Although ECT had taken away some of my bad memories, there were some things I would never be able to forget and all the experiences I’d had throughout my adventures in mental illness had left emotional scars on me that were as prominent and indelible as the physical scar my ECT port had left. All the stupid, gross, terrible things I had done and been through had become a part of me. They had affected and altered my self image.
I’ve struggled with low self esteem and poor self image my whole life. These adventures in mental illness had taken away feelings of self worth that I couldn’t really afford to lose. I was now someone who had dropped out of school multiple times, been sent to a residential treatment facility and spent time in the back ward of a mental hospital because I was deemed unfit to fraternize with other mental patients. I was someone who had masturbated in front of other people, spit in peoples’ faces both literally and figuratively and eaten out of garbage cans. I was someone who had been put on antisychotics and diagnosed as being delusional. I had baffled, horrified and frustrated many people including myself. Now I was left living with my parents with no job and no social life. I saw myself as a loser, a failure and a fucked up person.
A few months ago I read a book that pointed out that if your cancer went in to remission, you wouldn’t be ashamed of yourself if it came back so you shouldn’t be ashamed of yourself if your depression comes back after it goes in to remission. It seems like such a simple concept but it had never occurred to me even though I was familiar with the concept of treating mental illness like physical illness.
I was deeply ashamed of the fact that I had thought and acted as though I had defeated my depression for good and then sunk in to the worst depressive episode of my life. I was ashamed of the things I had done during my depressive episode and the resulting consequences of my actions. That shame spread to the things I had done before and after my depressive episode as well. Shame became the predominant theme of my life. It was a destructive force and a major obstacle for me.
On the surface it might seem like feeling shame about one’s life circumstances would motivate you to make changes and improvements but shame rarely works that way. It actually tends to have the opposite effect. It makes you feel hopeless, helpless and worthless, it damages the mechanism in you that’s capable of change.
Depression deprives you of energy and makes even the simplest of tasks seem overwhelming. ECT had lifted my depression and renewed my energy to the extent that it was no longer difficult for me to get out of bed, eat meals or read books but doing things like making plans with friends or looking for a job were still very intimidating. It meant having to interact with people and for me interacting with people meant awkwardness, humiliation and judgement.
I felt so inferior to other people, not just to people who were in good mental health but also to other people who were mentally ill. It seemed like most people hadn’t allowed their mental illness to destroy their lives the way I’d allowed my mental illness to destroy mine. I knew there were people who had done worse things and ended up in worse situations than I had but I decided those people had some kind of reason or excuse for it whereas I didn’t.
I felt a distinct otherness from the people in my therapy groups and the people I read about in self help books. What did those people know about being a loser and a failure when they had jobs, marriages and children, things I would never have? I bet those people never masturbated in front of other people, ate out of garbage cans or spent time in the back ward of a mental hospital. There was hope for those other people but there was no hope for someone like me.
I fell in to the ‘I’m unique’ trap. All those suggestions for improving your mental health and life would work for other people but they would not work for me because I was fucked up in a way that those other people weren’t. I thought back to the the time I’d asked Marlene if she’d ever had a client like me and she’d replied “No, you’re pretty unique.”
The word unique is such a double edged sword, especially when it comes to mental illness. We’re all unique, just like everyone else. We shouldn’t judge anyone until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes and for the most part we have not walked a mile in another person’s shoes even if we suffer from the same mental illness they do because everyone’s circumstances are different. Yet at the same time we shouldn’t get so wrapped up in the idea of our own uniqueness that we decide no one else can possibly understand us, relate to us or help us.
Mental illness often gives rise to a host of other problems, which are exacerbated and reinforced by the mental illness and vice versa, leaving the sufferer feeling trapped in a vicious circle. I’ve been on the autism spectrum my whole life and I’ve suffered from mental illness for a good portion of my life. I’ve heard of many people with one or both of those conditions being horrifically bullied throughout their childhoods and in to adulthood. Although there had always been a few people who disliked me and treated me cruelly, for the most part I had escaped bullying. That changed in the aftermath of my mental breakdown. I was cyber bullied by a large group of people on the internet and emotionally bullied by one person in real life.
My depression caused me to behave in ways that others found annoying and off-putting, as did my autism spectrum issues, both of which interacted with each other. My situation also left me vulnerable and made it hard for me to get away from the bullies. I knew that the things the bullies were saying to and about me were wrong and that they had issues of their own. Usually when they attacked me I outwardly defended myself but inwardly I suspected they were right about me (I’m vagueblogging about the situation now but the details will be revealed in time.)
There was also other life crap that got in my way. I experienced loss. My stepbrother died tragically and unexpectedly, my dog died tragically and unexpectedly, my grandmother died. I moved away to another state thinking I was getting away from a toxic environment and a month later I had to move back. Those situations weren’t caused by my depression but they made it worse.
I had good people in my life who encouraged me and tried to help me but they could only do so much. They could lead me to water but they could not make me drink. I had to take certain steps that I was unwilling or unable to take. I was encouraged to reach out to people, to reconnect with old friends and make new friends. I refused. A few of my old friends tried to call me and e-mail me but I did not respond. It had nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. The thought of having to explain my humiliating life experiences and circumstances to them and compare it with their much more positive experiences and circumstances was too much for me.
The thing about depression is that everything you see, hear and experience while depressed will be filtered through the lens of depression. If you suffer from low self esteem, everything you see, hear and experience will be interpreted to reflect the way you feel about yourself. When people would tell me I was smart, funny and beautiful my mind would tell me that if I was smart, funny and beautiful my life shouldn’t have turned out as badly as it did and it must have turned out this way because I was such an awful, fucked up person.
I was still relatively young so I didn’t need to think my life had ‘turned out’ any particular way. I was told to let go of the past, to focus on the present, to create the future I wanted for myself. I just couldn’t seem to do that though. Along with sadness and shame, another theme of my life was regret. I regretted so many of the decisions I’d made in the past. I tortured myself trying to come up with logical reasons for why I did what I did but the only reason I could ever come up with was that I was mentally ill.
All I could focus on were the bridges I’d burned and the opportunities I’d lost. I’d fantasize about what my life could have been like before if I’d made different choices and what it would be like now. I did not want to work with the circumstances I had now to build a future for myself because I was sure that now I could not create a fulfilling life.I wanted the life I could have had. I guess that by refusing to move forward with my life, I was in a way denying the painful reality of it and by dwelling on the past keeping alive the fantasy that it could be changed.
When I went back to school I did not feel proud of myself . Instead I was ashamed of myself for dropping out in the first place. I was embarrassed that I had been to three different schools on four separate occasions. Being back on the campus of the first college I had attended was a painful reminder of the ‘college experience’ I had ‘thrown away.’
One of the classes I took was Theories of Psychotherapy and one of the assignments for the class involved writing a personal essay. In my personal essay I shared some of the details of my adventures in mental illness and my struggles with it. When the professor handed back the essays, he’d written on mine “Finding happiness isn’t easy. It’s a process. Now begin the process because you do deserve it.”
I wasn’t sure I did deserve it.