In the Light Above Ground

Evlin DuBose

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Content Warning: Depression, Suicide Ideation

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A week into isolation, the symptoms showed.

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At first, it wasn’t much. Lethargy, increased appetite. A gnawing, tightening ache in my chest that gave way to numbness. Loss of interest. Loss of friends. The burden of a restless brain and a brainless body. Andrew Solomon defined it best: “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality.” 

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And I was losing my life.

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I don’t want to appear self-serving, or tone deaf; as the world approaches the crest of a second wave, it is more important than ever to be vigilant for our physical health. People are dying, and I won’t diminish that. But I won’t diminish depression, either. 

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As I was a veteran to mental health by the time of quarantine, I knew what to look for. Everyone has their metaphor, and mine is ‘the hole’. Abyssal, lonely, dark. I’d never yet reached the bottom, but I had always fallen deep enough to lose the light. This was a chasm I knew intimately. And my symptoms were textbook. 

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Depression is both much too much and far too little. Too much aloneness, too much food, too much sleep, and yet also not enough sleep, not enough food, not enough aloneness. A week into isolation, I began the hellish oscillation, as if flirting with falling headlong into the hole. 

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I initially laughed it off, like many at the time, because a lifetime of mental illness had seemingly prepared me for the mundanity of quarantine. What do you do in your room all day? Anyone who’s suffered depression could tell you. And when I couldn’t laugh it off, I relied on the scientists.

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Researchers have long drawn parallels between grief and depression; in truth, the symptoms overlap so much that fine lines and semantics (and often, mere medical opinion) separate what is normal and expected from what is aberrant. Both are tedious, oppressive, pervasive. Both are a slow, agonising, living death. 

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Like all, I grieved what the pandemic had taken. Lives, normality, freedom, safety. Grief was expected. My therapist even mentioned the same was true of my depression — though this was not as acceptable to me. I was merely mourning, same as the rest. The symptoms overlap, you know, I declared to a professional with a PhD. 

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And so despite my textbook symptoms, and the familiarity of the hole I was falling into, I told myself I would climb out — and soon. I would rally. I would push hard. Shame, after all, is a powerful motivator.

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But all this resistance brought me was one of the worst suicidal depressions of my life — and a revelation.

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The revelation began, as all do, as a brief logic. As if my mind had done the math and produced a dissatisfying answer. When you are depressed and everything is much too much, there is much too much time to think, and my mind kept catching on this answer, which grew and grew in me as I dwelled on it, over and over. So, I sought to bury it. More computer, more food, more isolation. Numb with analgesia.

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The world was imploding. Nobody was reliable because everyone was reeling, and there was a collective dying of tangible connection. Media feeds were flooded with confessions from quarantine and the horrors of the front lines. We’re grieving. We’re falling. We feel this way, too.

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I resented their honesty. The overdue solidarity. It was as if they had co-opted a disability I had been steeped in and shamed for my whole life. They couldn’t all be depressed, I averred. But the disaster worsened, the hole darkened, and I retreated into heavier numbness, till my days were lost in a fugue.

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Eventually, I clung to my rage, as if anger was something, anything to hold onto — as if anger was preferable, at least, to the heaviness. But the walls of the hole still rose around me, and once caught in its gravity, I fell. Down, down, and down — deeper than I had ever fallen before. Until finally, broken at the bottom, I admitted the truth out loud, over the phone, to someone paid to listen.

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The revelation was this: depression was supposed to be my fault. All the episodes before had the explanation of me. I was the only common denominator. I had not properly braced for trauma. I had not sought help sooner, had not eaten right, or exercised, or socialised enough. I had driven myself insane from lack of sleep. These weren’t just symptoms, I believed, but causes. They had to be.

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Because if they were just symptoms, doled out by the contagion of circumstance, then depression was not in any way a character flaw, or cerebral malfunction, or genetic curse, or even something that could even be fully avoided or braced for. Depression was a normal reaction from a cornered, frightened animal. Depression was the mind’s maladaptation to a loss of connection. Given the utter implosion of the world, my depression made a sickening sort of sense. Depression was expected. 

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Depression was…natural.

