It doesn’t get better (and then, it does)

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Content warning: Suicide

I have received a plentitude of terrible advice in my time as a Chronically Mentally Ill Person. One of my favorite (not at all appreciated) pieces of advice (that is not at all advice) is “It gets better!” It doesn’t actually suggest what I can do and is usually uttered by someone who has never had the misfortune of suffering from a debilitating disease of the brain. 

When someone is struggling with sadness or disappointment, but not necessarily depression, it is easier to see and believe that things can get better. But when I am severely depressed, better doesn’t just feel like it’s an impossibility — it is an impossibility. 

 At the end of my first semester of freshman year, my depression hit some all-time lows.  A poisonous concoction of Zoloft — which has a black box warning that it can cause suicidality in adolescents — a nightmarish experience in bad therapy, a mountain of missed classes and an overwhelming dread of school made something in my brain snap. My brain decided that death was a better outcome than the terrible stress I was under. It wasn’t something I really wanted but something easier to latch on to. Nothing could hurt if I wasn’t around to feel it anymore. 

When I look back on my freshman year, those feelings of despair and hopelessness feel so far away that I often feel as though it happened to someone else. The pain I was feeling was visceral and always present at the front of my mind, and it is strange to look at now from a distance. This suicidality, mostly passive but sometimes an active desire, remained through the rest of my freshman year and persisted into my sophomore year. It was an easy out, something I could think about to ease the distress in my mind. But in the back of my head, I knew I didn’t really want to die. I just needed a reprieve, and it was the only way I could imagine ever getting relief. Because realistically, things were never going to get better.

Once I found a better therapist, she lobbied for my life and my happiness in a way that was astonishing. I knew my family and my friends cared about my life. But because I wasn’t sharing everything about how I felt with them, it felt as though they didn’t really know me and thus didn’t value the life I actually had to live — the one I saw as painful and irredeemable. But my therapist knew all of my worst thoughts about myself, and she was rallying for me anyway. She was telling me that life was, in fact, worth living, that her life had gotten better and so would mine. If I just kept working hard and put a little bit of faith in her and gave her some of my burden to carry, I would not only get out, but I would get out just fine. 

Somehow, against all odds in my head, it did start to get better. It’s still hard to believe that things did eventually improve and that I am in a far better place than I was before, even if I am still depressed. I realized that “It gets better!” could never be a useful piece of advice because I couldn’t believe that my situation could improve until it had already happened. 

It got better because I put in an immense amount of work into my mental health. I put all my hope, faith, time and money into therapy and medication management. After almost three years, it is beginning to pay off. I don’t feel as if I am suffocating under the weight of my own sadness: I can talk about it now, even openly to the world, and the load lightens. I’m still depressed every day, but suicidal ideation doesn’t feel so present anymore. 

As I reflect on my freshman year and the emotional turmoil which ensued, I am reminded of my friend Laure who sat me down in the hallway of my dorm and made me write a list of all the things that were worth living for. At the time, the list seemed mostly silly and superficial: things we could do together, people to meet, pets to adopt, a life to live out fully. I didn’t believe in that list at all, but I humored her. I believe in it now. I am capable of imagining a better future for myself. 

 Sometimes the ghosts of those hard days come back to whisper their quiet temptations to me. If there is anything to gain from this, it’s that despite my disbelief, I clawed my way out of the worst of my depression. Even when I didn’t believe it was possible, my therapist’s success story reminded me that it was possible to keep going. Now, I am my own example, and when I feel depressed, I know from my own experience that depression might not go away — but it can and will alleviate. 

Salwa Meghjee writes the Thursday column on destigmatizing mental illness. Contact her at [email protected].