Most of this I wrote more than a week ago, but haven’t had the guts to post it until now. I still don’t feel entirely comfortable about posting it, but I think I should, so I will.
Getting the internship was huge for me. When I received the email saying I’d got it, I had to read it three times before I could believe it and then I cried a lot. And it’s not even a permanent job, or a paying one. I left my job in Cape Town at the end of March, arrived in London at the end of April and was then unemployed until this month. I didn’t expect the move to work out like this. With a bunch of academic achievements and a year of work experience on my CV, I was naive enough to think I’d snap up a reasonably good job shortly after arriving, like Luc (my boyfriend) did. After the first month or two, when I started realising that this wasn’t going to happen and how utterly stupid I had been to expect it, I started to descend into something that, I think, could be described as depression.
I’ve never considered myself to be someone who suffers from depression, meaning that it hasn’t been a prominent issue in my life so far. I’ve never had to take meds, I’ve never self-harmed… nothing like that. I’m lucky. I’ve gone through patches of seemingly overwhelming sadness, but I don’t consider this to be out of the ordinary. Conflict with people, relationship blues, the deaths of loved ones; these are things that affect everyone and my reactions to them are, I think, standard reactions; nothing that qualifies me to say that I “suffer from depression”. But the unemployment thing gave me a taste of what I imagine it must be like.
I’ve come out of it now, since getting that wonderful email, and I have a bit of perspective on the whole thing, so I feel like I can, and maybe should, write about it.
It was terrifying, realising that I was losing control of myself in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. I’d wake up some mornings feeling dead. I knew I should be looking for jobs online and trying to fix the main thing that was making me stressed and unhappy, but it got to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read an entire job description, let alone write a coherent cover letter. I was stammering more than I ever have in my life. I was crying All. The. Time. Literally every day. Usually more than once a day. I’d try to get out when I could find the energy and when I did I’d feel a vague sense of achievement at having “done something”, but I wasn’t really enjoying any of it properly. I’d take photos thinking “one day I’ll look back at the pictures and be glad that I saw all these amazing things” but most of the time I can’t say I was too glad in the moment I was actually seeing them. I felt detached, walking beside myself, floating above myself, looking at my life as though it was someone else’s.
It got progressively worse and worse and I started getting a bit panicky, especially when the random crying became so bad that the skin under my eyes felt permanently raw and I’d find myself almost throwing up with the intensity of it. So I went on the internet and read a bunch of “How to Deal with Depression” guides and most of them recommended seeing a health professional at some point. I decided to do that, seeing as it would be free anyway. (Yay, NHS!) I made an appointment, citing my dysmenorrhoea as the reason for it and thinking I’d just mention the depression thing “by the way” at some point in the exchange. I almost didn’t. There were two doctors present during my appointment; the main one and a trainee. After getting a prescription for expensive painkillers that I had no intention of buying, and showing them a rash on my hand to buy time, the session seemed to be wrapping up…
Doctor: (perhaps sensing that I was holding something back) Is there anything else we can help you with?
Me: Well, maybe. Yes. I’m not sure. I don’t really know how to say it. Um. I’ve been feeling a bit depressed.
And then I started crying. Obviously. There was this horrible silence that seemed to last forever between the moment that the tears and snot started pouring out of my face and the trainee doctor getting up to fetch me an inadequate piece of tissue. While I was trying to mop up my face leakage, I started laughing and said something like “You see? This keeps happening. I don’t know what to do about it.” I was trying to keep the mood light and not make it more awkward for them than it had to be. I was already feeling terrible about the sky-high levels of awkwardness in there. It didn’t feel much like I was in control of the situation though; I was just watching it unfold like a cringe-worthy B-movie.
The doctor then went on to ask me a bunch of questions that I can’t remember. I told him about the immigration and feeling homesick and not being able to find a job and not knowing how worried I should be about my mental health. And then he asked me if I’d thought about suicide and I told him that I hadn’t, but it’s not really that simple, is it? I would never kill myself. There’s a lot I want to do with my life. I’m not scared of death (there’s nothing scary about non-existence… I didn’t exist before I was born and that was perfectly OK, so I’m not too phased about not existing after I die), but I am scared of dying, as in the actual process of becoming a corpse. I don’t like the idea of being gripped by pain or nervousness or fear in the last moments of my existence and I’m pretty sure that most suicides usually involve all of those things. Moreover, I would never kill myself because I couldn’t do that to my boyfriend, my family or my friends. I reckon I would rather trudge on, hating every second of my life and pretending to be ok for their benefit rather than hurting them by hurting myself… but, as I said to the doctors, I’m scared that if things keep getting worse, these might not seem like such big obstacles anymore. I said something to the effect of “I’m not suicidal, but on some mornings I don’t really feel like existing and I’m scared that one day I’ll wake up and I won’t care about my family and my friends anymore, and I won’t be scared of dying, and I won’t feel like putting up with this shit any longer, and then I don’t know what will happen. I came to speak to a professional because the internet said that that’s what I should do.”
