Personal Story: Living with a lifelong mental illness

Now that my illness is here, and to stay, I will not be stopped

Po the Panda

I noticed the little things at first. The cute crayon drawing, probably made by a child not more than five; a small paint chip on the wall; the mug that announced ‘You Are Special’. Blech. Cheesy. And why were there more markers than pens inside the mug? Wait, does that marker match her nail color? No, she isn't wearing any nail paint or lipstick. That, or she’s wearing an extremely personalized nude shade. Or is it just gloss? The lips are moving now -  “I understand that this isn't probably what you expected to hear,” were the words tumbling out. “Po...?”

On hearing my name, I started to refocus my attention on her face. My psychiatrist, Dr A, she’s a beautiful woman in her 30s, and her face showed the immense compassion she was clearly feeling. After over a year of consulting her and being diagnosed with major depressive disorder, I had tried my best to deal with my mental illness in the manner of a diligent student who wants to ace a project. Much like how I was working through my pregnancy that was happening parallely, doing prenatal yoga, taking iron supplements, going on walks and what not. To tackle my diagnosis, I attended a group therapy program with other new mothers and went for one-on-one cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) sessions. Along with this my prescribed dosage of  anti-depressants kept increasing. While all this was happening, my daughter turned one.

When I heard what my psychiatrist had to say, I was exasperated. I asked,"When am I going to get better? Like, what's my recovery timeline?". I was met with a pause in response, followed by these painful words, “Po, given how severe a case like yours is, we are really looking at this a bit differently. Our approach is more how to manage your condition, rather than recovery or cure."


I blinked and said,"Umm, so you're saying I'm never getting better?!"

Dr A jumped in immediately, “Absolutely not. In so many ways, we have been working together on your progress. And you have recorded that yourself.”

I stayed silent.

“Po, what I’m trying to say is that Dr M (the head of the department) and I have been discussing your case and your condition is deep-seated and severe. So we are looking at you probably having to deal with the depression as a lifelong condition.”

Cue: blur.

This was not just not what I expected to hear. This was something I simply didn’t expect at all. I thought of depression as being like a  long, annoying flu – it takes you down when it strikes and dawdles around before leaving. But it does eventually leave. I had no idea that I would have it around like a constant thing. A leech. A leash. A life sentence.

“When did you know that I was going to have this for life?” Sometimes there’s no difference between a distrustful patient and a suspicious detective.

“Well, we have been monitoring your case closely right from the beginning. And over time, this is what we have in terms of prognosis.”

“Right.”

The rest of that conversation was focused on Dr A telling me that having a lifelong condition did not mean that I would also be constantly sniffling like with the flu. In fact, with the proper lifestyle, medication, and other management techniques, it would fade to the background. I could potentially go through days —months, even —without knowing it was actually there.

Self-pity isn’t an honorable emotion. But I wallowed in it for a while. Yes, I asked myself the question, “Why me?”

I may or may not have binged on chocolate. Ranted about it at length with my super supportive bestie – who could have done literally anything else during that time, but raged with me instead; bless her.

I did all these things until I finally came to the acceptance stage. My depression, I told myself, is like diabetes. Sure it’s unwelcome. But now that it’s here — and well, here to stay— I will not be stopped. People with diabetes are all around us. They go about life with us. And I’m going to be like them. Just like they take their insulin without shame, I’m not going to be shamed for taking my meds. And yes, I’m going to watch my health more closely. Diabetes has the potential to predispose and worsen any other condition you have – heart issues, blood pressure, etc. The same can be said of depression for mental health – anxiety, bipolar disorder and a host of other mental illnesses can be made worse by depression. Self-awareness helps. As do frequent conversations about how you are really feeling.

I’m grateful to have a loving, supportive husband and the best of all besties in my college girlfriend. These two people are my rocks who ensure I don’t crumble. They hear me out without a hint of boredom when I feel like talking.

exercises help me. Yoga does too – on the days that I actually bother to do it. Self-care does wonders. As do silly things, like wearing my favorite red lipstick even if I just have to go grocery shopping. On top of the list, however, is acknowledging how I’m doing. So if I’m feeling down, I acknowledge it and allow myself to feel down, rather than impatiently shrug the feeling off with distractions and then get frustrated when it doesn't go away. I do actually run through the laundry list of dark thoughts that drag me down the familiar rabbit hole. And then I tell myself, well, for all those thoughts, I’m still here. Still standing.

I don’t know if this makes me a survivor or a warrior or one of the many other well-meaning platitudes society tends to bestow upon those with lifelong afflictions. Some days are dark, or just blank. But they are a lot fewer than the days that are not. Some days I look in the mirror and see a tired woman with a stubborn postnatal belly and dark circles around her eyes. Other days I tell myself, they’re all signs that I’m Po the Panda.  

The author of this personal story chose to be anonymous.