When suffering from a mental illness, such as depression, it can feel tempting to stay in the comfort of your misery. Outside of this heavy blanket, the world seems foreign and daunting, and so you retreat into your sadness.
You may reach a point in recovery when you begin to feel better, and it feels scarier than any of the darkness that preceded it. Many backslide from this moment, retreating back into their self-sabotage and isolation, simply to propel themselves away from the unknown emotion that is happiness.
I consider 2020 to be the year that I started to ‘recover’ from my personality disorder, and the depression, anxiety and eating disorder that it fuelled. I was receiving appropriate treatment and had a correct diagnosis in my pocket, and began eagerly working to get better. I couldn’t keep living in the darkness, I knew that I had to choose life or be lost in my pain. It was difficult to avoid triggers, replace negative coping behaviours with positive ones and rationalise the flood of emotions. But what was more difficult was when I actually started to feel good. Alongside this new emotion of happiness came fear that it wouldn’t last, fear that something was wrong. I didn’t know myself except miserable, so who would this new happy person be? Would I be able to keep choosing happiness for myself when misery tempted me constantly?
If you don’t know happiness then it can be a scary emotion. I’m talking about true, unfiltered happiness, something that can feel so foreign to people with depression. When struggling with depression, you may have brief good moments. Such as a nice day, a good time with friends, an important event. But even in these moments of happiness, your depression remains, lurking in the background, tugging at your strings.
When you suffer from a mental illness, happiness can make you uncomfortable, it can scare you. Because when you feel happy, certain questions are aroused. How long will this last? Does this mean that I’m not really depressed? If I feel good, does that mean something is coming to ruin it?
Feeling joy is so different to feeling sadness. Not just in the type of emotion, but how you actually feel it in your limbs. Joy pulls your head up, it thrusts you into the centre of things, it makes you giddy and perhaps careless. Sadness causes you to retreat into yourself, almost like curling up in the fetal position. It feels protective, a heavy weight pulling you down. As soon as that weight is lifted, it feels like you forgot something but can’t quite place what it is, it feels like a comfort blanket has been ripped from you.
Anything new and unfamiliar can be daunting, and the same goes for happiness when you’re suffering from depression.
It is easier to be sad than happy, there is no way around it. This does not mean that depression is a choice or that there is anything easy about it, but rather that sadness is a primal emotion that you can easily gain from yourself, whilst happiness too often relies on others and needs your full attention and effort.
Alongside this is the fact that when you feel such sadness, it is easier to continue and dwell in it than to tug yourself free of its clutches. When you feel sad, you don’t want to feel happy. You should, and it would feel better to, but your sadness convinces you otherwise.
Think about it, when you feel sad do you want to phone a friend, go for a run or do something productive that could elevate your mood? No. You know you should, and maybe you grow the discipline to do these things, but it isn’t what you physically yearn for in the moment. Instead you desire to curl up in a ball and cry, to listen to sad songs or replay every awful thing you’ve ever done.
Sadness is powerful and will do anything to keep you in its clutches, leading you to participate in negative coping behaviours rather than productive or healthy ones. Psychologists have considered misery to even be addictive.
I used to self-harm, and even before I understood exactly what I was doing by hurting myself, something told me that this was wrong and to be hidden. I eventually went to therapy and was told all the positive behaviours I should do when the urges came - have a happy playlist, go for a walk, do something creative. But I didn’t do these things, as I wasn’t ready to stop hurting myself. It felt good. It was the quick release I yearned for in the moment, and it felt easier to continue this habit than to build new productive ones.
By the time I was seventeen, I also developed bulimic tendencies, perhaps as another form of hurting myself or to try and grasp control over my rapidly unravelling existence. I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t want to stop, as it made me feel better in the misery that clouded my every moment. I didn’t want to get better, as awful as that is, and as shameful as it feels to admit. I wasn’t ready to feel better as sadness was more comforting and familiar.
My symptoms started when I was fifteen. I didn’t understand them at the time, I literally wrote in my diary that “I feel sad all the time, but I know it can’t be depression”. Many others begin developing the symptoms of their mental illness in adolescence, at a time when you’re supposed to begin forming your identity. In fact, according to the WHO, half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of fourteen.
This means that I, like many others, didn’t know who I was without my mental illness. Particularly when I turned twenty-two and was finally correctly diagnosed with a personality disorder. I had to work out who I was without my mental illness, what aspects of me were my personality disorder and which were my core identity? I didn’t know whether I was genuinely helpful, or just overexerted myself to gain the acceptance of others. Whether I was sarcastic or self-deprecating, extroverted or introverted. My identity was a huge empty book.
If you don’t know who you really are without the misery, it can be terrifying to leave it. You don’t know what aspects of you are wrapped up in it, and who you would be without the chains dragging you down. It sounds awful to be pulled down by misery, but it is the only way you know how to walk.
As scary as it is, you need to remember that your mental illness isn’t who you are, even if it is a personality disorder that sure sounds like it is. Instead, try to remember that your mental illness is what is keeping you from being your true self. It isn’t a crutch that keeps you going, but rather a huge wall blocking you from the other side. Your mental illness never constitutes the best or most interesting parts of who you are.
But I write articles about my mental illness, so what do I know right? What would I write about without it? I don’t know the answer, but I know that I’m not writing because of my mental illness, I’m writing because I love it and know how to. Even before my mental illness, I was a writer at heart, and it is the only aspect of my identity I know to be true.
I won’t say that people love you ‘in spite’ of your mental illness, as I hate that phrase, but rather that they definitely don’t love you for it. They love you for the slivers of yourself that you release in between the bad, the good moments that make everything so worth it.
Sadness may feel easier, but that won’t last forever, the string will eventually run out. And once you reach that point, it is far harder to turn back. So start small, building up the positive habits and choosing happiness whenever it is offered. Be kind to yourself, recognise that it is a long journey but one that will feel so satisfying.
The sadness isn’t going anywhere, it will be there for you when you need it, when bad things happen or the world feels too heavy. Happiness can leave though, which is why you should grab it whilst you can. Savour the sunlight on your face, and stop questioning when the clouds will come again. They’re coming, and you can’t stop that, all you can do is stand up and move out of the shade, as often as you can.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
Would you like to receive my top monthly articles right to your inbox?
For any comments/questions/enquiries, please get in touch at:
I'd love to hear from you!