There are so many things I wish I could tell my teenage self. I wish I could tell her to love her body even when it seemed like it would never stop being coltish and awkward and ungraceful. I wish I could tell her not to be afraid of loving people and accepting the love of others. I wish I could tell her all the things everyone knew but she – that she was so, so clever, and so, so talented, and that she didn’t need the validation of the men in her life to prove it. Aren’t there always so many things we wish we’d known ten, fifteen, twenty years ago? But if I had a single postcard to send back to my teenage self, and if I could write only one sentence on it, it would be this:
“You are mentally ill: seek help.”
My teachers first began to notice signs of depression in me when I was thirteen years old. I didn’t listen to them because I didn’t want to hear what I already knew – that my inner world was changing, that nothing seemed as bold or as bright or as beautiful to me any more. I didn’t want them to tell me that I seemed to lack motivation, that I had lost my drive, because I knew those things already and did not want to admit them to myself. I didn’t want to hear that I was broken. I thought that maybe if I refused to believe it, it would stop being true.
Mentally ill people learn to cope. I won my school’s debating award twice. I took up public speaking. I learned to act. In fact, I learned to act so well that I never stopped. I learned to be bigger, bolder, better, brighter. I was the class clown; I talked too much and joked too much and was too much. I woke up every day and put on my school uniform and my hijab and prepared myself for another day on the stage. This was my life – playing a parody version of myself before the world, hiding behind a mask.
My father didn’t believe in mental illness – or rather, he didn’t believe in treating it. He told me I wasn’t praying enough, that it could be overcome with the power of positive thinking. My inability to do this was an indication that I was a failure – not good enough, never good enough, for him. I internalised that idea. I lived it. I had to deal with this because if I didn’t, it meant that I wasn’t trying hard enough. I lay in bed at night and wished my life would end. I contemplated killing myself, mentally composed suicide notes when I couldn’t sleep. I was ashamed of my weakness. I didn’t want anybody to know.
At the age of seventeen, I let my father bully me into enrolling in medical school, and the mask started to crack.
I remember the day I finally realised the act was slipping. A very good friend of mine told me he was worried about me. I asked him why, and he said that I seemed sad, and that if I was so upset that I couldn’t hide it, something must really be wrong. (Perhaps I wasn’t as good an actress as I believed?) He was right. It was becoming too much. I told my father I needed to see a doctor about something menses-related so that he wouldn’t insist on attending the appointment with me, and I told my doctor that I was feeling depressed. He – knowing my father would never allow me to take antidepressants – prescribed me some sleeping tablets and told me to visit him before exams, just to chat. For three years, that was as much mental health management as I was able to get – a chat with my family doctor before exams, short-term prescriptions for sleeping medication that didn’t work because my nightmares woke me up. He didn’t even officially diagnose me with anything. It was a small comfort.
My father kicked me out when I was twenty years old; I went to live with my mother, divorced from my father only two years prior. Finally, I could see a doctor without having to hide my reasons why. I went to a new doctor, was put on antidepressants. They made me feel like a zombie, but things seemed to be getting better.
Then I tried to kill myself.
Please don’t ask why. I can’t tell you because I don’t know. All I remember was that at the time, it seemed like the most logical thing in the world. I took an entire box of my antidepressants. My mother called the ambulance just in time; later, they told her that had she hesitated for even a few minutes longer, they might not have been able to save my life. As it was, I spent a night in intensive care hooked up to a bunch of machines and decided I’d had enough of medication. I was discharged; I went back to acting. It didn’t work. Six months later, having deferred my studies because I could no longer bring myself to rise from bed in the mornings, I went to another doctor and was officially diagnosed for the first time. I had major depression, he said – I needed new antidepressants, a psychologist. Overriding my concerns, this doctor sent me to a therapist who could not have been more wrong for me and put me on medication that made me into a new kind of zombie. I refused to see the therapist again after the first appointment; my doctor refused to refer me to another if I wouldn’t give him a second chance. I stuck with the medication for nine months before deciding it was making me feel worse, not better. Back to acting, then.
