Written by - Swapnil Basu
What is it like to narrate the escape from the Monster of our brains? It has innumerable beginnings and no final ending. Most of the conflict and drama is internal, and there’s a lot more inaction than action. The lead character hides in the shadows much of the time, so you can’t even see what’s going on.
I joined up with depression around the age of 16. There were lots of me in moody shadows, looking as down as could be. My parents occasionally talked about someone having a nervous breakdown as if they had died. There was no hint of a need to get help for me. No one worried about me since I was a star in school, self-contained and impressive to teachers for being so mature, so adult.
Migraine headaches started then, and increasingly intense anxiety about school. I missed many days, felt shame as if I were faking, and obsessed over every one of my failings. I spent long hours alone in my room.
Through my teenage years, depression went underground. Feelings were dangerous. There were too many angry and violent ones shaking the house for me to add to them. So I kept emotion under wraps, even more so than in childhood. Nothing phased me outside the house and even at home, I showed almost no sign of reaction to anything, even while churning with fear and anguish. It was when I was 18 that I broke open, and streams of depression, fear, panic, obsessive love and anger flowed out. In response to a panic attack that lasted for a week, I saw a psychiatrist. In one marathon session of 3 hours, he helped me put the panic together with frightening episodes from my family life. I was cured on the spot and my first experience with medication – Flunil. But I had no idea what it was. I took something in the morning to get me going and something at night to help me sleep. I took it short term, got through the crisis but continued in therapy. From there I was steadily seeing psychiatrists in various places for the next year or so. But no one mentioned depression.
Depression was a springboard for going deeper. Digging up the past to understand present problems was a tremendous help, and it changed me in many ways. But depression was still there in various forms, reappearing regularly for the next couple of months.
The medication only seemed to deaden my feelings and make me feel detached from everyone and immune to every pressure. It was like having pain signals turned off. There was no longer any sign coming from my body or brain that something might be wrong. I felt “fine” but relationships and work still went to hell.
The strange thing was that after all these years of living with it, I didn’t know very much about depression. I thought it was entirely a problem of depressed mood and loss of the energy and motivation until I finally started to read about it in great depth.
I studied all the forms of depression, neurobiology and endless research studies. That was a good thing to do, but after a while, I was looking more at “Depression” than the details of my version of the illness.
I wondered how many diagnostic categories I fitted into. For sure I had one or more of the anxiety disorders. Perhaps I fit into bipolar II instead of major depressive disorder. What about dissociation? I read the research study findings as if they were announcing my fate.
It was comforting to know I had a “real” disease. Not only could I answer any naysayers about the reality of depression. I also had a weapon to fight my internalized stigma, the lingering doubt that anything was wrong with me. I used to think that maybe I was using the illness as a way to avoid life and cover up my weakness. Here was proof that depression wasn’t all in my imagination but in my brain chemistry. My life would continue to run down.
Fortunately, as I learned more, I tracked the details in everyday living and saw that I needed to take the lead in recovery. Medication – when it had any effect at all – played a modest role in taking the edge off the worst symptoms. That bit of relief gave me the energy and presence of mind to work on the emotional and relationship impacts, to try to straighten out the parts of my life I had some control over.
I was determined to stop the waste of life in depression. I got back into psychotherapy and tried many types of self-help as well. Many didn’t work at all, but something inside pushed me to keep trying, despite setbacks.
After all this, recovery finally started to happen. It took me by surprise, and for a long time, I didn’t trust that it would last. But something had changed deep down. I believed in myself again, and the inner conviction of worthlessness disappeared.
As anyone dealing with lifelong depression will tell you, setbacks happen. There’s no simple happy ending. But if you’re lucky, an inner shift occurs, and the new normal is a decent life rather than depression.