeling can be so all-encompassing.

Because it’s not a feeling. It’s a state of being of its own. You’re grateful for that when you’re out of it, but while you’re in it there seems to be no escape, with only small indications that you’re still part of the normal world.

I wish no one had to be in that state ever again. I pray to all the gods I don’t believe in that I never experience that state again. Because when you’re in it, there seems to be no way out, and it’s literally the worst thing in the world.

My shrooms trip was wonderful, and it lasted around four hours. And yet, I’ll never do shrooms again, because those two minutes of depression, chemical imbalance caused by the substance, lasted much longer.

Depression is not a feeling. It’s a world of its own, and when you’re in it you cannot imagine life could be any different.

These Are The Distortions At The Root Of My Depression

Where did my depression come from?

This question has two answers. One is simple and the other is way more complex. In terms of heredity, chemical depression runs in my mom’s family, and possibly my dad’s as well. Simple enough.

But the chemical imbalance does not explain everything. I still have a depressed worldview – an obsession with death, as well as the difficulty I have in seeing life as worthwhile – and that’s a product of my upbringing.

Not that my parents made the conscious choice to teach me what they believed to be the facts of life. Not that they taught me those “facts” at all. However, I learned how to live from observing them, watching them treat life with an attitude that was fundamentally distorted.

These are the beliefs that led me to see the world in all the worst ways.

1. Nothing will ever go right for me

My dad did not believe in himself. I know that’s a clichéd thing to say. But he truly had no self-belief. He saw himself as a loser, as someone who would never “make it”, and unfortunately the people around him did not do enough to change that belief. Some even reinforced it.

He lost his job in 2001, and for the next 10 years, it seemed like nothing went his way. Every small job came to an end, leaving him unemployed for another tension fraught period of time.

The way I framed that last sentence is exactly the way he framed his life. When he was working, he did not view himself as successful. Rather, he believed that it was just a respite from his failure of a life.

For much of my life, I believed that I’d never be a success, and that the best I could hope for was to not be a failure. This led me to constantly judge the good things in my life as flukes, and assume that they’d all come tumbling down eventually.

This is a belief that fundamentally fosters depression. It makes it difficult to feel joy without the dampening effect of a context of hopelessness. It invites in despair, and I still have to fight it every day.

2. It’s all my fault

This belief is in almost direct contradiction to the previous one. Whereas that distortion grants me no control, this belief puts me in charge. My father believed that every good thing in his life was fluke, and every bad thing was due to his own failings.

He projected this onto his children, always blaming us when things went wrong in our lives, teaching us not to take responsibility, but to take the blame. You can’t take responsibility when you have no chance of getting it right, but you can be down on yourself for being a pathetic loser.

This belief further props up that despair, that “knowledge” that life is just not worth it. It’s just a matter of time before you mess up again, and face the humiliating reality of your own failure.

3. The world is out to get you

This belief was propagated as much (or more) by my mom as by my dad. She is constantly waiting on the next terrible thing that is going to happen. Because the world is dangerous, and it’s coming for us.

My mom’s anxiety informed the way we were raised. We were constantly told that the worst would happen – it’s how she tried to protect us from it.

But this belief protects you from nothing. It does the exact opposite. Since anxiety makes it incredibly difficult to live in the present, it becomes nearly impossible to be adequately prepared for what might really happen. You get so caught up in the imagined threats, that you fail to prepare for the real ones.

And, of course, the bad things become a lot worse than they really are. Instead of failure being something that you get over and learn from, it becomes the worst thing that could possibly happen. When it does happen, you don’t see the real consequences, but live in the light of your perceived humiliation and disappointment.

4. There are bad feelings

This is one of the most prevalent beliefs propagated by people everywhere. Sadness is bad. Shame is bad. Anger is bad. Anxiety is bad.

We therefore do everything to try and avoid these feelings. We live life ineffectually, going after not what we want, but what will prevent those bad feelings from happening. We avoid these feelings like the plague, and we ultimately hurt much worse when they inevitably hit us in the gut.

I learned this belief from both my parents, who spent all their lives controlled by what they were too scared to feel. For my dad, it was shame. For my mom, it was grief and disappointment.

Emotions that every single person is fated to feel no matter how hard they try.

