- Posted May 17, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Going public with mental illness
Living with persistent depressive disorder
As a general disclaimer, the experiences described below are solely my own and are not meant as a recommendation or commentary on anyone else's experience with mental illness. Please do whatever you need to in order feel healthy and to feel like yourself. Remember that you are not alone, and stay safe!
For me, the most keenly-felt effect of the stigma against mental illness the sense of isolation. When no one else around you is talking about mental illness as if it is a fact of life, it is very easy to feel like a freak, as if you are aberrant and alone. I first realized how common, and comfortingly mundane, mental illness is when I was an undergraduate and I first started discussing day-to-day mental health issues with my friends. Today, as a young adult, I am still surrounded by friends who also live with mental illnesses--vibrant and nurturing people with rich inner and interpersonal lives.
Major clinical depression--generally just referred to as "depression"--gets a lot of play in mainstream media but there are other conditions on what one might term the "depression spectrum." I live with what until recently was called dysthymia--now called "persistent depressive disorder" according to the DSM-5. As the name suggests, the condition is marked by long-term, low-level depression, often persisting for years.
For me, dysthymia (I'm just too used to that term to stop using it) is manifest as a depression that feels like part of who I am. I have never not felt depressed. A kind of constant melancholy, loneliness, and an anxiety about the future that always threatens to turn into hopelessness--these feelings have been part of my psyche and personality for as long as I can remember.
To put it in the clearest possible terms: I am always sad, even when I am happy. The way I conceptualize it, sadness is my baseline emotional state, whereas most people tend to rest at some more neutral place between sadness and happiness.
Because it's relatively more difficult for me to feel happy, I pretty much constantly engage in pleasure seeking behavior in order to reach a state that is happier or at least a little more neutral. For me, fortunately, this isn't a coded way of saying that I am also living with addiction. I just try to squeeze every possible bit of pleasure out of my day-to-day life. Life's too sad for me to not enjoy it in any way that I can. I literally do my very best to savor the "little things" as I move constantly between home, school, and work.
That sounds trite, probably, and I'm sure that acquaintances attribute to me a kind of optimism or joie de vivre that I don't really possess. I can't say that I mind being misread as a happy person. I imagine a scenario where I explain to someone, deadpan, that I'm gleefully crumbling leftover bacon onto a sundae only to avoid being consumed by sadness, and I just have to laugh. They'd probably laugh too. The only way to really explain the climate of my interior landscape is through something like this, an essay or a long conversation.
The real danger of dysthymia is that it constantly threatens to develop into a full-blown depressive episode. This has happened to me--I've been paralyzed by hopelessness and tormented by suicidal thoughts. Staving off these kinds of episodes is a multi-faceted process: it involves confronting environmental triggers and reaching out for help and ongoing support.
What has also been a big help in avoiding major depression, counterintuitively, is accepting that persistent depression is part of who I am. I'm a sad person, and that's okay. No doubt that sounds absolutely terrible to a reader who doesn't experience dysthymia, but remember: I have no frame of reference for not being dysthymic. I have lived with persistent depression my whole life. Accepting that isn't hopeless, it's freeing. It gives me the space I need to be gentle with myself. During emotionally difficult periods I can avoid berating myself into deep, dangerous depression by reassuring myself that my feelings are normal, for me, and that life goes on. I'm not broken or sick, my emotional apparatus just works a little bit differently from other people's.
While dysthymia informs many aspects of my personality--like a resilient sense of humor that can shine through even at the very darkest moments--it is only one part of who I am. I'm also warm and thoughtful and more than a little bit stubborn, and surrounded by people who love and support me. I might feel sad all the time, but that doesn't mean I can't also be happy.