Saturday, March 1, 2014

Living with a Monster Inside You

I first started understanding what my depression was when I was in college.  I had been struggling for years with apathy, crippling self esteem issues and inability to function, but at the time I chalked it up to being a teenager and the whole "inability to function" thing never bothered me because I didn't particularly want or need to function.  I was able to coast by in high school, still getting good grades and doing well on the SATs, still getting into some pretty good colleges, even though I did nothing.  The monster inside of me kept saying I was fine, and all those talks where my parents told me my life was "going down the tubes" were just them being hypochondriacs.

In college, as many lazy teenagers find, this doesn't fly.

My first semester I struggled with getting used to the workload, thinking my inability to function was laziness that I would get over, but my second semester it only got worse.  I knew I needed to develop better study habits but the monster told me not to, and this was my chance to have a good time and I'd buckle down next semester.  In that second semester, my dad passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, and I had to go back to school and take an exam the very next day.  Unfortunately, I couldn't get much leeway here because the monster already used up all of my professors' patience with my apathy earlier in the semester.

I never coped with that death.  I didn't have time; I put it in the back of my mind and tried to keep going, but it was too late and it was clear I was not going to pass some of my classes.  It's important to note that my depression is not a result of this life-changing event - my depression has been there from the start.  I am not talking about the temporary depression you feel after a breakup or other sad event, I am talking about something that hinders all progress and keeps you from living your life all the time, irrelevant of circumstances.

I put that in the back of my mind too.  I met a really great guy who was impressed by my intelligence, unaware that I was no longer able to function in school.  My mother, seeing my grades, demanded I be put on medication and see a therapist regularly but I would just not take it, and I would cancel most of my sessions.  I wasn't ready, and the monster inside of me was telling me I was just fine the way I was and I didn't need all that nonsense.

I threw myself fully into my relationship with this guy, using him to ignore everything else going on and to give me the confidence and sense of self the monster had kept me from having for so long.  I started not going to class at all, but seeing him on the weekends seemed to make it better.  Sometimes I would show up for a midterm, the monster telling me that this was okay, the professor would see me and how normal I am and give me a break for having missed every class before that.  Sometimes I wouldn't show up for exams at all, the monster telling me this was fine too.  I would lay in bed and watch House on my computer all day long, the monster telling me that was productive enough.  When I would get up and do work, it was invariably for the same class, the one I enjoyed, and then I wouldn't even go to class to be able to utilize what I learned sitting with my monster in Starbucks for hours on end, desperately trying to retain a sense of being a normal student.

I was aware enough to be embarrassed, and would sometimes leave the room with my laptop to go sit in the lounge a few floors down so my roommate wouldn't see me there when she woke up.  I'm sure she didn't know she had signed up to live with both me and  my monster when we agreed to be roommates.

I told my mom I was fine, I lied and said things were different this time, but they never were and I'm sure she saw through it.  I was inconsiderate to people around me, flaking out on things all the time and lying and making excuses and just being a general shitty person.

When just being with my boyfriend wasn't enough to make me feel better and put everything out of my mind, the monster would tell me that picking a fight would force him to console me and tell me how much he loves me, reassurances I desperately needed when there was nothing else good going on in my life.

Despite my mother's pleas, the monster convinced me it was okay for me to stay in school, spending so much money just to fail and not show up.  The monster told me not to think about it, to use interaction on the internet to replace real human interaction while I laid in bed all day.  I decided to commute to school when I realized I had no one left to live with but that meant my mom would have seen me not going to class.  Sometimes I would leave the house when I knew she was coming home and then reenter a few minutes after her.  The monster told me this was normal and kept me from seeing how sick I was.

The monster kept me up all night worrying about tomorrow, but then forced me to sleep all day when tomorrow actually came.  This was a neverending vicious cycle for me for years.

I stopped going to most classes entirely.  I failed a few again, finally with my adviser telling me he was forcing me to take time off, aware that I desperately needed it even though I wasn't.  That adviser was a life saver to me - he believed in me when no one else would and saw something in me that no one else, even my own mother, could.

So I wasn't in school now, and was free to just lay in bed all day with my monster, surfing the web, posting on political forums for interaction, and for some reason it rarely bothered me.  I would have nights when I would wake up crying hysterically over what my life had become, but it was easy to just push the thought to the back of my mind again the next day.

I don't know what changed in me or when it changed, but one night I just said I couldn't live like this anymore.  I was ignoring everything negative in my life but I still wasn't happy - I was irritable, picking fights constantly, ignoring my friends, being awful to my mom, and I was so ashamed of myself and where I was.  While friends from high school were graduating, friends who had no reason to be more successful than me, I was vegetating and wasting away in my room with my monster.

