4 June 2016
Let me preface this by saying I always imagined that having a mental illness would be a lofty affair. There would be a dramatic opening scene where I would have a psychotic episode and would have to be detained. Perhaps I would also be hearing voices and talking to people who weren’t there. Once it was determined that indeed I was crazy I would be put in a strait jacket in a padded room with all white. While I occasionally thought about this possible future, I failed to notice that my daily reality was already clouded.
For the first time about a month ago, I got properly diagnosed as being depressed. The word cyclothymia was used which made me feel like I had an incurable disease. For the first few minutes I laughed when I heard the diagnosis because I already knew this. My mind said “DUH Miss fancy doctor pants, now tell me what my problem is”. For this reaction to make sense, I need to talk about myself a bit more to put it into perspective.
If there is a video on YouTube about depression and autism spectrum disorders, I have probably watched it multiple times. As odd as this may seem, I use them to understand myself better. In my head I used to laugh at people who made a big deal about being depressed because I did not get it. From around 2009 (age 16) to now, I have been depressed. It has come and gone multiple times but it has been there more times than not. However because of my high functioning nature, it may not be immediately obvious. For that reason I sympathize with people who experience depressive episodes for the first time. Fortunately or unfortunately I have never really experienced suicidal thoughts which is why I never equated my feelings with real depression. Due to my ignorance and due to its colloquial use, I always equated depression with suicide or cutting. I must however confess that the first few times I was depressed, I was confused by the lack of feelings but now as a veteran of this state I now get excited when I get depressed. Granted I forget what excitement means but I don’t let that subtract from the experience.
Earlier this year, I was talking with an old college friend that she reminded me about how I was around 2010. Granted we just met then and because of a few shared interests, we hung out quite a bit. That 4 year period was about struggling though something I hated (engineering school) while I worked on things that really mattered (extra curricular activities). Some may have seen that as a problem but I was okay with it because I did not know any better. It was around this period that my depression started.
Around the time I wanted to go to college I had a few options in mind. My list of possible majors included engineering, 2D animation, photography and film making. I have always liked creating things and working with my hands. My childhood was such that I had the opportunity to do almost all the creative projects I conceived. It did not occur to me at the time that college would mean the end of that if I chose the wrong major. With my naive decision making stills at the time, I started engineering school and within the first week I realized I had made a mistake. My parents felt that it was just because I was living on my own and adjusting to the environment and believed them. About a month in I dreaded waking up for class because I did not know what I was doing at that school. It was around this period I started to feel sadness but it was a new emotion for me. I had felt disappointment occasionally over things like not being picked first for a sports game but never sadness till that period.
I have always had a lot of willpower and due to that I soldiered on, but I started involving myself in everything that did not relate to school to take my mind of school. I was involved in every activity my friends were doing and we even ended up making some cool permanent changes that are still active today. It was around this period I started doodling. Doodling was my escape into my internal world. In high school, art and technical drawing class were my favorite. I couldn’t believe that someone could get paid to play around with a pencil and paper all day. I never saw myself as being an artist but those are some of my only high school memories. When I started doodling in college, I never went anywhere without my sketchbook. Looking back, I have filled around 5 books completely with doodles. I would doodle everything from funny things I saw in class to deep conversations I had with other people. I was invincible with my pad and pen.
Ever since I realized that engineering was not my thing I spent my days thinking about what I would do if I was free. At that time I had some challenges with my weight and I noticed that cooking helped me loose weight and generally made me feel better. It was around that period I told my parents about my decision to enroll in culinary school. About a year before graduation, I got my acceptance into culinary school and I counted down the days till I would start. I have always believed that openness is everything. There is very little benefit that comes from lying and distorting the truth. 3 months to graduation, for the fourth time I decided to be honest with my parents when they asked me a personal question. The outcome of that conversation led me to apply to every mechanical engineering job near my school because that part of my lifestyle had been rejected. As graduation neared, fortunately I got a job offer but unfortunately my parents showed up at my graduation. My assumption about this period till date is that the event was much more traumatic for me that it was for them. In fact it seems like they had forgotten.
