I suppose every written thing needs a disclaimer. Some admission of imperfection and fallibility – the same goes for this piece. I want to make it clear that I am not an expert in the fields of depression, counseling or mental illness. I am just a young woman who has experienced some things that need to be shared. It would also be helpful to say that this post is not just for those who experience mental illness – it is for anyone who desires to understand more about mental health so they can be more compassionate, more prepared, and more willing to love those who are struggling. With that said, be gracious with my story and be kind to one another – always. Let’s begin.
When Aneurin approached me about writing for his blog I was intimidated – there is nothing I think I could add to his explanation of depression and it’s effect on his life. He simply asked for my story and he said I could focus on depression or being a TCK. For me, those two are so closely linked it’s hard to dissect one from the other. They both bring about the same feelings of loneliness, estrangement, misunderstandings, and a general guilt of not belonging. For the sake of brevity I will focus on depression, but as I am undeniably a TCK the struggles of an international life will colour my experience.
Depression is an upcoming star in conversation. Previously we have not focused on mental health. We’ve let the blues or bad moods slip under the rug, covered them with harsh whispers of “frail condition” or “poor constitution.” We haven’t properly looked depression in the eyes and called it what it is: disease. It is a displacement of the norm. Depression is not how people are meant to feel, yet it is something that a great number of our population deal with on a daily basis. It is the result of living in a fallen world with sinful people. It’s also something that we’re not very good at discussing and that needs to change. When I was first told I had depression I didn’t know what that meant but I knew it sounded scary and true.
As a child, I like to think I had a happy disposition. My older sisters might disagree because they can vividly remember all my temper tantrums and the following embarrassment. I prefer to say that I am a passionate person and my intense ability to feel leads to different outburst – whether of love or anger. Regardless, I’ve always had strong emotions. When we lived in Portugal I devoured the time with my family, loving the beach, the sun, the baked chicken we ate with fresh bread on Sundays. When we moved to Angola I felt the fear, the stress, the anxiety about a new and dangerous place. Then my sisters started moving to boarding school and I felt the loneliness, the quietness, the dependable fact of change and the swift passage of time. I cried. I yelled. I immersed myself in imaginary characters to deal with stress and emotions. The point is – I felt. I felt a lot and I felt often. Experiencing extreme emotions was an essential part of being Iona, and when that part disappeared I knew something was wrong.
Depression found me Junior year of high school. I had spent two years being generally happy, excited to have friends, enjoying classes, and participating in school events. However, over two years I’d also lost friends to expulsion or health issues, had my heart broken, and had to change my own perception and expectations of friendship. Junior year a lot changed. I think I can say change was precipitated when I had my appendectomy. It was an emergent surgery, out of my control, out of my understanding, and I was alone. My mum arrived the day after the surgery but from the morning I woke up with blinding abdominal pain to the next day when I relocated from hospital to the school infirm I was essentially alone. My closest friends were turned away at the hospital door because it was off campus. I was exposed, naked, in pain, and dreadfully alone. Throughout the night I remember drifting in and out of an anesthetized sleep and each conscious moment I had was spent thinking about being alone. As I was recovering I was, of course, surrounded by concerned friends and my mum, but the whole experience triggered something deep inside.
There are many aspects of our lives that are lonely. No one will be able to understand your exact interpretation or experience. With TCKs I think this can be even more profound. We’re told to relate and understand so much about a variety of cultures but when it comes to understanding ourselves we can be at a loss – as can others. After my appendectomy I remember being constantly afraid of things outside of my own control.
My body had failed. A body that I had relied on to run every morning, dance during ballet lessons, carry me across the stage in drama, push during field hockey practice, it had betrayed me. Then everything else I couldn’t control came tumbling out. I could’t control Angola, the civil war, the stress my parents were under, the loneliness my sisters felt. I couldn’t control the need for boarding school but I also couldn’t control anything at boarding school. The rules were already set, the boundaries made. I couldn’t control that my parents were moving from my long term African home to an unknown Middle Eastern country. I couldn’t control my friends, my classmates, or my family. I began to retreat from everything I couldn’t handle.
During the middle of my Junior year and throughout my whole senior year I closed in on myself. I stopped hanging out during lunch time. I stopped going to class events if they were optional. I spent too much time sitting on my bed in a cramped dorm room begging the world to stop spinning. Sleep never came, just anxious and dark thoughts. Instead of eating dinner I would run after practice, then in lieu of watching the sunset over the Rift Valley with my friends I would stare out our dorm window and think of how to kill myself with the least amount of mess.
These are dark, disturbing truths – they aren’t dramatizations or memories I like to dwell on – this is just what I was going through. I felt hopeless, I felt like my lack of control meant anything and everything could happen to me and I would never stop it or recover from it. Mostly, I noticed that I stopped feeling so much. I didn’t care. If everything was going to cave in, time was going to move on, and none of us meant anything, then what was the point? I didn’t feel happy, but I didn’t feel sad. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t laugh. This was probably the scariest part for me – knowing and relying on being an emotional person made me very aware when I had stopped feeling anything. The void of feelings, whether good or bad, was more disturbing to me than the suicidal ideations or the solitary behavior.