Getting over the distortions

In order to recover from depression, you need to rewire the way you think. After all, if you still live in the distorted beliefs that led to that despairing worldview, you’re only going to reinforce the disease.

As the quote goes: “You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it in the first place.”

This is why mindfulness is considered one of the most effective treatments of depression and anxiety. It gives you an entirely new way of looking at life, rather than trying to fix what’s “wrong” with it. Instead of trying to do what you believe is impossible and be a complete success, you change your conception of success entirely. Instead of trying to stop things from going wrong, you reconsider how bad the inevitable downs really are.

Another approach, that can work in conjunction with mindfulness, is to challenge those distortions head on using CBT. You take every thought that usually leads you to self-sabotage, and you interrogate it. Once you expose it to the clear light of day, and show how unfair or unrealistic it truly is, you’re a step closer to changing that belief. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort, but the payoff is worth it.

Ultimately, depression is based on a distorted view of the world. You only see certain aspects of reality, and judge those aspects as “bad”. By challenging those distortions, using CBT and mindfulness, along with a host of other techniques, you can begin to see life as it is, and accept even the “worst” parts.

Things That Happened When My Dad Died

Death. My dad’s death. Weighed on me for a number of reasons.

We were not close. I did not know how to mourn. I could not just pretend that the hole he’d left was impossible to fill. And the religious rituals would no longer work for me. The clean, scheduled, dignified mourning was impossible.

A few things happened.

I suppressed my emotions

I struggled to feel my emotions. I struggled to manage them and express them in a healthy way. How could I, when I did not even know how I felt? That’s the thing about trauma. If you were confused before, you’re only gonna be more confused after. The time to clear your head is before the big bad happens.

But I did not clear my head, and when he died, I did not know how sad I was, or what other feelings it brought up. I cried a lot at first. But a lot is relative, and relative to other mourners I’ve known, I barely cried at all.

I felt sentimental and ashamed for feeling sentimental.

And I felt angry. Angry at him and for him, for never dealing with his pain and dying with no resolution.

I saw life for what it was

I watched a man who’d struggled with his own demons for at least a decade just wither away. Getting sick had not brought him closure. He had never had a moment in which he’d come to terms with it. Until the end he’d been in denial.

And then he died without a resolution.

Nothing was fixed. He never lived his dreams. He never learned to live in the present. We never resolved the problems with our relationship.

The closest he got to any of it was buying a piano and writing a blog. A blog which he’d never share with his family.

It’s not fair, I thought

but I knew that fair is human

and in all the idiocy of human belief

fair

takes first place

Optimism, closely connected, comes second

Pessimism is third and

Realism dutifully takes fourth

I thought I died too

We weren’t close, but I was more similar to him than either of my brothers were. I saw in his habits my own low self-esteem. In his gambling addiction, I saw my own search for an easy way out. In his naive love of writing, my own naive dreams.

He struggled with belief in his own competence, and passed that to me. He struggled to understand his place in this world, and passed that to me.

And so, when he died, I saw my future. An unresolved person, living in denial to the very end, before expiring without so much as a famous last word.

I internalised it. I even dreamed that I was dying with him. And I dreamed of him coming back to life, only to continue dying without a resolution and without even trying.

I denied pain

Perhaps more than anything, I was angry and scared that such pain was possible. The pain he had gone through for no good reason. A few days before he died, I wrote this in a message to a friend:

I hate this and I hate God for it which is my way of trying to make the pain external. I’d rather that nothing had been created than for even one person to go through his pain. I don’t sleep properly anymore and I can’t hear the phone ring without feeling either anxiety or anger. I’m angry a lot and I’m crying a lot. And I’ve been talking about it a lot. I’ve felt very much lately on the side of euthanasia. Anyone staunchly against it can never have experienced the pain of this kind of suffering.

In many ways I wish he would die sooner rather than later, to alleviate his own suffering and make concrete that of our family. I wish he would be well enough once more that he could speak with us, without immense confusion, but that’s unlikely to happen. We’ve lost him already, and we’re left with a suffering shell which is awful to see and extremely painful to love and impossible not to.

Fuck life. The world’s not worth it; even if some people can find happiness, there’s too many that find only suffering. I love life and I won’t let go of it but I can’t see its worth.

