Living with the Shadow of Depression

This post is re-blogged from my main blog, AboutTeaching. It was originally published May 10, 2015

Kintsugi (金継ぎ?) (Japanese: golden joinery) or Kintsukuroi (金繕い?) (Japanese: golden repair) is the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum, a method similar to the maki-e technique.[1][2][3] As a philosophy it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. Source: Wikipedia

Trigger Warning for mentions of self harm and suicidal thoughts.

Last week, I was in the principal’s office, discussing curriculum adjustments for students with disabilities. I kept my tone light, and my face professional. But behind it, I was preoccupied by a vision of blood – pouring from long slashes running from my wrists to my elbows,  gushing, like a broken dam from my stomach, cut open.

I returned to my office, sat down and stared at my hands for several minutes.  Just staring, on the verge of tears, when I finally thought “What the fuck am I doing?” and got on with the timetable I was working on.

I thought I was past all this, that I was cured, and that I had better coping strategies. It took me by surprise to have those thoughts again.

I was diagnosed as clinically depressed when I was 30, but I’ve lived with depression on and off since at least my teenage years. Some people describe it as a black dog. I think of it more as my shadow self. Its part of me. A friend, whose embrace I find it easy to fall into. It creeps up so softly, that at first I don’t realise it’s there. It can hang around for months before I realise I’m in its grip.

Years ago, I used to cut and burn myself.  When my depression was at its worse, I was numb. There was no pain, but there was no joy. I felt nothing. During those very dark days, I wanted to feel something, anything. Pain was good. Cutting or burning allowed me, just for an instant to feel something and  know I was alive.

But I mostly wanted to cut myself open because I didn’t know how to express the pain I was feeling. I still don’t. I was and am ashamed of it. I don’t have a right to feel this way, when so many people have greater problems, better reasons to suffer. Cutting and burning – they were physical manifestations of pain I had no right to feel and wouldn’t express any other way.

Random events have opened up old wounds for me: the murder of a teacher in NSW; encountering someone who attended the same  high school as I… suddenly I find myself assaulted by memories. Things that were buried are close to the surface now. The scars I thought had healed  are open and bleeding.

I remember the strategies the psychologist taught me. To monitor my thought patterns, challenge the negative ones and avoid catastrophising. I know I need to practise mindfulness and gratitude, to get out in the sunlight and to get some exercise. I’ll do all that,  I will — but for now, I’m letting myself bleed a little. I’m cutting myself open with my words this time – letting you peek behind the mask.

You see, I know I’m not alone in this. There are so many of us who struggle with mental health. Everyone acknowledges that it affects others, but we so rarely admit to it in ourselves. We carefully craft our public identity and our social media profiles to show that we are positive, competent, capable. It’s a risk to confess that we’re also flawed. But that’s why I’m confessing. Depression isn’t something that happens to a small group of weak-minded people Self harm isn’t a weird deviant practice. It’s common, but it happens in silence and shame.

Having lived with this on and off for years, I know I’m okay. At the moment, I’m experiencing symptoms of depression, but I don’t think I’m trapped there as I once was, and I can get myself out.

I’m using apps to monitor my mood several times daily. When I’m depressed, my tendency to catastrophise leads me to believe that I feel that way all the time, instead of it being just a part of my daily experience. I become quite anxious. I never want to return to the dark place I existed in years ago, when planning my death became a full-time obsession. My fear of returning to that compounds the problem. Mood monitoring helps me recognise that it’s not that bad – sometimes its just a mood, and there are times, each day, where I feel good. In fact, I experience moments of joy each day, and my outlook is still relatively optimistic. I can immerse myself in activities (like baking the raspberry macarons that are currently setting in the oven) and for a time, completely forget about these darker emotions.

And yesterday, I found an app called “Happify” which has activities and games to increase positive emotion. I was skeptical, but my initial experience has been good. Last night’s task was to simply identify 3 positive experiences that occurred during the day. Given that I’d had a migraine for most of it, and was feeling fairly melancholy for the rest, I doubted I could find any. But sure enough I found three. Immediately my mood lifted somewhat, I felt appreciative, and it helped me to remember that even while I’m fixating on the negative, good things are happening. I just need to pay attention.

There’s a stigma to depression, and its a risk, as a teacher, admitting to it publicly. As much as we want to promote mental health in our schools, we don’t like to admit to having problems with it ourselves. It’s can be seen as a failing, a sign of weakness. Its okay to admit I stayed in bed for half a day with a migraine yesterday, but a character flaw to confess that I stayed in bed for half a day with depression today.

In fact, years ago,  after I admitted I had a history of depression the principal I worked for refused to allow me to take on any extra responsibilities or leadership. He thought it would make me vulnerable and took a paternalistic decision to protect me, by limiting my opportunities for leadership and career advancement.

But I’ve been living with depression for longer than I’ve been teaching. It’s accompanied me throughout my career. And yet, I’m an accomplished teacher and a school leader, who has earned the respect of my colleagues and community.  When I work with students, I’m completely immersed – in flow. Teaching brings me such joy, and demands my full attention. When I’m teaching there is no room for the darker moods. which can take hold in the quieter moments.

If you think you are struggling with depression, or if this post has triggered some difficult thoughts and emotions in you and you need help, check out the Beyond Blue website. 

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