I’m sure, on the outside at least, it looks as if I manage to cope with university life fairly well. I attend all my lectures and seminars with at least some form of preparation, I remain relatively on top of my work load and I just about manage to balance my studies with extra curricular activities of my choice. Now, at this point, I should alert you to a brief disclaimer: Whilst that last bit might look like I am proudly boasting about what a top student I am, I promise you I’m far from it. In fact, I am a sufferer of dysthymia – more commonly known as high-functioning depression. Perhaps one of the most elusive and misunderstood forms of depression experienced worldwide.
Let’s be frank here, upon hearing the word “depression” it’s difficult not to conjure up a mental image of someone who locks themselves away from the world out of fear. You think of someone who is so crippled by fatigue that they are forced to declare themselves bedridden, someone who is simply too ill-equipped to cope with everyday life. It’s become quite a buzzword actually; depression has certainly entered in on our public discourse and personal vocabulary in a big way. But while society has certainly become more open and willing to talk about common mental health issues such as depression, society still lacks that core element of understanding that no two people will experience depression in the same way. What we seem to fail to understand time and time again is that depression comes in all shapes and sizes, and there are countless subtypes which present different challenges and issues for those affected by them.
I guess this is the tricky bit. For those of us suffering with high-functioning depression, those things I described above certainly aren’t unfamiliar to us all. We, too, experience all those symptoms that appear diagnostically similar to what is known as Major Depressive Disorder. Habits of poor appetite or over-eating, insomnia or hypersomnia, fatigue, markedly low self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness are just some of the symptoms that may or may not hit us. But for those of us suffering with high-functioning depression, we may not experience the same severe levels of biological and mental functioning that make major depression more overt, more obvious and more familiar to identify with.
Essentially, what this means for me is that I still manage to get up each day and force myself to confront my daily responsibilities, however unwilling I am. It is perhaps this very fact that continues to be the hardest part of this illness: it is a mental health condition that requires validation. It’s almost as if I face constant interrogation where I have to prove that I am ill to others. I am constantly on the receiving end of comments such as “but you do so much, surely you’re not depressed” or, “your grades aren’t suffering, you can’t be that bad, right?” The easiest way I have found to explain it is that I have two very dominant forces inside me that are competing against one another. One part of me is riddled by thoughts that ask what the point is in doing all this work, and tell me that giving up would be the easiest option. While the other is met with thoughts, equally as loud, that remind me I must be perfect otherwise I have failed. My brain goes into total overdrive and I am left caught in the middle, feeling hopeless.
My brain is wired to work in an incredibly specific way. I have the strangest fixation with time, for example. I will constantly monitor how much time I have spent working because it is one way of shutting out those cries of being a failure or being lazy, and I count every second I “waste” if I am not fulfilling a task I believe I should be. This in itself is incredibly draining, which, on top of the residual fatigue I experience, is incredibly detrimental to my wellbeing.
This has certainly proven itself to be a really difficult obstacle to overcome during my time as a student. There have been countless occasions where I have been close to admitting defeat with it all, especially if I find myself completely overwhelmed and weighed down by looming assignments. But that all too familiar fear of failure creeps up on me, and I find myself working through tears. Throughout all of this, I am lucky to say I have an incredibly strong support network here at Southampton. I have people around me that will remind me to go out for a walk if I find myself in this predicament. I am beginning to learn, once and for all, that self-care is the most important thing, and that perfection, to put it plainly, is not an attainable goal. To admit you’re struggling or you need some time out doesn’t make you a failure – it makes you human.
If there’s anything I hope you have taken away from his piece it’s that you have learned something about my illness, and that sometimes things aren’t as simple as they may seem. I am gradually learning to be kinder to myself; I am allowed to spend time without doing work, and doing things just because I want to. We all deserve time to ourselves, and things do get easier.