August 6, 2017 by Cláudia
My path with mental health has been long and troubled. For a long time, I didn’t have any hope of recovery and even now I am sometimes overwhelmed by sadness and depression lurks in again. Or actually, I don’t think depression ever leaves, but sometimes, it becomes stronger and takes control. Right now, I am able to live a fulfilling life, even though I still have a long way to go But I never thought I’d come to this point, so I want to share my story and possibly bring a tiny bit of hope and strength to other people who may need it right now.
When I first thought of writing about my recovery from mental illness, I never thought it would be so hard to know where to start. I’ve know mental illness for so long that I don’t really have a defined starting point. Indeed, I lived with depression for several years before I knew something was wrong with me. Teenage years are hard no matter what and it didn’t cross my mind that there was something out of the norm going on with me. As an only child (and cousin), my whole family was just my parents and it never occurred to me that there was any disorder in them – when I was younger, my parents were my only role-model, therefore, I didn’t really see their faults or at least I didn’t perceive their faults as pathological until I was much older.
Incidentally, I can’t say that I had a rough childhood – my parents got divorced when I was one and they did a great job of hiding how difficult their relationship became. I was a normal outgoing child without any remarkable problem. It was when I started growing up that latent problems began to surface. Me starting to develop my own personality, separate from theirs, made both my parents counter-react each in their own way. My mother with over-protectiveness and my father with aggressiveness and obsessive control. I was never allowed to do anything on my own – my mom picked my clothes, didn’t let me use my phone and wouldn’t let me out of her sight, stressing me out with infinite dangers of living something different than what she idealized for me. She would give dogmatic reasons for not wanting me to do certain things as if she was protecting me, and in general, I would believe her. When I tried to diverge from what she wanted for me, even if slightly, or tried to have a life outside her, she would become anxious and yell horrible and unfair things to me.
This was concurrent with me changing schools – from a small, very familiar one, to a big impersonal school. It was immediately obvious that I was different from them – I looked at the other kids at school and I felt like a pathetic uninteresting little child. They talked about dating, clothes, makeup, waxing (things that didn’t exist in my world) and of experiences that I never dreamed of having (going to the movies with friends, going on vacation with friends, going shopping alone etc.). People realized I was different and would mock me for my weird Agatha Ruiz de la Prada clothes, would call me “monkey” and “fur ball” for having a lot of body hair, amongst other things.
As I grew up, I started to feel really ridiculous that I couldn’t go out with friends like everyone else. I felt as if that made me less than everyone else. Not only was I stuck at home with parents all the time, but I was also always feeling less than because of it. I felt wronged with injustice because I was a good student and had good grades and there was no reason for my parents not to trust me yet I was unconditionally grounded. I wasn’t really living but simply looking to the future as the real beginning of my life, where I would finally have choice and freedom.
Meanwhile, my relationship with my father considerably worsened. He would invade my privacy (reading my journal, going through my phone, accessing my computer accounts). He would lose his mind over nothing like he had an on and off switch, and yell at the top of his lungs, minimizing me and annulling me as a person. I felt like I was worthless, like I didn’t deserve to be an individual with personal needs. He controlled my whole life leaving me no choice even over small things. Even if I was sick, I would follow him around wherever he wanted me. I was a mear accessory for him and he was the imbalanced dictator of my life. His unpredictability made me constantly walking on egg shells. I had no control over his behaviour. Not having any control on whether he would explode or not created really bad anxiety before and while being with him.
Around three years after changing schools, I started to suffer from systematic bullying – a group of older girls constantly cornered me, kicked me, insulted me and humiliated me in front of everyone. They created fake social media accounts to call me “abortion” and commented on my pictures that I was the ugliest girl they had ever seen and that just looking at me made them want to puke. This lasted for a whole year, with different degrees of intensity, but I didn’t say anything to anyone because I was so embarrassed for not being able to stand up to them. Anytime they found me, I would petrify and wait for it to be over.
At this point, my whole life was being with my parents and being at school and both were a source of suffering. I remember reading on my diary “Every time I go home I escape problems at school and every time I go to school I escape problems at home. I have nowhere I can escape both.”. I had a constant feeling of malaise but I didn’t feel like I had any reason to feel that way, which made me have even more self-deprecating thoughts, feeling inadequate and unentitled to complain. Reading my diaries from those years was absolutely terrifying because I never thought I was as mentally disturbed as I was – I didn’t know better. Sometimes I would act maniac and think that all boys liked me, invented friends that I didn’t have and experiences that I’d only dreamed about. I lied to make my life seem interesting and meaningful. Sometimes I would reveal what was actually happening but I would always devalue how bad the situation was (for example I would write about the bullying like “those girls bothered me again, they must have woken up on the wrong side of the bed”).
