A few years ago when I was swept by a giant wave of dysthymia, I would step out of my room every morning with mostly unironed clothes, a well rehearsed nonchalance, a permanent scowl to insert suitable distance between myself and anyone else who would ask me how I was doing. I had learned to disguise my predicament, learned to layer it up in bolts of dead air & a spurious poise. It was expected out of me — to not be ill, to not be in possession of a widely schismed mind. I would drag the red impulse of self-injury through the length of every meeting, every conversation, every subway stop. It was almost as if I had stopped existing as myself and was carrying my physical body as a straw effigy slowly being doused with kerosene. Any moment, the dawn of an impregnable explosion. I spent days, weeks, months living in this unmitigated hell. No one knew. No one was allowed to know. I wasn’t allowed to tell.
When I say allowed, it isn’t as if there were visible, forced compulsions levied on me to not express the pain I was in. There was no regulator outside of my own self who forbade me from telling my best friend that I could not attend her engagement because I was incapable of switching on the light in my own room, let alone get dressed in my fanciest lehenga and dance till my limbs were sore, as much as I had wanted to. So I told her I had severe viral fever and wished her the most blessed marital journey. I suppose I suffered from many consecutive episodes of “viral fever” during this time. My former boss recommended a series of ayurvedic treatments to boost my immunity, an Auntyjee in my building gave me the visiting card of an Ashtanga yoga center, another friend sent me a care package that contained 12 vials of flower remedies for “body purification”. I politely thanked each temporary sympathizer knowing fully well that the very same people would be at complete loss of understanding if I actually did tell them what my real illness was.
I have done this so many times, I have it down to a routine. I can augur the triggers, the first faint appearance of nameless anxieties followed by a full fledged immersion into grief. In my experience as a psychologist and also a survivor of major depressive disorder, most people assume depression is a function of sadness; if you can just cheer up and act happy, you will feel happy. This is the biggest gap in comprehension between those of us who experience neurodivergence and those who don’t — the linearity of such a definition betrays its comorbidity. There is a pronounced difference between sadness and grief. Sadness is transient, usually rooted in some perceivable event or incident; grief is multi-pronged, runs in every direction and the locus of trauma is usually invisible or imperceptible. Yes, I do experience sadness time to time but it is very different from the titanic surges of grief that pummel me hollow every time a depressive cycle sets in. Fact is : it is not necessary for depression to arrive with sadness or a sad event, sometimes my depression knuckles itself out from underneath my therapy-fed composure right in the middle of a celebration or an achievement. I have interred myself into its foxhole right after I signed my first book contract or when I did really well on my dissertation defense. It is a poly-limbed hydra that suddenly grows into a colossus shadowing everything else in your life. I once watched a movie where as a form of ancient punishment, a queen was blindfolded, had her ankles and hands tied with iron chains and was pushed into the deep blue mouth of a calm sea. This is the closest representation of depression I can think of. You are spent slowly but continuously. Your exhaustion is so intemperate, you reach a space where survival isn’t about feeling better, it is merely about feeling lesser than this.
The stigma around mental health is still fairly verbose and athletic. It never runs out of breath decrying neurodiversity as hokum or sufferers of psychiatric misdiagnosis as people who are merely in need of attention. As a feminist, one of the most stark and revealing aspects of speaking about depression with other feminists — or at least those I had conveniently conjectured as feminists — was the serious lack of compassion and intersectionality between mental health inequalities and women’s rights. If being depressed feels criminal, being a woman of colour AND being depressed feels like you are a fugitive on run after committing murder. At any given point I had to be doubly careful that no one in my work environment knew of my condition or else I would immediately be labeled incompetent & packed off.
Growing up in an Indo-Rroma culture, you are expected to be thankful that your body is safe, that you get an education and get a job and are sufficiently independent so that you are daily throttled by the immensity of a patriarchal inheritance stalking your every movement. Mental health isn’t even a dot on the radar. When I decided to study psychology early on, it was partially because I had already been through so many dirty corridors of indeterminate analysis and loud opinions that I knew the best path to understanding what I was experiencing was to study it myself. This was the beginning of a long and punishing dissent. I still remember pouring over my textbooks of Therapeutic Practices in Clinical Psychology with a nearly unhinged jaw as I read description upon description of every conceivable DSM disorder and almost all of them included a not-so-subtle exegesis that as a third world brown woman, I was almost 50% more likely to have a mental health condition and the scope for relevant support systems to help better my situations was slim to nil. In others, simpler words — I was fucked.
This was a silencing devastation. A discipline I had entered solely to find a curative direction was indirectly telling me that very little was available to help me. In a lot of ways, this is what smothers any desire to further communicate about what happens to me in my direst moments. It is the sound of a door slamming shut in the dark. It is the inevitability of drowning in a shallow pool because someone is holding your head underwater.