In the 4 month gap between engineering school and culinary school I started a small cookie business to occupy my time. Culinary school started and for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was in high school art class. Paper, pencils and paint were traded for knives, pots and plates. I could feel the life return to my body with each class and every person I met. We were from different backgrounds but were all there for the same reason. After culinary school I had my first leg surgery to correct some weak leg veins. What I haven’t mentioned is that there was a dark spot that slowly grew on my left ankle. It started as a little bruise but my family and I assumed it was a scrape from some physical activity. It reached a point where standing became difficult and finishing culinary school started seeming more and more impossible. I was not willing to give up yet and after the surgery I did an internship at a pastry factory. 3 months passed in seconds but when an offer for a job came I had to decline as my legs felt weak. I needed some time to take a break.
A few weeks later I moved back in with my parents and for some reason I met professional grade kitchen equipment that had been bought for me as a kind of surprise. Just as I was figuring out what to do with this equipment my dad had 2 strokes and a few seizures. After he got better I started up the cookie business again. I needed a creative outlet but after a few months I grew tired and ended it. This whole period lasted for around a year. My legs still gave me much pain and I could feel that the end of my culinary career was close to an end. In an effort to figure out what was going on I underwent another leg surgery. Still not knowing how to feel about that I moved and staged at a 3 michelin star restaurant. I ended up working there for 7 months on pastry station but it was well worth it. The pain I felt during that period was unreal but I formed some of the best memories that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
If you look up symptoms of depression you see things like hopelessness, loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities, constant fatigue, sleep and appetite changes, strong negative thoughts, sudden reckless behavior and uncontrollable negative thoughts. To the best of my knowledge in those moments, I had none of these. It is now that I think back and even as I reread this story, I am able to see that I have been devoid of all emotion for a long time. Pay attention to how I described traumatic life defining events as if I was told it in a story. My depression has now been prolonged to the point where very little is pleasurable. The idea of doing things bring me great joy but the execution and result just leave me confused. Based on external reactions, It seems like I should feel joy, satisfaction, contentment or even appreciation but instead there is nothing.
Graduating from college, cooking school, starting a business and working at places people only dream of all in different countries with different languages have brought me no positive feelings. Instead I feel as if I am dragging my existence with me along a yellow brick road. Through a few experiments over the last 3 years I have been able to determine that I can do anything I want in life, but there is very little reason to do as it brings no satisfaction. These feelings trickle into my everyday activities. As far as the majority of my relationships go I am emotionally unavailable because in reality there is nothing to give. I speak about love and connection with theories and rational facts instead of with emotion or deep feeling. I avoid the phone and most messages because I do not see why people would want to frequently communicate with other people. When I watch people talk and there is effortless energy and emotion in their voices and gestures I often wonder what that life would be like. To not have to consciously generate appropriate emotional tones in your voice with the right facial expressions to match. To not have to plan arm and hand movements to portray your idea of an emotion as you have seen it acted out before on multiple occasions by others. How nice that must be. Instead I am a puppet master pulling my own strings.
The reason I tell this story is this. I am not remorseful about my past experiences for mental illness has many facets. With the more extreme cases you see the things most documentaries, articles and people associate with mental illness. On the less extreme side there are people like me. Completely functional and able to attend to the demands of life on the outside but completely empty and tired on the inside. By not being honest with myself and not speaking up about uncomfortable and painful feelings that could have liberated me, I let depression flourish. Its little seed has now turned into a tree that bares fruit regularly according to its own seasons.
Except for flesh wounds you are unable to know when there is a problem with the physical body until it starts to give a warning sign. By then it may be too late.
How do you know when your mind is ill?
This post was made to further explain a topic I introduced in this weeks video talking about theory testing and focusing on positives.