When the letter came through the post, its content was of no surprise to me. I’d experienced depression and anxiety several times at various points throughout my life, so when a psychotherapist wrote to me to discuss the next steps in treatment, it no longer felt as if I were being labelled 'crazy'. I'm not a modern day Sylvia Plath; I’d just go about my usual life, only now, when I cried spontaneously, I had a clearer reason why.
Everyone can experience low moods but for me, depression and anxiety can be almost debilitating. It’s the constant knotted stomach, waking up crying because I can’t get out of bed, or the nagging feeling of failure. It’s avoiding going outside because the colours seem overwhelmingly bright, feeling disproportionate amounts of anger or listening to my inner voice telling me I’m an idiot.
Prior to each episode up to this point, I’d ignored the early warning signs and left myself to slowly spiral. My mental health has forced me to quit jobs and end relationships when my partner at the time grew too exasperated at the thought that they couldn’t make me happy. I often felt like a broken doll that people tried and failed to fix. It’s only now, in my late 20s, that I’ve come to see that only I have the ability to fix my unhappiness.
What made accepting my mental health problems considerably harder as I navigated growing up was that I always had a direct comparison standing right next to me: my identical twin sister, Kirsty.
In many ways we were similar; we both had a crush on Peter Andre during his "Mysterious Girl" days and we both found it socially awkward to mix with other kids around the pool on family holidays. But when it came to our mental health, we couldn’t be more different. "I think we are like yin and yang," she told me. "I am more optimistic and idealistic, you’re more pessimistic and pragmatic."
Unlike with other siblings, it’s often more difficult for twins to create healthy, separate identities. From the get-go, people are fascinated by your ability to be so alike. When we were younger, we sometimes dressed in the same clothes; we were given shared presents on birthdays, and always asked whether we’d ever secretly swapped boyfriends (the answer is no, if you were wondering). When we were babies, we were so alike that on some old photographs, I honestly don’t know which twin I am.
The real intrigue for many, though, comes when the differences form. Twins can often become the antithesis of one another as they strive to carve out their own sense of self.
Kirsty had always assumed the role of the happy twin. Growing up she loved pink, chocolate and rom-coms, whereas I’d sway more towards black, vodka and toxic relationships with men. Kirsty was always more cheerful, more easily pleased. I, on the other hand, was the wayward sister brooding in the corner. These were our default characters and it felt as if we couldn’t defer from them in case it threatened our sense of individuality.
But if identical twins are supposed to be genetically so alike, why is it that only I suffer with poor mental health? According to Dr Joe Oliver, a consultant clinical psychologist, "where one twin doesn’t develop depression, it could be for a range of factors, including greater resilience to stress, better social networks or reduced contact with life pressures."
Depression and anxiety naturally became part of my everyday life but my moments of difficulty have been etched in my twin’s memory, too. "I remember standing outside a pub while you went in for a [job] interview because you were too anxious to go alone," she recalls. "And I remember getting a letter from you when I lived in Paris to tell me you felt down. You hadn’t spoken to me in weeks and then it was difficult because there was nothing I could do."
Times like these have always been part of our relationship. I was the twin who old creepy men would tell to smile on the street while I watched Kirsty live, laugh, love and dance like no one was watching. I used to feel as if my mental health issues only affected me, but they actually have the potential to affect her even more so because we are twins.
"Depression is multi-causal," explains Dr Oliver, "but the risks dramatically increase for a twin when the other twin becomes depressed (over 70% likelihood by some estimates)."
Over the years my depression had caused me to be so introspective that I’d selfishly assumed my low moods only impacted me.
"Sometimes it makes us closer and sometimes it can be a strain," Kirsty admits. "I don’t know if it is because we are twins but I feel more responsible for your suffering and I can almost take on some of your emotions, a bit like a shadow emotion."
Thankfully, Kirsty remains resilient against absorbing my emotional offcuts. I, however, will most likely experience waves of depression and anxiety for the rest of my adult life. That I must be the one to battle poor mental health, when my twin and I come as a genetic pair, will forever be a difficult pill to swallow.
But as the years have passed, I’ve begun to view my twin’s good mental health as an example of what to work towards, rather than a slap in the face from the universe. Comparing ourselves to those around us or those we scroll past on social media is something we could all stand to do less often. If my twin and I are anything to go by, then being the absolute equal to another doesn’t guarantee you’ll live an identical life. But if we are as equal as biology would claim, then I have the potential to live as content a life as she does. One day maybe I will.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, please contact Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566. All calls will be answered in confidence.