MH@H Depression

Were You Always Depressed or Anxious?

Were you always depressed or anxious?

I ask about always being depressed or anxious because I know, for some people, their illness struck at a relatively young age, or there were always hints of what was to come even if the full-blown illness didn’t hit until later.

A life before depression

It wasn’t like that for me. My first episode of depression didn’t start until I was almost 27. Before that, I was a happy, optimistic person who enjoyed life. I was an introvert, but I still really enjoyed socializing with my small circle of really close friends. I was passionate about travelling, and did a big international trip every year.

After my first depressive episode, which involved a long hospitalization and multiple suicide attempts, my illness went into full remission.  I was then depression-free for almost 4 years, although I had small dips in mood and sleep in late summer each year.  Otherwise, though, I was back to my happy, optimistic self, and able to handle some reasonably significant situational stressors without too much difficulty.

I got depressed again in 2011, seemingly out of the blue.  I was sick for over a year and hospitalized multiple times,  but in 2013 I got back into full remission.  Except my remission wasn’t as stable as before, and there were some bursts of depressive symptoms that medication increases would take care of.  I got really sick again in 2016, and now it looks like remission just isn’t in the cards.

Illness identities

The point of this little ramble is that I wasn’t someone who was always a little bit depressed.  I was emotionally sensitive, but I was pretty happy much of the time.  I liked myself, and I liked my life.  When depression first made an appearance in my life, I conceptualized it as an illness that happened to me rather than something that was inherently part of me.  Part of that was a sense of “sick me” and “well me”, who were the same person deep down, but their thoughts, feelings, and ways of looking at the world were very different.

I know it’s not like that for a lot of people.  It seems like anxiety in particular tends to show up fairly young and persist throughout a person’s life.  I would imagine that when mental health problems, even if it’s not full-blown illness, start at a young age, that becomes inextricably intertwined with identity.  It can’t be easy to have an identity separate from depression or anxiety if those things have always been present.

Identity loss

It’s now been almost 3 years since my illness was in remission, and the likelihood of achieving remission at this point is pretty slim unless some remarkable new treatment is developed.  It’s been a bit strange to wrap my head around identity-wise.  I still remember “well me”, although she feels further and further away.  The things that she used to think and feel have become increasingly foreign.  While I still think of my illness as a sort of outside entity that isn’t inherently me, I’ve had to shift my perspective from one of episodic illness to one of chronic illness.

There’s a sense of mourning almost that goes along with that.  Yes, I’m still the same person deep down, but the joy, optimism, and passion that were once so prominent in my life are now gone.  I’m now indifferent to the things that used to interest me.  More and more, depression has become part of who I am, and it has influenced every area of my life.  Well me is not someone I have much access to anymore.

It makes me wonder what the identity journey is like for those people whose illness has been a part of them for much of their lives.  Does illness play a different role in establishing identity in that context?  Can identity ever be truly separated from illness?

What are your thoughts? Were you always depressed or anxious, and if not, how do the illness shape your identity?

book cover: Managing the Depression Puzzle, Second Edition, by Ashley L. Peterson

Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic look at the different potential pieces that might fit into your unique depression puzzle.

It’s published by MH@H Books and available on Amazon and Google Play.

26 thoughts on “Were You Always Depressed or Anxious?”

  1. Yes, anxiety was prevalent throughout my younger years. My family a a whole was pretty screwed up with my father being an alcoholic. The secrets in which we all had to keep.
    However, my mental illness wasn’t confirmed until I was in my late 40’s. I had known for so long that I suffered with depression, but as I did most things… I ignored my overall health.
    I think for the most part… I am still the same fun loving person I have always been. I still maintain a sense of humor, and let life take its course. Some days are harder than others, but I just try to handle them as best I can.

  2. Anxiety and depression were huge issues since around age 12. Full blown manic stuff began around age 16 and psychosis started happening later around age 19. It has consumed a big portion of my life and I always wonder what it would be like to have grown up without these issues. I’ve been trying to see myself as a person aside from the illness but it’s hard sometimes especially with the medications being a constant reminder. I was almost able to somewhat forget about it for awhile, I had a 6 month period of remission and I didn’t think much about my mental health because I wasn’t having symptoms popping up all the time, which was a nice break. I’d like to get back to that

  3. In my case it’s complicated by my growing sense of being on the autistic spectrum. Obviously that would have been present and marked me out as ‘different’ from a very young age.

