Republished on The Mighty on 5/4/20.
Republished on Yahoo News on 5/4/20.
Republished on The Mighty on 5/4/20.
Republished on Yahoo News on 5/4/20.
Suicide has quickly become one of the top killers across all age groups, races, sexes and socio-economic classes. You cannot go a week these days without seeing multiple stories in the news about suicide. Celebrities. Children. Veterans. And those are just the stories the press finds newsworthy enough to report on. Across the country and all around the world, people are dying by their own hands every single day at alarming numbers. And yet it is a topic nobody wants to talk about until it hits close to home. Even then, most people would rather talk about it in hushed whispers, a shameful secret they wish would just fade away, than to openly talk about it.
I have struggled with major depression my entire life. I have been suicidal more than once. I am honestly not sure how I am even still alive today because with each of my attempts, I told no one, I secluded myself, I gave no forewarning or signs that things had gotten so bad that I wanted to give up. Though people knew I was struggling, nobody really knew how badly. I didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to stop me. More than once, whether by the grace of God or some strange twist of fate, someone came through a doorway to find my unconscious body barely clinging to life. More than once, I woke up in the hospital not sure how I even got there.
I have also been on the other side of that fence, losing people I cared about to suicide. I have been blindsided by their death, torturing myself for feeling like I didn’t see the signs, not realizing how bad things were, not being there to help when they desperately needed someone. I have spent endless hours thinking back over missed opportunities that I might have been able to intervene and make a difference. I have been haunted by words I did not say and calls I did not make that might have made the difference between life and death.
Part of me, though, knows better than to torture myself with hindsight. I have been on both sides of that fence. I know all too well that unless you actually know what to look for, the signs are usually not even visible until someone is looking in the rear-view mirror. But by then it is too late. The crash has already happened. And you can’t turn back time. The best anyone can honestly do is to be proactive, to talk openly, honestly and regularly about their own mental health and that of those they care about. We need to make everyone’s mental health as much of a priory as our physical health. As hard a topic as suicide may be, it’s harder still to bury someone you love. I believe this difficult conversation is long past due.
Please know that most people don’t normally wake up one day out of the blue and decide to kill themselves. Barring some drastic, life altering circumstance or great loss that seemingly destroys someone’s entire life in a heartbeat making them lose all hope in an instant, suicidal feelings usually develop over an extended period of anguish. The weight of the world is piled on again and again, making everything feel increasingly hopeless. Eventually, you reach the point when you cannot take anymore. You’ve found the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and you collapse under the weight of it all.
You don’t go directly from life being fine to choosing to die like a car going from zero to sixty in a few seconds flat. It is a slow build. It begins with feeling overwhelmed with life itself. Everything feels increasingly too hard, too overwhelming. You begin to feel like you’re drowning, like you can never fully catch your breath. It feels like no matter what you do, nothing is ever going to change, that you’ve been dealt a losing hand and there’s no way to exchange your cards. The deck is rigged and you’ve lost big time. Everything in life begins to feel like a struggle, an uphill battle, a fight you cannot win. You feel like you no longer have any control of your own fate. You become mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted, not sure how much more you can keep going, how much strength you have left.
The first suicidal thoughts that creep in are abstract. You’re not making specific plans to kill yourself. You look outside during a snowstorm and ponder how long you would have to be exposed to the elements before everything just faded to black. You look at the currents of the river coursing by and ponder what it would be like to just be pulled under, swept away. When you pass a set of train tracks, you wonder where along the tracks it might be dark enough that they wouldn’t see you until it was too late. The thought of death is more of a fade to black. A sweet escape. Death itself becomes a daydream. Those abstract thoughts are commonly referred to as suicidal ideation.
With suicidal ideation, it isn’t so much about dying as it is about wanting to be freed from a life you feel is too painful to continue. The thought of death almost feels like a peaceful, sweet release. You become increasingly consumed by the thought of ending your suffering, of fading away, of just disappearing from the story, not having to fight or cry anymore, of just being free.
Most people who are suicidal honestly don’t want to die. For days, weeks, months, they’ve been soul-searching and agonizing, looking for any reason to keep going and not give up. It isn’t a decision made lightly or spur of the moment. They’ve been secretly fighting to hold on, to live, to find any reason to cling to so they don’t give up. They have just reached the point where they feel they cannot take anymore, cannot hurt anymore, cannot go one more day living in their own personal hell.
Neither suicidal ideation or suicide itself are a plea for attention. It honestly is not about anyone else at all. Nobody who tries to kill themselves is thinking “I’ll show them!” or “they’ll be sorry when I’m gone!” like a kindergartner contemplating running away from home. By the time someone has made that ultimate choice to give up, they aren’t even thinking of anyone else beyond being convinced that others would be better off without them. They feel completely isolated and alone, in agonizing pain that they can no longer take. They are convinced their life is out of their hands and there is no way to fix anything in their life. Death is the only exit they can see in the darkness.
