I’m Not Lying When I Tell You Nothing’s Wrong
At least, not in the way you mean it
I thought I was done writing about my own mental health. I should’ve known better. I won’t pretend I ever genuinely believed I would never again slip into a depressive state, but it was at least a nice thought; that I had somehow resolved the chemical imbalances governing my mind through simple creative expression or willpower. It has been, after all, years since I last felt as ugly as I do now.
But, as we both know, that’s not how mental illness operates. And so here I am, once again putting pen to paper — or fingertip to keyboard — in a likely fruitless effort to both exorcise my own demons and disentangle my own disconsolate humor from my relationships with those around me. Welcome to the shit show.
I’m no longer sure what the phrase ‘mental health’ is supposed to refer to. I can’t imagine I’m the first to take umbrage at the forced cleavage between ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ health, as if emotional or intellectual imbalance could be anything but connected to a body’s physiology, but it still elicits a certain phlegmatic rage whenever I think about it for longer than a few seconds.
It’s no secret that our mental health is organically entwined with our broader health. We know, through both anecdotal experience and scientific inquiry, that there are several biological factors that contribute to mental health conditions: genetics, life experiences, medication, substance use. Moreover, key aspects of prevention extend far beyond basic meditation or mindfulness — physical activity, nutrition, social inclusion and support are all proven methods of fighting mental illness. The World Health Organization itself tells us that health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease of infirmity.” It goes on to say that “there is no health without mental health.”
So if this is common knowledge — that mental illness is, incontrovertibly, physiological — then why, when I announce my collapse into a depressive episode, do I still find myself fielding questions about what’s wrong?
I’m burnt out by these inquiries, and I feel guilty in that exhaustion. I’m not sure how many more times I can tell a well-meaning family member or friend that ‘nothing’s wrong,’ even if I believe it to be the truth. Nothing is ever wrong in the sense that people mean it when they ask; there is never any large-scale, cataclysmic event that capsizes me. Actually, it’s often the exact and immediate opposite; everything is perfectly and serenely fine, and it’s this knowledge that, coupled with my already-deteriorating health, makes it so difficult for me to talk about anything I feel.
How can I justify feeling the way I do when there are absolutely no tangible reasons for it? Yes, I could point to outside actors; explain that global capitalist structures have created a hegemonic culture that values productivity over all else — to the point of burnout, even — or that the pandemic everyone’s still suffering through is responsible, but that feels disingenuous. Because while these external conditions certainly contribute to a blanket sense of discontent, they are by no means responsible for my episodes, and it feels deeply disrespectful to any altruistic conversational partner to pretend they are.
I understand the desire for something to be wrong. I wish something was wrong, too. You want something to be wrong, especially when it’s someone you care about struggling, because then you can pinpoint the issue and start problem-solving. If there’s nothing wrong, what do you do? How can you help?
I, despite all the years I’ve spent on introspection and self-discovery, still don’t have an answer to this, nor do I know even how to talk about my health at a very basic level. It’s why I write — I feel more comfortable on the page, where I can structure and present my thoughts cohesively without immediate interrogation, than I do sharing the same thoughts verbally even with those closest to me. And I think a large part of my inability to have that live-action conversation is that it inevitably starts with this same question: “What’s wrong?” Or, sometimes: “Are you okay? No? What’s wrong?” I see iterations of this query every day, and I don’t know how to answer honestly without sounding like an absolute dick. “No, I’m not okay. No, nothing’s wrong. What’s wrong is I feel like shit, but that’s not helpful to either of us.”
I understand this is why so many turn to therapists, licensed professionals who understand that nothing is in fact wrong save that it is, and who can give shape to self-investigation from that mastery. I think maybe these people are onto something.
I’m not lying when I tell you nothing’s wrong. I’m just not sure where else to go from there — so I don’t.
I imagine the above begs the question: if mental health is health, period, and nothing’s really wrong with me or my life per say, then what gives? Why don’t I A) do something about it, whatever that may be, or B) accept the waiting for it to blow over as simply another unpalatable aspect of the human condition?
To the former, I can only say that I have absolutely no notion of what I could possibly do differently. It’s no exaggeration to say that I lose a certain critical thinking capacity when I enter these depressive periods. I’m open to suggestions.
I’d like to entertain the latter option, but I struggle with the thought that I’m fated to this episodically depressive behavior without any recourse. I see this path as dangerous, and once accepted, I run the risk of becoming what I fear becoming most in life: a burden. Actually, I believe this is why I hold onto these emotions as long as I do, hastily papering over ugly thoughts — it’s not out of any compulsivity to masquerade as someone who has their life together; rather, I’m afraid that if I let myself give out under the weight of my own inclinations, I cease to be of any merit to anyone in my life. I am truly terrified at the thought that I am, or that I could be, worth negative value to my family or friends.
And, while we’re discussing the passage of time, I’d like to clarify that these episodes aren’t lightning strikes. I can feel myself becoming increasingly fragile, negative energy building like heat and humidity before a storm, but I’m too afraid to do anything about it for fear that even simple acknowledgement that I’m not okay will cause it to manifest even more profoundly. I calculate that it’s safer to compartmentalize and treat each symptom, pretending they’re isolated, than to accept them all at once — maybe I’m tired, or dehydrated, or reacting to some poor social interaction.
But I’ve never been great at math, and my calculations are inevitably wrong, leading to a breaking of the storm followed by prolonged periods of my life characterized by acute dissociation and, ironically, involuntary reliance on my support networks (of which I consider myself lucky enough to have a few). I feel feverish, even in strong air conditioning. I find myself clouded, unable to make decisions that should be automatic — two nights ago I spent upwards of ten minutes waiting quietly to use the bathroom before realizing that I had just passed the only other potential occupant moments before in another room. I broke almost into tears yesterday when a sweet soy glaze I created for a recipe thickened into a toffee-like concrete. I’m not sure what today holds, beyond the regular flattening of each small aggregate moment as I rush through my waking hours in anticipation of sleep (that rarely, if ever, comes).
In my lethargy, I often barely manage to do anything but write — which, I think it’s also worth noting, is in some grand comedy the same activity I turn to in my more manic, obsessive dispositions.
I’m emerging from one of these depressive periods now, soldiering my sense of self back together with a willingness to be vulnerable, and it’s hard. It’s one of the hardest things I’ll ever have to do.
I’m realizing, as I come to the conclusion of this literary account, that this is one of the more defeatist pieces I’ve ever written. I have no answers, nor will I pretend I do; there is no research, there are no anecdotal experiences, that I trust to redeem me in episodes such as these.
I often find that writing provides some acceptable solace, but it’s no cure. I have yet to find anything that truly liberates me save the passage of time, which is unfortunately unreliable when caught in the throes of derealization.
I’m reminded once again of a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without A Country, which I offer to you now as words of advice: “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” We never know how long it will last.