I now know that this view of pain is synonymous with depression. The idea that pain can only be bad, and that too much pain invalidates life, is indicative of a depressive worldview. The idea that anything can invalidate life is a depressed worldview.

The main reason mindfulness works in treating depression is that it requires you to view pain in the moment, without judgment. Once you take that judgment out of the equation, all it is is pain.

As they say: pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice.

Grief need not lead to depression…

…but it’s hard for us to avoid. For someone who struggles with depression, it’s hard not to choose suffering at such a tumultuous point. We battle to manage our emotions effectively, and when we don’t, they become that awful numbness. That numbness which is, paradoxically, the worst type of pain.

Grief does not have to lead to depression. In an ideal world, it would not. We would feel the sadness keenly, along with all our other heightened emotions, and would rejoice in uncensored life.

I could have learned a lot from my dad’s death.

  • Resolve your familial relationships while you can. Advice I’ve been unable to take and possibly never will.
  • Deal with your shit before it hits the fan. After two more major depressive episodes, I finally learned to do this.
  • Life has no resolutions. The important corollary (if that’s what this is) is that it does not need to have a resolution. Life is fine as it is, and we can be happy just being alive.
  • Pain is inevitable. And by avoiding it, you’re just making the inevitable into a monster that is impossible to overcome.

But ultimately, we cannot foresee how we will react to the ultimate big bad, and the luxury of learning usually presents itself to us only in hindsight.

Can Identity Politics Save Men’s Lives?

In February I went to see a trans-activist and spoken word poet perform. Alok Vaid-Menon, presenting and identifying as neither female or male, said stuff that made me feel a lot of things.

Anger. Confusion. Shame.

The contempt they showed for cisgender feminists seemed over the top and gratuitous. It was hard to stick to their grammatically troubling gender pronouns – them and their. And, of course, the anger against white, cisgender males – like yours truly – made me very uncomfortable.

Obviously, this was their goal. To leave their audience slightly less sure of themselves than when they arrived. Which is not generally the goal of identity politics. In many circles, you need to be certain of your pronouns and adjectives in order to feel comfortable.

Alok subverted that trope.

They succinctly exposed the damage we can do to each other by placing expectations on who they are supposed to be. And there was one group in particular, against whom a subtle violence is perpetrated every single day, simply by reinforcing gender binaries:

Men.

Masculinity does not only endanger women

Their point was that, while women and sensitive men are typically considered the victims of what becomes toxic masculinity, we forget about what it does to the masculine man.

Many of us envy the man who fits into the masculine ideal. He does not have to question who he is. He faces no discrimination due to his gender. And, in much of the world, he has access to far more opportunities than the rest of us.

But masculinity is also a prison. And we see that no more clearly than when it comes to mental illness.

Mental illness is man’s biggest threat

Almost twice as many women are diagnosed with depression as men. In South Africa, psychiatric clinics have a ratio of about 4 women for every 1 man in depression and bipolar wards.

However, men are twice as likely to commit suicide. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK.

Why don’t the numbers match up?

There are a few reasons for this, including the fact that men are likelier to use deadlier weapons than women and therefore have a higher success rate. But the main reason should be pretty clear:

While more women are diagnosed with depression, as many men suffer in silence.

There is much less of a stigma for a woman to seek out help for depression and they therefore get treated for it.

However, the problem starts at an earlier stage.

Femininity encourages speaking about emotions. Masculinity all but demands the opposite. Because men don’t acknowledge their emotions, they become toxic and turn into depression.

We need to break down gender norms

Alok was spot on about what masculinity does to the masculine man. But, while they advocate for the abolition of gender entirely, I’m not going to go that far. It’s not that I don’t agree with them, necessarily (I might! but it’s a topic for another day). I just don’t think we need to go that far in order to confront this problem.

Maybe we can keep separating boys and girls into sports teams and have gender-specific bathrooms. But the binaries have to be weakened. Boys need to know that emotions are not weakness. They need to feel comfortable talking about them, and share the burden when life gets too difficult to handle alone.

In that way, they can manage their emotions before they become toxic. They can get help when they suffer from depression.

Weaker gender norms will lead to less men feeling they have no other option than to take their lives.