People often describe a loss by suicide as “unexpected” and “out of the blue”. Those who have lost someone to suicide often feel lost and confused, bewildered about how anyone could give up on life when they “had so much to live for”. The problem is that by the time someone is at that point of giving up, they have fallen so deeply into the darkness that they can no longer see any of the light. All they can feel is hopelessness and despair. And they feel utterly alone.
It’s nearly impossible for those who have not been there themselves to understand how anything could possibly get that bad, how anything could feel so hopeless, how anyone could feel so alone. I have frequently seen suicide aptly described as a bi-product of depression, heard others refer to suicide as a death caused by a person’s mental illness. Truer words have never been spoken.
Depression is a nefarious and deadly disease. It eats at your mental and emotional well-being just as surely as cancerous tumors eat away at a person’s body. And just like cancer weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight it off, depression feeds off your ability to distinguish reality and see anything but the darkness and despair that the illness wants you to see. It systematically breaks and devours you until there is no will left to fight anymore.
Depression is not an illness you can easily disregard. You cannot just “suck it up”. It will not go away because you spew out some tired cliches about life or insist someone just try a little harder to be happy. Depression cannot be cured by taking a walk, going for a run or getting yourself a dog. It is not mind over matter or learning to toughen up. It is a serious medical condition and one that can have deadly consequences if left untreated.
People talk about being dumbfounded by someone’s suicide, of not seeing it coming. But honestly, there are plenty of signs there if someone takes the time to actually look and listen.
Has the person withdrawn themselves from family and friends, frequently making excuses about being too busy, swamped with life or feeling under the weather?
Have they stopped doing things they enjoy? Quit groups or teams? Given up hobbies they once loved? Are they spending a good portion of their time alone seemingly doing nothing?
Have their sleep patterns changed drastically? Are they laying down and sleeping more or are they up more with insomnia, tossing and turning, unable to sleep?
Has their appearance changed drastically? Losing or gaining weight? Not showering as much or wearing dirty clothes? Keeping their hair pulled back so they never have to tend to it or not shaving for long periods of time that is inconsistent with how they used to present themselves?
Is their room or house even more of a mess than usual or are they frequently wearing stained clothes like they just don’t care anymore? Do they always seem to be asking you to “excuse the mess”?
Are they frequently talking abut being exhausted, overly tired or fed up? Do they make comments about being tired of fighting or regularly insist life shouldn’t be this hard?
Are they frequently edgy, snippy and short with everyone as if they’re trying to push everyone away? Does everything seem to annoy them?
Are they frequently uncharacteristically silent as if they’re lost in their own world? Do they seem more scatterbrained than usual, life their mind is always off somewhere else?
Are they frequently sad, overly emotional or teary?
Do their emotional responses in general seem more raw, exaggerated and over-the-top as if they are feeling everything much stronger than usual?
Are they smiling and laughing less or are they pursing their lips together when they smile as if it was forced? Does their laughter seem less frequent and insincere, as if they’re trying to give you the reaction they believe you want even though their heart is not really in it?
Do they often blame puffy eyes or stuffy noses on allergies even when it’s not allergy season or they have not ventured outsides to be exposed to seasonal allergens?
Do they often insist they’re “fine” with no elaboration and claim they don’t want to talk about it when pressed, using dismissive phrases like “it is what it is” as if they have no control over their own life?
These are just some of the common signs of depression. Though they do not necessarily mean a person is currently considering suicide, it is likely they are struggling along that path. If you see drastic changes in mood and appearance, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask whether they’re okay. If someone doesn’t seem like themselves, there is usually a reason why. Don’t be afraid to call attention to drastic changes that concern you.
And please know it should never be a “one and done”. Even if you inquired once and they insisted they were fine, you can’t shrug and walk off, telling yourself that “hey I tried”. If someone’s depression has gotten bad enough that you can see multiple signs, it did not happen overnight and it is not going to be resolved overnight either. It might take multiple times of checking in and reaching out before someone is finally able to open up.
That is because depression isolates us. It gets into our head and convinces us that nobody cares, that we are all alone in the world. It is easier for us to believe that someone is asking how we are just to be nice or to make polite small talk than to believe they’re genuinely invested in our well-being.
People struggling with depression also have a lot of trust issues. Most likely, we have tried talking to others in the past and have been shot down or had our feelings minimized. Or we have heard you or others talk dismissively about their struggles so we’re unsure how supportive you’ll be for us. We’re afraid of being seen as weak or broken or crazy. We’re afraid to let anyone in only to get hurt again. Everything has felt like a fight for so long that we’re weary about letting anyone else in, too. And we don’t want to be a burden or to let anyone down by admitted we aren’t “strong enough”.
