Jan, a native of Mikkeli, is studying for the first year in high school, and today he would have an exam for which his preparation seemed to be insufficient. Experiencing insecurity as a bad feeling wasn’t special, but this morning’s nausea was particularly severe.
Studying in high school had been much more demanding than before and keeping up with the pace began to require compromising his sleep. Or at least Jan had begun to demand it of himself, as his goal was to maintain the school success he had achieved before: both in primary school and in previous high school courses, the average in reading subjects had been exactly ten.
“It was an identity creation,” Jan ponders. “The grades gave the feeling that there is something to master which also received appreciation from the teachers. The grades also made it possible to stand above the bullies.”
“In high school, a lot of the same people from middle school continued, for whom I had always been the ten student in all subjects. I could not lose face and my own position in front of them.”
If in elementary school Jan had experienced that he had not prepared enough for the exam, he might have pretended to be ill in order to do the exam later. In high school, however, the courses could not be left hanging if you wanted to keep up. Because of that, Jan had to go to the test that day, even though his head was still pounding. On the way to school, the feeling only got worse, it could no longer be solely due to test anxiety. Once breathing started to feel difficult, Jan had to turn back.
After that experience, Jan received two weeks of sick leave and was admitted to the adolescent psychiatry treatment queue. However, being on sick leave did not help the situation. On the contrary, the situation quickly spiraled.
“I could cry for hours a day. The feeling was unreal and felt like the whole world where I had grown up and lived in was about to crumble in an instant. And everyone else, however, continued to live in that old world.”
“Suddenly I was completely incapable of doing the things that had been important, and that inability caused immense shame. All I could do was think about why I couldn’t handle everything anymore and what would happen next.”
After two weeks had past, the sick leave was continued and Jan’s mind as well his body began to grow numb to the new situation. There wasn’t an urge to cry anymore, but he felt powerless and nothing seemed to inspire him. The old role as a top student had vanished into thin air, but nothing new had replaced it.
As the spring progressed, the nagging feeling of being debilitated progressively escalated. It became self-loathing, which eventually led to a suicide attempt. Jan was urgently placed in a closed ward and he had access to psychiatric services for the first time. He only got out of care when the summer vacation started.
Roughly six months after the test morning experience, Jan tried to return to high school. His treatment had alleviated thoughts of suicide and the most acute pain had dissolved, but he still wasn’t able to return to his previous norm. Being in class felt depressing and he was shameful of his anxiety.
The difficult months followed one another. Throughout the next school year, Jan was only able to complete a few courses. After a year of no progress in his ability to study again, Jan dropped out of high school. He was left with a certificate of separation full of tens from courses accomplished before the collapse.
Jan, once he turned 18, managed to get an internship from the Finnish Parliament and he moved from Mikkeli to Helsinki. Work, meetings, and acquaintances at the heart of national politics inspired a high school dropout to be concerned about inequality.
Everything looked better for a while, but when the last internship ended after a couple of years, his deep depression recurred. This time, there was no school or family around to look after and take care of him.
The days changed into weeks as Jan spent most of his time in a small studio. The weeks turned into months when the basic activities of everyday life, waking up and going shopping, took all of his endurance.
The heaviness that was present everyday made Jan question his own abilities. It paralyzed him and made matters worse. Depression was no longer about over-schooling, but about depression itself. This was from the experiences that the illness had caused and the life that had been lost because of it.
Today Jan is 32 years old. In addition to a couple of years of internships, he has not been in working life, nor has he graduated as a student. The fixed-term disability pension is reviewed every year, and each time the decision has found that the ability to work is not at a sufficiently good level.
There’s no lack of motivation though: Jan still hopes to be able to study at a university one day and get a job. During the best periods, he has completed courses in evening high school and attended political science lectures almost daily to follow the teaching. Self-directed learning is not only meaningful but also rehabilitative. It directs ideas to the future, so that the information gathered can be put to the benefit of the wider community.
It’s probable that the depression will never go away completely, but it can give way so that in the future, many of the things that are considered part of normal life could happen: a degree and a job; financial independence and self-confidence.
Even more important, however, is an identity that is not based on depression but on competence and character. The stamp of a mental health rehabilitator is difficult to carry for years, especially when you never know how the surrounding environment will react to it. Condemnations have taken place both during first dates and at the pharmacy store. Many have difficulty relating to a disease that has eaten an entire young adulthood.
“Perhaps the idea of an illness like this is just so scary, that other people cannot accept it as reality.”
Text: Markus Nieminen, adapted from Kylteri magazine 4.12.2019