Masculinity is, in some ways, a violence perpetrated against men. It is time we stop perpetuating its artifice.

Cliffy Is Dead

Darryl hooted and I rushed out the house and got into his car. I was wearing smart black pants and a dull red-striped button shirt. I don’t remember what he was wearing. I don’t remember how his face looked or what he said to me or what I said to him. I was only pretending to be there. Pretending to care that Cliffy was dead.

I do remember the dullness and denseness of the colours around me. The trees that lined the streets on the way to the cemetery. The dullness of the cemetery itself. I remember nothing of the eulogy or whether people cried aloud or how long the funeral took. I do remember his squad from the police force doing a tribute, and I remember that one of them looked anemic, almost like Cliffy would have looked without the muscles.

I had felt nothing when my mom had told me Cliffy’d committed suicide. I was too deep in my own depression. The fact that a person who was once my  best friend had gone through the same and had not made it was too dull to break through the wall of terrible numbness.

I had loved Cliffy once. We had all loved each other back then and had vocalised it regularly. But after school, we took very different paths and I hardly ever saw him again. I’d always thought we would reconnect one day, but that did not matter to me on the day of his funeral. All that mattered was that I was stuck at a fucking funeral and just wanted to get home so I could lie in a fetal position on my bed.

The episode had started about a week earlier.

I was at my old alma mater for shabbat. Yeshiva Gedola, where I had spent many of my happiest days. It could not lift me. Instead, it left me feeling trapped, unable to leave until nightfall on Saturday.

On Friday morning I had written a poem:

Give in to me
I’ll have you mine
I’ll have your breasts
I’ll have your fine
stomach, long hair,
sweet lips, pussy
In which to stick
fingers fussy

You have no self
and nor do I
You are my tart
and I your pie
of timeless time
eternal? No!
You are my soul
ejac’lated.

I’d named it Procrasturbation. I had not known what what was yet to come. But I had felt intensely negative and I had known I was not doing well. Hence, that awful poem.

The problem was that I’d thought the pit was the right place for me. It had seemed to absolve me of responsibility for knowing what to do with my life. It had seemed like a good thing until it absolutely broke me.

On that Friday night, trapped in the confines of a religious institution, I cracked. Major depression took me for only the second time in my life. I did not know how to manage each second. I tried playing around on my phone, even though it was the sabbath. I tried calling a friend, even though he was probably observing the sabbath. I hid the phone in my pocket when around some of the others, but I knew they probably saw it. I couldn’t care less.

I couldn’t care about anything.

When I look back on it, Cliffy’s funeral epitomises that particular episode. I had once loved him, and to this day, I feel immense fondness for him. And I feel guilty for not being there for him. And guilty for not being able to care when he died or properly say goodbye.

I never mourned for him, and maybe that’s why I still think of calling him sometimes. I’ve never fully come to terms with what happened to him. I will always feel that guilt.

It’s the most visceral example I can come up with when trying to describe what depression can do, aside from suicide.

It can make you dead, inside what looks like a living human body. It can make the best times seem like the worst times. It can make lying in a fetal position seem as moving as your best friend’s funeral.

Along with death, it is the great equaliser. Because it’s its own type of death. To paraphrase my awful poem, it is the detritus of le petit mort of the soul.

Will The Mental Illness Stigma Ever Go Away?

No.

The mental illness stigma will never go away.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

I live in a diverse world, with friends of varying sexual preferences, gender identities, races, and religions. Nearly every one of them has been stigmatised by one or another sector of society. We’ve all thankfully come to a place in our lives where we live openly and honestly. With pride.

Personally, I’ve faced the stigma of being a gay Jewish atheist in an interracial relationship. And I am able to speak about my identity with anyone, no matter their own personal beliefs.

Well, with one exception: I suffer from depression.

Now, unlike homosexuality, most cultures and belief systems do not reject the depressed. There is no verse in Leviticus saying that I should be put to death. So why is it still so hard to be open about the fact that I suffer from mental illness?

And why am I convinced the stigma will never completely go away?

It’s part of the illness

Because I’ve been out the closet for years now, I can say with pride that I am gay. There are a few reasons. I can logically understand that being gay is perfectly normal, and that embracing that identity has made my life better. I am also constantly around others who embrace that identity.

