When You've Got Depression and You Don't Even Know It

In the lead up to the Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon on May 21st, I will be publishing weekly posts exploring my experiences growing up with mental illness. I will be running the half marathon to raise money and awareness for the Black Dog Institute, you can learn more about their work and donate here. 

The first time I had a major bout of depression I was seventeen years old. But I didn’t know it back then. At the time, I genuinely believed my life was a steaming pile of shit – that everyone who’d been on my side had turned against me. It wasn’t until I was twenty-two, and dealing with my second (and much worse) bout of depression, that I looked back on my final years of high school and realised ‘hey, the world wasn’t treating you like shit, you were really sick!’ The trouble with depression is that it takes ordinary problems and dips them in darkness.

Illustration by  Siiri V.

Illustration by Siiri V.

To be fair, when I was seventeen, I was going through some genuine teenage drama. I thought Marissa Cooper on the OC had relatable experiences – I think that says it all. I went through a breakup that was a fair bit more brutal than your regular teenage parting of the hearts. I made new friends – ones who were dealing with similar boy troubles – but then had to deal with the repercussions of shifting away from my long term friendship group. My home-life was not going well, but I didn’t have anyone I felt comfortable discussing that with. These were all real problems, and they weren’t easy ones. But they were also fairly normal ones.

What wasn’t normal, was the fact that I felt like I had nothing to live for. I was convinced that all of my friends hated me, that they were constantly bitching about me behind my back, and that I couldn’t trust anyone. When people were nice to me I was certain they were lying. Walking into school felt like walking into a tank of piranhas, just waiting to rip me to shreds. I was captain of my house at school, but I no longer had the loud, bubbly, school-spirit-infused personality that had seen me elected in the first place. So I felt like I was publicly disappointing several hundred students.  I often thought about suicide, and I took an excessive number of sick days, which were mostly spent crying in bed. Then, because I wasn’t at school, I imagined my friends were all bitching about me in my absence, which made going back the next day more terrifying than ever. It was a vicious cycle.

I should mention that during those crappy days, my best friend was incredible. She would come to my house after school and lie in bed with me and hold me in her arms, even though she lived on the other side of Sydney. She never asked me for anything other than to keep on breathing. It was hard for me to step outside my depression during those moments and see how lucky I was to have her.

At twenty-eight, I am three cycles of depression down the line, but more than any other, I’m still dealing with the consequences of that first one. It’s the time in my life that has had the most lasting impact. The main reason for that is because I simply didn’t know I was dealing with depression. Because I didn’t know I was dealing with depression, I couldn’t explain what I was going through to anyone, I couldn’t ask them to be patient or clarify why I was pulling away. I was certain that all of my negative thoughts were based on reality rather than being able to identify them as symptoms of mental illness. Because I really believed all the darkness in my head, I lashed out at people, was aggressive and unkind. I had real life fights with enemies who only existed in my imagination. There are friendships in my life that are still being rebuilt from damage I did during that time.

Nowadays, I recognise the symptoms of depression a mile off. I have a wonderful psychologist, and I have been taking anti-depressants for seven years. When I feel myself getting low, I am able to warn those around me, and to explain that I might not be myself. When I feel the world is against me, I’m no longer quick to fire off an emotional or angry text. I know that sometimes the things I feel aren’t proportionate to reality, and that I need to take action to feel better.

I’d be lying if I said that everything is better now that I know what’s wrong with me. Depression feels like absolute garbage whether you know what it is or not. It sucks, but mental illness will always be a part of my life, and it will always have an impact on those around me. I’m still not completely able to protect my friendships. Understandably, people don’t like it when you withdraw from social life – when you stop feeling able to take their calls or show up at their parties. But I’m learning, and I’m getting better, and the people around me are learning too.

If I could go back and say something to my seventeen-year-old self, what would it be?

Be kind to yourself. Ask for help. You don’t have to feel this way.

Michelle Balogh