The Student Who Became My Teacher
In a former life, I was a teacher who had the great pleasure of working with some fantastic students. I once turned the tables on my students and gave them the task of teaching the class a new skill or schooling the class in some way.
I vaguely remember one student teaching the class some football skills and another teaching art techniques. Yet the lesson which most stood out was the one delivered by one of the cheeriest students I’ve ever had, on the topic of depression. She delivered a presentation on 7 different types of depression including post-natal depression, bipolar disorder and Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Prior to her presentation, I remember calling this student one morning to find out why she hadn’t yet turned up to class. ‘I can’t decide what to wear,’ she said. My response, ‘just pick anything and get yourself here.’ And she did. She came in, a few hours late but she made it.
During her presentation on depression, she said that it sometimes manifests itself in angry outbursts and spoke from her own personal experience about being subjected to the anger of a loved one who was in fact struggling with depression.
Hers was the presentation which I never forgot and will never forget. At that time, I did not know that I was only a few months away from my first (or second) major episode of depression. I didn’t know that my student’s inability to choose an outfit to wear was symptomatic of depression rather than inertia. She was in fact a wonderfully spirited young lady who was highly opinionated and fun to be around (I know that is a precious thing because some young people are HARD WORK). But good humour or the ability to smile or laugh does not disqualify someone from depression.
I learnt so much from this young lady that I became pretty good at spotting the happy depressive or the seemingly lazy depressive. I started using a different approach to work with students who struggled with depression. My previous ‘get yourself into College’ approach was replaced with a ‘come in and let’s chat about what’s going on’ approach. The latter was much more effective than the former at helping the student stay the course and more importantly at helping them access support within the College.
Mental Unwellness Is About The Things You Cannot See
Depression is, like most mental illness, about the things you cannot see rather than the things you can see. It’s the physical paralysis which keeps you in bed and the verbal paralysis rips out your tongue. It’s the talk of plans for the future whilst questioning your existence. It’s the person you have a drink with who makes a joke in public but thinks of themselves as the joke in private. It’s the person that turned up late for work yet again despite repeated warnings who is struggling with insomnia rather than inertia. It’s the seemingly absent-minded individual who asks you to repeat yourself for the fifth time in an hour. It’s the person who says, ‘sorry, I can’t come out tonight, something came up.’
I don’t know what became of this student of mine but I do remember her as a funny, hardworking, loving and highly sensitive individual who enriched me in a way I could never have imagined.
My First Experience of Depression
My first experience of depression happened soon after I became a teenager. But, at the time, I did not realise what was happening. I just knew that I was deeply unhappy (for various reasons) and had fallen out of love with this thing called life. In school I was pretty happy and active but my mind was littered with thoughts which I still find challenging as an adult. I managed in the best way I could until the entrance of the eating disorder which helped me become a functional depressive, a state which came back to bite me in adulthood. Perhaps confronting it then would not have landed me where I am today. I say this, knowing that I am also positively changed because of my experiences and have learnt to appreciate simple rather than grandiose pleasures – a fallen leaf in autumn, a cloudless sky, the thrill of speed and the time spent in the company of those I love.
For those of you who have played Jenga, you will be able to visualise the moment that one piece is taken out and the whole stack come crashing down. That was my second major experience of depression. I am still trying to find and collect the scattered pieces. The suddenness and enormity of my descent into depression was like taking a ride through the rapids of hell. Confusion, fear, anxiety, disassociation and an inability to see in colour meant that each day felt like a sadistic exercise in the art of staying alive. The realisation of the fragility of one’s own mind is an incredibly terrifying experience. It still echoes inside my head today, in spite of the passage of time. Amidst the tornado, I did manage to come to a decision about the way forward.
An Eating Disorder Is Not Conducive With Life
In order to recover from the depression, I would need to confront and overcome the eating disorder which lay in the shadows. It had hitherto, neither dominated me nor prevented me from living what I considered to be a full life at the time. It did however, cast a shadow over my life as it was at the time. It meant I socialised with others, except for close friends. It meant being secretive with my family and friends and unfortunately, it meant forgoing potential relationships. I was still able to study, work, do things that I enjoyed from time to time and appear very functional. Being functional was good enough, or so I thought. I couldn’t foreshadow what was to come – a time when functionality would slip first into disfunctionality and then total collapse.