Most importantly, the dissenting voices came from the outside. I was told being gay is bad and shameful and immoral and so on.

Depression is, unfortunately, very different.

You can live in a society that is open about mental health and you can know others who suffer from mental illness, but still feel ashamed because of it. The reason is that the stigma is not coming (only) from the outside.

Underscoring just about all mental illness is the internalised belief that “I am not good enough”, “I am weak”, “The world is better off without me”. Those types of thoughts and the feelings associated with them are symptoms of the depression. They become so ingrained in us that we don’t even think to question them.

Which is part of the reason that, to this day, I am still ashamed that I suffer from depression. At this moment, my mind is still telling me that if I wasn’t so weak, I would never have reached the really low points punctuating my life.

BUT…

…even the societal stigmatisation of depression will never completely go away. And there’s a good reason for this too.

It is an illness

The ultimate acceptance of homosexuality is to view it as normal and not give it thought. To not have to pity the person or wish, for their sake, that they get “better”.

Mental illness is, by its very definition, completely different.

If I tell you I suffer from depression and you say, “that’s a perfectly normal and healthy lifestyle”, I’m going to look at you strangely. Mental illness should elicit sympathy from others. They want you to get better and to be free of the burden.

Yet, when you tell someone with a mental illness that you feel for them and hope they get better soon, they will take it as pity for their weakness. As I said above, that’s just part of the illness.

But it goes beyond that.

We stigmatise illness for practical reasons that, unfortunately, are compelling.

For example, would you start dating someone who you knew had cancer? Someone who you know you’d have to accompany to chemotherapy. Someone whose health needs would consume your life. Someone who might die on you way too early.

Some people will answer yes, but for most, the answer is no ways. You’re not judging the person for being ill, and if they were already in your life you would stick with them without a second thought.

But to take on that burden is to be a martyr.

Dating someone who suffers from a mental illness can be similar. Their depression or mania might well set the tone for the relationship. They might be in and out of hospital. And ultimately, they could kill themselves, leaving you to feel both terrible grief and unbearable guilt for not having saved them.

I’m not saying that there should be a stigma. Rather, it makes sense that others would want to know that the person was managing their illness well before getting involved.

There’s a difference between stigma and concern

The problem is that as humans, we tend to categorise things as good or bad and making all-too-easy associations. Since mental illness seems like a bad thing, people associated with it get a label too.

And that does not have to be the case.

There are things we can do to limit the stigma, and keep the focus on the illness rather than the individual.

Separate the illness from our/their identity

This applies to those who suffer from mental illness as well as those who do not. Part of recovering from depression (or anxiety, or bipolar, etc.) is to depersonalise it. Instead of saying “I’m depressed”, we have to learn to say “I feel depressed” or “I suffer from depression”.

We have to realise that mental illness is not an identity. Only then can we start to heal from it. Because we’re not trying to fix something broken in ourselves, but rather treating a disease.

People who do not suffer from mental illness need to recognise this as well. When someone they know is suffering from bipolar, they too can say “X suffers from bipolar” instead of “X is bipolar”.

ALSO…

…never call us crazy!

Ultimately, we can hope to lessen the stigma, but not only will it take time, it will also be an essential part of the healing process.

This Is Why Depressed People Hate Their Psychiatrists

“When can I see you?” I texted in desperation.

“I have an opening at 3PM,” Dr Lymeberger wrote back. “Come visit me at the clinic.”

I was in the midst of a major chemical depression, one that had been brought on in a misguided attempt to change my antidepressants. I had not needed to change my antidepressants. I was not feeling any worse than I had over the preceding year. But I was depressed nonetheless, and hoped that a chemical change might be just what I needed.

Unfortunately, switching antidepressants can have unexpectedly disastrous effects, as happened when I switched from Cymgen to Cipralex. Both of them are SSRIs, working in almost exactly the same way. But, for some reason, I was plunged into a deep horror-show, which I would have given anything – literally anything – not to have gone through.

I wrote that text to Dr L at 11AM. 3PM seemed like an eternity away, but at least I had something to look towards. Some semblance of hope.

