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Black holes and revelations

Published on 26 October 2019, in the Philippine STAR.

I think one of the worst things about having clinical depression is the guilt. You want to pretend it’s not there — the emptiness — because you don’t feel like you have any right to it, and you know that there will be people out there who maybe won’t say it to your face, but will be thinking, How dare she? So many people are living infinitely harder lives, and she, with all her privilege and good fortune, has the audacity to be depressed? How ungrateful!

There will be people who will say it aloud, too. In my case, they’ve always been people who didn’t know me at all, and didn’t care to learn. Anonymous strangers on the Internet. Old classmates or distant acquaintances with resentments. And I wished so hard that I could tell them, You don’t have to say these things to me. I already tell myself every single day.

I’m so grateful for my life, and I hate that this illness — because that’s what it is, an illness, real and insidious — makes me feel ungrateful.

Something I wish everyone realised is that no one in their right mind would choose to have this condition. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It’s not a bid for attention. If I wanted attention, I would post a selfie or a picture of myself in a bathing suit like everyone else on the Internet. And sometimes I do. But when I write about heavy things, it’s because they’re incredibly real to me, and I don’t believe in putting on a positive show for social media if it’s rooted in pretense. There’s already too much artifice out there, and it’s so damaging to those who are already vulnerable or haven’t developed the discernment to see it.

But also, it’s because there’s a part of me that needs to know if anyone out there feels the same, because one of the other worst things about depression is feeling completely alone.

People think depression is a deep sadness, and it can certainly be that. Pain and traumatic experiences can trigger depressive episodes that manifest in sadness, in non-stop crying, in misery that lasts weeks, months. Sometimes things will happen to you, and you will go through depressive episodes that have you sleeping all day or not sleeping a wink. You’ll eat too much. You won’t eat at all. I’ve had my heart broken enough times to know this intimately.

But more often than not, in my experience, depression is actually nothing. It’s emptiness. It’s a void. It’s waking up in the morning and being unable to find the will or the energy to do things as simple as brushing your teeth, or taking a shower, or doing anything to take care of yourself. It’s numbness, it’s a lack of motivation that you just can’t understand, and can’t find the source of. It’s struggling to get started on things you need to do — even the simplest things. (And then those simple things pile up, and you find yourself completely overwhelmed, and you end up not doing any of them at all, and then you feel like a failure.) It’s doing the barest minimum of living, just enough to get through one day, then the next.

It’s a feeling of isolation. It’s a feeling of worthlessness. It’s ignoring every invitation you receive to hang out, sometimes because you feel like nobody actually wants you around and that you’re just a burden that your friends put up with as a kindness, sometimes because you can’t find the energy to switch yourself on and you just can’t bear to fake it. Maybe both.

It’s overthinking everything, beating yourself up over the smallest things, and being anxious and irrationally afraid that you’ve ruined everything somehow. It’s feeling like an impostor, all the time. It’s believing that it’s always your fault when things don’t work out, or accepting it when you’re treated badly by people who should have treated you better, because you think so little of yourself. It’s having an inexplicable loathing for yourself, and pushing the people who love you away because you don’t understand how they can possibly love you, when you can’t even love yourself.

Sometimes, it’s thinking the world would be better off without you in it. You don’t want to kill yourself, not necessarily. (Though there are some who do.) You just want to stop existing. (There’s a difference.) So you keep trying to disappear, trying to make yourself small.

It’s knowing that none of this makes sense, and that it’s probably not true, but being unable to make it stop feeling real — like the realest thing in the world — anyway.

This is what I live with.

Depression is a black hole. That’s how I’ve always seen it: a black hole living within you. Sometimes that black hole is so tiny, almost imperceptible, and you can almost forget it’s there. Sometimes it’s a little bigger. Sometimes it’s a lot bigger. Sometimes it feels like all of you. But no matter how big or small it is, it’s always there. And always, always, it’s sucking the light out of your life.

I am extremely lucky, in that I have a loving, supportive family that believes that mental illness is real, and have done everything they can to help me fight through it. My depression must be the most foreign concept to them, but they try so hard to understand, and, in a world full of people quick to invalidate mental illness, I have never felt invalidated by them. I am so grateful for their patience.

I have been working with a wonderful psychiatrist for the last four years, who, through cognitive behavioural therapy (and with the assistance of antidepressant medication), has helped me learn to manage my condition. First he saved my life, and then he taught me how to save myself.

I have real friends who have not given up on me, and still text me to invite me to things even when they know I won’t come, because it’s their way of telling me that they’ll still be there when I’m ready, without making me feel guilty for being absent. Among other things.

Not everyone is as lucky.

I’ve been open about my clinical depression since the day I was finally diagnosed in 2015. (It answered so many questions I always had about myself — it was such a weight off my shoulders to finally understand what was wrong with me and realise that something could actually be done about it.) And because I’ve always been open, candid, and brutally honest about my depression, I’ve received a lot of messages over the years from people going through similar experiences.

Many of them don’t have the financial capability to seek psychiatric help, because the hard truth is that mental illnesses are almost prohibitively expensive to treat. An hour with a psychiatrist can cost thousands; medicines can cost even more, especially if you need to take more than one to manage your condition. And you have to take them daily. So I try to share mindfulness techniques and insights that I picked up from my shrink. It’s the least I can do.

Many of them don’t have a support system to fall back on, because their family and friends don’t believe that what they’re going through is real. (“It’s all in your head,” they’re told so often. And yes, it is. But your head is a body part, too.) So they write to me, because they need someone who understands to listen. And I listen. It’s the least I can do.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told complete strangers — who slide into my DMs to make themselves vulnerable and pour their hearts out to me, a complete stranger — that what they’re experiencing is a real thing. That there are people out there who understand. That they’re not alone. That I’m there, too, right where they are. It’s the least I can do.

I suppose if there’s one thing you learn from a lifelong experience like this, it’s empathy. You learn it the hard way.

I think that’s why, after all these years, I’m finally writing this on a platform larger than my Instagram account. Because the more that the people who suffer — and survive — mental illness use their voices and their platforms to speak about their experiences, the more we neutralise the stigma surrounding it.

Republic Act 11036 — the Philippine Mental Health Law — is a great beginning, and I hope fervently that it is properly implemented sooner rather than later. I look forward to the day when every Filipino has access to mental health services.

Depression doesn’t distinguish between rich or poor. It strikes anywhere, and you might never even realise that it lives in the people around you because it doesn’t really manifest physically. (We’ll chalk weight loss or weight gain up to diets and exercise or lack thereof; we attribute looking uncharacteristically haggard to being stressed or tired.) We’ve lost generational talents to depression; people we believed were too brilliant, too successful, too fortunate, too happy, to be suffering from such an illness. We’ve lost people we loved. We’ve lost too much.

It’s real. It’s hard to live with for those who have it, made harder still when you have to live with it in hiding. And it’s hard to live with, too, for those who love us. It is so hard.

Anyone with depression will tell you that platitudes, however well-meant, don’t really help. Just pray to God. Things will get better. You’re still better off than the starving children in Africa. Look on the bright side. Those things sound nice, but have never helped our mental state. (Sometimes, they actually make us feel worse.) So, no platitudes from me.

Just this: Be kind to one another.



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