Coming from a background of experience with mental illness, Sophie White has some tips for coping with depression in the time of Covid…
*trigger warning; this piece contains mentions of suicide.
On the phone last week, I told a friend that I had cried every day of the week preceding. She appeared to not miss a conversational beat, just carried on talking and didn’t so much as acknowledge what I’d said. Her ignoring of the revelation was so total that I wondered if she had not heard me? We carried on talking about the things we talk about now: lockdown measures, the impossibility of this life, the dread and the drudgery and unknowability of the coming months and years.
Later, I spent some time with the almost non-fact of her ignoring my statement. When the hurt lies in someone’s inaction it is hard to even decipher if the events are real. Especially when elements of your particular malaise deal in ill-logic. It’s an ill-logic that spreads very much like a virus, invisible until it’s not. Benign until it is all-consuming. So what is one fleeting moment in the day of someone else, it snags on you, traps you, then gouges at you until the despair is cascading.
Depression is a blank tide. It erases. Hope, possibility, potential, nothing survives when the dark waters advance. In this way we are experiencing a unique event: A lowness, nay – a depression – of literally global proportions. A pandemic of despair. Everywhere people are experiencing profound loss. The loss of loved ones, of sharing their new baby with their family, of celebrating a marriage, of stability. And just because it’s not the worst it could possibly be, does not mean it’s not hard and doesn’t hurt. We are grieving everything from our old pre-pandemic hair to the lives we all expected to be living right now and everything in between. Me having a feeling over here will not cancel out some feelings someone else is having over there. There is no feelings quota. Being sad about our shitty, shitty shellac is not depriving someone else of being sad about their life.
There is a game often popular among the kind of people who don’t “believe” in mental illness, it’s called ‘At Least You Still’ Bingo
At least you still have your job.
At least you still have a home.
At least you still have WIFI. (Incidentally we endured two apocalyptic days without, it was not pretty.)
At least you still have your vision.
At least you still have… what?… a face?!
All absolutely true. But this breed of emotional relativism doesn’t help us, it’s only seeks to invalidate our feelings, suppresses them and shames us for having them in the first place and honestly, from the bottom of my heart, fuck that.
Take it from me, someone who’s been suicidal (and what a dubious qualification that is!), not expressing and acknowledging your feelings, and not forgiving yourself for having those feelings leads to some very bad stuff. Self-abuse, addiction, rage and death. Pushing feelings down doesn’t diffuse them, they will detonate deep inside you.
Also the ‘at least you still have your vision’ approach to mental illness completely ignores a fundamental fact about mental illness. The good things are utterly negated when the very system we use to process them is damaged. For example, my dad still had his vision at the end of his life. His mind, however, was ravaged by Alzheimers, so while he could see, he wasn’t getting much kick back from this supposed ‘upside’. Our brains are the filter and if they’re not functioning, the world we are wading through is pretty irrelevant, depression infects it all, either sapping us until it feels like we are playing a lifeless version of ourselves in a particularly depressing play or giving the most benign things a veil of terror.
“It’s so fucking hard right now,” I cried to my psychiatrist on the phone. “It is hard,” he agreed.
“I hate it. I just hate life right now.”
“And no one has it harder than you right now, Sophie.”
I cried harder, “I know,” I whisper though this is decidedly not true.
“You’ve young kids, a new baby, no support. It’s barbaric…”
“Do you know, I don’t even have a dishwasher?”
I cried eager to further bathe in this incredible validation.
“Unbelievable,” he sighed and I had to laugh.
Later I chatted to my husband about the session. “So, you’re just paying him to say you have it the worst, even though objectively-speaking you absolutely don’t?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied firmly. “Best money I’ve spent in lockdown. And he did up my prescriptions,” I added. “I fucking hope he did.” Don’t worry folks, he did.
I thought some more about my conversation with my friend. The depressive pollution in my head had been tainting my reason. An idea had taken hold that she was sick of my bullshit. I wouldn’t blame anyone for this by the way, this September I celebrate 13 years since my first breakdown – I’m sick of my bullshit.
Ill-logic needs to be interrogated. A counsellor of mine once advised me to mentally levitate when a situation was getting on top of me. It’s a way to try and unhitch from the knee-jerk emotional responses and attempt to see the situation as a whole. I try to apply it to my friend. What are the facts? She is talking to me, we are laughing, there’s no underlying eye-roll. She is spending time on the phone with me. These are facts. I know my friend loves me the way I love her. She just couldn’t deal with me right then in that moment and not even me as such but my dark waters, my claustrophobic ocean of fear and disquiet. She is in her own ocean.
Right now, there is ocean after ocean of struggling people. Drowning often doesn’t look like drowning, the instinctive response that kicks in in the minutes before a drowning means that the person can no longer wave their arms or shout for help. In this way, even those relatively nearby may not actually realise the person is just about to succumb. Sometimes coping can be similarly deceptive. And in the way of drowning people there is always that danger that in our bid for survival, we will drag each other down.
So here are some suggestions that sometimes help me to tap out the bleak hours, days and let’s face it, months, because depression is a demented but persistent bitch.
Tell someone you’re not okay. Keep telling someone until you find the right someone for that information. Don’t isolate – as tempting as it is to avoid people (and all too easy right now when isolating is a government mandate) try to reach out. Even if it is just a WhatsApp message. Ask someone else how they are. Make a list each day and put one thing on it. One thing. This is the thing you can achieve today. Whether it’s organise your bookshelf or sing a song, just try and do one thing. Get out of bed. Take a shower. Experienced depressives know that on many days this one thing will be too much.
Be kind to yourself, try not to berate yourself. Go easy. Do something nice for another person. Do as much of this as you can. Learn something, anything – in lockdown, I have started trying out watercolours. I paint with my friend over zoom and it is an hour of the week where a little peace is threatening the terminal dis-ease of pandemic life.
Learn to cry.
At my dad’s funeral and virtually every funeral I have ever attended I have spent the duration hyper focused on not crying. Why? It is so profoundly bonkers to be so obsessed with not crying that I don’t even take in the service or enjoy remembering the person I loved. My obsession with not ‘giving in’ to tears, is more insane than many of the delusional episodes I’ve had (and I was once, for an extended period, convinced that reality wasn’t real and the people in my life were stand-ins like in The Truman Show – don’t do drugs kids).
“Giving in” to pain is actually the only way to process it. Pain not felt will mutate which is probably why a lot of us are experiencing misdirected anger right now. Also there is no ‘Coping Olympics’, no one is handing out medals for us not ‘giving in’ and falling apart.
There is fear in a loss of control. I encountered a midwife in the hospital six days after the birth of my first son. I was manic, ranting that I didn’t want to go home. Telling everyone I was fine while at the same time barely able to even look at my newborn without a relentless choking panic rushing into my body. The incredibly intuitive midwife suggested I give her the baby and go and have a long cry in the showers and when I refused she asked why.
“I’m afraid I’ll never stop,” I whispered.
But you will stop.
And this will stop.
And in the meantime… Go easy. On yourself and others.
If you need support right now, freephone Aware’s support line (open 10am to 10pm) on 1800 80 48 48 or visit www.aware.ie.
Main image by Andrew Neel on Unsplash