In the meantime, I decided to go for a run. It would release endorphins which might make me feel just a little bit better. It was a horrible idea, although curling up on my bed would have been just as bad an idea. As would anything else. I ran for what felt like hours of torment, but when I got back home only 10 minutes had past.

3 hours and 50 minutes left before my impromptu appointment with Dr L.

Throughout this week-long depression, Dr L had been readily available. He’d given me his personal cell number, which I phoned and texted over and over again. My mom even phoned him a few times. He had given me sleeping pills as well as anxiety pills to help me get through the chemical hell while my body adapted to the new drugs.

But up till then, the sleeping and anxiety pills had been his only solution. I’d been taking them during the day, making myself unconscious for a few hours. Only to wake up to the same suffering. Only to take more sleeping pills that would eventually just make me groggy instead of helping me sleep, leaving me both depressed and disoriented.

3PM finally came around and my mom drove me to my appointment with Dr L.

“I think we’d better stop the Cipralex,” he told me. “From tomorrow, take the Cymgen instead.”

That was all he had to offer. I was in infinite suffering, and all he had to offer was to tell me to abort his initial suggestion. Something I would do only the next morning. That my body would take time to get used to.

I needed something right then and there, but he had no good ideas. The long-awaited appointment lasted about as long as my earlier run. I hated him. I had to hate him.

Dr L is innocent

Doing their job

Psychiatrists are just doing their jobs

I’ll go back to that story at a later date. It was one of three major depressive episodes I’ve been through, each one progressively worse than the one before.

For now, I want to focus on my hatred of Dr L.

Technically, Dr L had done nothing wrong. When I first saw him, my chemical depression was under control. My life, however, was not going the way I wanted it to, and I did not know how to change that. So I asked him to try use medication to fix it.

Psychiatry is often hit and miss. Certain drugs will work for one person and not another. Some will do the opposite of what they were supposed to, like Cipralex seemed to do to me. Nonetheless, I have huge respect for the profession, and I have personal experience with the lifesaving potential of antidepressants when they work.

And yet, to this day, 5 years later, I still hate Dr L.

Why psychiatric patients hate our psychiatrists

Help me, doc

Blaming someone gives you a little bit of control

Mental illness is a unique kind of hell. It is unique in that there is not always an evident cause, which is why it can be impossible to treat. Sometimes it’s chemicals. Other times it’s unresolved feelings or traumas that you thought were behind you.

Whatever the case is, there seems to be nothing you can do in the moment to fix it (at least for those who have not learned techniques to manage their mental health). You have no control and it is terrifying.

Still, from within that deep chasm you look for anything to clutch onto. Anything that might give you some semblance of control in getting out of there. Since you cannot do anything yourself, the most instinctive option is to look to someone else.

And when that does not work, you have to blame them. Because as long as it’s their fault, there must be someone else who can fix the problem.

If only I had gone to another doctor, you say. Alternatively, you reject psychiatry as a whole. If only I hadn’t trusted these quacks and their unnatural chemicals, you say.

It gives you something to believe in. The tiniest hope that maybe you can get out of this darkness that you’d otherwise have to admit is your life itself.

Why we continue to hate

StockSnap_LXCKQ8LU32.jpg

We are terrified of getting lost again

Now, when we get out of that chasm – through some miracle of science or willpower or simple luck – we need assurance that we’re never going back.

Shortly after a major episode, it seems almost impossible to live knowing there’s a chance it might happen again. The memory of what has just happened is so bad that our minds force us to forget it so that we can get on with our lives in some sort of ignorance of what happened.

But how do we ensure that it doesn’t happen again? We need to either blame it on something, or find something else to save us. Or both.

So we blame our psychiatrists, we blame the meds, or we blame our own lifestyles. If we trick ourselves into thinking we can get rid of the problem, we can go on living.

This is why most blogs about how to beat depression are not milquetoast about anything. They are not only CERTAIN that they are RIGHT, but they have to convince everyone else, too. Because the possibility that they might be wrong and that someone else might have a better solution is just too much, man.

So, to Dr L, I’m sorry. I know my hate is unjustified, and that you were just trying to help me. But my mind is never going to forgive you entirely. Don’t expect to see me again anytime soon. And if anyone asks me for a referral, unfortunately they’re not coming your way.