And I was glad I did. We had a good chat, the two doctors and I, once the awkwardness had passed and my face wasn’t leaking so much anymore. They told me that acknowledging that things aren’t all right is a big part of the battle won, and a crucial step towards getting better. They gave me a form for blood tests (to rule out some physical causes of depression, I guess) and told me to schedule another appointment a week after getting them done. I never went for the blood tests and I never scheduled the appointment because I received word about the internship on the next working day and it was like lifting my head out of a vice. Within hours, I was “OK” again, and ever since, I’ve been thinking about this experience and picking it apart (as I tend to do with everything). I have a few thoughts about it.
Firstly: WHAT THE FUCK? Whatever I was going through was obviously not physical, because as soon as the problem I’d been fixating on was in some way eliminated, I got significantly better almost immediately. I’m still sad sometimes, I’m still incredibly homesick, I still cry some days, but I feel alive! Life is not a big black hole of pointlessness and despair anymore. I don’t hate myself. It’s great! The internship is not a permanent solution, and it hasn’t done anything to help with our financial predicament and the stress associated with that, but the change it triggered in my state of mind was profound.
This leads me to understand my previous state of mind as a sort of shroud of misery that I had pulled over myself. Surely if I had pulled it over myself I should’ve been able to throw it off just as easily? But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I required a change of circumstances in order to feel like myself again. I had pinned normality onto something specific and I couldn’t have normality again until that something had been earned. WHY? I’ve been giving that a lot of thought too.
It’s pretty fucked up how my self-worth had become so entangled in “what I do” as opposed to “who I am” that a four-month blip in my career path (if I can call it that) basically caused me to lose my grip. In retrospect, I’m ashamed of that, although there wasn’t much I could do about it at the time. One of the key things that kept triggering the bad spells was shame. I was ashamed. Having been successful academically, I felt like I had something to live up to. I wasn’t responding to pressure from other people to live up to their high expectations; I was having a problem living up to the expectations I’d set for myself. I think that a lot of people are susceptible to this sort of thing. We’re constantly being defined by our work and valued according to how successful we are in our careers. It’s bullshit. Ambition is good, but not when it starts to grind you down. Things aren’t always going to work out when and how you want them to. Learning to deal with that is important.
Feeling the way I did, I withdrew a bit from everything. I tried to keep up appearances online, but mostly I was just posting things into the cybervoid rather than interacting with people one-on-one. I fell out of touch. Not completely though. There were my parents and a few other people who I spoke to, online and offline, who really kept me going and got me through to the other side, even if the exchanges were infrequent, and even if they didn’t know all of this crap I’ve just typed here. The writing marathon in August was also a massive help, as it got my mind off of the job hunt and allowed me to feel like I had a purpose. And now I have an internship. I’m working hard, learning lots, getting out of the house every day and I feel GREAT. Exhausted, but great. Of course part of that greatness could be attributed to the fact that I can now say “I have an awesome editorial internship at an awesome publishing house in an awesome city” (which is pathetic, but sadly, due to the human condition, it’s also true) buuut I also feel great because I’m occupied and awake and I have perspective on things.
So, TLDR, THE POINT: I am now OK, but I wasn’t OK. I let a small amount of failure bring me really low, and it was a waste of time and energy and I kinda sorta partly blame society for helping me to get my self-worth tangled up in things that I can’t always control and don’t really define me at all. I might (in fact I probably will) find myself in a similar situation again, but I’m hoping that I can use the lessons I’ve learned to prevent the emotional apocalypse from manifesting itself in such a destructive way next time. If anyone reads this and can relate to anything in it and wants to talk to me about their experiences, please contact me. I’d love to chat and to help in any way I can.
Disclaimer: Obviously not all depression is like this. Everyone has different experiences and different needs and different methods of dealing with whatever they’re going through. I don’t think that my experiences are universal, nor do I think they are unique. I’m not an authority on anything.