I suffered through years of debilitating mental illness (and I didn’t even get a lousy t-shirt)

One in three adults will suffer from clinical depression in their lifetime, so at least I’m not alone.

This isn’t really comforting, though, when I’m curled up under the blankets smelling of three-day-old sweat because that’s how long it’s been since I was able to convince myself to leave my bedroom and take a shower and I’ve already missed two days of work and I know someone’s going to start asking questions soon because nobody has the flu this often and for this long. At those times, I feel really alone. I even feel alone as my husband, who is very kind and very caring and very supportive, does all the things you’re meant to do when faced with a morbidly depressed wife-shaped blob in your bed refusing to move – the hugs, the reassurances, the offers of food or other physical comforts, the reminders of my worth as a person. It’s all pretty meaningless at times like those. When you’re underwater and you can’t breathe and it feels like your lungs are going to burst, it doesn’t really help to know that some day, long after you’ve already inhaled a lungful of ocean, you might get to breathe a little stale air again.

This won’t be the most eloquent thing I’ve ever written about my illness, not even close. The reason for that is that I am too depressed right now to create something beautiful. Everything inside of me right now looks dark and ugly and jagged at the edges, so I expect this will look the same. I don’t remember what air tastes like or the feeling of it in my lungs – I’ve been holding my breath against the onward drowning rush of the turgid waters of depression for so long that all I can feel is this kind of weary resignation, like maybe if I just give in at least I won’t feel so dizzy any more. It’s not a perfect metaphor. It’s pretty ugly, actually, which makes it just about right.

I’ve been depressed since I was five, which seems like a really long time. It is a really long time. Sure, it didn’t get really terrible until I was twelve or thirteen and puberty threw in a whole bunch of hormones to destabilise me even further, but being even slightly depressed at age five is a big enough deviation from the norm that I was always very acutely aware that there was something weird about me. When you talk about death as an adult, people think you’re profound; when you want to walk in front of a car at age five because you think you’d rather take your chances on heaven being fake than listen to your parents fight again, people think you’re a freak. So I guess I’ve been a freak for a long time now, long enough that the word doesn’t even hurt any more, like the scar on my right arm from the time I broke it in three places, which I acquired around the same time. I have a whole lot of scars, but some of them are in places you can’t see, like right over the parts of my psyche that are meant to help me trust people and love them and feel happy with where I am in life. Those are the deepest and ugliest scars of all.

I wish I had the kind of depression you see in movies, where you sit at a window and feel melancholy and create poetry and win the affections of pretty girls. Instead, I have the kind where you lose all sense of self-worth and doubt everything you say and think and do and you can’t write any more because you’re pretty well convinced that everything you create is garbage that nobody would want to read. When was the last time I wrote something just because I wanted to – not because I was being paid, not because I felt like I owed someone, but just because writing is something I love that makes me happy? I can’t remember. I have a beautiful leather-bound journal with crisp pages that still smell new that I’ve only written in once because I don’t want to dirty it with the trash that’s currently spinning around my mind. I feel like it deserves better. I feel like I probably deserve better too, but I don’t know how to provide it for myself any more. I feel like this is how I’ll always be: unable to remember any of the things that make me good or useful or beautiful or worthwhile because they’re buried down under so many layers of dust that I wouldn’t even know where to start looking.

The ridiculous thing is that I know people like me and respect me and even love me, and I know there are reasons for that and they must be as plain as day from the outside. I look at the things people say about me and I try to wrap my head around the fact that I’m the person they’re talking to. It doesn’t seem possible that the person they see and the person I see could possibly occupy the same space. Doesn’t the theory of special relativity say two bodies can’t occupy the same space at the same time, or something? I feel like there must be two of me: the one who goes to her day job and writes a column every week and calls her mother just to see how she’s doing at work and teaches people things on the internet, and the one who lies here and cries for no reason and can’t remember how to stop. That these two people can exist inside my one (failing) body is a paradox. All Cretans are liars. This sentence is false. Something like that.

I’m making myself write this because I want to prove to myself that I can – that I can write a thousand words (even if they’re not very good ones) and publish them for no reason other than wanting to. And I want to, I really want to – I want to spend hours creating fairy tales in longhand and then spend hours longer sitting at my computer polishing them until they shine, and I want to share those fairy tales with the world because I genuinely do believe that when I’m at my best, I create beautiful things that are worth sharing. I’m not at my best now, but surely that version of myself, the one who can take care of herself and handle her everyday life and make beautiful things, is here somewhere underneath all this dust. And I can tell myself forever that I don’t know where to look, but what if I just start digging and see what I find first? I’m so tired of feeling like there’s no way out of this hole. I’m tired of feeling like there are no options, no answers. Why not try? If I finish this, it’s proof that I can do it. And if I can do it, I can do it again. And if I can do it again, maybe I’m still alive in here somewhere and my head doesn’t have to stay under the water forever and one day real soon I’m going to take in a huge breath of air and feel it burning in my lungs and know that I’m still alive.

