Content Warning: This post contains information about an individual's struggle with mental health, which may be triggering to some survivors.
“What My Depression Means to Me,” Brittany
Note: All survivors who reach out to The Art of Survival are given the option to remain anonymous in sharing their story. Any specific details about the survivor are shared at their discretion, and not the creators of the page.
I’m not entirely sure where to start my mental health story, as I’m not sure when it started.
I think back to my childhood, and I remember having a lot of great times catching dragonflies, listening to music with my parents, and riding my big wheel up and down the sidewalk. But it was also a tumultuous childhood with some truly rough spots. I grew up in a household in which two of the people living in it had mental health concerns of their own, I got physically and verbally assaulted on the playground nearly every day in elementary school for being an overweight kid, and as a result of the latter had extremely low self-esteem and body-image. I struggled with my identity as a queer woman, suppressing it from the time I had a hint at it at the age of 16 to my full-on acceptance at the age of 21. I work through body image issues every day, stemmed from childhood bullying, mass media, pop culture, and the dating scene.
My Dad says I have always been a deep thinker. He described me as a contemplative child, and said I never seemed like a kid even when I was one. Perhaps the combination of my inability to keep things light and some of my lived experiences made it so I never had a chance of not living with depression. Nature or nurture? Both, probably.
I write this story, and it is the second iteration. In the first, I explained my depressive episodes year-by-year so you would see it was the circumstances and not me. I read it again and realized that, while sharing my mental health story with you, I took no ownership of it and completely disavowed it as my environment only. While I believe there are environmental factors, I know that my own brain is also a component of my story.
If it is caused by just a circumstance, I can change my circumstance. If I am depressed, I can’t exchange my brain for a new one.
A lot of my most depressed states have been in times of transition. Transitioning schools, work environments, building new social circles, and moving to new places usually makes me feel isolated, detached, withdrawn, and lethargic. I would love for transitions to mean that I’m excited for something new, that I’m looking forward to making new friends and living in a new place. But what it actually means for me is that I get nervous, I struggle to make friends, I spend a lot of time alone, and am usually thoroughly discontent in my new environment. In my first year of anywhere new, regardless of where it is, I start to feel extremely isolated; this is due to the slow pace at which I create new social circles.
The isolation then leads to depression, which leads to a feeling of detachment from my environment, which ultimately leads to suicidal ideation due to lack of emotional investment and social contact. These are transitions for me, every time. The lyrics “Tell me why I always feel alone” and “I want to love, want to live, want to breathe, want to give; but it’s hard and it’s dark and we’re doomed from the start,” from Meg Myers’ “Hotel” describe how I feel during times of transition. I would like to transition smoothly, make friends quickly, and not feel isolated; I would like to thrive in my new environment, but I end up feeling isolated and alone anyway.
Once I form a reliable social circle, I have good days and “meh” days. On my good days, I smile more, talk more, am a more enthusiastic listener, and seek social contact. On the other days, I have trouble paying attention, I isolate myself, I miss details, and I pick everything apart until it all seems terrible – my naturally analytical brain becomes over-analytic. How often do good days and meh days occur? It depends. Is it a year of transition? Have I settled into my environment? Do I have a reliable and consistent social circle? What support systems do I have in place? Do I feel supported in my work environment? These factors largely contribute to how I process my environment.
My depression means that I experience suicidal ideation; how often and how intense depends on the day/week/month/year, the circumstances around me, and how I’m processing my environment. For those of you panicking, I have no intent to act and no plan.
My depression means that I have survived two suicide attempts in my life, the most recent being six years ago.
My depression means that in downswing periods I overcome the urge to revert to my self-harm tendencies. It’s hard, but I’m a good debater and I’ve learned how to debate with myself during these times and have the survivalist and role model in me win. I’m proud to report it’s been six years. During these times, I attach and relate to the lyric “I’m trying hard not to get into trouble, but I’ve got a war in my mind” and “I’m tired of feeling like I’m fucking crazy” from Lana Del Rey’s “Ride.”