You cannot let yourself be discouraged, though. Continue to reach out every few days, even if just to check in about how they are doing. If someone seems to be cancelling plans a lot to go out, offer to come over and visit. If they make excuses about a mess, offer to help them clean it. If they claim they feel under the weather, offer to bring soup. Whatever you do, don’t let them continue to isolate. Let them know you miss them and just want to see them. Reinforce that they matter.
Coordinate with others in their life. Take turns checking in and offering reassurances. Make it clear that multiple people care and that they are not alone. Create a united front where everyone can face the depression together.
Most importantly, make it clear that it is okay to talk about whatever they are feeling and to get help. Don’t further stigmatize doctors or medication. Don’t suggest it’s all in their head or tell them to suck it up and get over it. Don’t treat them like they’e crazy or broken. Remember that they are sick and need help. Be supportive. Be part of the solution not part of the problem.
If you are seeing yourself in these words, if you are exhausted and struggling to keep going, tired of fighting, tired of hurting, wanting to give up, please realize that those feelings are not reality. Your depression is lying to you, making all the bad in your life feel exaggerated and overwhelming and is snuffing out the light. Please know that you are not alone and there are others out there who understand completely what you are going through. You’ve got to fight this. Don’t give up. Reach out. Talk to friends, family, a therapist, a pastor. Someone. Anyone. Just don’t give up. Don’t shut everyone out. I know all too well that siren’s call that death will bring peace but it really won’t. Not for you and not for everyone in your life that you’ll be leaving behind. You can get past this.
Looking back, I am grateful I never succeeded. I feel blessed to still be here. Because now I have the ability to reach out and help others, to be the voice that shines like a beacon to light up the darkness. I am in a unique position where I understand not only the great loss that comes with losing someone to suicide but also the steep descent into the hopelessness of depression myself. Suffering in silence for years almost killed me multiple times. I can only hope that by finally speaking up, speaking out, I can help save others from succumbing to that darkness themselves.
Depression and suicide have robbed the world of so many beautiful souls. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children, friends. They have stolen so many lives from us far too soon. We can no longer stick our heads in the sand like an ostrich then claim later that we didn’t see the signs, didn’t know things were that bad. We are one society, one world. We have to start acting like it. We must start looking out for one another, be there for each other, truly listen and hear. The signs are there. We just have to take off our blinders and see them. We cannot pretend everything is fine because we don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation. Inaction kills. We need to be proactive, not only with our own mental health but towards those we care about, as well. We all have the power to save lives if we are willing to actually reach out and try.
It has been a rough couple months. Horribly frigid and snowy weather, as well as a revolving door of various sicknesses in my home, have combined with my mental illness to create a perfect storm. I endured what felt like a never-ending rotation of maladies, downward spirals and utter numbness. There were many days I felt like I could barely function at all. I usually love the holidays but this past year, the festivities felt hectic, rushed, hollow and empty. As much as I beat myself up for not being more present, more in the mood, more cheerful and jovial in general, I just could not snap out of the funk I was in. And the guilt of it all was eating me alive.
After two and a half months of struggling to get from day to day, unable to even inspire myself to write, I am finally emerging like the groundhog in early February to start anew.
Periodically, this happens to me. When life gets hard, I pull in on myself, much like an armadillo rolling in on itself for protection or a cell phone going into power saver mode so it doesn’t shut down completely. This cycle has repeated itself from time to time throughout my life. Whenever everything would get hard, I would pull inward, isolating and conserving my energy in order to survive. On the other end of this pattern would always inevitably come unfathomable guilt and pressure to make my recent absence up to everyone.
I have struggled my entire life with depression, always feeling as if I was broken, as if I was always letting everyone down by not always being able to do, to be, everything others needed and expected of me. I consistently felt like a failure. Like I didn’t even deserve to be on any list of priorities. After every struggle I endured, I always felt like I was playing catch up, that I owed it to everyone else to use whatever energy I could muster to make it up to everyone else for letting them down yet again.
Christmastime this past year was especially hard. I usually do a marathon cookie bake as part of my holiday traditions. Three days of baking. Fifteen types of cookies, plus candies and fudge. Everyone in the house getting sick delayed the grocery shopping and my baking was put off until the last minute. What is usually three comfortable yet full days of baking was ultimately crammed into a panicked day and a half. Pushing myself that hard utterly burnt me out. I existed in a heavy fog of numbness for the remainder of the year.
Speaking afterwards to my doctor, she inquired, “If you only had half the time, why didn’t you just bake half the cookies?”
I started to explain that people were expecting the cookies. My kids love all the cookies every year and give away boxes to their friends. My fiance needed cookies to bring into work. We had friends and family that we gave boxes to every year.
