I don’t really know when it started, only that I was young. I remember as a 6 year old looking around me and wondering why I felt so lousy. I used to think it was because the adults around me were so stupid. Their stupidity made me miserable. In retrospect, my illness made everyone and everything seem stupid. And I thought that once I grew into an adult, it would change: I would be able to choose my life, be my own person. Hang out with smart people. Be smart. Build the life I wanted. Little did I know.
The symptoms were: shaking, fast breathing, sweating, words caught in the back of my throat. The result was fear of social interactions, avoidance of others, self-inflicted isolation. It’s the only way I felt safe.
When I turned eleven, my family decided that we should move back to the country of our origins: South Africa. My father asked me what I thought. I told him that it sounded like a good idea. Secretly I thought that maybe the change of scenery would do me some good. Maybe it would cure me of the insidious evil I carried inside me. I thought of it as an evil, as a gift the devil himself had bestowed on me as punishment for something I had done, no doubt. I believed in my own corrupt nature because I was a Christian, a Calvinist, and because that is what my father told me was the truth: that we were all born in sin. Only if we tried really, really hard could we make it into heaven. I was pretty sure I wasn’t trying hard enough. Despite my best efforts.
The evil inside me squeezed out any pleasure that remained pretty much as soon as we arrived in Pretoria. The place was hot, dusty and confusing. The year was 1990. We had arrived at the tail end of the Apartheid era. No longer in tolerant Canada, I was forced into a tight-fitting school skirt, and a white blouse and tie. My tomboyish ways revealed themselves only when I was at home, where I still enjoyed running around in the backyard bare-chested and free — until a nosy neighbour spotted me across the fence and I hid in the garden shed.
No longer feeling safe to show myself as I was, I became a skilled concealment artist. I stayed in my room most days, under the covers, lamenting my inability to break out of the shell that encrusted me. I was like a fossil – a historic artefact of life.
I hid behind long silences, the walls of my bedroom, the metal security gates of our home. When I ventured to school, I blended in as best I could, drew as little attention to myself as possible and on breaks, found refuge in the library with a motley crew of introverts and oddballs. I spoke to no one about what I was feeling, trusted no one. And steadily sunk ever deeper into the clutches of depression.
My parents said nothing until, when I turned 16 and my eating patterns became irregular, they took me to see a neurologist. She asked me why I was restricting my food intake. I burst into tears and told her that I just wanted to be healthy. She handed me a tissue and called in my parents. After that, my mother took me to see a nutritionist, who developed a menu for me to follow. All I remember was craving dried apricots and drinkable yoghurt. I did my best to comply to everyone’s advice and obediently took the antidepressants my mother told me to drink after dinner each night. My father was a psychiatrist, my mother a librarian with an undergraduate degree in psychology. Surely they knew how to help me?
Once I started taking the pills, the trouble really started. With them came new feelings that flowed through my veins; I felt constantly restless, on edge, and strangely, unsettlingly euphoric. It scared the heck out of me – and I trusted no one, least of all my parents. I had no words to describe what I was going through; I thought I was crazy. The euphoria frightened me because it would grip me and leave me buoyant for no reason. It didn’t matter if the day had gone well or badly at school or at home, the feeling existed on its own plane, disconnecting me from grounding reality, leaving me feeling untethered, afloat, in danger of doing something stupid and unpredictable. What if I killed myself in a moment of lethal recklessness? I no longer trusted that I would not harm myself, but I told no one.
Instead, I decided to stop taking the medicine. As I was getting the pills from my father, who brought home samples the drug reps dropped off at his psychiatrist’s office, there was no one outside the family to monitor whether I was taking them or not. My father didn’t ask me about it and when I finally told my mother, she saw my refusal as just one more demonstration of my stubbornness. In her eyes, I simply didn’t want to get well. By then our relationship had soured irreparably. I thought she was abusive and she thought I was intent on making her life miserable.
My descent into full-blown clinical depression reached its peak in my twenties. The first half of that decade was marked with suicidal thoughts, drug overdoses, wrist cutting, alienation from my family, and finally the realization that perhaps at the source of my depression lay something else. At 24, I consulted a specialist who diagnosed me with gender identity disorder. I began hormone treatment and started to live openly as a man. My depression lifted almost instantly. Then it all came crashing down two years later when my father died.
My family blamed me for the stress I caused my father before his death through my gender transition. My mother accused me of killing him and destroying the family. She disowned me but kept on sending abusive messages, reminding me of what I was losing in turning my back on the family. I was glad for the ocean between us: she still lived in South Africa, while I had long since made a home for myself in the relative safety of Canada. I asked her to stop contacting me.
I miss having a family. It upsets me that my family was not able to overcome the prejudiced opinion that depression was a character flaw. Only recently have I come to accept that I do not need to blame myself for my battle with depression. I became ill during my childhood and it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t ask for it, nor did an evil spirit make me bad. Whether it is genetic or situational, depression isn’t cured through blame. I’m lucky to have found help from people who showed me compassion when I couldn’t show it to myself. I’m better now – though I still struggle from time to time. Every day I am depression free is a gift, no more a choice than the depression I sometimes still experience.
And while depression is not a choice, showing myself compassion is. That’s where the healing starts.