I know this is a controversial opinion, but it was absolutely medication that quelled the voice of the monster for me.  I decided I wasn't going to live like this, and so I went to a specialist and got on Wellbutrin and started attending therapy very regularly, twice a week sometimes.  I poured my heart out to my therapist who was surprised by all of this because until that point, when I went in I would typically just talk to her about makeup or other stupid things - anything to keep me from confronting what was really going on and exiting the fantasy land my monster and I built using my own denial as the foundation.

This is your monster when you are on medication and in therapy and taking strides to ignore him.

I was accepted back into school and even though my mother said she didn't think it was a good idea (after all, what would keep me from falling apart again?), I was determined to do it.  My monster was still there when the semester started - it told me it was okay to stay in bed, it told me not to go because I looked ugly that way, it told me I couldn't go without washing my hair first even though there wasn't time.  With the help of medication, I was able to tell it to shut the hell up.  I promised myself I would go no matter what - even if I had to wear a baseball cap and sit in the back because I was such an oily mess, I would go rather than skip it for fear of people thinking I was disgusting.  I left early, giving myself plenty of time to get places so I couldn't use the "I'm so embarrassed to be late!" excuse not to go.  If I was late, I sucked it up.  Better late than never, right?  This became the motto of my whole academic career.

I went to the library on days I didn't have class and spent hours at a time there, studying everything, busting my ass to do well.  For once my monster wasn't telling me passing was good enough, I was telling myself that I knew this shit and I knew I could do better than just pass.  That first semester back I got 3 A's and an A- and oh my God it felt so good, words can't even describe.  I wasn't just functioning now, I was succeeding.

My monster continued to try and sabotage me throughout my school career but I never listened to it again.  I had gained the insight and self awareness necessary to be able to recognize when the monster's ideas were totally irrational and not based in reality.  No, Monster, I can't just not go to class and still pass, and no, I won't just not study for that test in favor of going to the bar across the street.  I was nervous moving back out again that I would fall off the wagon, as they say, but I didn't, and I kept it up through the most trying semester of my academic career.  I knew I had screwed myself over once, and I certainly wasn't going to do it again.

I still deal with regrets and shame and guilt from the time that my monster controlled my life.  Think of all the time I wasted, the money I wasted, the friends I lost, the experiences I missed out on, the opportunities I could have had, the people I made feel bad just because I was feeling so bad - it makes me sick.  But I can't dwell on that, not when I am doing so well now.  I still got a wonderful job, and I explained the irregularities on my transcript as best I could and they were okay with it because I had 5 semesters after that in which I was incredibly successful.  It wasn't just a lucky streak; I had changed my life.

After a few years on Wellbutrin and starting a high stress job, I found myself struggling with the self-esteem issues and desire to pick fights that I remember as so indicative of my monster being back.  I went on Prozac to supplement my medication and it helped me so much.  I was inspired to write this because I thought I was fine (maybe it was my monster telling me that) and so I went off the Prozac, only to find that without it I am still insufferably self-critical, anxious about absolutely everything, possessive of ridiculously obsessive thought processes and prone to not functioning by laying in bed all day.

The monster is something that doesn't go away with time, it stays with you, ready to jump at any chance to bring you down again so it has some company in the hell it survives in.  It is something that other people cannot see so they will doubt the existence of, but something you feel so intensely that it's almost impossible to ignore.

There is a very common societal distaste for psychiatric medications, the feeling that people are over medicated and it is unnatural to use a medication that changes who you are.  To be clear, this medication did not change who I am, it just stopped the magical thinking and self doubt that kept me from being who I was.  I have the potential to do so much but without this medication that potential is removed.  Often, it is not enough to just clean up your diet and exercise more and whatever else to fight off the monster, and it's condescending when people suggest you just try that instead.  Diet and exercise are good for everyone, but they can't cure everyone's ailments.  I have also noticed an uptick in people claiming they know others who became "zombies" on medication.  I am not a zombie - I feel deeply, I still cry, I am still me, I am just now functioning.  I think it's very important to not further the stigma against medications so people can get the help they need.  Forget about what Zach Braff said about Prozac in "Garden State"; that wasn't real, but the story you read here is.  Medication helped me pull my life from the gutter and get not one but two degrees in two very difficult subjects when my own mother thought I would never graduate.

Develop as much self awareness and insight into your actions as you can so you can fight your monster.  It may never stop fighting for control of you.

"cute little monster vectors" pics via

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