Writing about mental health issues is important. Despite my own cynicism about whether or not what I write is valuable to anyone else, I will indulge in this piece if only for my own catharsis. This blog is about my own mental health struggles, but if writing about it helps me, perhaps I can encourage others to follow suit.
When I went through my darkest period I didn’t actually understand what depression was or even that I had it at all. I just thought that there was something ‘wrong’ with me. I felt like I had a physical illness. The fatigue, lack of motivation and anxiety induced chest pains were, I thought to myself, just a kind of virus or simple dietary issue that I had overlooked.
I did not understand that severe depression can manifest itself in such a visceral and physical manner. When my best efforts to ‘fix’ the illness with a better diet, more exercise and sleep did not yield any improvements I went to see a doctor. I still thought that I was simply infected with something, that the mental and physical were separate and unconnected.
After blood tests and even an ECG to figure out why I was having chest pains, no answer was found. Knowing that nothing was wrong with my heart or general health was relieving, but also deeply confusing.
Eventually my mental state deteriorated to a point where I was beginning to have dark thoughts I never would have thought I would be capable of having. It is strange to think how despite nearing a suicidal state, the idea of getting help or talking to someone about your mental health can seem like an unnecessary burden to put on others. Despite having put doctors through the admin of an ECG and puzzling muscular pain, opening up about thoughts seemed trivial. Yet it was the source of all the problems.
As soon as I got help and was prescribed anti-depressants it became clear to me how the relationship between mind and body is intimately connected. As soon as some of the anxiety and pressure was relieved, so were the apparent physical symptoms. I have always been the type to avoid medication as much as possible, even the idea of taking a paracetamol to ease the pain of a headache is disturbing to me. I hate knowing your body telling you something is wrong, but not allowing pain to remind you of that. I vowed to get off the anti-depressants as soon as possible.
Once I had some amount of psychological relief it became easier to function normally. I was more open minded to educating myself on mental illness and taking steps to healthier thought patterns. Within a few months I was able to manage the anxiety without the medication and had developed techniques for managing depression. While I have never returned to that dark place I was in, the war is never entirely won.
Letting go of ideas
I would not release music if it were not for the encouragement of my friends. The music would remain hidden on hard drives and servers unheard.
I get extremely stressed after releasing music. It is not an anxiety about what others think, but about confronting my own mediocrity and shortcomings. Not letting go of an idea means it can remain the ‘theoretically’ best version of itself; as long as it is never completely finished it can still aspire to a quixotic perfection. Every time I let an idea out into the wild, its ugly corporeal form becomes a harsh reminder of a standard I may never achieve.
Pretty much as soon as I share something with the world I go into a bad place mentally. Sometimes I feel completely unmotivated to work on any projects or seriously contemplate giving up making music entirely for weeks. Whether this anxiety is a manifestation of a particular kind of mental illness is not something I can figure out objectively. The meta-cognitive analysis of ones own thought patterns can only take you so far through the fog of your own biases.
I struggle with Anhedonia. It is an inability to feel pleasure from normally pleasurable activities. At its worst I have even stopped eating for lack of enjoyment or desire to eat and have felt like there was nothing I could do or have that would enable me to feel a positive emotion. Sometimes instead of anhedonia pleasure would be quickly undercut, in an almost newtonian fashion, by an equal and opposite negative emotion. Normally this was heavy anxiety shortly after feeling some amount of pride or happiness.
The worst thing about anhedonia is that it robs you of any desire to pursue goals or even function at all. Your utility function becomes meaningless because progress and accomplishments fail to improve your mental state or levy a positive emotion.
One of the harder parts for people suffering from depression is it often does not present to the outside world or is difficult to detect. There are many who are able to function normally despite the churning negative internal emotions that can be in full force at any time. I will often make sure to act like I am ‘having a good time’ in order to be better company. The reality on the inside will often be closer to a state of apathy, ambivalence or anxiety.
Behaviours like smiling or even laughing in social situations are not always instinctual or natural. Social rapport can be a constructed and deliberate act in many situations. I can at least speak for myself when I say that much of the smiling and positive body language I do is a learned and practiced behaviour that I often have to intentionally switch on. No one wants to be around someone who is miserable and broadcasting that fact. If you have depression but are able to function well, it can leave you in a difficult place.
Sharing your own experience with someone you trust means you can at least temporarily relieve the socially acceptable ‘character’ that must be played in order to continue to fit in socially. While in an ideal world we could all be aware of these psychological battles going on beneath the surface, people should not be expected to have that level of perception. I know I didn’t understand any of this before I experienced it.
Often the crux of my anxieties are worries that I am digging down for meaning and nothing of value will be revealed in the soil. The only way I have found to cope with this is to think only about the means, not the end. To not consider that there may be nothing but soil and worms born of the hole. The meta-goal is to have a goal, to continue digging in distraction of the emptiness. As Albert Camus said of Sisyphus and his eternal task of pushing a boulder up a hill: One must imagine him happy. Maybe by this Camus means that it is only in consideration of meaning itself that we lose our human connection to value. Our contextual relationship to eudaemonia is what matters, not whether the process we are part of has objective value.
While we dig we can at least savour the precious moment of an unconscious smile. Not in an effort to fit in, but out of emotional compulsion. No need to worry about the fruitlessness of the digging if it comes second to our interludes of happiness.
Who knows, at least we will get better at using a shovel.