First Person Singular: Relapse and the return of depression

Ever since my worst bout of depression, I’ve lived in fear of relapsing, of going through the insanity again. There have been a few occasions where I’ve felt it creeping up on me, but I’ve managed to ride the wave – I took time off work; I sought support from my loved ones and my doctor. I increased my medication, which helped, for a while at least. I kept my mind active; through blogging, studying, reading; anything I could find to keep my thoughts at bay.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. I went out one night, had a few drinks and, whilst walking home, slipped over on ice and strained the ligaments in my left ankle. As I tried to stand up, I went over on the same ankle again. I went to the doctors, and I was signed off work for two weeks, and given strict instructions to rest my ankle.

It was quite pleasant for the first couple of days. I had been feeling a little burnt-out from studying and working, and the chance to rest and relax with no pressure to do anything was enjoyable. Sadly, the feeling didn’t last.

Sitting around all day left me far too much time to think. It also left me feeling extremely lethargic, yet unable to sleep as I hadn’t done anything all day. I’d lie awake all night, with nothing to do but think. My thoughts often become dark during the night, even when I’m doing well. But I wasn’t doing well. I was struggling, my defences were lowered, and the depression was returning.

The problem I had was that I didn’t actually realise. It crept up on me slowly, with a subtlety that took me by surprise. I’ve spent so long fighting the illness that I didn’t realise that I had lost the balance of power; the depression had used my physical injury to worm its way back. I misread the usual tell-tale signs; I put them down to my injury, to boredom, to the stresses of Christmas. A foolish mistake, but one that was easy to make.

I should have noticed that I was withdrawing from interaction with people. Even though I had nothing to do with my time, I wrote nothing. I could barely muster the energy to tweet, never mind write a blog or an email. There were days I couldn’t even bring myself to turn my laptop on. I just lay in bed, repeats of Two and a Half Men and Jeremy Kyle on a seemingly endless loop. Yet, although I watched them, I wasn’t taking any of it in. It was just background sound, something to break up the tedium, the silence.

I didn’t notice that I was becoming more insecure. I didn’t realise that I was caring less and less. I couldn’t comprehend that it wasn’t the physical injury causing me to be in a bad mood – it was my mental illness flaring up.

With so much time on my hands, it flared up a lot faster than I could have expected. Previously, when my illness raised its ugly head, I could keep myself busy and stave it off. But not this time. The worst part was that it was an English winter, where it becomes dark around 4pm. Too much darkness, too much isolation, too much time to think.

The dark thoughts returned. Everything became pointless. I realised I was ill again, but that didn’t help the situation. If anything, it made it worse; because it was the very embodiment of the thing I’ve feared the most for the last couple of years – the return of the ‘madness’. Once again, I couldn’t trust my thoughts. My brain was telling me things, I was having thoughts that I knew weren’t right, yet I couldn’t stop them.

Much like the last time, I felt I was going insane. Yet, this time, I found myself wishing I actually was. That may be hard to understand, but I can’t express how hard it has been fighting this illness. I’ve been fighting it for fifteen years now, and it’s so, so tiring. The constant feeling of being on edge; overanalysing every bad day, every negative thought, it’s worn me down so much. I couldn’t face going through another massive bout of depression. I just wanted it to all go away. If I was in a hospital, if I gave in to my thoughts, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about all the particulars of daily life. I wouldn’t have to expend so much energy appearing ‘normal’ all the time. I wouldn’t have to face the world every day.

The thing is I’m not insane. I’m not a freak, or a madman. I’m just unwell. Deep down, I know that. But in many ways, that’s what makes it so hard. The mind is such a mystery, there is so much we don’t understand about how it works, and I’m scared. I don’t understand my mind, but it feels like there are two different sides in there, the ‘normal’ Andrew and the ‘mentally ill’ Andrew, and they are constantly at war. I’m terrified that one day, ‘mentally ill’ Andrew will win the war, and ‘normal’ Andrew will be lost forever.

Maybe that will happen, I don’t know. I’m exhausted from the constant battle, but I’m still fighting. I’m not going to lose ‘normal’ Andrew. I went to the doctors: my medication has been changed yet again, and I will be undergoing a psychiatric assessment in the New Year. My doctor thinks I may be bipolar, and if so, then maybe I can find the balance that has always been missing from my life. But then, maybe it isn’t bipolar. Maybe it’s something else; maybe it’s nothing at all. Part of me doesn’t even want to know if there is anything.

The thought of a psychiatric assessment is scary. Admitting it here is even scarier, and I’m concerned about the reaction. But I’m not going to hide from it, and I’m damn sure not going to be ashamed of it. After all, the only way mental health stigmas will ever be broken down is with honesty, and by confronting those who abuse people with mental illnesses. I’m not going to allow narrow-mindedness to cause me to go into hiding or to make me feel ashamed of whom I am. We look back now at the abuse people have suffered for the colour of their skin, and we are rightly appalled. I firmly believe that, at some point in the future, the abuse of people with mental health issues will be treat with the same disdain.

In the meantime, I’ll keep writing, and I’ll keep fighting, both my personal battle with the illness, and the wider battle against the prejudice. It’s all I can do.