It’s been a while since I familiarized myself with the different faces of depression: Some people go on showing few symptoms and functioning so highly that they are hard to identify as depressed, while others’ illnesses snowball until they leave the afflicted unable to fulfill their roles in society. The latter was me during my sophomore year at Tufts. The character of my depression was fueled by childhood anxiety that forced me to base my value on my ability to function specifically as a student. This anxiety put my body in a state of constant fatigue and worry, and it left me feeling empty. I had lost myself in my experience of illness.
This semester, I have been struggling with a sense of myself as well. But the characteristics of this struggle have been different. Whereas before, depression looked like consistent emotional episodes, being moved to tears at the drop of a hat and being immobilized by a fear of failure, now depression feels like being forcibly distanced from my access to emotions, seeing my energy as this bar at the top of my vision that runs dry too soon and feeling like my mind is slightly removed from my body at all times.
Mental illness has incredible effects on identity. For me, depression used to make me feel like I could see the real me under feet of water: I was visible to myself, although warped and surrounded by illness, but I had to wade through symptoms for months to get any sort of access to an identity. Now, I feel like I am unable to see any sort of ‘self’ past my daily actions. Depression becomes tirelessly chaining pieces of myself together and hoping that I will be able to feel a sense of self arise. My two biggest passions, the power of friendship and social justice, feel like abstractions to me. The effort I put into both feels like labor with rewards that I cannot socially access. I have to continue to hope that the positive results are still affecting me under the layer of apathy and fatigue that has been ruling my days.
Recently, the recurrence of depression has forced me to look past a model of recovery. When I spent a year treating myself before, I had hoped to be well until college was over. Now, I have to know better than to expect simple resolutions to my constantly-changing brain. It’s hard not to look at the work I’ve put in and wish I could simply ‘be well’ again. I feel that I’ve ‘done enough,’ but that’s often not how illness versus wellness exists in reality.
When I was depressed three years ago, I knew why and I knew how to fix it. Now, I am a little scared by the way depression has come back into my body. It is important to value your mental work, whether or not ‘recovery’ is in view. Depression is highly personal, and the reality of its effects sometimes involves acceptance of illness as a personal reality.