Do you think there are triggers or patterns to how your illness affects you?
Yes! Definitely. I have learned this the hard way over and over. I have several triggers that seem to bring on the feelings associated with depression and anxiety or worsen the already existing symptoms. Some of them are inexplicable and so I think may very much have to do with associations; making a link with how I was during a specific event or thing and when I am reminded of the event or thing my brain is also reminded of what I felt. Firstly is the onset of Winter. I tend to start developing a lower mood that lingers for weeks. Of course this sounds like the seasonal depression that is well known due to darker, shorter days and a lack of Vitamin D due to no sun exposure that has been described but in my case, I live in South Africa where there is no snow and winter is cold, but all around sunny. Either way, I’ve never spent more/less time outside whether it was Summer or Winter. What I think this links to is when I was frequently very sick and in hospital almost every year when I was a kid with things like pneumonia and sinusitis. So I always felt incredibly ill. It only stopped around age 12 and so my brain made the habit of almost expecting it and associates winter with being sick. The second extreme trigger for me is reading books about mental illness or watching movies or programs about mental illness. Albeit inspiring, they still intensely describe the struggle the person went through and that ends up triggering things within me that make me almost suicidal or gives me a strong will to self harm because of the feelings of depression arising in me being so intense. This makes perfect sense when you think about it because you get so absorbed in that story that you almost live it and when in reality you have lived through many of it it’s like you relive all of what it felt like and you are reminded of the incredible struggle and pain. I watched the series “13 Reasons Why” recently and it had the same effect. For about a month after I felt somewhat worse than I did before and it was depressive feelings I just could not shake. Interestingly enough, earlier this week I stumbled upon an article pertaining to exactly this! 13 Reasons Why and similar shows/movies/stories have all been proven to have that effect on mental illness sufferers amd actually increases their risk for suicidality. If you’d like to read about it, here is the link;
I’ve always been highly focused on specialising in Psychiatry once I am done with Medicine because fighting mental illness and helping others fight it has become my passion. But I realised that as much as I want too, I am too vulnerable. Being constantly exposed to a hell I am all too familiar with unfortunately wouldn’t be in my best interests as I realised during our Psychiatry rotation, speaking to such patients all day, every day pushed me somewhat lower into the hole I was stuck in.
Other triggers or things that make it harder for me are prolonged times of being alone. In general, I avoid people. I don’t have a chatty group of friends at university because I prefer it that way. I prefer working alone because people exhaust me. I don’t enjoy trivial talk while my mind has a hundred hurricanes going on inside of it and there’s so many more things I need to focus on. But being around people, even if I don’t say a single word to them the entire day, seems to have a positive effect on my mood. When the weekend rolls in I feel restless and have a lower mood.
What was the biggest realisation you have had with regards to your illness?
The biggest realisation I have had was that I am not my illness. We talk about people stigmatising mental illness and we throw our fists in the air, yet one of the people who stigmatises me the most, I’ve realised, is myself. I have so many times wanted to give up because I’d tell myself this is all I’ll ever be. I would call myself “irreparably damaged” when I spoke to my therapist and I’d tell myself I am crazy and weak. I know it isn’t true in my head, yet my heart didn’t agree. I’d never judge another person suffering from a mental illness yet I can so very easily judge myself. I’ve never had good self-confidence so falling into the pit of doubting myself, feeling like a failure and finding nothing within myself I feel is worth staying for comes almost automatically. It has been my mantra for so many years. I knew since about 2014 when depression hit me the hardest and after recovering what massive difference there was between me and depression. It’s 3 years later now and even though I know it, I still don’t live it. Ironically, depression makes you do all that so it sometimes feels like you’re stuck in your thoughts and what depression and anxiety makes you feel is the only reality. That is why in times of depression I need to tell myself the opposite even if I don’t feel that way. Especially now in times I go towards remission and am out of that crisis state I need to embrace every single thing about myself and about life that shows me who I am without the monsters in my head. I’m learning slowly to see those things again.