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don’t call me crazy: suck it up, princess

(Or: How I learned to stop worrying…as much).

It took giving a couple of spiky-haired strangers the finger to finally figure out what was wrong with me.

I was at the ripe, bugger-off confusing age of seventeen; I was on the bus, heading to my fluorescent-lit retail job. The sun was setting in that bright, foreboding way and the bus was empty but for me and my Discman.  The bus slowed to work a cumbersome corner and crept past a pair of jagged-looking teenagers; the kind your mother might call “a bad influence”. They weren’t far from the next stop, but too far to have made it. They would have to wait twenty minutes for the next bus and, for some reason that I still cannot grasp today, I blandly extended my middle finger in their direction as I passed them in the bus-machine.

Call it spontaneous idiocy, call it a plain bad move; I saw their angry faces and raised arms (in that “what the fuck man come here and say it to my face” manner) and felt a surge of the by-then familiar burning nerves and gut-wrench. I hadn’t put a name to the strange sensation I often had – it seemed to come on sporadically, usually when I envisaged something I might later feel guilty about, like cheating on my partner, even though I would never do such a thing. It was this kind of paradoxical worry that, combined with my feverish jitters and crippling paranoia, led me to ask Ashleigh.

Ashleigh was, and still is, my best friend. I had usually bent her ear for advice on most things; writing notes in Art class to ask about the intricacies of how best to handle a tricky tiff or berating her with queries on the legitimacy of my relationship choices. I texted her and asked what this strange feeling was, hoping beyond hope that she would reveal something expedient to me. She responded with what I now know; that those hot, troublesome sensations and paroxysms of neurotic bother were symptoms of anxiety.

It took a year or so for me to summon the courage to see a doctor; he quickly recognised my symptoms and prescribed me a low-dosage anti-depressant that I stayed on until three months ago. The pills were effective, that’s for sure: I definitely felt less anxious in my day-to-day life, and my moods were…well, not elevated, certainly, but somewhat ‘levelled out’.

It wasn’t until I looked objectively at my five-odd years on meds that the comparisons were startling: my writing pre-Cipramil was much better than my later work…was it affecting my intelligence? My memory had gotten ridiculous, too; short-term, shmort-shmerm, I could barely remember what I had said ten minutes earlier most of the time. I no longer had dizzying highs or murky lows; I was forever in a grey middle.

I had gone “off” them before; usually when I was broke and couldn’t afford to refill my prescription. Four or five days without my little white tablet would usually result in a suicidal, morose Lisa curled in the foetal position in bed, rich with headaches and nausea. Placebo? Dunno. Either way, popping a pill to make all that go away was worth the effort and eventual long-term costs, at the time, apparently.

It was only after months of flip-flopping and debate in my own head that I decided to visit my new GP, a depression specialist. I had already been off the meds for a week or so and was balancing precariously on the fence between, “fine, thanks” and “I wish I were dead”. She assured me that due to the relatively low dosage, going cold turkey would result in the eventual balancing of my moods and feeling comfortable with going off the stuff for good. That was three months or so ago, and, I must say, the lady is more or less right. There was two weeks of overeating, oversleeping and a desperate, clingy need for company which eventually smoothed out into my usual schedule of one not two dinners, less than eleven hours sleep and feeling okay with being on my own for half an hour of the day.

The title of this piece comes from something that an erstwhile friend would say. She would whip it out whenever anyone was complaining about something minor, like a bad day at work or not having enough money for a holiday. It seemed fair enough, I thought, being crawling with working-class guilt and happy to just have a roof over my head myself. Eventually, though, the phrase took on a sinister life. It leapt from a jocular quip into a sad indication at the lack of understanding of mental illness in the greater scheme.

Anyone afflicted with depression, anxiety or any other debilitating mental ailment of the like, would love, I am sure, to pull up the bootstraps, strop off into the big bad world and take it by the horns. Dominate the illness, not let it get the better of you, rise above, et al ad nauseum. But the misunderstanding comes snuggled somewhere in between all these good ideas- some just cannot. Some people can live only within their fine means of existence. Some people have trouble finding the mental will and physical gumption just to heave themselves into a shower and punch out a new day- I know, I’ve woken in such a state many a time.

The problem seems to lie within the perception of such mental illnesses; perhaps it is a lack of education on the populace’s part, perhaps it is what some call “tough love”, but the difference between feeling “a bit blue” and the dim seas of depression can be difficult to define on the surface.

Life can always be worse, though. Of course it can. There is, usually, always a more horrible situation one could possibly in, had one been dealt a different hand. That’s actually one deceptively simple adage I find very helpful; not the thought of the misery of others, of course- I’m not a monster- but the notion that I should feel very privileged indeed to, say, have a home I can afford to live in, a cat that doesn’t loathe me too much, a bit of food in the pantry and all my extremities, that seem to be in working order. A mite of optimism goes a long way. Taking things day by day, hour by hour, is good. Being realistic is good- you may not conquer your demons today, but you’re doing fine.

(Image credit: 1.)

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