Consumed by Depression: Mental Illness and Its Pain
Pain is universal, varied, and subjective. An evolutionary deterrent and motivator, in some ways essential, in some ways utterly pointless. It can provide common ground, or be the most isolating of experiences. Everyone falls somewhere within its range.
My pain came from depression. Not everyone experiences depression in this way; for some it may be a numbness, a complete absence of emotion. For me, it was active, physical. It began as a little ball of discomfort just below my rib cage, then spreads through my entire torso, eventually radiating outward into my limbs and stopping just short of my finger and toe nails. It flowed through me like blood; at its worst it produced intense shock-like pulses from my core.
It came on so gradually, mild and short episodes at first, that I wasn’t overly concerned. Then somehow, a decade later, it had taken over my life. There were other symptoms, too. Apathy, loss of interest, antisocial behavior — but really it was always about the pain. Despite its physical characteristics, I always knew it was psychological. Perhaps its origin is relevant to treatment, but we are all biology and chemistry in the end.
I didn’t know what to do about it, for the most part assuming this was simply who I was. Perhaps my pain was normal. Even if there were a scientific way to objectively quantify pain and generate normal based on an average, there is still the question of interpretation. If two people measure equally, who is to say they feel it the same way. The discomfort resulted by rigorous exercise and a minor injury may be similar, but its interpretation completely different. How can you ever truly know someone else’s feelings without projecting your own?
And so I came up with a treatment of sorts. If I was going to be in pain, at very least I wanted to control its nature. I started cutting myself with razor blades, using the physical pain as an outlet for the psychological one. This is a language easier to comprehend: a cut hurts, it bleeds, it stops, it can be healed. This pain was good by virtue of it being less bad.
Part of the problem was that I had no way to communicate its existence. I didn’t look depressed, I was active and high-achieving. The fear that it would be dismissed, that I would be told I don’t feel what I feel, scared me out of pursuing help more aggressively. Instead I cut, I ran, I swam, I biked, I lifted weights, sometimes all in excess. It was a way to compensate for what I saw as internal weakness. I became dismissive of physical pain in others. In hindsight, I was no better than those who belittled my psychological one. To this day I am still working on rebuilding empathy, the pain made me too self-absorbed. Everything was always motivated by my own survival.
It was frustrating. I was going about life carrying an invisible crushing weight. I completed my everyday responsibilities, but it made we want to scream, “Do you know how much this is costing me?” Of course, everyone has their own weight, with varying degrees of visibility. Some intentionally hide theirs, fearing judgement. I wanted validation, a universal expression, if only to convince myself of its merit.
I tried pain management techniques, naming the pain, talking to it, relaxing into. Nothing. It circled me in constant ambush, all I could do was field the blows by tensing my muscles and riding it out. At work I could just about keep it under control, but a home it had free rein, I dissolved onto the flood in surrender.