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[TW: depression, suicide] Reader question: when being in the closet kills

I received this last night. I really don’t want to turn into an advice column, but this is another question that mirrors many I’ve received in the past, so I’ll do my best to answer it.

Hi Salaam!

So I’m a 20 year old queer muslim male, currently in college. I’m realized I was queer when I was around 14 or 15 years old. I’m not out anyone at all in my life. However over the past couple of years since starting college, keeping my queerness a secret has been taking quite the toll on my mental health. My anxiety and depression associated with my secret are at an all time high, and I feel worse than I ever have. My situation now is that mom and dad have now both noticed over the past year how depressed and anxious I have been. They can tell I’m much more reclusive and not as happy as I used to be. I guess I couldn’t hide it forever. Anyways, so just last night, my parents confronted me directly about why I’m so depressed. They walked into my bedroom and just asked me what was going on. I was sitting in front of them, crying uncontrollably and I just can’t tell them why I’m so sad. So at this point, my parents now know that I’m depressed and suicidal, but have no idea why, and I refused to tell them when they asked me. They’re really concerned about me and they’re coming from a very loving place and they now want me to go see a therapist to try to work things out. I come from a practicing Muslim Sunni Arab household and I’m practicing myself, my parents aren’t super conservative,and generally make a good distinction between cultural and religious practices, but they’re conservative enough to not accept LGBT people, at least that’s what it seems. But given that they know I’m in such a terrible mental health situation, would they maybe accept my queerness? I don’t know.  
So yeah, I just don’t know what to do right now because my parents know my mental health is terrible, and I refuse to tell them what’s going on. Any thoughts on how I could approach this situation?

For pretty obvious reasons, this reader also wanted to remain anonymous.

I want to preface this by saying that I am not a doctor and that if you’re having thoughts of suicide, you need to see a health professional. I’m a blogger on the internet, not a psychiatrist or a counsellor. Everything I suggest you do should be done in conjunction with a treatment programme devised for you by a pro. This isn’t as daunting a prospect as you think – if you’re in college, you likely have access to free or very cheap counselling services, and there are therapists that charge on a sliding scale in a lot of cities, particularly bigger ones. Therapists are bound by patient confidentiality. They’re not going to tell your parents or anyone else that you’re queer. I recommend that you find one ASAP and schedule an appointment.

Now, onto other things.

I don’t say this often because I’m not generally in favour of outing yourself if you aren’t assured of a positive reaction, but it might be time to tell your parents.

You’re worried that your parents are too conservative to accept you. That might be true. Maybe they’ll react terribly. Maybe they’ll kick you out or cut you off. Maybe they’ll try to get you to pray it away. Those would all be awful scenarios, and if you honestly think that they’re the most likely, then you can keep this between me, you and your soon-to-be-therapist and maybe you’ll be fine. But it sounds like your parents are pretty good people. You’ve said you think they’re coming from a loving place and that they’re worried about you. Maybe – just maybe – it means that if you come out to them, their first instinct will be to help.

Coming out to my own mother wasn’t easy. I had no way of knowing how she would react. I had to trust that she would continue to accept me for who I was even once she knew everything about me. It was dicey at first. It took her a long while to get used to the idea. I’m not sure she’ll ever really be thrilled about it. But she loves me and supports me, and it’s a huge weight off my shoulders knowing I can rely on her now. I could never have had that assurance if I’d never come out.

Your parents aren’t my mother, and maybe they won’t react the same way. There are a few ways this could go:
  1. The worst case scenario – they cut you off, disown you, never want to speak to you again. This seems unlikely based on your description of them. Even some more conservative religious types listen to love over judgement sometimes. But that doesn’t mean this can’t happen.
  2. Slightly-less-worse-case-scenario – they don’t disown you, but they decide your depression would disappear if you just prayed the gay away somehow. I have a couple of family members like this, and I avoid them at all costs.
  3. A liveable scenario – they’re not thrilled, but they try to support you anyway. They help you seek therapy for your depression and try not to make it all about how if you were straight, you wouldn’t be so upset. I would like to believe your parents are capable of this, but you know them better than I do.
  4. A really good scenario – they’re supportive, they tell you they love you no matter what, and they help you seek treatment. In an ideal world, all parents would be like this, right?

Only you know which of these scenarios is more likely. I hope it’s #3 or #4, but obviously I can’t say for sure.

If you do decide to come out to them, you can always test the water first. Bring up gay rights issues and see how they react. Decide if you could deal with that level of scrutiny or judgement directed at you. If you mention anti-gay laws in Uganda and they say they hope everyone there gets the death penalty, it’s probably not safe to come out. If you mention statistics about gay people being beaten and murdered and they’re horrified, maybe things might not be as bad as they could be. Find a time when you can sit them down and tell them what’s going on with you. Usually I’d suggest that you bring a friend, but you’re not out to anyone, so that’ll be tough. Maybe establish a connection with a therapist first, then invite your parents along to a group session. If nothing else, they’re much less likely to become violent if there are witnesses. (I hate that I have to talk about these things as though there’s always potential for violence, but we all know there is.)

