Sitting on a bus not so long ago, I found myself mindlessly scrolling through social media; a distraction from the banality of the journey, and the impending appointment I was reluctant to attend. It was around the time of the abortion bans in both Georgia and Alabama; and, as a result, my Twitter feed was overrun with news stories detailing every imaginable horror that this would entail, as well as exasperated reminders that such barbaric bans have been – and continue to be – commonplace in Northern Ireland, much closer to home, yet more often than not, ignored.
It was one of those days where the world already felt somewhat uninhabitable, when even getting out of bed had felt like an incredibly arduous task. Everything around me appeared as if behind a pane of glass which I were unable to penetrate, every sound as if heard from the confines of the room next door; and I felt alien to the rest of the world. I was, quite simply, overwhelmingly sad.
On that day, with no apparent reason, I just so happened to be standing in the midst of a depression cloud, and as I read tweet after tweet discussing the unjust, archaic intricacies of the bans in America, I felt increasingly worse. My heart rate quickened, and the previously emotionless expression I had been sharing with the outside world vanished as the muscles of my face contorted in an effort to prevent tears. Out of the deafening static that had occupied my mind for the majority of the preceding few hours came just one clear thought: this world is absolutely fucked.
“The whole world felt beyond repair … My upsetting overreaction had led me to consider more deeply the way in which our lived experience – in particular, that of our ever-changing mental health – is capable of altering our perception of the world.”
The physical manifestations of panic I had already been experiencing were exaggerated each time these words ricocheted around the inside of my cloudy head. At the time, I hadn’t recognised the thought as such, and so, in that moment – it seemed fact. I was right. The whole world felt beyond repair and the weight of such a realisation was unbearable to my already heavy head.
I did, in the latter part of that day, manage to calm my reaction, and quieten my distressing thoughts. I reminded myself of the positives apparent in everyday life, remembered the unwavering presence of my incredible friends, and most likely scrolled through a few wholesome pictures of dogs for good measure. I did manage, at least in some way, to remedy my feelings of hopelessness. My upsetting overreaction had, however, led me to consider more deeply the way in which our lived experience – in particular, that of our ever-changing mental health – is capable of altering our perception of the world.
It is a prominent but perhaps under-discussed side effect of mental health issues. Of course, in more debilitating diagnoses; or in instances of psychosis, this altered perception is considered a significant symptom. The very nature of psychosis includes a perception of the world that is different to that of those around us; and can include visual and auditory hallucinations, as well as delusions that can make up a very realistic, although false, outward understanding.
“Having been through a number of periods of very poor mental health, I am well aware of the tendency of negative emotions to spread, seeping into every corner of your life in a way that can feel truly inescapable.”
There are also those who simply interpret the world differently; for example, a common symptom of Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder is a form of so called ‘black and white thinking’; where a person, event, or situation is either one thing or another, with no room for negotiation, no room for a grey area. In more common mental health conditions, this distinction is seemingly unclear. When our perception is only minimally removed from that which is considered ‘normal’, it is no longer classed as a symptom, and so often continues its presence, lingering as an unacknowledged side effect.
Having been through a number of periods of very poor mental health, I am well aware of the tendency of negative emotions to spread, seeping into every corner of your life in a way that can feel truly inescapable. Like the ability of Midas to turn everything he touched to gold; depression has a way of turning everything to endless, unadulterated black.
On bad days, even the smallest inconvenience can pique our emotions in ways that, when seen through a rational mind, seem entirely disproportionate. Your friend cancels on you, and your heart rate doubles; susceptible to the anxieties that convince you she despises you; that you are being deliberately dropped for something you have no doubt said or done to upset her. Your favourite mug smashes, and you cry for an hour, incapable of the energy required to reach the dustpan sitting a metre to your right, or the desire to clean up the mess.
“To expect something bad to happen at any moment is not so much pessimistic as it is well informed. Every day there are new disasters to report, new hardships to unveil. Our tendency as humans is, unfortunately, to be fascinated. We delve into disaster. We hang on to the horror.”
These are experiences that when viewed in hindsight – or by someone uncoupled from the ties of depression or anxiety – seem outlandish, disproportionate, ridiculous. But in that moment, they are real. And they illustrate in a very tangible way the effects of our altered perceptions. It explains, then, why the intricacies of the outside world can feel so horrific, so prominent to us on the days we are struggling ourselves.
That day on the bus, I had every reason to be upset by the abortion bans. It is no doubt a barbaric and incomprehensible violation of the rights of people with a uterus to bodily autonomy. I would be more concerned if I had been apathetic toward the situation. My reaction however, was so complete, so consuming, that I felt paralysed by its intensity. I firmly believed in that moment that this ban outweighed anything positive in the world, and that with this new development the world had become entirely dark.
Unfortunately the propensity of the world to produce negative, upsetting and heart-wrenching news stories is something that will never be remedied. To expect something bad to happen at any moment is not so much pessimistic as it is well informed. Every day there are new disasters to report, new hardships to unveil. Our tendency as humans is, unfortunately, to be fascinated. We delve into disaster. We hang on to the horror. We watch every night at six o’clock, awe-struck by footage of those experiencing misfortune that is greater than our own. It is, I believe, a necessary privilege to be able to see the experiences of a world outside of our own. But it can also feel suffocating – I should know, I did it for years.
“Living with any form of mental illness is difficult in itself, and we often fail to recognise its capacity to darken everything around us. Choosing to filter the darkness is, for many, a necessary step for survival.”
I am ashamed to say that I no longer watch the news. Ashamed, perhaps, because in an age where everyone is expected to be socially aware, avoiding the endless stream of current events is considered shameful behaviour. As a writer, a staunch feminist and a stereotype millennial with an opinion on absolutely everything, this is a decision that seems to go against my chosen grain. I am genuinely embarrassed to admit it. I feel as if my opinions are less valid, my thoughts less educated, and my writing less relevant. But, in a modern world where the daily terror reports are no longer confined only to six o’clock, it is sometimes necessary to create a space for yourself that is unburdened by outside influences.
I have a tendency, as usual, to laugh it off. When a news story or event is mentioned in conversation, I openly admit that I don’t watch the news because ‘I’m depressed enough!’. It is an overused phrase, which serves its purpose in deflecting my embarrassment. But to make this statement is as empowering as it is embarrassing. Because it’s true. Living with any form of mental illness is difficult in itself, and we often fail to recognise its capacity to darken everything around us. Choosing to filter the darkness is, for many, a necessary step for survival. It aligns with the age-old, mum-favoured statement that we are no help to anyone until we learn to look after ourselves.
I am, of course, still highly conscious of the ongoings of the outside world, but making this decision has allowed me the freedom to escape when I need. I am able to seek out the stories that tug on my heartstrings, or which I believe to be necessary to greaten my understanding of the world. I can actively look for ways I can help, if and when I have the ability to do so. It still distresses me to realise that my outlook on the world is changed by the chemical imbalances that make me sad, but with this notion is the hope that if when I am sad, the world is too; then one day, just maybe, the opposite might be true.