In my last post, I discussed briefly the role of free will in the context of mental illness. It’s such a colossal subject with so much scope to cover that of course I only scratched the surface. Today, I want to go into slightly more depth with this as my prompt:
In the comment section of this tweet, you can find people deriding the concept of neurochemistry as a factor in mental illness, people using the “chicken and egg” argument and people expressing pure outrage and denouncing the idea altogether.
It’s no secret that this is an extremely touchy subject for a lot of people. To experience mental illness is to suffer, more or less, and why would anyone choose to suffer? That’s a complicated question with complicated answers.
I was in a coffee shop (shocker) in Glasgow a few months ago and couldn’t help eavesdropping on a conversation that two people were having next to me. When I say conversation, it was more that a guy was talking at a girl and she was barely getting a word in edgeways. He was reeling off a soliloquy (maybe that’s needlessly harsh) about his experience with depression and how he “got out of it”. For him, he said, changing his mindset was the catalyst for his recovery. He started to recognise all that he was grateful for. In addition to that, he said that he started to prioritise exercise.
I’d like to say firstly that that is brilliant. I’m happy for him that these methods worked and I don’t doubt that mindset and physical activity have an important role to play in mental health. But having experienced multiple bouts of depression, I don’t necessarily think that this approach is one that could feel possible to everyone – or that it could work for everyone. Or even that if it did work for one episode, it might not necessarily work for the next one.
In mental illness, as with most things in life, there is a lot of nuance. The more experience I have of mental illness, the more I lean towards a position of tentativeness about the various methods available to bring about recovery – as opposed to a brazen self-assurance that one recovery translates to “one size fits all”. If I’m to judge the very short conversation I overheard, I’m led to think that the pompous attitude this guy had about mental illness suggests he has not experienced depression more than once.
Why is this assertion relevant? Defeating depression for the first time can lead to a sense of inflation. The unimaginable darkness that enshrouds us is dizzying; and when it begins to lift, the relief can be equally dizzying.
“Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah”
– Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen
A cold and broken hallelujah is a fairly accurate (and poetic) depiction of the lifting of depression. But as with the defence mechanism that causes new mothers to blank out the pain of labour, we soon forget. The period of depression becomes a blur, we start to gain strength. We feel triumphant in our newfound mental wellbeing and are led to believe that the unimaginable darkness could never find us again. And, empirically, we’ve learned that whatever method we utilised has “worked”. This is what leads to that inflation.
What we don’t learn from an initial episode of depression is its tendency towards the mutable. It’s this mutability that allows it the strength to gain a second wind at our expense.
“The first time it bewildered me, but I thought I’d cut it loose
I learned the second time my certainty was just a ruse
The third time led me down the path to emotional abuse
Number 4 almost convinced me I had nothing to lose.”
– from my poem ‘How I Got Over It’
The fact that it can manifest in different ways is pertinent because it means that previous methods of self-protection could fall flat. What happens when you go to the gym regularly but the raincloud stays steady over your head? What happens when attempts at gratitude now feel forced and inauthentic. There are endless self-help strategies that can be employed to improve low mood so it’s important to remain as adaptable as possible. But there is something truly heartbreaking about making a beeline for a tried and tested method of recovery for depression and it all of a sudden not working. This has been my experience; repeatedly.
I’ve experienced 4 marked episodes of depression and not once have I really been able to re-use a previous method of treating it. It just doesn’t work for me. I need to try something new. But in addition to this, fairly consistently, each episode has been worse than the one which preceded it. As a result of this, my personal agency and motivation has taken a more severe blow with each new episode.
So it gets to the point where motivation truly plummets – because what’s the point if it’s going to happen again? When your motivation and personal agency feel as if they’ve been robbed from you, the unhealthy habits outlined in that tweet start to creep in.
When getting out of bed to go and cook yourself something wholesome to eat feels like an impossible task, a ready meal is an easier option – at least that way, you’ll be eating something. And people would say “but you’ve got a choice“. I think some people do and some people don’t. It depends on the nature and severity of your depressive symptoms. And the friction and stress that can be caused by repeatedly forcing yourself to put in a level of effort that you barely have available to you can cause an exacerbation in depressive symptoms, too.
Sometimes you need to give yourself a break from “doing the work” and allow yourself a day or two in bed, watching Netflix. Sometimes a sedentary lifestyle is all that will feel possible to you – and that’s not defeatism, that’s realism. Rest has a rejuvenating and restorative quality to it and sometimes, if depression sets in, that’s what it’s begging of you.
On a more personal note again, that’s the approach I’ve taken this time round. Almost as an experiment, I’m seeing what it’s like to not be too hard on myself: to eat junk food more than what I normally would, to not exercise much at all, to be on my phone a ton and not berate myself for it. It might sound counterintuitive, but at the moment what’s more important to me than living a healthy lifestyle is radical acceptance – regardless of what my life looks like at the moment.
Of course, remaining sedentary for too long can become damaging for those of us fortunate enough to have the ability to move our bodies. But when we do at some point feel that the time is right to live with a bit more vitality, let that change be born of radical acceptance and self-love, not guilt and chastising.
Thanks for reading.
– SMUT. ❤