I check my phone and I have 47 unread WhatsApp messages, some as old as a year. So I close WhatsApp and open Instagram instead where I have 18 unread messages from friends. I decide to doom scroll through Instagram stories, but I pause because I see a college friend has updated her story and she is one of the people who I haven’t replied to in months. If I watch her stories, she’ll know that I was online and still didn’t reply to her messages so I think of ways to avoid it. Maybe I can scroll until it comes to hers, and then I can quickly shut the tab so she won’t know?
It seems like too much work so I close Instagram and choose to play mindless games on my phone instead; but I get bored quickly so I toss it aside and go back to staring at my ceiling, filling my mind with intrusive and anxious thoughts. All of these thoughts are about what friends, acquaintances and followers think of me as I continue to ignore their messages. Somehow, laying in bed at this moment is far more exhausting than the days I’ve spent doing physical labour.
Most days I can’t make sense of why I am the way I am. So I turn to Amala, my best friend, who is in a situation similar to mine. “We live with these [mental health challenges] everyday,” she tells me in a bid to help me make sense of my circumstances. “When we are not OK, we expect others to be there for us but when I am doing OK, I don’t have the capacity to be there for them because I’m so burned out from taking care of myself.”
But that’s the reality of living with mental illnesses, it is exhausting and some parts of it are embarrassing and we can rarely ever talk about it for what it is.
I have been living with depression and anxiety for nearly a decade now, of which, I’ve been on medication and in therapy for two years. While this has significantly helped me cope with and manage my mental illnesses, it’s not the magical solution everyone seems to think it is.
The discourse is still limited to a sanitized, pity-evoking version of mental health.
Therapy is years of constant work, a good support system and a safe space to live. Yet, it is made out to be a quick and simple solution. Sometimes Amala’s words haunt me. “So many of us live with a mental illness that is not going to go away. We can’t recover from it.” she said. “We just have to live with it, and it affects all aspects of our lives including our functionality at home and work.”
I nod my head vigorously, because she’s managed to put into words something that has been plaguing me for a long time. It’s 2 p.m. right now and I have been awake for the last five hours but I haven’t eaten anything yet. If today is like any other day, I won’t eat for the next five to six hours until my stomach revolts in pain. I’ve had a difficult relationship with food since childhood. When my mental health is poor, my eating habit is the first thing I lose and the last to come back to normalcy. And since the COVID-19 pandemic, that normalcy has been missing. But my mental health’s effect on my functionality extends even further.
There have been times when I haven’t showered for a week at a stretch. Days I stay in bed for so long that day and night passes by without me brushing my teeth or even stepping out into the living room. But speaking about this openly feels shameful. And speaking about this in a workplace? That’s an impossibility.
Even though conversations around mental health are increasing, the discourse is still limited to a sanitized, pity-evoking version of it. It’s “ugly” side is ignored and still brushed under the carpet.
Being honest about the worst parts of my mental health is liberating, but it also comes with a cost, including missing out on career opportunities and being made redundant. And thinking about all this feels heavy. So I just go back to playing mindless games on my phone and doomscrolling so I can numb myself and ignore this harsh reality of living with mental illnesses.