This time last week it was like the world was ending. There are certain things I’ve gone over in my head a lot, trying to figure out how to explain them to people who haven’t experienced it. I should be able to; there’s a strong literary thread in my family, I wrote a lot during high school and attended the Christchurch Young Writers’ School. (That might not be what it was called, I’ve been out of school for a while.) But I’ve tried, and in this respect having a breakdown is much like the Christchurch earthquakes – I can string words together but it all comes out as cliches that do nothing to really convey the complicated mess that it is. After the earthquakes there was too much emotion, all happening at once and none of it making much sense. During a deep depression there’s not enough. They’ve actually studied this, interestingly. People who suffer damage in the part of their brain responsible for emotion start to have difficulty making decisions. It makes sense if you think about it – if you have no emotional investment, you might think you’d become more logical, but how do you assess which outcome is better if you have no metric for deciding what is “good”? And that’s sort of what emotion is, a lot of the time. And when you’re depressed to that level, nothing is good. There is no ideal outcome, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s hopelessness. I felt like schoolwork was impossible, I cried a lot. It was pretty much my default time-killer, really. Staring out the window at the empty yard gotten too unfulfilling even for my apathy? Might as well cry for a while.
By mid-to-late last week I was starting to get a bit of myself back. It’s hard work. I had to force myself through a lot of it, particularly dealing with the consequences for uni. I had help – I’d spent a couple of hours clicking through the Massey website looking for the most appropriate people to reach out to and couldn’t ever work up the momentum to actually email any of them, so in the end someone else emailed someone on my behalf and forwarded it to me. That worked. Once there was a point of contact in my inbox I only had to reply, and it didn’t matter if it was objectively the best person or whatever. In the end I dropped a paper, and then I worked as hard as I could to finish the assignments due for the two papers remaining. I will be the first to admit that those two assignments were not my best work. I think I actually put the wrong student id number on one of them, and I’ve been typing that thing out over and over for two or three years.
Don’t get the wrong idea when I say I worked as hard as I could, though. This isn’t the study habits of a diligent high school student trying to pad out their college application in America where you need a little more than a C average in Bursary (or whatever the NCEA equivalent is) to get into a decent school. I didn’t feel…. connected to it, really, like I have done in the past. That feeling that, yeah, I’m working on an assignment, I’m applying my learning and preparing for the exam if there is one and one day I’m going to use this knowledge or the experience of gaining it in the job market. I like most of my classes and I’m pretty used to that feeling. This was more that I consciously knew I had to get the work done, but I didn’t feel like it was very urgent. Not more urgent than staring out the window at the empty yard. The word vacuous comes to mind to describe that state, not so much a fuzziness as a general disconnection from reality.
Okay, here’s a metaphor. I have an Asus Transformer, the screen slides into a dock on the keyboard and clicks into place and lo, my tablet now looks like a laptop. Around the little sockets on the bottom of the actual tablet bit the plastic casing is of course thinner than it normally is, because it can’t cover that socket, right? So for the last couple of months, around one of the sockets the plastic had cracked at one end and poked out a bit unless there was pressure holding it in place, which there is when it’s docked. Recently I began having trouble docking it though. It slid in, but it didn’t click like it normally does, like when you’re doing up your seatbelt (make it click!), and if I wasn’t careful I’d knock it out of place. I could push it in but then it would be out of alignment on some other edge. Eventually I realised that the little bit of plastic had come off at the other end as well and it was sitting inside the dock on the keyboard, preventing the tablet from getting in far enough to make a proper connection. It was recognising the keyboard, I could type fine, it used the extra battery just like normal, but jog it the wrong way or accidentally kick it or something and nope, no longer connected. Sorry.
Obviously this allegory does not go much further. I can’t just tip my keyboard unit up so the plastic falls out and everything locks together again the way it was meant to. But it might be a little easier to understand than the other words I know, things like depersonalisation and derealisation and dissociation (of the three, probably derealisation is the most accurate, though it’s really meant to describe something slightly different.)
I submitted the second assignment today and I still have reading to catch up on. I actually had done a little bit of reading during those five awful days, because it was a way to pass the time and didn’t actually require much effort and, most importantly, the binders were right there. But I’m still behind in both papers and I’ll have to work on that this week. Right now I’m a little burned out for the day though, I’ve been reading too many articles and thesis abstracts and trying to assess them on a critical level to at least reach a level maybe vaguely acceptable in a third year paper. Mostly I just want to sleep for a long time. I don’t have many of the extra strength sedatives that might accomplish that left, though. I had to break into them last week after spending half an hour on the phone with a student advisor in the morning when my flatmate had some friends over in the evening. It sounds stupid, but hearing their voices, and particularly when they all would all laugh and the volume shot up, was unbearable. I ended up clinging to my pillow trembling, chest hurting from the way my heart sped up anytime a noise came that was louder than the general background levels. And more crying. After the drugs kicked in I was able to briefly duck into the kitchen to shove some ice cream and canned peaches in a bowl, after one had left and another went to pick up their dinner order and I only had to face three people. I almost couldn’t do that, but when you don’t eat enough as it is, occasionally you get to the point where you know you need to get some calories into you as soon as is feasible. And I didn’t know how late they’d be staying.
The struggle to convey an experience is pervasive, I think. Mental illness is terrifying because it’s isolating. If you could only find a way to describe it, it might lose some of its power over you, so you grope around for words that will tap into… something… you don’t really know what. A common spirit? Empathy? A quiet, disquieting feeling that haunts everyone when it’s dark and you’re all alone?
Maybe it doesn’t, though. You can’t know until you try to explain and see the reactions – whether people look at you afterwards with understanding, or whether they pull away like insanity is catching.