This is still the first thing I notice when I’m about to enter a deeper bout of depression. The intensity inside me wilts. It’s as if on a normal day I have a blazing flame of love, anger, compassion and excitement to give and then on a dark day it’s snuffed clean out. I’m cold, an empty wick shrouded in dried up wax, unable to move, unable to talk, barely able to clearly think. On those days I know I’m dealing with depressed Iona – I am still myself. I cannot reiterate that enough. People who are depressed are still people – they are still your child, your sibling, your friend, your spouse. They haven’t forgotten you or abandoned you or themselves. Life just looks different on days when depression is more prevalent than anything else. So on those dark days, when I know who I am but I know my limitations, I sit. I wait. I drink warm tea. I try to run or cook but if I can’t I force myself to be patient, to give myself grace, and to be honest with those around me. Of course, in high school I didn’t know how to cope. I was just a blank shadow of myself trying to figure out what had gone wrong.
Eventually the lack of sleep and the disregard for rules that comes with an apathetic attitude led me to counseling. I am incredibly grateful my boarding school had counseling available. My counselor was not only able to encourage me she was able to point out truths I had blazed past in my despairing. She was also the first one to tell me I was depressed. I didn’t know what all that meant but I was so relieved to have a name and a game plan. From there, I spent a lot of time talking to my parents, counselors, and doctors. We found a medical regime that worked for me while I was in school. I slept a bit, was able to focus on studying, and in general I think I graduated feeling a little bit better.
I was grateful for some forward action but hesitant to share it with anyone. Even then, as a sixteen year old who knew nothing about mental illness, I felt it was taboo to talk about. I’m not even sure why – perhaps I thought the closed doors of counseling office meant secrecy was required. Or the careful tones of my parents’ voices when they discussed medications and emotions made me believe it was a family only topic. More likely, though, I had just never heard depression discussed before. I didn’t know Christians could live in a perpetual state of unhappiness because we’re supposed to have the eternal joy of glory in our hearts. Now, however, I can say clearly that while I have HOPE in Christ and certainty of an eternal, perfect home, I am by no means happy all the time – nor do I think that’s a requirement. We were made with complex emotions and it would serve us to discuss them, understand them, and provide empathy for them.
Many of you may have questions about medications for depression. Let me simply say this: depression is an abnormality. If I had abnormal heartbeats, or uncontrollable blood sugar levels, hopefully my friends and family would encourage me to take medication to rectify the issues. It’s the same with medication for depression or other mental illnesses. While being on medication may not be ideal, at some points in time it is necessary. I needed 100 mg of Zoloft every day during university to cope with the daily stressors of student and TCK life. Now, however, I don’t take any medication. Some days I feel overwhelmed but the coping mechanisms I learned in counseling have a radical effect on my mood and behavior – and ultimately I trust the Lord each morning and give Him thanks each evening.
I’m learning how to communicate that with others and how to ignore the pressing guilt that comes with mental health. I find resources like this blog so helpful because they break the stigma that depression is a conversation for closed doors and knowing glances. For anyone dealing with a mental illness there is enough guilt conjured within their own mind – as a society we do not need to pile on more and more guilt to the point of crushing them. I struggled with the guilt of dropping classes because I could’t handle the work load, taking medications while in a Christian environment, and not being constantly happy even when my life was not overwhelmingly difficult. Others’ comments were the most likely to cause guilt so I want to challenge you to be careful with your words. If you have an encouragement or a truth to say – speak it. But if you have an opinion marked by misunderstanding or prejudice – keep it to yourself.
I want to be honest with this post because I don’t believe there’s enough honesty about mental illness in our world. I am not writing this from a place of healing. I have not ‘recovered’ from depression. Most recently I am coming out of a season of deep depression. Not too long ago there were a few months where I did not feel like I could get out of bed. My husband had to care for me on top of his masters’ programme. I was incapacitated and incapable of leading a ‘normal’ day to day life. It was strange, discouraging, exhausting, and hard. Now, I’m out of that season but handling different challenges. We’re in an unique situation with our jobs and our locations, life is moving forward at a neck breaking speed, and I cannot control any of it. Depression is still a present part of my life but for the moment it does not have the hold it did a few months ago.
I am not a happy person every moment of every day. In general I would say I am a darker person, a serious introvert, and a melancholy thinker. While one event in Junior year seemed to catapult me into depression I do believe I would have encountered it anyway – I think it’s part of being an emotional individual, a TCK, prone to anxiety, and an empathetic soul. I also do not think this is something that will ever go away entirely. I have depression. Some days it is worse than others. That is okay. For me, depression is now more akin to waiting. Waiting for the dark days to end, waiting for the heaviness to lift, waiting for the tightness to loosen, waiting for the apathy to pass, waiting for the emotions to return in full force so I can either cry horrendously or laugh a deep belly laugh. Most of my days are spent living alongside my depression and just waiting. I know I’m not waiting for answer on this earth because I do believe in a New Home and an Eternal Hope. While we’re here, though, we can open our minds to discussing mental health more, hold out our hands to those who are struggling, and learn to be more compassionate to all people in all walks of life.
Noggy here. Thanks so much to Iona for her piece. If you have any questions for her, or just want to tell her what a great job she has done (which writers always appreciate!) feel free to get in touch with her. Either leave a comment here, write to her on email at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out her blog at https://imchaney.wordpress.com/.
The purpose of this blog is to share stories about mental illness or being a TCK. So please share this on social media. The only way we can fight mental illness is to talk about it more. We all need to unashamedly pitch in.