You Don’t Know What Mental Illness Looks Like When It Matures

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I’ve been seeing a sentiment floating around a lot lately and it’s starting to get under my skin: mental illness is a health problem for young people. This isn’t strictly untrue: suicide is the second leading cause of death for 10-24 year olds. There are some studies that indicate depression rates are increasing in young adults. The problem is less about truth and more about scope: it’s easy to imagine that depression, anxiety, and other common mental health problems are things that many people deal with in young adulthood, but that we outgrow.

How often do you hear people discuss mental health in regards to adults over the age of 30? I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve heard one. It’s a young person’s problem in our collective consciousness. Perhaps even more acute in my mind is that even when we do talk about mental illness in adults, we talk about it as if they were still young. What does that mean? It means that many people don’t understand that if someone has had mental illness for their whole life, their relationship with it changes. Even if they still struggle, they learn new tools and gain understanding. It’s not the same as the first wave of depression that knocks you on your ass and leaves you wondering how you’ll ever stand again.

I don’t want to downplay how serious longterm mental illness can be, because I have lived with it for my entire adult life and boy howdy is it balls, but when you’re reaching year 10 or 20, the flavor is completely different and the support that you need is completely different. Most often when we hear about mental illness we hear about people who are flailing and helpless, people who act out through negative behaviors. We hear about attention seeking behavior, or sometimes manipulation. We often hear about people who don’t necessarily want to accept help or who don’t know what is helpful.

The image that many of us have is someone who lies around looking waifish and staring out windows mournfully. In some people’s minds you can SEE depression, like that silly black cloud that follows people around in antidepressant commercials. But it’s something your’e ashamed of that you hide because it’s embarrassing and you don’t understand it.

That’s an incredibly youthful experience of mental illness. It’s one that finds the experience unfamiliar and difficult to navigate. By the time you’ve reached even 25 or 30, if you have received any kind of treatment for your mental illness or found any kind of community, you likely feel some familiarity with your mental illness. It’s not unexpected. You can often predict certain patterns. More often than not I see adults with mental illness being very frank about their mental illness. They will say straight out “I get depressed in the winter,” rather than trying to dance around anything.

On the flip side, we often get much better at masking as we age. We’ve had to function with mental illness for long enough that we know how to keep going to our jobs and leaving the house even when we feel like death on the inside. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, we’ve got some skills and strategies that we know to pull out when things get bad.

Example: when I was younger and I started to feel like death, I wouldn’t know what to do and I’d often end up leaning into the feeling, lying in bed, writing emo poetry, and feeling worse. Now when I feel like death, I put on footie pajamas, get my weighted blanket, make a cup of tea, and play a video game. If that doesn’t work, I text a friend and talk through things. If that doesn’t work I make myself leave the house. If that doesn’t work I try to work out a little bit.

Perhaps most important, most of us become more self aware. I’ve seen a lot of 17 year olds post things they thought were semi-subtle social media posts indicating that they were suicidal. Looking back, there’s nothing subtle about them. Now most of the people my age either don’t post melodramatic statuses or they’re very matter of fact about it and include notes on how others could help or what they’re doing. It doesn’t feel nearly as romantic or interesting anymore. It’s about as exciting as sharing that you need someone to help you move (and just as enticing to all your friends).

The experience of living with mental illness over time doesn’t mean that you will always be better at dealing with it. But it does mean you understand it better, you feel more comfortable with it, and you’ve probably got more ideas of things to try to feel better. I would love to see more representation of the person who has grown comfortably into a mentally ill adult, who can make jokes about the fact that they immediately think they’re going to be fired if their boss goes into a closed door meeting (yes this is me), who has lists of people to call and skills to use, and who still is mentally ill. It’s completely different, but an experience that many people grow into over time.

I’d love to have more understanding that the blase attitude many of us have about our mental illness comes from living with it day in, day out, for years and years. It gets boring after a while. I am bored with being mentally ill. That is what it means to grow up with it.

When SAD Isn’t Just the Winter Blues

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I love spring. I hate spring. I have a lot of feelings during spring.

Last night I took a walk with my skin free to the air for the first time since November. It’s like breathing again. Sometimes it feels like I’m drowning in it. I want to run. I want to disappear. I cry. I drink. I get tattoos. I shave my head.

Spring is really, really hard for me. I feel uncomfortable in my body and bored with my surroundings. Spring is when I get tattoos or shave my head or break up or make rash decisions. It’s almost a manic feeling, but tinged with a deep, deep melancholy. I guess that’s what happens when you’re an autistic who has a strong pull towards spontaneity but also goes into a panicked shock when a plan changes.

You might be surprised to hear that these symptoms reasonably could fall under the label of Seasonal Affective Disorder. From Mayo Clinic: “Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year.”

Most people experience heightened symptoms of depression in the winter, and that is the most common type of SAD (low mood, low energy, nasty depression during the fall and winter months). However there are some folks who experience consistent low mood at other times of the year. I personally get SAD in the winter, and then this weird, nostalgic, anxious, mess of dissatisfaction during spring. Winter is a time of hibernation, when I can barely bring myself to move. Spring is the time when I have energy and I want to use that energy to do bad things to myself.

It can be so frustrating to have these patterns of emotion without recognition (from yourself or others) that it could be a perfectly natural seasonal issue, and that you can use the same skills and techniques that others use to deal with them. If you regularly feel depressed in the winter, most people can identify it as seasonal. Other times? Not so much.

Especially when it comes to spring and summer it can seem like everyone else is excited and loving the season, while you’re stuck somewhere else, isolated.

So today’s post (short though it is, I need to ease back into this blogging thing) is a reminder that SAD can be at any time of the year. Different people are affected differently. Your history can affect it (dates like the death of a loved one can be particularly difficult), or our current life (I always have a major conference at the end of April that leaves me drained and struggling).

No matter how your depression manifests, it can be helpful to look for patterns and start to put coping mechanisms in place preemptively. If you know summer is bad, plan your self care more actively leading into summer. If you know winter is bad, communicate with others and ask them to help you get out and about.

As I’m trying to pick back up after a very busy April, I’m trying to remember that spring is hard for me, and this spring is feeling particularly hard for me. But summer will be here soon, and the forwards looking nostalgia will dissipate, and I will someday feel functional again. That is the nice part of seasonal affective disorders: it will end. It will get easier. You can get through it