Behind closed minds

Warning: This piece is about depression and mental illness, if you feel affected by any of the content you read, please contact your country’s hotline/support network, available lists below:

For as long as I can remember, my mother has suffered with depression, however for her, it’s a part of her life. She takes her medication and she functions. When I had depression in 2013, I suffered for nine months, and while I’ve had periods of recurring depression since that time, I have never experienced the same depth or lack of feeling. Even at that time, I suffered with a mild version with only a few severe lows. I’m also no stranger to chronic illness but that’s for another time.

My sister is another matter. My sister has suffered from severe depression for 3 years. That’s not to say my sister isn’t functional, because she goes to school, she sees her friends and she functions. But her bad days often come with thoughts of suicide and calls to me and a suite of doctors’ appointments.

The world of depression is something that many of us understand from the inside, or at least has been explained to us from this perspective– an intense lack of emotion, a feeling of isolation and overwhelming sadness. I’m now sitting on the outside of a world, I’d only ever experienced being fully immersed in. To be a part of someone’s life who has depression, is like standing back stage when I know there’s a show going on, I see the evidence of it everywhere, the costumes, the people, I can practically hear it, but I’m cut off from it because ultimately I’m not part of the experience – merely a spectator to the grand event playing out inside my sister’s head.

When people talk about chronic illnesses like Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, Heart Disease, one of the things that comes up is the mortality rate, what are their chances? Are they going to be ok? Depression and other mental illnesses never seem to be treated like this, but there is a mortality rate, which depending on the type of depression ranges from 5-20%. Maybe the issue is the intersection with suicide rates from other causes (non-mental illness related), however consistently the conversation seems to avoid that the end result might be death.

It’s one of the scary facts to face every day, ‘today might be that day’. It’s not like there’s a progression from A to B as with heart disease, there is no rough estimate on timing, sometimes there is just one trigger and the entire world falls apart. A call being answered at 11:30pm could be the difference between life and death. And sometimes no matter what is done, you can’t stop the emotional fall, however dramatic and terrible.

There is no real way to explain the fear I have for my sister – it’s not an active thought and it feels like constantly playing with chance. Some days, I know that this day, Trump could win the election, the UK could exit the EU and I could get a call at 2pm saying ‘Your sister has killed herself’ and until the day is over, I don’t know what’s going to happen.

And no-one knows what to do. I’ve spoken to so many people, because I hate lying about something that isn’t a secret and everyone understands. I’ve heard everything from the most logical things to the most ridiculous responses – people who’ve shared their own experiences of relatives with depression and mental illness to sensible advice suggesting I check out a suicide support website to the ridiculous,  ‘She should listen to Tony Robbins’.

When people get chronically ill, there tends to be a suggested treatment plan, an idea of what to do and what’s going to happen as time passes. In my experience, no one can tell you that with depression. Sure, they can set out a treatment plan, and they can set out emergency plans and contact plans but depression isn’t getting sicker from A to B, so there is no clear answer.

In some ways, it can be isolating, there is an insistence almost to treat people with Depression without consideration of their own opinion – should they take medication or not? Suicide, the positive and negative sides, the benefits of hospitalisation and what about self-diagnosis? Etc. etc. The biggest lesson I’ve learnt from helping, Autonomy is the most important. Depression pretty much takes away all feeling of self-control and to pretend someone isn’t in the state where they can make decisions about their own lives, care and health is insulting and additionally, something that wouldn’t be done if they were suffering from a different illness.

Yes, depression is destructive, and it’s emotional and many people become inactive in their own care. But there is a big difference to suggesting a doctor’s visit and helping make an appointment, to taking them to a doctor and forcing them to talk about it. Every step must be made willingly or it might as well, not have been made at all.

Anyone who has experienced the balancing act of care knows that one move can topple it, and it’s like waiting on chance. I can put in place doctors, emergency plans and cross the city at 2am to comfort but each day brings new trials and the possibility of both good and bad days. I’ve repeated to family and friends alike; if I could make it all go away, I would but I can’t. We have to deal with the situation and it’s awful, least of all for us, so the best we can do is try and make it easier and hope that what we’re doing is right at the end of the day.

Unfortunately there is no magic bullet, but some days there is something that could help – and the person doesn’t want it. I could make an entire case for a treatment method, but it’s all null and void if it’s not wanted. The temptation is so strong to swaddle the person in a blanket until it all goes away and everything’s alright. But ultimately, that’s never going to work and I just continue on caring and hoping and trying and enjoying the little moments where everything is alright.

Caring for someone with a chronic illness, in and of itself is a taxing experience, simply working out what is a good and bad day can be difficult. It is like working in the dark, because you’re constantly standing just outside where everything’s going on. Sometimes it’s like someone’s flipped a switch and everything’s fine, and then a fuse will go somewhere and an entire person just shuts down. It is a very unique, long and difficult experience but I would drop everything every day for a year, if it meant at the end of it, she’d be ok.

I can’t talk about depression in society beyond my experiences of it and my experiences of working with my Mum and sister. And I can’t say much about a national conversation, but my experiences of depression, both on stage and off, are not ‘This is what it’s like to have depression’ (This photographer/writer captured it perfectly), it’s grueling emotional difficulty, where no one really understands what’s happening and most people don’t know what to do.


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