She countered by asking why I exactly felt so obligated. Was anyone was paying for the cookies in any way or if I was just doing it out of the kindness of my heart?
I began defending myself again, insisting that I didn’t want to let anyone else down.
In a perfect check-mate moment, she asked, “What about letting yourself down? Is doing for others out of the kindness of your own heart really worth burning yourself out and running yourself down? At what point do you fit into the equation? If you only had half the time, why couldn’t you just bake half the cookies? You’re still being kind to others that way. But you’re also being kind to yourself.”
Our conversation bounced around in my head for hours. Days. Weeks. Again and again, I pondered where I fit into the equation of my life and why I didn’t seem to matter at all in most cases.
I ultimately determined that I needed to restructure my priorities in order to find a place for myself in the equation. I had to be willing to reserve what little energy I do have during rough periods on what should be most important in my life – my family and myself – without becoming guilt-ridden afterwards. The addition of “myself” towards the top of my list of priorities is honestly fairly new and admittedly still somewhat uncomfortable. For much of my life, I was on the bottom of the list, if I appeared at all.
That was a feeling that I desperately needed to address.
Whenever I struggle to apply my own self-love or self-care, I stop to consider what I might tell someone else in my situation. I would never discourage anyone else from pulling back in order to take care of themselves. I would never accuse anyone else of being a bad person for wanting to matter, too, or for feeling like they sometimes had to prioritize themselves in order to make it through to tomorrow.
Let’s be honest here.
Wanting to matter, too, is not being self-centered. Wanting to do self-care when you need it does not mean you don’t care about others, as well. Nobody is saying you can only choose one or the other, help others or help yourself. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Not writing for a couple months honestly ate at me very badly. I felt terribly guilty, like I was letting my readers down by not writing more content, not sharing my journey more frequently. But after that pivotal talk with my doctor, I am no longer guilt-ridden.
The truth is that I had a few months where I was struggling badly.
I had a few months that I desperately needed to devote any energy I could muster into self-care and self-preservation.
That doesn’t mean that everyone else doesn’t matter, as well. When I have enough time, enough energy, enough willpower to reach out and advocate for others, I still will. I cherish every time someone has reached out to me letting me know my words have impacted their life. This journey is too important to give up.
I will still help others whenever I can.
But I must help myself, too.
I cannot carry the world on my shoulders, struggling to keep others afloat if it means I go under and drown.
I will always prioritize my family because they are the cornerstone of my world, but from now on, I will be prioritizing myself, as well.
I cannot help others if I cannot help myself.
I will take care of myself whenever I need, however I need. If that means I do not write for a period of time, so be it. If that means I only bake half the amount of cookies because I only have the time and energy to do that much, then that is all I will do.
Over the last decade, I have grown my hair out repeatedly, only to cut and donate it when it gets long enough to do so. My hair was down to my mid-back, with perhaps nine months to a year to go until my next donation. However, the meningioma tumors on my brain have been causing pressure migraine headaches in increasing frequency of late. The added weight of all my hair does not help. As much as it would be nice to donate yet another ponytail to help others, realistically it would not be fair to myself to endure almost a year more of harsher migraines in order to make another donation. I can still help others, just not at a detriment to myself. In an act of self-care, I cut my hair shoulder-length. The intensity of the majority of my headaches has lessened noticeably since then.
I have entered a new period of my life, one where I learn to value myself as much as I have valued others in the past. I will learn to set my goals and expectations based on what I feel I can handle instead of what others have decided to expect.
I will set new limitations and boundaries so that assisting others no longer harms me.
I will no longer put myself out there beyond my own capabilities in any way that will ultimately hurt myself in the process.
I will prioritize my mental health guilt-free.
I won’t ever again apologize for having to take care of myself.
Sorry not sorry.
My mental well-being matters.
I woke up early. Not fifteen or twenty minutes early or even when the rising sun peeked in my window. I woke up around three in the morning, not because any alarms were set or any loud noises woke me from my slumber. My sleep is always spotty and restless, frequently dotted with anxiety and depression-laden nightmares. Most nights, I’m lucky if I get more than five hours of sleep. Last night was no different.
I laid there feeling empty and stressed for hours, my thoughts racing, unable to get back to sleep. When his alarms began going off three hours later, I resigned myself to the fact that there would be no more sleep for me today.
I helped him get ready for work, timidly smiling as I ushered him out the door. I said nothing about how I was feeling because I did not want to burden him with things he had no control over. Easier to smile and to pretend, even though I know deep down I’m not kidding anyone. Not myself. Not him.
After he drove away, I sat on the couch ruminating about everything I have to do today. I sat there immobile for hours, beating myself up for all those things I should be doing. I put a movie on, but it turns out it was for background noise more than anything, because I cannot recall anything about it.
