When I was in my final year at university, I had a breakdown. I am still trying to claw my way out of the hole it threw me into. But after two and a half years, multiple therapists, a good dozen psychiatric crisis admissions, and two sections under the Mental Health Act, I still often believe I faked the whole thing.
I think this is because my mood changes so much, even when I’m in a crisis. Even when I’m suicidal, I find things to laugh at. The part of me that says everything about me is wrong takes those shifts in mood and uses them as another stick to beat myself with. As soon as I start to feel better, even if it’s just for 30 seconds, I stop believing how bad the bad feelings were. Then I feel guilty for not doing all the things the bad feelings stopped me from doing (my finals exams, a few days’ work, a week’s worth of washing up). And then I feel bad again.
As you circle the misery-go-round of local mental health services, you meet a lot of other people who have also had breakdowns: you hear their stories, their neuroses, their psychoses. Some of them are similar to yours: thank God! I’m not a freak – or at least, not the only freak of my kind! But some of them are also very different, and it’s easy to look at someone else’s symptoms or experience and use them to invalidate your own: that person hears voices. I don’t hear voices. Maybe my mental health problems aren’t real like theirs are. Maybe I’m just lazy. That person is so sad they literally can’t move. I can move. Maybe I’m not really depressed. Maybe I’m just not trying hard enough. That person has suffered unbelievable hardships in their life that I haven’t suffered. Maybe I don’t have any right to be this mental. Maybe I’m doing mental illlness wrong. Maybe I’m just wrong.
The therapy I’m in at the moment is called Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. At its heart, it’s about holding opposites together in your mind, learning to believe that truths which feel conflicting can both be real at the same time. I am told that this will teach me to say to myself, I have been too sad to do any washing up for a week and I found that joke funny. Both of those things are true. I function and I struggle. Both of those things are true.
It’s a mode of thinking I’ve always found tricky. At university, one of my first-year tutors would write on my essays, You have a tendency to polarize your arguments. I am told that learning not to polarize my arguments with myself will help break the cycle that keeps the clockwork mechanism of my crises wound so tight; that if I start to accept conflicting emotions then I won’t feel them to such a destabilising degree. I’m not sure. There is a lot of comfort in the familiarity of extremes. I suppose I just have to wait and see.