My bed and I have a complicated, toxic love-hate relationship. Mental illness is exhausting and causes me to sleep a lot. I can easily sleep for 15 hours straight. Once, when I told my therapist about a Saturday when I couldn’t get up for more than 30 minutes without becoming so exhausted that I had to return to bed until dark. She told me that I use sleep as an “avoidance mechanism.” I resent this statement, but it also makes sense that when I tell myself I’ll do my homework in bed, I usually just end up falling asleep in it.
Measuring the hours I spend in bed helps me keep track of some of the time I’ve lost to my mental illness. It’s hard to imagine the total time lost because it’s hard to quantify. I’ve spent hours in therapy and psychiatry appointments every week and even more time in meetings trying to improve mental health on UC Berkeley’s campus. I’ve dedicated a lot of time toward writing about mental illness for the ASUC and for campus publications. And even when I’m not actively working on improving my health, or not lying in bed afflicted by exhaustion and sadness, I’m constantly thinking about my depression. Despite my efforts to not allow my illness to define my personality, I do spend most of my waking hours thinking about it in some form.
I started to feel the sizable impact that depression has had on my time when I counted the number of classes I’ve missed this semester, which I’ve never kept track of before. I missed 19. And this has been one of my better semesters. I’ve come to accept that sometimes I will miss class because of my illness, but 19 is a hard number to look at without feeling guilty.
I’ve lost a lot to mental illness. I waste so much brain space and time thinking about my depression. Many job application deadlines have flown by whilst I’ve been trapped in my bed, incapable of doing anything while I am consumed by the disease festering in my brain. Last summer, I retracted most of my internship applications, so that I could try transcranial magnetic stimulation treatment instead. While I watch my sister and my friends apply to graduate school, I have to come to terms with deciding to postpone my applications until I’m in a better place mentally to withstand another year of school. It feels like opportunities are trickling through my fingers as I struggle to maintain control over just my own brain, let alone the rest of my life.
The hours I’ve spent trying to take care of my mental health could be seen as productive. My time in therapy has made me a more self-aware and engaged person. I have contributed to the campus discussions on mental health and have hopefully made a positive impact. I’ve made a lot of progress in therapy, and I do feel better, but so much of that work has felt fruitless. My therapist, psychiatrist and I have spent hours upon hours discussing possible different diagnoses. Some of those have been referenced in my column: anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder. At some point, it feels like a waste of time to think of different names for the same one or two big issues that dominate my life.
We’ve also spent a lot of time talking about my perpetual feelings of loneliness, without much progress. After having the same conversations multiple times with my therapist, it doesn’t feel as though we’ve reached a new conclusion, and I don’t feel any less isolated. She believes that reiterating to me that I am not lonely will eventually make a difference, that it will drill it into my brain as fact. But right now, it just feels like time wasted going in circles, rather than progressing forward.
When I think about my depression, I don’t see that there is anything to be gained. I have missed out on living my life because I’ve been trying to reckon with this disease. I can’t imagine what my time at university would have looked like if I hadn’t been chronically depressed.
I have tried, as much as I can, to make something out of this illness, to fabricate some sort of silver lining and find something salvageable in a disease that only takes from me. But sometimes, I think it’s OK to acknowledge what is lost. I yearn for the hours I’ve given up to being sick, but I’m also proud of every hour I’ve fought to get back. Though I missed 19 classes, there were dozens more that I attended, contributed to class discussion in and was able to do the required readings beforehand. For all the hours of sleeping in, I have spent a lot of time out in the sun this semester. With effort and even more time, I have been able to win back control over the hours.
Salwa Meghjee writes the Thursday column on destigmatizing mental illness. Contact her at [email protected].