When I was 15, I started dating and this was a very important change in my life – I didn’t think I was ever going to be loved or that I deserved to be treated nicely, which is why I allowed things that I shouldn’t have in the beginning. We were immature but things were going well. Eventually, I invited him to my house without my parents knowing (they didn’t even know I had a boyfriend) and we got caught. This normal teenage transgression was seen as the ultimate betrayal by my parents and they channelled all their wish to control me and punish me into this single event. For a whole Summer, I saw no friend, I didn’t see him, I had to wake up every working day to go to my grandparents’ house because I couldn’t be at home alone. I was trapped with my parents. Holidays were always worse than school but this one was the worse. Messages were controlled, my father had never been so aggressive and my mother less compassionate. My boyfriend would hang out with friends and that would be the most painful maddening and infuriating situation for me because I was imprisoned and lonely.
I burdened him with all the meaning of my life, all my happiness, everything. I would interpret the littlest things as proof that I was not that important and as a result, I would react defensively and suffer incommensurably. All my fantasy would sometimes crumble, I would feel the pain that I had been masking all at once and it was too much to deal with so I would eventually push it aside (building more and more resentment towards him for not keeping the fairytale going) and kept the facade. I was still never happy, but now I would blame him for not making me happy. Naturally, 3 years later, he broke up with me. He couldn’t be with me anymore. It was too much. I was too much.
At that point, I would use this event as a starting point for my depression, but depression didn’t begin because he broke up with me. It had been there all along, except now it was too visible for me to dismiss it or channel it into something else. Everything collapsed and it was about time. My whole soul and body were overwhelmed with grief and I honestly didn’t think I would survive. I didn’t think it was humanly possible to suffer that intensely and survive. There was no light in me and all that kept me going for a while was the delusional hope that he would come back. Life was meaningless again, which was even more painful after I thought it had meaning for a while. All the happy moments came to haunt me and doubled the pain.
Living was painful, every move I made, every word I said, felt like the single hardest thing in my entire life. I couldn’t really deal with grief either because my father always became more aggressive when I showed any vulnerability and crushed me even further and my mother always affected me with anxiety every time I wasn’t pretending to be okay. In any case, it was not that hard to pretend to be okay and none of them was paying attention either way.
The final straw into actual madness happened when I smoked weed – my heart raced and I looked at some trees waving with the wind and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Everything and everyone became disfigured, my whole world was scary, everything I looked at was unknown to me. It was like I had lost the ability of recognizing familiarity. In particular, looking at myself was terrifying because I would not recognize the image of me and feeling my body seemed a hallucination. The world was no longer recognizable and that generated severe panic. For a week I slept for one or two hours a night and had a constant feeling of panic with several outbursts a day. Being in panic generated more panic and I just wasn’t able to get out of it.
Finally, after a week, I had to tell my mom what happened and made her take me to the hospital, which she unwillingly did because she didn’t believe in psychiatric medication, but I think mainly because she was just in denial that I made a choice she was so against. I was given Xanax and oriented to a psychiatric follow-up. All the antidepressants I was given gave me side effects so ultimately I could only take the Xanax and go to therapy.
The following months are a blurr: I felt like I was living in a dream. I would not believe anything that I saw, heard or felt. I saw people merely as masks and the world as a theatrical set. I started to develop the belief that my real life was in another dimension and that what I was experiencing was just an illusion. This is when suicide became a recurring thought, almost a comforting obsession, a consolation. Nothing in my world was real, so neither were the people there. No one would suffer if I died, this fake world created merely to torment me would vanish and I would wake up in the real world where I was truly meant to be.
I wasn’t myself. I would not recognize myself in photos, I would not answer if someone called my name, I would not hear entire conversations because I was focused on how their face was actually a mask. I burned myself with cigarrets and walked into table corners, stepped on sharp objects… I was convinced none of the pain was real, but at the same time every time I felt pain it would momentarily transport me into the real world again.
I remember being in a car and yelling that cars were not real and pavements were an elaborate scheme. My mother had a hard time understanding what was happening to me, particularly because she always tried to push mental illness out of her worldview and my father didn’t notice something was wrong and remained unchanged.
I was obsessed with the falsehood of the world and whenever someone would promise me that the world was real I would nod and agree but not believe them either because they, too, were an illusion. I spent countless sleepless nights googling symptoms and found some comfort in the terms depersonalization and derealization. Once I had a name for what was happening to me, I talked about it much more as a disease and slowly I came to realize it was just one phase on my long path to recovery.
This feeling of unrealness was a defence mechanism of my mind, trying to protect me from an avalanche of depression that I wasn’t ready to deal with at the time. In fact, I wasn’t really addressing what had happened in my life, all my bad feelings came from the depersonalization itself. But depression eventually replaced the depersonalization and I got to feel everything that my mind had put off. A huge pain rapidly spread inside me like a disease and would not go away no matter how much I tried to make it go away. I didn’t even know why I felt such intense pain anymore. It felt organic, like an actuall part of my body. I was afraid it would never go away.