I sat, I laid this way and that, I tossed on the couch for hours, not even quite sure why I was in such a funk today. I felt lost and alone, the world utterly hopeless, which made no sense because things truthfully aren’t going that badly right now. Yet those feelings were there all the same. I couldn’t shake them, couldn’t stop them, any more than I could mute all those thoughts racing through my mind.
It was noontime before I managed to pull myself up. There were days mountain climbing would take less effort. I had been awake for 9 hours, out of my bed for six. I was already exhausted and ready to climb back into bed. Yet I managed to prepare some fresh salsa and straighten up the small mess I made on the counter today, piling those dishes on the side. The dishes from yesterday still sit in the sink. I ruminate about whether I’ll be able to wash them today. I know I should. But some days I just don’t have the energy.
I spent the majority of the afternoon watching an old series on television. I know that I’ve seen it all before, which is a good thing because re-watching those episodes today was a blur. I tried playing a game. I tried checking my social media. The truth is that I have no interest in anything today, no ability to focus on anything.
I want to scream and shout. I want to cry. I want to laugh at the pure insanity of it all. I want these feelings to stop, this pain to stop. I desperately want to be happy, to not have my mental illness always leaving a thick, dark sludge over everything in my life. It taints everything. Even the most delicious food tastes bland, the most upbeat music feels melancholy. I don’t understand why my own mind would do this to me, why it wants me to hate my life, to hate myself.
It’s an hour until he is due back home. All I have to show for the day so far is a container of salsa. Strangely, even that feels like a victory.
I tell myself I will get to those dishes right after I finish writing this. I don’t know if I will but I’m trying to be hopeful and positive. I’m not sure I really feel it or believe it, though. People say “fake it until you make it”. I do it every single day when I try to encourage myself that today will be better, that I will be better today. It all feels like lies because nothing ever seems to get better. Yet part of me remains hopeful.
I breathe deeply and try to re-center myself. I wash the tears from my face. I mentally prepare myself to paint that smile back on my face, to pretend I am doing better than I truly am. I know that, as long as I can force a grin and my cheeks are not salty from tears, he will assume today at least wasn’t an absolutely horrible day and not bring it up. I actually prefer that today because I’m not even truly sure what has me so shaken to the core. I wouldn’t even know what to say if he asked what was wrong. I just know those feelings are there.
I do a mental tally of what foods we have that would be quick and easy because I’m not sure I have the energy to make anything more than that. Truthfully, I don’t think I even have the energy to do that, but I’m terrified of letting him down, of disappointing him, of him thinking for even a moment that I am as worthless as I feel inside.
I catch myself, reminding myself that he would never say that, never think that. That is my depression talking. Part of me knows my depression lies, yet those sentiments always feel so real.
I settle on an easy dinner and turn back to do one last proofread. I tell myself that writing this is a huge accomplishment, that I should be proud of myself for opening up at all. It doesn’t feel like an accomplishment, though. It feels like nothing, a waste of time. I feel like a waste of space. I question why anyone would even want to read this, to hear anything I have to say.
Again, I catch myself. Easily, a dozen times a day I realize I am spewing that narrative, buying into depression’s lies. Part of me wants to scream “shut up! Shut up! SHUT UP!”. Unfortunately, though, stigma already has many people assuming that those with a mental illness are crazy. I can’t feed their ignorance and their fears. Still, I wish my mind would go silent.
I’ve done very little today beyond battling my own mind. That, and beating myself up for everything that I haven’t done. It feels like I’ve gone ten rounds with a heavyweight champion. I’m already exhausted and ready for bed. Ironically, I know when I finally get to go to bed, I won’t even be able to sleep. I’ll lay there like I do every night because my mind never shuts up. The words might alternate between despair and emptiness, but the endless chatter always remains.
Today is supposed to be World Mental Health Awareness Day, but in truth it could be any random, generic day to me. They all bleed together, all feel the same. The intensity varies day to day but the struggle is always there. The world only schedules awareness one day a year but it is my reality every day.
I made some paper mache pumpkins today. It wasn’t that I was feeling particularly cheerful or festive. It is that creating art helps me cope with my depression. Art has become one of my favorite and most used self-care techniques in my mental wellness toolbox.
When I am struggling under the weight of my own emotions, I often write about the impact my illness has on my life. When I am feeling numb, I prefer crafts that are multi-dimensional and messy, so I can feel with my hands even if I cannot feel with my heart. When my life feels dark and hopeless, I use bright colors. When I feel lost and alone, I create with warm hues, hoping to dd warmth into my life. No matter how my depression distorts my perceptions, there is a way to combat it with art.
Some people assume that if I am well enough to create art, I must not be struggling too badly. Honestly, the opposite is true. I have found that I create the most, and the projects with the deepest personal meanings, when I am struggling the worst. I use artistic expression as my lifeline back to reality. It is the life preserver that keeps me from drowning in even the roughest of storms.
