I am mentally ill.
I blame October.
Should I start with my diagnosis? That’s what every insurance company in America would prefer: please give us the set of numbers we use to identify your pain and suffering. We will decide if it is valid enough to pay for your treatment, even though we have never met you and have no idea what you feel.
But I digress. Let me start with a story.
When I was 13 years old and in the 8th grade, October happened and I hit a brick wall. I will never know, exactly, what created this wall - Chemistry? Experience? Accumulated years of being the quiet good girl? Internalized anger? Genetics? The current general belief system in the psychology community is that mental illness exists somewhere between biology and what happens to us and around us. Basically: stuff inside us meets stuff outside of us and stuff happens.
In my case, the stuff was a sudden and major depression. Up until that point I had never seen a therapist, had never had behavior problems or mood issues. But within a week or so I was not sleeping or eating, and I was so sad I told my parents I wanted to die.
My parents did not want to hospitalize me. I was so desperate and so scared, though, that I asked to be hospitalized. I wanted someone to figure out what was going on inside of me and fix it, and my parents cared too much about me to do more than worry and love me. Having people who love you is an incredible asset when you are depressed, but it is not enough.
I was hospitalized for close to two weeks, which is not something we do anymore, by the way. Suicidal thoughts? Suicidal attempts? Overdoses? 72 hours. In and out in 3 days. Again, this is managed care. This is the mental health landscape we live in: we want to get you out rather than get you better.
I did get better. I was put on medication - an SSRI, a class of drugs they have since determined you should not give to teenagers, but they didn’t know that then - and saw a psychiatrist and went to groups and talked to people and realized I was not the only person on earth who felt this way. I met girls who had anorexia or addiction issues, a girl who slit her wrists to get herself out of juvie, girls who had been abused and assaulted. Part of me felt my mental breakdown was maybe not as serious as these girls with trauma histories. But part of me also figured out: I think I can make myself better.
I did make myself better. Other people helped, a lot. I went to intensive outpatient treatment for 3 weeks. I changed schools. Eventually I made new friends and I was okay. For awhile. And then, when I was in 10th grade, October hit. It hit me hard. I got hospitalized again. They kept me for less time, but still for more than 72 hours. Intensive outpatient. More medication, etcetera etcetera. The cycle repeats.
Come October of 11th grade, I fell apart again. I got a sinus infection that lasted several months. Too many AP classes. The pressure of college prep and my looming future. Trying to juggle academic stress and being the stage manager for the fall play. It’s October. The bottom dropped out.
But this time I didn’t get hospitalized. I went to therapy more often, and I dropped classes, and I gave up the fall play. I disappointed people. I disappointed myself. I came out okay at the end of it.
I won’t bore you with the details, but there were many other Octobers in the next 10 years that were not kind to me. In college, I dropped two classes and took a year off after a particularly disastrous October. I worked for nine months and transfered schools. Several years post-college I made the decision to apply to graduate school in October while feeling trapped in my hometown and a terrible relationship. It happened again. It happened again. It happened again.
You may have noticed it is currently October. I am a social work student working toward the end of my second Masters degree. I am in full-time placement at an agency that works with people with trauma histories. I have a job. I am taking classes. It’s intense.
I could chalk this October’s horrors up to the curse. Two weeks ago we discovered our cat was ill and had to put him down. I’ve had a sinus infection for 3 weeks. A number of my friends are struggling to get by, including my closest ones. It has been a sad time in my hometown (D.C.) and a sad time in this country and sometimes I think I don’t know when it will ever be less sad, when the cycle will stop.
But this October I am not depressed. I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m tired. Not depressed. Maybe it’s because I’m mildly medicated, or that I just understand this better now. I know the warning signs. I know how to say no, I can’t do that. I have too much on my plate. I am not a superhero. I am depressive. This is who I am, it’s part of me, it doesn’t have a cure. It has a treatment, one that is constantly changing and shifting depending on my life and my illness and me.
I know it’s not an October curse because it doesn’t just happen in October. It would be nice if depression was that considerate, if it confined itself to a single month, but it doesn’t. Some Octobers may suck. Some may not. Sometimes I will feel depressed or vulnerable to depression in months where nothing is outwardly wrong. That is the nature of the beast, if you will. It’s how it works.
I could spend a lot of time bemoaning this, but I spent far too much of my life thinking my depression was a thing that was wrong with me, and I’m done with that now. I don’t see my depressive tendencies as weakness anymore. I see them as motivating, as part of what made me want to be a social worker, as a lot of what made me a writer. Many of the biggest shifts I’ve made in my life have been because of my depressions, and those changes have been vitally important and almost always good. My depression is the thing that keeps me in check and in touch with myself, that makes me go, Oh, that doesn’t feel good. It helps me understand others who have experienced what I’ve experienced. Depression is not my weakness. It’s my superpower.
I know many people don’t feel this way. I also know many people don’t know this about me. And that’s why I wanted to write about it - because I think it’s important people know it is not something I keep secret because I’m ashamed. I’m not. I just wish we didn’t live in a world that teaches us we should be.