When The Duffer Brothers created the TV series Stranger Things on Netflix, I’m not sure if their creative inspirations included depression or ED’s. I was just recovering from my last bout of major depression when I began watching it, an episode that was unmatched in its severity. I was beginning the final year of my undergraduate degree when it truly took hold, having felt my mind slowly start to collapse in the months before. I had many internal and external components contributing in the run up, but there was a pivotal day, an event that quite literally snapped the last frayed thread holding me in survival mode.
The whole world washed over black. In quite a stark contrast to my ED, which always seems to push, to aim, to talk at me, to need to move, to overthink and continually assess my every move, depression was nothingness. I felt an overwhelming awareness of my brain, behaving like a laptop with a complex virus. One thousand error codes catapulting on to my screen, images flashing into my mind that I did not recognise and did not want. I felt the malfunctioning. I felt the fear of everything that is part of my very being dissolve, until I was erased.
In the months before, I’d been working hard to finish my second year in my degree. This was going to be the turning point not only in my career in healthcare, but in my life. I was proving myself in the world. A mother of 2 fantastic children, a step-mother of 2 boys, a newly married wife after the failure of my first marriage, I didn’t have time to be ill. My ED shadowed me everyday, restricting my intake and cheerleading me to run up and down all the escalators of the London underground, the city which had become my backdrop for my studies. After gruelling days spent in major trauma surgery, I still had to get off the tube a stop before I needed to. I still had to run up the stairs of the Hungerford bridge come rain or shine. The second seat in on the right, second carriage next to the isle on the 6:04am train every morning. These were the routines that paced me through my mission into a new life and I found my safety in them. I never failed. I bathed in my consistence of good feedback from mentors and good grades. I pushed harder still. I wasn’t graduating without a First.
In the depths of my depression, that drive, all ambition, left me entirely. Everything which once seemed to propel me forward so hard, left with such speed that I questioned it had ever existed. My children, once the reason to better myself and be more, were now better off without me. Forced into my bedroom which I was unable to leave, placed on suicide watch by the GP and signed off from university for the foreseeable future, I agonised at my apparent failures. I was stuck still, everything as physically visible as it had always been but lifeless. The only true emotions I now felt capable of were guilt and fear and my sense of self was so lost, that even my ED was silenced. I no longer recognised myself, or the world I lived in. Deserted in my black wasteland of which no one else could see or feel, I’ve never felt so frighteningly alone.
My husband, as he had done in my years before with my ED, told me how he could not even remotely understand what it was I was experiencing, but he would do what he could. He reassured me that every single thing I was worried about outside of getting well again, just did not matter. I saw the stress my abrupt downfall placed on him and I felt worse still, he had become my care-giver. When I’d fallen in to a deep sleep, exhausted from the ordeal of leaving my bed to shower in an attempt to leave the house, I apologised profusely. ‘It’s ok’ he said. ‘We’ll try again tomorrow. There’s no time limit, it takes as long as it takes’. That was one of the first times in that experience, I felt some love inside me once more. Followed by tears. And bit by bit I began to find the lost parts of me again.
My husband and I cuddled up as we watched season 1 of Stranger Things. I’d been back at uni and placement for a couple weeks after a string of failed attempts to re-join the world around me, one of which saw me travel into London and curl up on the floor of a toilet cubicle in my placement hospital, for 8 hours straight. When The Upside Down was introduced to our screen, it resonated on a level I felt almost insane to identify with. I sat, eyes wide and said ‘this, it’s this!’ to my husband. He sat with a look of caution while I explained. The world structurally appearing identical, but dark, cold and unsafe. Will balled up, hiding in his den, petrified of the presence that the viewer can see, but the characters at that point could not. The Upside Down gave a visual on my feelings and showed the things I couldn’t find the words to describe. I wondered if others had the same thoughts when watching Stranger Things and when I Google it today, I see it really was something that resonated with those who have experienced depression. And personally, I’m glad it did. In someway, that depiction made me feel that what only existed inside my psyche, had to be real (and therefore believable) if that emotion could be visualised. I honestly felt like I’d slipped into a world no one else could see. The idea that it was a separate dimension, running parallel to the real world comforted me. Conversely, the fact that I could relate a sci-fi entertainment show to my life, was quite alarming! Had I truly lost the plot? The jury is out on that.
