Tim Squirrell – I feel like a fraud
This week, TIM SQUIRRELL talks candidly about why he’s almost scared by the idea of not being depressed.
Mental Health Awareness Week starts today.
It feels like, even in the course of the past year, Cambridge has become a lot more self-aware with respect to the importance of mental health and the dual threats students face by virtue of being both in a high-risk age group and at a high-pressure institution. Articles about all manner of mental illnesses seem to have become less of a taboo-breaker, more of a regular reminder that other people are suffering and you could be too, so mind your head.
I’ve had more than my fair share of the mental health platform. This isn’t going to be another article about the prevalence of pathology in Cambridge, or the unseen but ever-present difficulties of living with a mental health condition. I’ve done a lot of that. It’s cathartic, and it’s helpful, and it’s still needed, but I think there are more stories that deserve to be told than just mine.
I don’t have so much of a problem with depression anymore. This is partly because it’s gotten better. I’ve gotten better. Over the past year, I’ve stopped cutting myself, spent fewer days curled up in the foetal position in bed, learned the distinction between less and fewer, taken myself off antidepressants and generally experienced life less through the lens of a depressed person.
I don’t know why. It’s frustrating, because I’m often asked how I managed to get better, and I don’t have any useful answers. I could say it’s because I’m in a really fulfilling and happy relationship, or because I’m doing a subject I actually enjoy, or because I’ve learned how to notice and avoid bad thought patterns, but I really don’t know. No fucking idea. Sorry. Sometimes life is just like that. We look for patterns of similarity and causal relationships and significance where there just isn’t anything to be found.
I feel like a fraud, because when you have an experience which defines you for so long you’re supposed to be able to learn from it, to come out better and stronger with wisdom which you can distil down into little nuggets to be used for writing articles entitled ‘10 Ways You’re Shitting Up Your Life and How to Stop It’. You’re supposed to be a font of empowering quotes and sage advice, but you look deep down inside yourself and there’s nothing there but bad memories and lint.
Life isn’t a coming-of-age story. It’s disappointing. Sometimes you find that you’ve wandered off the tracks in Shit Forest and you blunder around for a while, getting caught in bear-traps and stung by nettles and bitten by foxes and then you come out the other side and you have nothing to show for your journey but scars and atrophied social skills. No lessons learned. No virtue gained. Friends lost. Opportunities missed. Precious time wasted.
Just like they say in the uplifting YouTube videos, It Gets Better. But fucked if I know how, why, or when.
I feel like a fraud for another reason.
This is a bit harder to articulate, so bear with me. Mental illness differs from physical illness in, as far as I can tell, three ways. Obviously, it’s in your head (though it can cause physical symptoms, but you know that already). It’s harder to define, because the line between the normal and the pathological isn’t distinct. When does sadness become depression? When does a strict diet and physical regime become an ‘unhealthy relationship with food’? Finally, mental illness is different from acute physical illness because it’s not just a disease: it’s a way of experiencing yourself and the world, a way of interacting with other people and living your life.
In talking and writing about depression, becoming in some small, insignificant way an ‘activist’, depression has become part of my identity. To many people who only know me through articles I’ve written on the subject, I’m not Tim-Squirrell-the-Tab-writer or Tim-Squirrell-the-Union-hack or Tim-Squirrell-I-think-I-met-him-at-a-party-he-seemed-a-bit-up-himself, I’m Tim-Squirrell-the-depression-guy. It’s an identity which has taken up a significant part of my life during Cambridge. A number of people, more than ten, fewer (though not less) than a hundred, have started talking to me or engaged with me specifically because I’ve experienced life as a depressed person.
To now turn around and say ‘I’m not sure if I’m still depressed’ is a Big Deal, because it’s closing up shop on this thing that has been Part Of Me for such a long time. It poses all kinds of really hard questions. How do I know if I’m still depressed? If I’m not, am I still allowed to talk about it? Am I even allowed to be sad now? What if I think I’m getting better, and then I get worse – will I be told to get over myself and stop craving attention?
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, spending a long time talking and writing about it doesn’t really help (and the central irony of this article hasn’t escaped me). At the same time as really not wanting to be depressed, because it’s fucking shit and really screws up your life in a million ways, it’s become such a part of what defines me that it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without it.
So when people talk to me about depression, I’m conflicted. I’m conflicted because it’s interesting, because I want to help other people who are experiencing it and I don’t want to be useless, but at the same time I’m terrified that talking about it too much is going to somehow embed it in me like a fucking sea-urchin which can never be removed.
I’m also scared because so often I don’t know what I can say to help. I don’t know how I’m managing to get better or what I can offer other than ‘it’s absolutely shit, I’ve been through what you’re going through and I’m sorry’.
I can’t even say with any certainty that it gets better. Sometimes it doesn’t get better.
Even if it does, you may never know why.