And so it went, and so it went. And yet, here I am now, writing this, and I can say with complete honesty that this is not an act. This is me – and “me” is, for the first time in a long time, incredibly, resoundingly fine.
I don’t know if I believe in miracles, but if I did, I’d consider meeting my partner to be one of them. Through the fog surrounding me, he reached out to me, first as a friend, then as a lover and companion, and he told me something that nobody had told me before – that I could be happy. He told me that with help, the right help, I could beat this. I could feel normal, or something approaching normal. It took him a year and a half to convince me to try therapy one last time. Listening to him was the best decision I’ve ever made. I found a doctor who listened to me, who cared about medication side-effects and quality of life, who believed that I was worth fixing, who made me believe it. It took a lot of trial and error, but on and on we muddled. He noticed my mood swings and realised that I was bipolar, taught me how to deal with the more dangerous highs and how to mitigate the damage when the lows arrived. Between him and my partner, I actually started believing I could get better. For the first time since I was thirteen years old, I started to wonder if maybe I didn’t have to be broken forever.
I am, at this moment in time, the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever been in my life. I find joy in the things I love; I enjoy the company of my friends and loved ones; I feel more motivated, more energised, than I have since I was a child. I am sick, but I’m getting better. There is hope for me.
I am writing about this because I believe I need to. I am writing about this because one in three adults in Australia will experience clinical depression at some point in their lives but less than half of them will ever seek treatment. I am writing this because none of us should have to act like we’re fine when we’re not. I am writing this for my teenage self, who kept her pain bottled up inside because she was scared that nobody would love her if they realised how broken she was. I am writing this because this sickness almost killed me and I am blessed, so blessed, to be alive to talk about it. I am writing this to prove that it doesn’t have to be like this, not for me and not for any of us.
Mental illnesses – and there are several, ranging from the psychoses (schizophrenia and psychotic depression, amongst others) to anxiety disorders to personality disorders to the many and varying forms of depression – are real diseases that affect real people in real ways, but because not all of those ways can be easily measured or seen, sufferers of mental illness are treated like pariahs, told they’re hypochondriacs, that it’s all in their heads, that they need to get over it, to move on, to cope. There are very few ways in which the severity of a person’s depression can be tested and measured, and yet, depression can impair both mental and physical function to a level that can be debilitating or even fatal. We may appear physically well, even healthy, but we are sick, just as sick as sufferers of any other disease – diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, kidney failure. Our wounds are so much more than skin deep, and they are not easy to treat. There is no band-aid fix for depression, no dressing one can apply over one’s anxieties, no way of suturing closed the little nicks and gaping gashes caused by post traumatic stress disorder or schizophrenia or BPD.
But there are treatments – and with the right ones, sufferers of mental illness can lead fulfilling, even happy lives. We should not have to suffer. We should not have to act as though we’re not in pain. Things can be better. They’ve become better for me. They’re becoming better every day. I’m well enough to write this. I’m well enough to discard the act.
I write this in the hope that perhaps someone will read it and realise that they, too, do not have to suffer. I write it in the hope that perhaps someone will read it and realise that it’s okay to admit that they need help. I write it in the hope that we can stop acting. I write it in the hope that it will speak to someone, somewhere, so that they won’t have to go through what I did.
And I write it to show that I am not ashamed, and that I do not feel the need to hide this. I am not a failure or a weakling or a freak. By breaking my silence, I am showing that I will not be complicit in the stigmatisation and degradation of sufferers of mental illness. I am a human being suffering from a chronic disease. This is not a flaw of character – it is a sickness for which I can be treated. It is not all in my head. I will not pretend otherwise, not any more.
I am Jay, and this year, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I am not ashamed of this label on my soul, painful though it is. We all have our burdens, and this is mine. I would rather shoulder it proudly, knowing that it does not make me lesser, than carry it in secret, thinking myself weak when its weight bears me down. I am sick and getting better. I am a work in progress. I am more and more complete every day.