It’s well established that ED’s are frequently accompanied by other mental health conditions, such as OCD, depression and anxiety. I’m acquainted with the latter 2 quite well alongside my ED. Greedy, I know. Although they may fall under the same umbrella term of mental health conditions, they feel and behave very differently from each other. My anxiety for example, analyses everyone else as well as myself, all scenarios and outcomes and puts me in a hyper-vigilant state. It’s like risk assessment on steroids. Someone once described it as that feeling in your stomach when you miss a step going down the stairs and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better descriptive for it. At one stage, I required beta-blockers to calm the instant tachycardia that would begin and persist from the moment my alarm screamed in the morning. Now, meditation, CBT and a wide range of reading and understanding my own body and its particular fight or flight response to everything, means I manage it far better. I smile at it compassionately, knowing in it’s own dysfunctional way, my brain is trying to protect me.
If you have experienced a major depressive episode once, you are highly likely to experience one again. My first major episode was at the age of 13, my second was when I was 31. I’ve lived with it mildly throughout my life and managed it a variety of ways, again, meditation and mindfulness have been key players since my last run in with it. I needed medication at the time and without a doubt I wouldn’t have been here today without that, even if just for the heavily sedating side effects getting me from one day to the next while my mind rebooted. Long term however, the medication didn’t work for me due to other side effects I experienced such as hallucinations. Depression reveals itself in such a way to me, that I know when I’m headed for it now. The feeling that starts to simmer is quiet at first, but there, like walking a road with a gradual incline. You feel your thighs start to burn, stop and look around and behind you, you see you are subtly walking up that particular hill and there’s that bloody steep, dark drop ahead of you. Having walked that road, I feel genuinely blessed that I have learned the tools to level it out and navigate my way around that drop. I’m cautiously optimistic. I know when to radio for help.
My ED, feels different to both these things. It feels intrinsic. As a person, I go about my world as a mother, a daughter, a friend and healthcare professional (not mental health, I’ll quickly highlight as if I needed to) and I’ll do my best to behave with honesty, empathy and integrity. I try to be kind and I hug as much as I can, anyone who needs it. I love passionately. I have an amazing group of friends. I cling to these parts of my demeanour, because these are components of my character that I am proud of and enjoy in my life. The ED is like all the bad things I can be. The traits involve, lying, hiding, secrecy, manipulating and selfishness. It hurts the people you involve with it, the people who love you. To succeed with keeping it protected, is to have succeeded in being a person capable of all these things. To talk about it, as a process in my life complete with thoughts and emotions, feels perverse. Depression and Anxiety feel extrinsic, like I guard myself for their potential arrival and existence. My ED, feels like an extreme fetish or character flaw that I allow myself to indulge. I allow it. I do it. Like cheating, or lying, or betraying. I do the things that make me feel the things that make me do the things. That ED voice, is my voice. It’s hard to begin to separate them off as me and a health condition. It’s hard to imagine sitting and explaining it to someone and their response to be anything else other than, ‘you don’t have to do it, you are being stupid, just stop’.
This brings me to season 2 of Stranger Things. Season 1, we see Will sucked into that other dimension, lost, cold, scared and alone. Season 2, we see him as the host to a parasitic entity, The Mind-Flayer. We see the moment it infiltrates his young, defenceless body. We see him in moments cry to his mum as he feels the last pieces of himself slipping away, then talking to her with rage as The Mind-Flayer takes over him. He has no control anymore. With a freezing cold body, he refuses to get in the bath his mother runs him snapping ‘NO. He likes it cold’. He lies about what he knows The Mind-Flayer intends to do. His family and friends begin to distrust who it is they are talking to. They see the same person, they know Will is still there but they know he is no longer himself. As they push to help the boy they love, they become the enemy. The scene where Will is tapping morse code on the chair leg in a bid to stop The Mind-Flayer, haunts me to think about. Although at my danger points, my tapping is not nearly as dramatic and I know no closing of an imaginary gate will rid the world of my very own Mind-Flayer, it’s the desperation of that real self to be saved. To be recognised. For those around me to have the answers. To help.
I must have some strength in order to have swung myself back to functioning so many times, to even be allowing myself to stay the same weight, despite the constant narrative that tells me it is actually weakness. That I’m a failure to be pushing against the free-fall and against what actually feels like the right thing. I am longing for the day I could look and say this is an ED and not just all the bad parts of me. There is no gate to close, no Winona Ryder and no season finale. Back in reality, I have to accept, I need to try and write my own ending to this one.