I didn’t want to live anymore. Everything was hard – moving, speaking, eating, even just existing. I had huge trouble sleeping, even with Xanax and not even sleeping was a time to rest because I would always dream. My productivity was low but I felt drained because just having my mind running was exhausting. I had never felt so detached from other people in my life – everything they said seemed trivial to me and I could not understand how everyone could act normal when the world was such a hopeless place. I never thought I’d feel happy again.
But somehow I kept going – I kept going to school, kept studying, sometimes even reading, I wrote in a diary… I felt depressed for a really long time and I only had lows and big lows. My efforts to keep going had no real inspirational motivation nor came from a strong will to be happy. I was mostly numb to the passage of time and to the events of life. All I wanted was time to pass. I didn’t know what I expected for my future, most times I don’t think I even conceived the future in my head. But I remember one time thinking about the future and wishing to look back in some years and think that it was all worth it.
I only really started recovering about two years after the major outburst. While before everyday was suffering, I started to have a nice day every now and then. Every good day would be followed by a downfall, which was particularly painful because I would devalue how good I had felt before. I would curse myself for being stupid and believing I could feel well and I would never believe in those happy days later, but they did happen occasionally nevertheless. Therapy was helping me realize everything that had happened to me prior to the breakup and making connections of past and present.
Recovery was so slow and with so many relapses that I think it would be impossible for me to have acknowledged it back then, but slowly I was finding explanations to why my mind had been behaving the way it did. And I learned things to explain why people around me behaved the way they did. For example, I always saw my father as imbalanced, possessive, prepotent, but in therapy I understood how insecurity and fear to lose people was behind a lot of his behaviours.
A very important turning point in my life was leaving his house and I don’t think I would ever have felt okay if I had stayed, the environment was just too toxic. A big part of my decision was letting go of the guilt that had been ingrained in me and realizing that I am responsible for my happiness. After my grandfather had sexual behaviours with me and my father not only ignored it but also left me alone with him at home in that same afternoon, the idea of leaving started to materialize, not as an escape fantasy to help me through bad times but as an actual possibility. A few weeks later, he humiliated me so much at dinner that I called my mom crying and saying that I would never be happy if I stayed there.
That was probably one of the most important turning points, but recovery was a continuous process that even today, 3 years later, is ongoing. Back then, I didn’t believe life would ever be desirable but I was wrong. Maybe I did, deep down, hope for a good life, but sometimes hope is just too painful. I wondered if I would ever feel like it was all worth it, and I can truthfully say that it was. I still feel like depression creeps up on me, weights me down and prevents me from achieving my full potential, but I’ve never been happier before (I usually add jokingly that it is not saying much, but honestly for someone that didn’t believe in recovery it is saying a great deal). I have hope that the future will bring more growth and more gratitude. In the past, I felt like some constraints were too strong for me to ever move past them, especially because I formed my personality at the same time that my mind was ill, but little by little I have created parts of me away from it.
If I could take out a moral of my story for people that are going through similar experiences, I would say everything that I wish I could say to my younger self. That it is not my fault. That I didn’t deserve anything that was done to me. If you are reading and you feel like there is no hope, all I want to ask is to take it easy on yourself – you are entitled to feel down. You don’t have to remain hopeful, you don’t have to be positive and “fight for your happiness”. What I have noticed is that no one believes they have a good enough reason to feel down but I guarantee you that you have every right to feel whatever you are feeling. Mental illnesses are diseases and the malaise you feel is not a choice, it is a symptom, therefore it is not a consequence of your behaviour nor your fault. Find therapy. A disease requires medical treatment. It will get better, just possibly not immediate so in the meantime, be patient with yourself, do small things for yourself, like take a shower or eat a healthy meal and feel fucking proud for what you’ve done because you deserve it. Even if it seems like nothing will ever be good again, just know that you have everything that you need in yourself and you just need to get better, through time, therapy, growth, medication, self-care, shifting the thoughts etc. Life takes so many turns and you have so many possibilities ahead. It will hurt tremendously, it will have highs and lows but in the end, it will be worth it.
Some resources: (NOTE: these are to be used as a complement of therapy and not as its replacement)
- Stigma, an app that helps you manage the mental health, encourages journaling and helps to find people with similar struggles to tackle isolation.
- Yoga with Adriene, a Youtube channel full of good energy that promotes self-care and being in the present moment with what is. The app is too recent for me to have used it in my lowest but I used this channel throughout the hardest times and even though I expected immediate results, it really helped in the long-run. There is also a Facebook group called “Find What Feels Good” in which people are kind and supportive so it is a safe space to share and ask for support.
- Meditation and hypnosis: it may seem scary but it is actually just a way to calm the mind and try to shift our perception. I’ve used the app Ican and Youtube Michael Sealey.