TW: depression, suicide, anxiety

A few years ago, I spent three weeks as an in-patient at a Cape Town psychiatric facility. It had been a long time coming, and the events leading up to my stay spanned half of my life. While I spent most of that time wishing my mental illness away, I am finally able to accept it as a part – albeit a small one – of who I am. It has been, and will continue to be, a long road, but at long last I feel prepared to take it, even if at only 40 kilometres per hour.

Building blocks of a breakdown

I am not an expert in the field of psychiatry, but having been institutionalised and doing a module on psychology at university, I like to think of myself as one. What I do know is that two of the main causes of mental illness are environmental factors and genetics. I had a double whammy. My mother had always told me that my grandmother, who was long gone by the time I was born, had been ill, which is how she passed away. It was only in my late teens that I found out that she had died by suicide – something which she had been attempting for years but finally managed when my mother was in her mid-twenties. She had struggled with mental illness for as long as my mother could remember, as did many family members from previous generations. While this gene skipped my mom, not only do I look like my grandmother but I seem to have inherited more than just her appearance.

By the time I was midway through primary school, the bullying started, and continued until I matriculated. This undoubtedly had an impact on my sense of self-worth. Many people experience bullying to varying degrees but most people are able to emerge relatively unscathed on the other side. However, combined with my propensity to mental health problems, it sent me over the edge.

Diagnosis: Depression

I was first diagnosed as having depression when I was 12 years old – a diagnosis I wasn’t made aware of until I was much older. When I was 14 the self-harm started, which was short-lived but painful in more ways than one. Many a break time was spent in a bathroom stall for fear of being seen alone. Despite thinking that I wouldn’t make it out of high school alive, I did. I went overseas for three gap years and completely reinvented myself, and thought that I was a completely-cured ready-to-take-on-adulthood grown-up. But, on my return, I was immediately put on my first heavy-duty antidepressants.

It was in a varsity lecture hall a couple of years later that I had my first panic attack. And it wouldn’t be the last. They continued to affect me when I went to shopping malls, took public transport, saw anyone I knew when I was unprepared, and while I was trying to sleep. It was only in 2012, after a weird break-up, losing almost 15 kilograms in less than two months and developing a slight problem with Ritalin that I decided I needed help from the pros, which is how I ended up in a three-week treatment course.

There is something undignified about being an in-patient, because you are seeing everyone at their worst. All of us in the clinic had to line up in our dressing gowns at night to receive our medication, and again in the mornings to have our blood-pressure taken. Some intakes were there against their will and would wail helplessly for hours. There were no locks on the bathroom doors, and we’d have a torch shone into our faces every hour during the night to make sure we were still alive. My fellow patients were mostly much older and from a variety of different backgrounds, and I struggled to fit in, which was much like my experience in the outside world. Our days were regimented and we had timetables that dictated our every move and, in my case, a nurse to watch us eat. While I didn’t feel as though I benefitted from the strange exercises we were meant to do in order to get better, I did find a therapist who I would continue to see for some time, and also met someone who remains one of my closest friends to this day. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t all bad either.

Life’s a journey

Needless to say, three weeks is not enough time to heal from years of psychological distress, but it was a step in the right direction. And the direction wasn’t towards healing, but rather acceptance. Back then, I didn’t think that I would ever be able to take a train to town and walk to my office, where I have a respectable job. These were things that happy, well-adjusted people did. This doesn’t, however, mean that I am cured. I take medication daily and still have the occasional panic attack, but I feel better equipped to cope than I used to. I credit this to talking about my mental illness openly, and finding that that alone is something that so many people around me can relate to.

Life is hard for everyone – some more than others. My condition has been labelled as chronic depression, which means that while I am able to function, the disease will always be lurking in the shadows ready to strike when things get too real. But the fact that I accept it and know myself means that I know when I need to take a step back. This came with time, maturity and jumping into the deep end even when I didn’t want to. After all these years, I can even say that depression looks good on me, and that without it I would not be the person who I have come to know and love. It took a minute, but I got there in the end.