Disclaimer: I don’t want to say that my experiences are universal, and neither do I want to suggest that any experiences of depression are illegitimate. We all have our own struggles, whether you’re an academic overachiever like me or talented in other ways. One of those struggles is depression.
Depression is a mental illness that can make it hard to do things, stop you from enjoying yourself, or make you feel tired all the time. One of the warning signs is doing fewer activities, or doing worse at school or work. This can make discussion, and depression, difficult to navigate when you’re an overachiever like me.
I saw my first psychiatrist when I was 15. The first line of the report she gave me on leaving stated that I was “a very intelligent young woman”. It went on for a page and a half, finally stating there was nothing wrong with me – I was just being a teenager. It’s part of that intelligence (appropriate adjectives: brutal, painful, aggressive) that has made depression so difficult.
In my final year of high school, I competed in the International Biology Olympiad, worked part-time, was in five music groups, practiced piano and flute, swam regularly, and did five scholarship exams. I wasn’t withdrawing, or not being involved, or doing badly at school. About the only hallmark of depression I showed was a stubbornly low mood. I was still depressed.
In my honours year I attended national and international debating tournaments, spoke at a poetry conference in the USA, taught for the university, taught for charity, helped found the Science Community of Otago, spent time with friends – I did well, I was brilliant, I was still depressed.
I felt guilty for being depressed and being unable to fix it myself. Whenever I achieved something I believed if anyone found out about my depression, they would take it away somehow. And (this is my favourite part) I was terrified of going onto medication in case it stopped me being smart.
Depression isn’t something that can be whisked away by listing your achievements. I can’t get out a book of newspaper clippings and use that as a shield to make my brain be better. What I can do, what I have done is get medication that brings me up enough to function. It doesn’t stop me from having depressive episodes, but it’s enough that I don’t lowkey want to die constantly.
Medication doesn’t work for everyone, but my second go at it (and five psychiatrists, two psychologists, and three counselors later) did work. I’m not doing more, or more awake, or nicer at all – I just have the ability to be happy again.
There’s a belief that intelligent people are often depressed. I was told it a lot. Ignoring for a moment the fact that higher-educated “intelligent” people often have a higher socio-economic status so are better placed to get official diagnoses, it’s a bad thing to say even if it is true.
Connecting mental illness and intelligence can transform itself into perverse beliefs in the depressed mind – like the idea that without hating myself I wouldn’t be as motivated or intelligent. That’s obviously not correct. But it’s important to remember that the depressed mind twists things very readily.
I know I do well. I know I am good; good at science, writing, speaking, running events, and generally being a fantastic knowledgeable gorgeous all-rounder. But none of that changes the fact that I have depression. Being good has made talking to mental health professionals difficult, as my work doesn’t suffer and I don’t stop doing things. Being good has made accepting that I’m not good at depression difficult.
Recently I got called one of 20 Young Australians on the Cusp of Greatness. It’s amazing, I’m incredibly flattered and excited to be listed alongside other amazing people. I’m still depressed. I’m still a suicide survivor. I’ve still struggled with self-harm since I was 14.
Being good doesn’t change any of that. But I’m finally in a place where none of that changes my ability to be good – and maybe quite soon, great.