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And this revelation made me feel powerless. I had always, deep down, clung to the fantasy of control. I had thrown myself headlong into the hole; I had never once been pushed in. When depression was my fault, I knew whom to punish and blame. My own mistakes. My own unworthiness. I would spend hours abusing myself, then have the audacity to wonder why I felt sore. But this agony was acceptable, because the revelation was unacceptable.

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The revelation revealed, if anything, the extent of my vulnerability. If depression was reactive to life circumstances, and not something to be controlled, or dismissed as medical bad luck for a miserable few — then depression could happen to anyone. Merciless, arbitrary. A fact of life. Like how the body feels drained without proper nourishment, or the way the heart races from caffeine. But even then, I reasoned: you ingest the caffeine, you nourish the body. You have control. But I wasn’t in control.

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I had been in a good place pre-pandemic; I had been practicing my best life, doing everything right. Sleep, food, exercise, friends — but then the world imploded, and everything became much too much despite all my experience and all my good practice. If depression was truly my fault, then I should not have been depressed — and yet I was losing my life.

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I had been pushed in.

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It’s important to be kind and empathetic with yourself in those moments, when you’re broken at the bottom. I would not shame a widow for grieving her partner; why would I shame myself for, in the words of Johann Hari, ‘grieving’ disconnection? 

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If depression and grief overlap, then they do so for very sound psychological reasons, Hari argues. I had many lifelong, ill-gotten griefs by the calamities of 2020. Complex, inherited traumas, the lonely stresses of my adult existence, an insecure future — I had reasons to mourn normality. These were risk-factors that positioned me closer to the edge; the pandemic had merely been the concussive push back. Nothing could have prevented gravity. This time, there was no explanation of ‘me’.

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Depression was not my fault.

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I’m better, now. I’ve emerged from the hole battered and spitting blood — a little weaker for now, but stronger in the long-run. As is often the case with ‘tortured’ artists, there’s the expectation that in this emergence, I will make meaning out of my pain. As if mental illness is the due we all pay for artistic renaissance and credibility. 

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This is bullshit. I would write even if I had no pain to write about; writing is who I am and always will be. Making meaning out of my pain does not mean the pain was worth it, because that implies a price, a culpability, and the worst kind of expectation. 

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I did not deserve my depression. I would not wish upon anyone the lonely, paralysing, dehumanising, abject terror of suicidal thoughts. But I endured them both. And if I can make any meaning out of my pain, for my own healing and for others, it would be in sharing this whole-hearted revelation. 

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Depression is not our fault. We are vulnerable creatures, hard-wired for survival. We flee from threats and reel from the consequences of all manner of ruthless, random assaults on our person — even emotional ones. Even ones that merely confine us to our rooms for months on end. An assault can be anything that causes us pain, and reeling from this pain does not mean we asked for it. It does not mean — at all — that we deserved it. 

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As much as that powerlessness and vulnerability is a burden, it is preferable to the burden of the worst kind of self-hate. You would not blame yourself for bleeding. You would not declare that your scars were worth it for the pride you wear them with. You would not. We must not. Healing is only possible in letting go and surrendering to one’s vulnerability. 

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And if this all seems rather obvious — good. I’m glad. I’m grateful, truly, that you’ve never had to know, or that you have already done the bitter work of learning. If I had to do it all over, I would gladly live in ignorance of the darkness of the hole. But, if you are not that fortunate, or if you have fallen for the first time this year, then I humbly offer the following. 

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Down there, in the chasm, it’s much too much too easy to wonder how you could’ve avoided falling in — but all that wondering won’t get you out. Be gentle with yourself. Be fiercely kind. You did not ask for this. You do not deserve it. I know that you can’t see me, up here, in the light above ground. You might not believe I even exist; to you, I am a voice in the dark. But I’m here. I’ll keep speaking. And one day, I promise:

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You’ll be up here, too.

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Evlin was the winner of UTSoC’s The Comma’s Semester 1 competition and has been featured on their page. To check out their pieces, click here.

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Contact the UTS Counselling Services on 9514 1177, or visit the UTS Counselling Services website to find out more and access the extensive online self-help resources.

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If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please consider speaking to your local GP, a healthcare professional, or calling one of the numbers below. 

Lifeline — 13 11 14

Beyond Blue — 1300 22 4636