When someone is struggling with depression, the world feels dark and bleak, devoid of any glimmer of light, hope or goodness. There is no beauty in depression. So it helps me to create something beautiful out of my despair. In my artwork, I am reminded that there is more to the world than darkness.
When someone is suffering from depression, the feelings can be overwhelming. You are often raw and feel everything too deeply. You feel like you are drowning in pain and anguish. It helps creating something that will express what I am feeling inside, to release some of the agony that is consuming me. As a wise Ogre once said, “Better out than in”.
When someone has been diagnosed with depression, it seeps into every corner of their consciousness. It is exhausting and overwhelming. It often feels like there is no escape from the prison of your own mind. It helps to create something that can distract me from everything going on within myself. When the creative juices are flowing, it is easy to forget for even a little while the weight of this illness on my shoulders.
When someone suffers from depression, they often feel they have no control over anything in their lives anymore. You often feel like you are on a runaway train, with no way to slow down, stop or get off. You are held hostage, just along for the ride. It helps me to create something artistic because it gives me back some control. My artwork is in my hands. I choose what to make and which direction to take it.
When someone is struggling with depression, they often feel useless, like an utter waste of space. Depression distorts reality and destroys self-esteem. You feel as if you can do nothing right and that everything you touch will become damaged, tainted and tarnished by your very presence. It helps me to create things because art is about expression, not perfection. There is no right or wrong so even when I am feeling like a complete failure, I cannot mess up my art.
When someone who has depression feels isolated and misunderstood, it is common to feel all alone in the world. It can feel like no one is there, nobody cares, no one could possibly understand what you are going through. It helps me to create things I can show others, share with them, to create something to bring them back into my circle, back into my life. Art brings people together. It starts a dialogue where otherwise there would be silence.
There are times when someone who is suffering from depression is at a loss for words to explain how they are feeling. You might not even be sure what you are depressed about, only that those feelings are there. It helps to create things not only so that I can work through and understand my own feelings, but so that I can help explain it to others, as well. Art doesn’t have to be neat and easily explained. Art can be a messy, jumbled mess and still get its point across.
There are many reasons I create, a multitude of reasons why art comforts my mind and soothes my soul. Using art to combat depression isn’t about clear and concise thoughts, raw talent or creating masterpieces. It is about letting emotions out, replacing the darkness with some light and adding your own brand of beauty and creativity into the world. Art is a wonderful tool for mindfulness because it brings you back into the moment, back to reality to focus on the here and now.
When the world feels broken and hopeless and you feel lost and alone, it might feel impossible to find the motivation to create. Use your illness as inspiration. Put into your words or on your canvas how you are feeling inside. Share everything you wish others knew. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even coherent and understandable to anyone but you. It can be raw and painful, mirroring how you feel inside. If you have the urge to express how you are feeling through your artwork, don’t hold yourself back. Art is about letting your feelings flow.
You don’t have to create based on the negativity of your depression, either, because you are so much more than your depression. The beauty of art if that you are only restricted by your own imagination. The world around you is full of inspiration. Look to the future for upcoming holidays and events. Look to the past for cherished memories. Take inspiration from friends and family or beloved pets. Open a window into the nature outside or look to the heavens above. Revisit your favorite book, movie or television show. Pick a color that calls to you or an abstract thought and run with it. Find your inspiration in something beautiful, something that reminds you of light, happiness and hope.
You don’t need to overthink art. Don’t question things. There is no right or wrong. Just go with the flow. Focus on the here and now and the creative process. Put yourself into your art, the person you are at this very moment or the person you wish you could be. Art is also about possibilities. You start with a blank canvas or empty page. As you create, open yourself up not only to everything your art can become but everything you can become, as well. Remind yourself that you are more than your diagnosis. You are many things, many pieces that are not as dark, bleak and hopeless as your depression makes you feel. You are an artist!
I created some paper mache pumpkins today. Those pumpkins might not seem like much, but they helped me get through another rough day. Though it by no means cured my depression, it gave me a much-needed reprieve from my struggles and a way to add some beauty to a world that would otherwise feel dark and bleak. Art might not be a panacea, but it is a useful crutch that can help get you through the hardest of times, making you feel stronger at a time when you otherwise might not be able to stand on your own.
Today is not going to be a good day.
It’s not even nine o’clock in the morning yet, but I already know this for a fact.
There are some people that will insist it is too soon to know anything for sure, that I should pick myself up, brush myself off and face the day with a positive attitude and a brave face. There are others who will insist it is all in my head, telling me that I will be fine once I get up, get out there and start moving.
There are some who will insist I am being melodramatic, making mountains out of mole hills. If you have never experienced these storms firsthand, never fought to survive them, you have no idea how bad they can get.