If you don’t decide to come out to your parents, I think you’re still going to have to come out to someone. Definitely your new therapist (I really can’t stress how important it is that you find one), and at least one friend or family member you can trust. This is not a burden you can carry by yourself. It’s eating at you every day and endangering your life. You need at least one ally in your everyday life so that you don’t have to do this all alone. We are not solitary creatures, we humans. We need love, support and community. Those things are sorely lacking in your life right now. Consider joining a campus LGBT solidarity group – you don’t have to be queer to be in one, so this won’t necessarily out you – and see if you can’t find some friends who’ll empathise with you and support you.

Mental illness is such an ugly, unbearable thing. You are not weak or childish or in some way defective for being unable to handle it on your own. I remember being roughly your age and sitting in my doctor’s office, just talking about how I was. He told me, “I think that if you don’t get help, if you don’t get out of the situation you’re in, it’s going to crush your soul.” He was talking mostly about my abusive father, but he was right. Some things a human being simply cannot tolerate forever. I implore you to find a counsellor, doctor or psychologist. I promise that there are some available to you. Your parents may even help you seek treatment, even if you don’t come out to them, given how worried they are about you and how much they want to help. Take advantage of the services available to you as a college student – they won’t be free forever, and you should use them while they are. Find that one person who will offer you a safe, non-judgmental space where you can finally be yourself.

Whether or not you decide to come out to your parents, I really hope things work out for you. Remember that you are never alone. Allah’s blessings be with you, wherever your path may lead.

The winding road to recovery

Have you ever felt like you’ve been awake your whole life? However many years that is – fifteen, twenty, thirty, fifty. Awake that entire time, never allowed to sleep, because every time you try to lie down, just to get a single moment’s rest, the world asks something else of you. And you’d give anything for just one night – just a single night! – of sleep. Just one. If the world could give you that – if the universe or your god or gods could give you just one night – then you’d happily go the rest of your life without sleeping again. But you just want that one night of sleep, because you’ve been awake for so, so long.

They talk about the road to recovery. You’re depressed; you start treatment; you get better. Sometimes it’s as easy as that. If I ever meet a person for whom it’s been that easy, I’ll be sure to tell you. For me, the road has not been a straight one. I am walking towards the light on a road that often twists and turns so far away from it that I lose sight of it all together. And so it goes and goes and goes, and I’m still begging the universe for my one night of sleep. Just one. I’d give anything.

This road is not a smooth one. It has so many bumps that will trip you up, hobbling you until you must limp forward, crippled. There’s no other choice. There are no rest stops. You do not get to stop walking. You go onward and onward along a road so pitted and scarred that at times it is nigh unpassable. It twists and turns so that sometimes you are going backwards, moving further and further away from the light, but still you hobble on. What other choice is there? There is nothing but the road. And so it goes. Maybe there will be sleep at the end.

You will be tempted to stop following the road. You will ask yourself – why seek the light? It is so far away, and offers no warmth and only enough illumination to throw shadows before you, obscuring the road further. Why keep walking? It is so tempting to stop forever. It is so tempting to say, to hell with the light, to hell with the road, to hell with all of it, because you have been walking your whole life and you’re still not there and it never seems like it’s getting any closer. Why bother? Why not just…stop?

Some people do. I do not blame any of them. I feel sad for them – my heart aches for them – but I do not blame them. This road is so hard, so unforgiving. It asks so, so much of us. Too much, maybe. I do not blame anyone who stops.

There are people who can help smooth the path before you a little. Perhaps they will remove some of the stones that might have tripped you up had you come across them. Perhaps they will shine a little light to dash away the shadows, making it easier to see. Perhaps they will warm you a little when you are chilled to the bone and feel as though you can’t move another inch. But ultimately, one must walk the road alone, helpers notwithstanding. And so it goes, and so it goes. One step after another, no rest, no sleep.

This is the road to recovery. It can take a long time to reach the light at the end of it. Some people never reach it at all. Some people find themselves stumbling or collapsing from exhaustion before they get to the end. I was almost one of those people, once. Almost. Not quite. Too close for comfort. They say the road gets smoother the further you walk. It is true that there are fewer stones, fewer shadows, than there used to be. I suppose this makes things a little easier. But I still have to walk – alone, unassisted, bearing the scars of every injury sustained upon the way. And it’s hard. It is the hardest thing I have ever done. The light is getting closer but it’s still so far away and there are days when I fear I will never reach it and I would still give anything – anything – for a single night’s sleep, just one. Just a single one. I have been walking for so, so long. I am so tired. I just want it to be over.

You’re depressed; you start treatment; slowly, you begin to get better, but this does not mean you can no longer get worse. The road is not a smooth one. It is not forgiving. It will demand everything of you, and then it will demand more. And you have no choice but to keep walking.

The light beckons. Maybe once you reach it, they will finally let you sleep.