CW: mental health, suicide
By its very nature, this passage is arrogant. Introspectiveness is a form of hubris. And whilst it’s important to be reflective, it is equally important that I do not share my reflections with others – or consider my own self for too long. I don’t know how healthy that is, but I believe it to be true and commonly held. However, there is something wrong with me. And so I can’t afford to be dignified and likeable in explaining myself.
My mother told me repeatedly as a young child that when I was unhappy, I was “choosing to be sad”. That if you put the effort in you can lift your own mood. And I decided, when I was five or so, that she was right. I realised that if I distracted myself, or forced myself to have fun, I could usually make the sadness go away.
If you choose to wallow in your misery, then it perpetuates itself. But if you push it away, and force yourself to join in and laugh, you will eventually find that you’re laughing for real. And this became my mechanism.
As sadness was a choice, emotions had to be reactive and make sense. And most importantly, be equal or smaller in size to the causative stimulus. You’re allowed to be a little bit sad if you don’t do well on a test. But not very sad.
And it became internalised, so much so that whenever I cried I would become genuinely confused, a catchphrase of, “I don’t even know why I’m upset”. Partially to alleviate others’ concern but mostly because it didn’t make sense in the terms of how I understood emotion. And it worked.
I was a very happy child. I had a very happy childhood. I cried for characters in books, and for my siblings, and for people on the news. And that was allowed; although I was told that I was sensitive, and that I felt too much. And I am, and I do.
So when it came to deep, all-consuming, aching sadnesses that were inexplicable and constant, I was furious with myself. I used the same old mechanisms over and over. Getting back into control, giving myself rules to follow, surrounding myself with more and more friends, playing the joker, refusing help, pushing it all away. I was fine, it wasn’t real. It was my fault. Above all else: it was my fault.
I just needed to try harder, do better, be better. This had always worked for me in the past, this was an internalised truth impossible to shake.
This is self-blame. And whilst in the past it had been mostly adaptive and behavioural, now it was purely maladaptive and characterological. It was especially hard to reconcile with my feelings of powerlessness. I felt like I had no control over my emotions whilst simultaneously holding tightly to the belief that I was at fault for them.
Psychology papers talk about this. It’s called the “paradox in depression,” which describes two clusters of symptoms that appear to contradict. The first is represented by feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness and futility, and the second by self-blame, self-deprecation and guilt.
It is difficult to express the overwhelming relief I felt when I discovered this. It articulates my experience, and gives validation to an understanding I had found excruciatingly confusing and embarrassing. Every time the old methods didn’t work, I would up the ante until it became a form of escapism, and my whole life became one tumultuous, free-falling attempt to distract myself from what I was feeling.
I was a risk-taking adrenaline-junkie constantly on the lookout for the next fix, and drugs came with the handy side-effect of pushing me out of my brain. But that’s not the point. The point is, that eventually my denial began to erode. What if there is something wrong with me?
I tentatively began to consider that mental illness might be real for me. My acceptance was cautious and irregular, and I would recoil from it on a regular basis. But the seed was there, and it was growing. What if I do have depression? More and more people were treating me like I did, and even if I didn’t trust the diagnosis, they seemed to. “It’s okay to not be okay” was repeated the more I sought help. And cautiously, tentatively, I almost let myself believe it.
But the problem with acceptance is that you open yourself up to abuse. That phrasing may be dramatic, but how else can I explain it? I was mortified at the thought of having a mental illness, and denial provided some protection.
But my fears regularly proved unfounded. My friends didn’t leave me, instead they rallied. No one was disgusted, or shocked. The loving message was perpetuated. Occasionally I would panic, shut down, fly back into my box. A step backwards in recovery whenever I heard it’s your fault. This is why I am too scared to talk about the rape. Like when a psychiatrist asked, “Why didn’t you scream for help?” And it threw me back down the rabbit hole. Because a big part of me still believes that the fault is inherently mine.
But I began to grow more trusting, and tell people things. Big things that I thought I would never talk about. I’m still cautious, and constantly testing the waters; expecting the worst at any moment.
Today, the psychiatrist told me that I was articulate, and clever, with the underlying implication of, “There’s not much I can tell you, you should be able to figure this out”.
I’ve come to expect the worst, to be told, “it’s your fault”, for it to be deliberately hurled. I expected it when the suicide helpline worker was telling me, “You’re nineteen, you’re an adult. It’s your life, I can’t tell you what to do,” when I was high on acid, crying at the edge of a cliff. I expected it when my psychologist got frustrated and pushed me to help myself. I expected it when Jack was telling me to “just smile” when I was close to rock bottom.
Every one of these is a valid statement that I understand to be true, and that I believe. And whilst they were not meant to be understood as such, all I could hear was: “It’s your fault.” And I am so scared that it is true. And, as is the nature of the paradox: I am equally scared that it is not.