But I know these days all too well.
I’ve struggled with depression my entire life.
I’ve wrestled with this beast many times over, fought this monster again and again.
And I know today will be yet another epic battle.
Today, I will be lucky if I can even pull myself out of bed. The world feels completely overwhelming, my life utterly overbearing. Everything seems hopeless and futile. I feel like I am suffocating under the weight of all the problems and issues I have been attempting to juggle and resolve. I am mentally and emotionally exhausted beyond words. The lies depression tells have already begun gusting and blowing around me, their sheer force threatening to knock me down.
I am wrapped in a blanket. I will be lucky if I can pull myself up at all today.
I am caught in a rising tide of emotions, being pulled back and forth between feeling way too much and being completely numb to it all. The tears come in waves, the struggles crashing into me, threatening to knock me overboard.
As each wave recedes, I sit here catatonic, drenched in my own tears, unable to even fully process everything I am feeling anymore.
The pain and the numbness each wash over me in turns. Every time I think I could not possibly feel anything more, I am flooded with more anguish and strife. Each time I think the agony will never end, I find myself trapped in that moment of stillness again, that nothingness, staring into that void, feeling empty and numb.
I rock back and forth, thrown around in that sea of depression, each crashing wave threatening to pull me down into its depths.
I am trapped in that storm front, between the hot and the cold, feeling too much and feeling nothing at all.
You cannot stop those storms when they hit, but you can feel them in the air when they’re about to arrive. You know they are coming so the best you can do is prepare.
I cancelled my afternoon appointment. Otherwise, I know I would spend the morning fighting with myself to get up, get moving, and ultimately tearing myself apart for being unable to do so. When I dragged myself to the bathroom, I brought back granola bars and my water bottle on the way back through. I grabbed an extra blanket, extra tissues and the television remote. There is little time to prepare but I do my best.
I have curled up on the couch, wrapped up tightly, nourishment on hand, ready to ride out this storm.
There’s an old saying that “into every life a little rain must fall” but this isn’t just a little rain. It is a hurricane. A tsunami. A nor’easter.
I would evacuate if I could but there is really nowhere to go. Like Eeyore, these storm clouds follow me everywhere. The storm will come.
There will be flooding.
But I won’t let myself drown.
I’ve learned long ago not to push myself during these storms, not to foolishly attempt to wander out when they get bad. I don’t beat myself up for what I cannot do or where I am incapable of going. I cannot control the storms raging inside me any more than I can mother nature outside. They come from time to time because they are part of my depression.
It is always harder to go out in the storm so I try to avoid it whenever I can.
I have learned to batten down the hatches, board up the windows and take care of myself the best that I can. I have learned to take care of myself to the best of my ability, making sure I have what I need on hand. I have learned, as well, to not beat myself up for not feeling capable of navigating through these storms. It is better that I stay home, stay safe and warm, then to attempt to venture out and drown in the sea of my own depression. Especially when the skies appear clear to everyone else so nobody else even realizes I’m drowning.
No storm lasts forever.
I will ride this one out and I will be okay.
Because I am a survivor.
I have survived other storms and I will survive this one, as well.
I refuse to drown in my own depression. I will do whatever I must to stay afloat.
*Ever since I created my Anxiety Chart, I have been asked by readers to create a similar chart for depression. After much thought and consideration, this is the chart and accompanying graph that I designed.
Many people do not understand depression, assuming it is just random bouts of sadness and crying. Unless someone has suffered through their own struggle with depression, it is near-impossible for them to truly understand how debilitating it can be to live with that diagnosis.
One of the hardest parts of explaining depression is that it is neither rational nor is it predictable. It is hard to provide relatable examples because the feelings connected with depression would feel wildly irrational to anyone not experiencing them at that moment. It is also impossible to predict or predetermine depression because it often comes unexpectedly in waves.
Therefore, instead of providing a chart with relatable examples, the chart I devised shows the increasing intensity of this mental illness. My hope is that the statements provided at each level, combined with the descriptions included, will help those who have never struggled with depression understand how our frame of mind is magnified as our condition worsens.
It is also important to note that depression is not all sadness and hopelessness. Instead of providing a chart listing levels 1-9, I have split this chart in half. There is a 1-4N to designate worsening stages of numbness and a 1-4D to describe stages of downward spiral. This chart is extremely simplified, yet illustrates how, as depression worsens, the intensity of the condition increases. However, unlike conditions like anxiety that worsen in one direction, depression can and does frequently occur in both the realms of numbness and hopelessness to varying extents.
It is also important to note that depression is not linear. It comes in waves and spikes. It is not uncommon to struggle with days of increasing numbness, only to wake up the following day in the midst of a downward spiral. Depression randomly alternates between the two, with no rhyme or reason to the length or intensity on any given day. Some days you feel nothing at all, other days you feel everything too strongly. There’s no way to predict when you will be pulled in either direction or how long either will last.
