My whole life I have described myself as a writer. I have always written things, stories, songs, poems – I loved smashing words together like symbols and oozing feelings out of phrases. Of course this was not a guarantee of quality – at 15 there was an ‘Ode to a Tear’ which makes me glad that I didn’t have a blog at the time.
I come from a family of intellectual rigour. Personal worth in my family is weighed not by how you look or how much money you make, but by keeping up with the rollicking conversation. I achieved high results in school, and upon finding myself in the UNSW undergraduate law program with a scholarship, thought things were generally coming-up-milhouse.
Here’s the thing: since beginning university, I have observed a change in my mentality. It comes and goes and looks like many things, but after extensive research – covertly reading articles in bed, listening to podcasts and interviews and watching an unfashionable amount of ted talks – I had a sinking feeling. I may have depression.
Let’s stop the tape for a moment. In my first year of law I scoffed at the presentations we had to listen to about incidence of depression in the legal community even though, my family also has a smattering history of depression.
Over a long period of time I had consumed a substantial amount of statistics that said important things about this – that 46.9 per cent of law students reported that they had experienced depression and of that 80.6 per cent account for it due to high stress from study.
I knew underneath that I was recognising symptoms – not getting work done, having problem with my relationships, withdrawing from my friends, not going out, having dramatic fluctuations in my weight, lacking in self-care, and in the end, disassociating my sense of self from my own appearance.
Coincidentally perhaps, my family’s approach to mental illnesses is irksome – both fully prepared to have conversations about the importance of respecting mental health, and entirely unprepared for it to come creeping into the living room.
For example, a lot of my own assertions about it ended with sentences like “then again, nothing like living under an oppressive regime” or “still got ten fingers and ten toes.” As if somehow to diminish the idea with the words I spoke would diminish my fear of it being true of me.
I am in a family, social circle, and soon-to-be profession, which prides themselves on the horse-power of your brain – accuracy, speed, and wily-wittedness. And whether by accident or by my own invention, I associated depression with weakness. Andrew Soloman’s comments:
“And one of the things that often gets lost in discussions of depression is that you know it’s ridiculous. You know it’s ridiculous while you’re experiencing it.”
As time urged forward so did my neglect of my own mental health. It took on physical embodiments too which are even harder to ignore sometimes – but I tried to have a sense of humour about it.
As I now know, this is an incredibly common experience. While I was aware of the statistics about depression in university students, I was not aware of the growing body of studies that draw bidirectional causal lines between psychological distress in students and extreme weight fluctuations.
In a recent study in Australia using 6,479 students, Helen Stallman examined the prevalence of psychological distress using the K10 measure, giving participants a score from 10-50.
Scores of 0-15 mean normal levels, 16-21 mean moderate levels, 22-29 mean high levels and 30-50 mean very high levels of distress.
The results? Of those surveyed, 83.9 per cent reported elevated distress levels; 19.2 per cent were indicative of serious mental illness; and 64.7 per cent reporting symptoms indicative of mild-moderate mental illness.
A whopping 16.1 per cent of the students were considered non-cases.
I do not at all wish to dramatize my own case. At best, I would register on the scale of mild-moderate psychological distress. However there is a profound lack of media about of this 64.7 per cent. How to tell where you sit on the scale, whether you should talk about it, or what it looks like to have ‘moderate’ psychological distress.
In my case, on a brave day, when I had missed a deadline for an assignment I spoke to my mother about it. I was in tears and she was excessively kind. I managed to get out “I think I might have depression.”
Her response was, “No honey, you don’t have depression, I have lived with someone who had depression and this isn’t it, you’re just having a bad day.”
I must give my mother full credit here for always thinking the best of me – she too would have thought me too strong to be one of those people who succumbed to depression.
Other times I brought it up, she had counters to offer – maybe it intersected with me having my period, or having just had a fight with my boyfriend.
In no way is my intention here to disrespect my mother’s care-taking of me – she was doing what would have been right for her. But my feelings persisted, and the more I countered them with logical arguments, the more compelling my feelings seemed.
No amount of internal struggles over career direction, single-ness, or more vaguely the purposelessness of my day-to-day could account for the longevity of the feeling. But beyond sounding like the protagonist of a Greek tragedy, I didn’t think much of it.
I had devised ‘fixes’ – baths, drinking coffee, watching an episode of something of Aaron Sorkin’s, watching comedians ad infinitum particularly Dylan Moran and Louis C.K.
I couldn’t beat the thought that I would never overcome it, and that became the biggest defeat, that I was powerless to it. It was always there, not quite defeated. Waiting in the backseat of my car for the lonely drive home; in the mirror where it wore my face; in my studies, where I felt incapable of keeping up. It wasn’t until much later I realised:
1. Apologies: Something I used to not do in earnest very often, when I used not make mistakes very often either. Punctuating my every other movement there came ‘I’m sorry I can’t’, ‘I’m sorry I’m not up to it’, ‘I’m sorry, I’m having an off day’, ‘I’m sorry, I’ll try and do better’.
2. Writing: I just could not write. An inseparable part of my personality – my way with words – had a leave of absence. From writing almost every day, I suddenly realised, I had not written a single thing in almost six months.
This is what it looked like for me. Nothing worth writing a play over – I still maintained two jobs, didn’t fail any subjects at Uni and I had friends who I loved. Feelings are powerful. Don’t wait until the eleventh hour to find out just how powerfully your lifestyle, your reputation and most importantly, your conception of yourself can be altered by your feelings.
Not only is it okay, but is completely normal to experience this, and although it shouldn’t be stigmatized any longer, it is.
I believe that is partly because people like me don’t talk about it – we loiter in the middle-ground of depression, somewhere between not-hospitalisation and not-nothing.
It seemed to me the ultimate portrait, that when I thought to write this piece, I felt incapable of putting my name on it out of fear of judgement.
For a bunch of smart people, sometimes we can be really dumb.
* Seymour Glass is a non-de-plume. New Matilda almost never publishes under pseudnoyms… for obvious reasons, in this case, we made an exception.
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