Manic Depression & The Enemy Within

I’ve tried to write an article about depression for years, but for one reason or another the article never surfaced. To provide some scope to this point, I would like to illustrate two facts:

  1. I have been writing since the age of 5 or so.
  2. I have had (manic) depression since at least the age of 4.

Why I have manic depression, I do not know. Was it the product of a broken childhood? Or perhaps it’s some chemical imbalance in my brain? My life to date has been complex, and attempts to understand why I have depression have always left me dumbfounded. I’ve wanted to write about this for so long, but my mind seems to exist in two states; when I’m not feeling depressed it’s hard to access my feelings, but when I’m manic it’s hard to write. Or to trust myself in either case.

I’ve often heard depression described as something that doesn’t feel entirely part of yourself. And for the most part, I’d agree that it’s like some asshole sitting at the back of your brain telling you what an awful person you are. But in some ways it’s not someone else. It feels all too real, as though it were my feelings and sense of identity echoed back to me in the worst possible light. Writing this, I have to be very careful both to write some of my worst, deepest feelings, and to also edit it coherently. Too often do I begin only to find that voice is no longer distant, but indistinguishable from my own.

And the real kicker is that depression works in such insidious ways. In learning to cope with this disease, I’ve also learned to constantly try to keep myself in check. “It’s okay,” I tell myself, “this too shall pass.”. But for how long?

For some, depression appears like a mysterious force, sticks around for a few years and then vanishes. For me, it simply disappears into the background, only to re-emerge and make itself apparent when it’s already done horrible things to my life. I have little control over my depression. I cannot wish it away, nor take painkillers and wait for the tide of agony to subside. Depression, much like my chronic pain, is something that I can do little to, other than learn to live with. When I am feeling low, I have to remind myself of the good things. When I wish to die, I have to tell myself that I actually don’t. Often I feel like I’m lying to myself. The only evidence to suggest otherwise lies in the times when the storm is over- those brief periods of joy and peace that allow me to continue my life.

However, as hard as it is for me to describe depression when I’m not feeling depressed (and would rather think of anything but depression during those times), it’s equally as hard to summon memories of happy times when I’m depressed.

I’ve tried a list of medications as long as my arm. I’ve tried pretending that I didn’t have depression. I’ve tried talking to therapists and shrinks. None of it really helped me. Which is not to say that it can’t help some people. Depression is as diverse as the many people who suffer from it. Over time I’ve come to accept that my depression will not go away easily, if at all. It’s a part of me that is broken and I worry that it isn’t something I can ever fix. I’d love to just not have it, but that isn’t the case, and hasn’t been for as long as I can remember, despite my efforts.

The trick to doing anything in my life is not fixating on the idea of getting rid of it, but learning to cope with it- learning skills that in some way enable me to have something resembling a functioning life. Often there are things I can do to help, but that also means recognising my limits and missing out on things I’d rather not.

This also works in the opposite direction, when I’m feeling manic.

Mania sounds great from the outside and it feels good on the inside. That is, until I’m no longer manic.

It’s taken me a long time to identify my mania. I go from depressed, to numb to manic so quickly sometimes, that it often just feels like I’m no longer depressed. I feel on top of the world, like I could achieve anything. That’s the other voice sitting on my shoulder. And for a while, this voice appears to be a good one. It makes me go outside and want to roll on grass. It’s the voice that tells me to keep painting or writing music. Forever and ever and ever. Why would I want to give up mania when depression is most often the alternative? Why would I want to give up mania when I feel that good? Mania is like a drug that gets you super high, without the nausea, or dizziness. For a while, it can feel like you are invincible, like you can do anything.

In the same way that depression stops me from accessing good thoughts, mania obscures the bad thoughts. Ever see that episode of Star Trek, “The Enemy Within”? Both sides of Kirk become useless, potentially dangerous bastards. That’s what manic depression does to you. There is such a thing as feeling too good, in so much as there is a such a thing as feeling too depressed.

Either way the pendulum swings, it’s easy to justify feelings one way or another. Being rational often seems equally close and distant, but rarely quite within reach.

Moving the conversation back to Star Trek, I realise that from my writing I might seem a bit like Kirk: emotions dominating thoughts through passion, pain and promiscuity(?).

But if I’m like anyone from the original series of Star Trek, I’m more like Spock. On the outside I appear calm and collected. I analyse everything. But inside? I’m restless. I’m half overwhelmed with compulsion and half in control. I don’t want to let in feelings for fear of them overcoming me. Vulcans are like Romulans with their feelings restrained. Humans are like both, but less so. Is it his human, or vulcan nature that makes Spock a more compelling character? Much as Spock is caught between two inner worlds, so am I. Both of these worlds are my nature. Both of these worlds are me. Somewhere in between this duality, I exist, watching myself trying to strike a balance.

But how can I define my sense of self and identity when such contradictory forces exist within me?

The truth is is that they are not separate. Both depression and mania are part of me. Not, may I add, parts of me that I like, nor even trust, but components of my existence. I cannot even fathom what my life might be like without them. Perhaps eventually I’ll escape these destructive cycles. But for this day and the next (and many after), learning to live with them and trying to cope are the only things I can hope for.

Both mania and depression cause emotion to storm through me like an immature child’s might. And in these times I try to treat myself like that child. I have to be stern with myself and recognise where to put my foot down. Equally, I also have to be good to myself and give gentle reassurance. Sometimes I have to let the emotions ride out and distance myself from them as best I can. Sometimes I just have to be understanding and nod sympathetically. However, in reality I know that it’s not a restless child.

This is me. This is who I am, and I’m always, always trying to do my best.

Writing this article has been hard, but it’s been a long time coming. It’s not been edited very much and I want to leave it that way. If I try to come back to it, my desire to delete it and pretend I’m okay will be too great. Being public about mental illness of any kind can be incredibly stigmatizing, and the fear of such stigma can be equally deleterious. Plus if I didn’t put this down, when would I? In another few decades? No. Now is the time- whilst I can.