- Rebecca Down
A portrait of anxiety and depression
When I try to explain what it's like to live with anxiety and depression, I say that it's like being continually confronted by two bullies as you try to make your way through daily life. Almost any event can set one bully off screaming at you: "How dare you try to enjoy yourself, look what happens when you do - you ruin everything for everyone else," and in the other ear the second bully shouts: "I can't believe you just said that, how could you not realise that it actually meant this, now everybody who heard will hate you. Do you see how inherently bad you are as a person!? You're a burden and a waste of money, food, time, space. You're never going to make a meaningful contribution to society; you can't even be a valuable sister, daughter, friend. You're useless."
Only I wish living with these mental illnesses actually was like having two bullies shouting at me, because then I could scream back and run away. When this attack is instead happening entirely within the confines of your skull, there's nothing you can do to get away from it, or make it stop. There is so much pressure in your head it physically hurts; you want to take your brain out and hurl it at a wall, but you can't. The options appear to be to either shout and scream back (less appealing), or to try and ignore the abuse and distract yourself (more appealing). You settle for the latter and force yourself to carry on with the rest of the day as planned. However, the bullies follow you around, shouting at you every now and again so that you can't forget they're there, patiently tormenting you.
You try to do some reading for an essay: "You're never going to understand this, you're just not good enough. You'll always be a failure." You have a chat with a friend: "You have nothing valuable to say to them, why are you trying when you’re just going to get everything all wrong. They're not going to like you now." You go to have something to eat: "You don't actually need to eat that. Now you're greedy as well as stupid and hurtful." Eventually it all gets too much and you end up curled in a ball on the floor, praying with every piece of your being that the bullies are wrong, and that everything will become bearable again very, very soon.
At this point, which occurs perhaps a few days into this disastrous affair with self-sabotage, you realise that in order to find some reprieve from the barrage of abuse, you have to fight back. You don't want to, because you know that the bullies are going to retaliate with more and more sinister things. When they do this it's terrifying - they convince you that they know you better than you know yourself and the self-doubt that this creates is debilitating. You begin to shake. Tears roll out of your eyes, but you can't cry. You stop being able to feel your limbs and realise you have become paralysed. Then, you become suddenly and acutely aware that you aren't breathing. You gasp for air, and begin to feel your body again.
You know immediately that the bullies are still there, but they seem to have backed off a bit to figure out a new way to destroy you. You are physically weak, like you have literally just fought in a battle. So so weak that you can't move your newly-rediscovered limbs. But you know that for now, you're okay to stop fighting. You fall asleep, exhausted.
Something, somewhere - a deeply-ingrained survival instinct I guess - gets you out of bed the next morning, and allows you to slowly but steadily prepare for the new day. However, you feel totally disconnected from your body. You wonder how your legs are walking you around, and you are amazed at your ability to talk to people. You are surprised by how bright and bubbly you sound, how you appear to have so much energy to give to the world. You might even feel a little bit better for a few moments; someone makes you laugh and for a split second the pressure eases.
However this life doesn't feel real, and always present in your consciousness is a deep fear that one day this little, instinctive warrior - fighting to propel you through the motions of life - will give up on you. While it still takes you to lectures, demands and demands until you can think of nothing else but that you must go and feed it, and engages you with other people, you have ammunition against the bullies; you have at least some purpose you can fight them with. If you keep working towards your degree, maybe one day you will be able to do a useful job. If you carry on eating, you are showing the bullies that they can tell you all they like that you're a waste of space, but you’re strong enough not to let them control you. If your warrior gives up on you, you will have to give in to the bullies.
Depression tells me that if I died, it would be fairly inconsequential. People would move on with their lives perfectly okay without me. The world wouldn't miss me. The only thing that keeps me here is the hope that if I stay around, I might be able to prove it wrong. I might be able to achieve things that make myself proud, and I might be able to reach out and give back to my family and friends some of the love, encouragement and faith that they have given to me. Where there's life, there's hope. That's depression’s weakness. That's what I'll use to defeat it. And those are the days I'll live for.