My depression means that I have trouble emotionally investing in my environment. I do get excited about things; I do have days when I have energy and enthusiasm; I do have days when I feel “present.” But on the whole, I’m removed from my environment and often feel like more of an observer than a participant; others describe this as me being calm and collected. If I’m in a downswing, this phenomenon of detachment is more common and pronounced. If I’m not in a downswing, you’ll see more of the energy, enthusiasm, participation, and excitement.
My depression means that I have trouble getting up in the morning and going to bed at night. I can’t really explain this one; I just know that when I’m feeling good I tend to adhere to a better sleep schedule than when I’m not. A song that encapsulates this feeling is “Feather” by Meg Myers, which explains how I feel when I don’t want to get out of bed and interact with people. In particular, the lyrics “Words taste bitter, frozen every time I see a pair of eyes. Momma, can I sleep forever?”
My depression means that sometimes I have a low appetite. This manifests in that I get tired of chewing or I’ll sit and stare at my food, feeling apathetic at the sight of it and discouraged at the amount of energy it’s going to take to get it down. Sometimes it means I overeat because I literally don’t give a fuck about anything, including my physical health, and because I eat for comfort. Eating for comfort started when I moved from Colorado to Minnesota, had no friends, became inactive, and spent a lot of time inside with my sister eating and watching TV. Food became a comfort tool, even though my weight leads to a lot of physical insecurities.
Since I moved to Iowa about a year ago, I’ve been experiencing new feelings that aren’t great. I’ve been experiencing a lot of tightness in my chest, stress, have felt overwhelmed at the simplest of requests, and have difficulty putting energy into relationships I hold dear. I often feel irritable and short-tempered. I used to enjoy driving, but my irritability turns into anger, which turns into aggressive driving. Within the past couple of weeks, I realized that I’ve been experiencing anxiety.
So now, in addition to the depression I manage, I am living with anxiety. I can say I manage the depression after years of learning how to through counseling, trial and error, and a good support system. I can’t say I’m managing the anxiety. It’s new to me, so I need different tools for it. When I think of all the complaining I’ve been doing of late to close friends and family, I wonder if I should be complaining when I’m not currently doing anything to change it.
My sister once said to me, “Don’t complain unless you’re going to do something about it. If you’re going to do something about it, then I’ll listen.” I don’t know if she knows this, but that has stuck with me for many years. With that as my mantra, I’m planning on looking into counseling soon, and need to find a provider that is covered by my insurance and is queer lady-friendly. Because I am smart, capable, and funny (in my subjective opinion), I expect to rule the world with the help of a trained professional.
The reason I did not want to write this piece is the reason I am writing this piece. The students I supervise and supervised, colleagues, and past and present supervisors will have access to it – I don’t want them to know my history because it’s too personal, but perhaps knowing my history will help them in some way. It is a risk to splay yourself publicly, to be this vulnerable. I am taking that chance so that others can see that you can make it, you can be successful, you can positively impact and influence those around you even if you live with depression and anxiety.
I am writing it to remove some of the stigma associated with depression, and to work through some of the stigmas I still hold. I am writing it so others see that depression does not have to be a limiting factor, and that you can accomplish what you set out to do even if you live with it. I’m writing it so students I’ve worked with can see that, eventually, you will learn how to live with it and you will be okay.
I am writing this story because we shift the narrative through sharing.
And now, a song that reminds me it’s important to reach for help when needed so you can help others help you:
About the art:
"End Love" is a song that is very important to Brittany and it reminds her to reach out for help when needed. The quote that I used for her painting are some lyrics from "End Love."
The scene I painted is an evening scene on a lake among some trees. Brittany loves the serenity of nature. The swirls in the sky represent her fun, light, and loving personality. Everyone has down days, but as someone who also struggles with depression and body image, those days become much harder to bounce back from.
I hope when she looks at this painting, it gives her strength, even on rough days.