Inevitability. That was my synonym for depression because it felt like no matter how many fiery hoops I jumped to keep myself sound, anchored, something would blindside me into submission and there was nothing I could do to even predict it, let alone avoid it. So much of mental health caregiving is built on structures of avoidance. We are constantly conditioned to circumvent pain, resist from crying, the whole pharmacological universe of corrective measures is built on the idea of resistance or submission. I don’t negate the significance of anti-depressants or the immediate relief they provide me but I always wondered if there was something that went beyond the purely chemical/biological and sought to address the emotional, the mental or even the spiritual kindling I experienced during those periods.
Then, I gave myself the permission to cry. To not resist the conniption of disturbances. I learned that being depressed wasn’t just the inability to feel happiness, it was infact the inability to feel anything. When depression gnaws at my cognitive contours, it chews up the capacity to process any sensory input. I stay in bed for days because I physically can’t bring myself to do anything. It is not laziness or lack of energy — it is an actual psychosomatic shutdown of my senses or a severe distortion. Everything was either being erased or amplified. Every whisper sounds like a guttural scream. Every sliver of light makes me feel like I am an ant being teased under a magnifying glass held by a particularly insolent child. I feel inverted and violated. A frigid sharpness seems to be inspecting every nook and corner of my body. I want to tear apart things while also never wanting to make eye contact with anyone ever again. Depression for me is anger with its tongue cut out. Over a period in time, I fathomed fully how depression disallows you to feel any emotion other than an apathetic yet burrowing grief. It acts like a virus that corrupts your harddrive and revokes access to every file except one. It isn’t so much that you want to keep opening that file but simply that every time you try to open any other file, you are automatically led to that one file and you can’t delete it either.
As I finished my own internship while still battling the severe desolation of MDD, I also understood the relevance of having more neurodivergent clinicians who could better understand my state of mind without the hair-trigger to slot me and start “treating” me. I wanted someone who would tell me I could live with this, that I didn’t need to be better because I was enough. As time passed, I realised that crying unlocked some doors and it wasn’t always a bad thing. I also realised that the mind doesn’t exist in isolation and if I wanted my mind to resist these dysfunctions, I had to bridge it to my body. I realised the brilliant company of animals brought me back to a form of self-acceptance that I was unable to find among people around me.
Healing is never a simple vertical stretch, therefore the narrative of depression is not linear either. On this spectrum, survival is its own success. This also means I am averse to the ruddy artifice of a grossly marketed positivity culture that impinges on a collective programming for victim-shaming. I now distance myself from anyone who wants to slap happy inspirational quotes on my moodboard when I explicitly tell them that depression isn’t an antonym for happiness. I know that it is inherently difficult to process what someone else is going through especially with respect to mental health but a smallish word of advice — Don’t tell me what x self help guru wants me to do. Sometimes, just not saying anything and holding someone’s hand — literally or figuratively — is enough.
I have survived this condition for more than a decade now but it is only in the last couple of years that I have conceded to admitting it publicly. I recognize now that the dual innervation of illness and shame was further fuel for quicker turnaround in episodes. I am this and I am ok with it. I am ok with disclosing that I can’t come to your wedding or your birthday or even for a walk because this thing pares my bones down to a toothpick thinness and they feel incapable of holding my weight. I am ok with saying that I have compared the tensile strength of different ropes. I am ok with accepting that I experience a debilitating emotional dysphoria when am in the throes of MDD and it can be transferred into a general sense of neediness. I am ok with not holding back my tears. I am ok with the temporary folding in, the unavoidable retrograde — the lack of equilibrium. I am ok with placing this in the same bracket as my diabetes which means I can now give myself the respite of care and compassion.
A few years ago I discovered the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi — a remarkably welcoming frame of reference which creates room for redefining the beauty of existence in its impermanence & lack of perfection. I have internalised this chiaroscuro of belief. I no longer seek to fix anything within myself because I don’t think anything is broken. What exists within me is arranged differently from how it has been arranged for other people. These rooms where I sought to lock myself are slowly blurring themselves. Does it mean I will never break down in the cold cuts section of a supermarket without any preamble? Hardly. No doubt that I will still have days of mental paralysis and want to never rise from the warm hug of my bed but I think once that phase passes through me, I will still know how to gather fresh cut lilies in my arms, leave haphazard footprints in the sand & attend another pottery class where I fail miserably at making a single round bowl.
Scherezade Siobhan is an Indo-Rroma Jungian social scientist, community catalyst, and hack scribbler. She is the author of a chapbook, Bone Tongue (Thought Catalog Books, 2015) , a full-length poetry collection, Father, Husband, (Salopress UK), poetry pamphlet,”to dhikr, i” (Pyramid Editions, forthcoming) & a second full length collection “The Bluest Kali” (Lithic Press, Forthcoming). She is the creator and curator of The Mira Project, a global dialogue on women’s mental health, gendered violence, and street harassment. She can be found squeeing about militant bunnies, here, or @ zaharaesque on twitter/fb/ig.