When everything eventually fell apart and I entered a day programme for eating disorders, I was so far removed from the person I had been that I lost all sense of self. It was like trying to find my reflection in a once clean stream whose waters had been muddied beyond redemption.
That said, the day programme helped me stay just out of reach of the talons of depression. Unfortunately, it didn’t help me address the ED. Even though I have serious reservations about the delivery of ED treatment in general, I know that the conditions at home and in my mental state were not right for me to recover. I couldn’t give up the ED (restriction and purging) for fear of the depression. And so began the almost decade long game of running around in metaphorical and literal circles.
The Dangers of Using Exercise in Mental Health Recovery
Running was the other thing I used to help me keep depression at bay. That and swimming. It brought me out of catatonic states, it helped me find a reason to keep going whilst at the same time, keeping me entrenched in a state of emaciation. It also perpetuated the falsehood that I could only deal my thoughts by running the heck out of them. In fact the biggest reason for going on ridiculously long runs was to tire myself so much that my thoughts would sleep for a while. Never worked. At least not for long.
So I return to the song which I posted at the start of this blog. The lyrics sum up all you need to know about how some people manage depression and mental unwellness.
Once upon a time, I tried to run it away. Neither snow nor rain nor freezing temperatures could dissuade me from running. Now I try to cycle it away or swim it away or pretend it away or sleep it away or hide myself away but all of these are temporary fixes for something which is a recurring issue. It was in fact the reason, that I spent so long stuck in a eating disorder. Hiding from rather than confronting it keeps a person in eternal hell.
For me, the eating disorder always felt like a lesser evil. The thought of losing my sanity, of coming so close to letting the waves completely take me has always been a more frightening proposition than the idea of struggling with food forever. Yet exercise is not a panacea for mental unwellness.
Telling someone with an eating disorder to use exercise to cope with depression is like telling someone whose heart is failing that exercise will make their heart stronger. Yes, in theory, exercise can strengthen the heart but if it is seriously damaged, recommending exercise might just be the nail in the coffin.
Whilst the first few months of my second attempt at recovery went pretty smoothly, mentally and nutritionally, the past few months have been pretty tough. Continuing to eat whilst in the throes of another episode of depression was not really a difficulty which I had given that much thought to. But now it’s here, I am not sure that I am dealing well with it or that I know how to deal with it.
The strange thing about depression is that its bones have normally calcified by the time I am aware of what is happening. By that point, I am far too immobile to move easily through it. First my mind begins to struggle and then my body.
Depression And Appetite
Depression has made my appetite plummet and in turn made food harder to face. There is now more anxiety around meals and less ability to force myself to eat when I don’t fancy anything in particular. This is compounded by the fact that I am now weight restored plus (as I call it). I am not flirting with a marginally weight restored body, I am fully embracing weight restoration. Forcing myself to eat at this higher weight is indeed a massive challenge. A skipped meal here, and a skipped meal there was the beginning of an ED for many a sufferer.
The Dangers of Complacency in ED Recovery After Weight Restoration
Given my belief that EDs are primarily a mental rather than physcial illness, it really is incumbent on me to stop giving myself permission to skip meals simply because my weight is normal and my appetite low. I am well aware of the fact that I have now given myself permission to allow my appetite to dictate whether I eat or not. I know this is a dangerous path to go down in recovery. I also know that if I let this go on for much longer, I risk undoing the hard work I have put in over the past six months plus.
The one thing which I have tried to do is to eat out with others, a task which comes with its own challenges. It helps sometimes. Yet in truth, I am fed up of eating, of food, of choice, of the daily monotony of it, of the discomfort of fullness and the anxiety around deciding what to eat and making something to eat.
Sometimes depression and eating disorders are two separate entities and sometimes they are bedfellows. For the first time since I began my recovery, I have begun to doubt my ability to recover from either.
Ultimately, I think that if I cannot find a way to manage and perhaps eventually overcome the episodes of depression, I may put my long term recovery from the ED in jeopardy. I am still committed to ED recovery and learning about me. But……..
That’s the question I’m still asking myself.