An Easter Story

Easter! Two thousand and fifteen. That makes it twelve years since the Easter when mid-semester study break began, and the world dissolved. How time flies!

Twelve years ago, I was at university in Melbourne, and doing well, when I started suffering from irrational fears that I was going to fail my course. I knew they were irrational – logically, there was no good reason for them. I was getting near-perfect grades, I had always done well in my studies before, my health was good, I had good friends and an active social life. I knew, rationally, that the work was all well within my capabilities.

But I also knew that sometimes I was prone to over-stressing, and I assumed that these odd fears were a symptom of that. And I knew that exercise, a healthy diet, and a good balance of study and leisure – the usual list of things doctors and psychologists and school counsellors recommend – were good for stress. I was already eating perfectly healthily, and I thought I had a pretty reasonable study/leisure balance, so I made sure to get more exercise. Running, in my case.

I got up early and ran in the mornings before breakfast, but still the odd, irrational fears persisted.

So I ran in the evenings, before dinner. But still they persisted; and now I was having trouble getting to sleep at night, as well.

I ran at lunch, between lectures and doing course-work. But still the fears persisted, and now I wasn’t just having trouble getting to sleep – sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, and cold chills (starting somewhere in the legs, I think) would run up and down my body, the way they do if you’re frozen in mortal terror of something – despite there being nothing present to fear. And soon I began to dread the midnight chills and terrors more than the initial fears of failure that seemed to have triggered them – and then they began happening in the day-time as well … I’d feel a chill, a tingle, the hairs on my leg rise up, and knew they were coming on, and would think “Oh, shit, not this again”.

And then, over Easter – which my calendar tells me fell at the end of March, that year – when there was a week’s mid-semester break from uni, and, I think, I was alone in the house (my housemates may have gone to stay with family; or perhaps my memories of the weekend are just unreliable), I stopped being able to sleep at all, and that is something which sends you mad in pretty short order.

You know you need to sleep, but you can’t, and you know you need to do something about it, but your thoughts are too jumbled to work out what, you can’t focus, nothing is clear, and mornings and days and nights begin to blur together, to smear into a sort of half-waking nightmare …

I have a memory of going to the uni medical centre on the Tuesday, and gibbering at the G.P. that I couldn’t sleep, that I needed to sleep, that I hadn’t slept in days. I remember him looking alarmed, and saying repeatedly that I had to calm down, to be quiet. A few weeks ago, he’d prescribed me diazepam (first marketed as Valium) for the insomnia, which in retrospect strikes me as somewhat unhelpful – it’s habituating and addictive (which he neglected to mention), and unlikely to solve whatever underlying issues are causing the insomnia.

This time round, he prescribed something stronger – stilnox (also known as ambien), and an SSRI anti-depressant. And sent me off home, and that was all.

Well, the anti-depressants started having some effect within a couple of weeks, and I managed to get extensions on my uni work, and actually ended up getting some of the best grades I’ve ever got at uni. Working feverishly and obsessively to ward off a fear of looming failure is apparently quite good for your grades, though not an approach I’d recommend to anyone else. And once I got over the depression (or anxiety, or whatever it was), I had an upswing of mood, probably triggered by the antidepressants, and went into a sort of manic phase for a few months, but that’s another story.

This being a story from real life, I don’t know that there’s any moral to it. But if you did want to look for one, then a possible lesson to draw is that if running were a “cure for depression”, as some people (on Twitter and elsewhere) occasionally claim it is, then I was doing almost the maximum amount of running it was possible to do, I was fitter and thinner than I’ve ever been in my life, and it did me not one lick of good, so far as warding off depression goes. I’m sure that some times, for some people, exercise is helpful in reducing or preventing depression; but why people leap from that, to asserting that it is a universal heal-all, I don’t know.

Another possible moral is that things sometimes get better. I can’t bring myself to believe that they do for everyone, because the evidence of the real world flatly controverts this. Some people suffer from treatment-resistant depression, and despite trying everything from running, to vitamins, to meditation, to antidepressants, and even to shock therapy, never see any improvement.

And a final one is to remember to do your grocery shopping before Easter. Because the shops will all be closed and you’ll end up not having anything to eat, and you’ll have to buy cheap meat pies and diet coca-cola from the nearest 24-hour petrol station. And if you’re going to go mad, you don’t want to be eating terrible food as well. That stuff will kill you, you know.

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