When I was first diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder, the following excerpt was brought to my attention. It’s taken from ‘Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong’ a book by Dr Tim Cantopher:
“What happens if you put a whole lot of stresses on to someone who is weak, cynical or lazy? The answer is that they will immediately give up, so they will never get stressed enough to become ill. The strong person on the other hand reacts to stress by redoubling their efforts, pushing themselves way beyond the limits for which their body is designed. When they start getting the symptoms of depression they still keep going, with the inevitable result that eventually their limbic system gives way. If you put 18 amps through a 13 amp fuse there is only one possible result.”
Dr Cantopher’s observations are backed up by scientific theory. “When a part of our brain called the limbic system malfunctions it manifests as depression. Our limbic system is a complex system of nerve fibres configured like a computers circuit board, controlling numerous systems around our body including our moods. It copes with our everyday life stresses very well, but it does have a limit. When pushed beyond breaking point (usually, but not exclusively, by a traumatic event) it will effectively blow a fuse. This ‘fuse’ is our transmitter chemicals, seratonin and noradrenaline, and their levels drop rapidly when the circuit blows. Without the correct levels of these two chemicals the electrical impulses that our brains nerve fibres need also drop, which in turn causes our ‘circuit board’ to abruptly stop working i.e. depression.”
In those early days, I took great comfort from those words. Because they resonated with me. I’d always been considered mentally ‘strong.’ Exams and performing under pressure didn’t bother me, I was great in a crisis, I never got too high or too low in my emotions, and I was superb at helping other people through their own troubles. So it all made sense.
I was also aware that emotions and reactions to mental inputs didn’t just materialise in thin air. They were caused by chemical reactions in the brain. So once again, it made sense. I had overworked the physical functions that moderate emotions and now I was paying the price.
Time passed, and I got worse. My anxiety rendered me unable to speak, my hands shook uncontrollably, and physical ticks presented themselves. Depression led me to self harm and suicidal thoughts. I had the worst time of my life. The worst time I’ll probably ever have. I tried different medications, extensive therapy. Eventually, I came out of it, and today I find myself in a relatively good place.
A little while back, I made the conscious decision to approach my life as if anxiety and depression no longer affected me. They were conditions that I used to have, and may occasionally relapse into, but they were no longer my present. They no longer defined me. And then a couple of weeks ago my medication was changed (in the hopes of leaving me feeling like less of a zombie in the mornings) and I went to shit.
Once again, I was wreck. Just when I’d seemed to be getting myself together, I fell apart. The stammer came back, the ticks and twitches reappeared and I locked myself away, afraid of the world. I was advised to stop the new medication and go back onto my old medication. I worried that I’d set myself way back. It had taken me the best part of 18 months to get to where I was. How long was it going to take to get back there this time? Miraculously, it took just over a week.
Somehow, I managed to retain the lessons I’d learnt and the thought processes I’d implemented. I’m back to feeling pretty straight again. When I went to therapy today, my therapist was surprised at how well I’d done to bounce back in this fashion. She mentioned my “resilience.” She said that I’d been through an incredibly tough time, faced another battle, and yet here I stood, having overcome it all.
I disagreed. I didn’t feel resilient. I saw it like this. I wasn’t resilient, because I was weak for succumbing to all of this in the first place. It was self imposed. The suffering I’d caused myself and the people around me, was all my fault. It’s not like somebody had told me to be anxious or depressed. I’d come up with that myself. I was the cause. I was to blame. Nobody told me at 16 to become borderline emotionless and bottle everything up, I’d done that, even if it was subconscious, it was me. Nobody told me to develop IBS either. I caused it.
Quite rightly, my therapist told me that I was wrong. A common theme in our sessions has been her belief that I’m too hard on myself. I set these rules and expectations upon how I should act and feel, and I pass harsh judgement on myself if I think I’m not up to scratch.
So I think it’s time that I accept what she’s saying and acknowledge the truth. She is right. I am resilient. And I shouldn’t be ashamed to feel that way. I’ve faced battles that have killed other people, that have nearly killed me, but I’m still standing. It wasn’t weakness that got me through it, it was strength. And despite it all, I’m here and i’m looking toward the future. A couple of close friends of mine have got Crohn’s Disease. I wouldn’t tell them they’ve done it to themselves. It’s something that has appeared within their body, over which they had no control. My illness was no different.
My depression and anxiety were the result of environmental factors, of chemical reactions. I didn’t choose depression. I didn’t choose anxiety. When I was 16 and my parents split up, I wasn’t equipped to deal with the emotions I was experiencing. I thought that being strong and not falling apart was the right thing to do. When I was new to the police and being bullied for the first time in my life, I didn’t choose to become anxious. I tried to keep my head down and persevere. By ploughing on forwards and not letting myself fall, I wasn’t being weak; just ignorant about what I was doing to myself.
Now when I look back, I won’t see myself as being weak for having had depression and anxiety. I’ll see myself as being strong and resilient for overcoming them.