    Beyond that, I’ve been depressed since at least my late teens, so I don’t have a very strong sense of myself as an adult personality without depression. I’ve had no more than a couple of interludes of no more than six months when I wasn’t depressed since at least 2003.

    As for childhood, it’s hard to be sure. The problem I often have with describing mental health or autism is that I only know what I feel. I don’t know that what I experience as ‘happiness’ or ‘depression’ is what someone else experiences as those things, just as it’s hard to be 100% sure how my experiences of social interactions compare with those of neurotypicals. What is ‘normal’ anyway?

    At any rate, I suspect I may have been mildly depressed and/or anxious back into my early teens and maybe even into primary school, but it’s hard to be sure. I’m pretty sure I had social anxiety from when I started school, although almost certainly not when I was in kindergarten, interestingly. Like a lot of autistic people, I find it hard to understand and describe my own emotions, let alone remember what they were twenty years ago. Certainly some big, fairly traumatic, things happened when I was a young child and I must have felt something about them, but I don’t know what I felt and quite possibly wouldn’t have been able to describe what I felt even if someone had asked me at the time.

  4. That’s a tricky question for me as since getting a PTSD diagnosis and having EMDR I’ve learnt so much about how my brain processes ‘life’ and feel like my whole adulthood has been tainted by my mind’s unhelpful responses and coping mechanisms. I genuinely have very few authentic me memories.

  5. But maybe current-you has more awareness of things. If you’d stayed happy and never gotten depressed, wouldn’t there be things you wouldn’t have seen, wouldn’t have figured out, wouldn’t have come to intuit? What would happen if you were to try to integrate sick-me and well-me? Well-me may have been happier, but sick-me is wiser.

  6. My first episode of depression was after my daughter was born when I was 30, but it wasn’t typical PND and with what I now know of complex PTSD I can see that it was the first serious manifestation of that. There’s a strong genetic contribution as well though, as my mother and 2 of her 3 sisters, my sister and my daughter have all had problems with clinical depression.

    I never used to have much of a problem with anxiety until after I’d been on, and subsequently withdrawn from SSRI’s. I think part of this is psychological and behavioural – it wasn’t until after coming off SSRI’s that I started exploring my earlier life in therapy and all of the trauma stuff started to emerge, and the avoidance behaviours that started because of severe anxiety as a drug withdrawal symptom became self-perpetuating – but I’m convinced that I also have some biological brain changes as a result of long term SSRI use, as it is well documented in the scientific literature that these drugs can sometimes result in a significant post withdrawal anxiety disorder even in people who’ve never suffered from anxiety problems before drug exposure (including people who were prescribed SSRI’s for non-psychiatric indications). This sucks big-time: my previous professional and volunteer work involved a lot of teaching and public speaking including presenting a couple of times at conferences, and I enjoyed this immensely, but now I’m afraid even to attend journal club because I’m worried I’ll seem incomptetent in front of my peers.

    Overall – there is a clear sense for me of loss of the high achieving confident person I was when I was younger.

  7. I think I have had depression and anxiety at the very least since I was pretty young – as in since around 7 years old or maybe even younger. Particularly the depression.

    I can still see who I would be if I were 100% healthy – I still have healthy thoughts and aspirations, they just sort of get clouded over by the depression and aren’t attainable because of the depression. So I know that without the depression, I would have likely achieved a lot of the things that I would have liked to by now. I think I’d probably just be a more social, positive, happy, productive, confident version of myself?

    I definitely do not see my mental illness as part of my identity – I see it as a problem in my life that I am trying my best to get rid of and to solve, or at least to make more manageable. I see my mental health problems as things that intervene with me achieving the hopes and dreams of the person I am inside – things that prevent me from being happy and healthy. Almost like if you were to envisage an incredibly healthy body – but covered in leeches or something… I can see who I should be (or is that just who I wish I were) and it’s simply that that person isn’t attainable at the moment.

    Thanks for the question – really interesting to reflect on!

  8. I have always been an anxious person but I guess with age it becomes worse. I find it difficult to seperate anxiety from my personality. It’s an illness but sometimes it just feels that it consumes you. So I understand you well.

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