There will be days when someone might even feel fine, or even just more functional. On other days, you might be unable to pull yourself out of bed or might seem to cry over everything. There are days that feel like a struggle and others that feel completely impossible, days where you find yourself crying a little bit more and days you just want to give up.
When describing increased emotional pain, the best example I can think of is to compare it to the pain of loss. Milder stages of depression might be akin to losing something that matters to you, perhaps something of sentimental value. As depression increases, imagine the pain of losing a beloved pet, your parents, your spouse or your child. Imagine the ache and the pain, the feeling in that moment of things never being okay again, of wanting to give up, to crumble under the weight of that pain.
Except the person you are mourning is yourself. Your happiness and who you used to be. And the loss comes again and again in waves, sometimes mild, other times so severe that the tears and the pain feel like they will never stop.
At the same time, you loathe and disgust yourself. You feel worthless, a waste of space. Your own mind lies to you, convincing you that the world would be better off without you in it. That is where rationality parts ways. Everyone can understand loss, pain and grieving. But it is hard to wrap your head around losing yourself, let alone hating yourself, unless you have spiraled down to those depths yourself.
Yet those feelings are there, along with a tremendous amount of guilt. You feel guilty that you are such a mess. You feel guilty for subjecting everyone else to your mess, as well. Often, you are also ashamed of your illness because you feel you should be stronger, more capable, better than you are. That shame often leads you to lie or minimize the intensity of your suffering for fear of being judged. Depression makes you feel like a failure just for being sick.
When someone is struggling with depression, their very perceptions become distorted. It is common for everything to feel much worse than it actually is. Think back to when you were a little child. Things on the counter felt up way too high, the door knob out of reach. Even simple things like tying your shoes were a struggle and felt like a monumental task that took maximum effort and concentration. That is how everyday tasks feel when you have depression. Everything feels harder. Every problem feels bigger. You feel small and helpless.
Think back, too, to when you were a young child and were upset with your parents, when you felt completely misunderstood and all alone in the world. Think back on the time when your four or five year old self was convinced you should run away, that nobody would care if you were gone. Think back to any other point in your life, as well, when you felt completely alone, when you had no help, nobody there. With depression, those feelings are ever-present. Your mind tells you that nobody understands, that you are alone in the world. Depression isolates you by telling lies that you do not matter.
Think back to the last time you were sick, laid up in bed with a bad flu or stomach bug. Remember how physically and mentally exhausting it felt to even move or pull yourself out of bed? How easily you found yourself worn out, just wanting to lay back down and sleep? How you put off going to the bathroom for hours because you didn’t even want to move? How you ate frozen waffles or canned soup for three days because you just did not have the energy or the desire to cook a real meal? That is what depression is like, too.
The numbness, however, is hard to explain to anyone who has not experienced it firsthand. If you’ve ever had someone or something upset you so much that you no longer cared, magnify that lack of concern tenfold. It is similar to that catatonic shock following an accident or trauma. You feel nothing, lost, blank, numb. Eventually, you mentally shut down. You are immobile, held hostage, trapped in your own mind. You have no interest or motivation to do anything. You see no point in even trying.
I wish there were more relatable examples I could give but it is impossible to rationalize the irrational. There are some examples that are somewhat similar in one way or another, but even those don’t quite equate. The best I can do is to illustrate the directions depression can go and to quantify how bad it can get.
When trying to explain depression, the best someone who is struggling can do is to explain how close we are at the given moment to either shutting down or wanting to give up. The worst part is that the status can change in a moment’s notice on any given day. There is no way to predict when it will veer off in either direction, let alone the severity of the bout. You cannot even predict what will cause your condition to worsen, or whether it will even be something large or small. Something as tragic as a great loss is just as likely to cause a period of numbness as a simple broken plate is to cause a severe downward spiral. There are times we are honestly not even sure why we are feeling the way we do, only that the depression is there. There is no rhyme, reason or rationality to any of it.
It is not something that a person can control in any way, either, let alone simply snap out of on their own accord. Depression is a mental illness. It is a medically-diagnosed condition that severely affects the ability to cope with life, negatively impacting and impairing both thoughts and behaviors. Having a mental illness is no different than having any other type of illness. Much like a diabetic has a pancreas that is malfunctioning, when a person has a mental illness, their brain is not working correctly. The only difference is the organ affected. Both conditions need medical treatment.
I understand how difficult it must be for someone who has never suffered from depression themselves to understand. Depression seems irrational because it is. It doesn’t make sense, even to those of us struggling with it every day. We find ourselves on a roller coaster ride that is speeding out of control, flying up and down every which way, with no way to stop or slow down. Nobody asks for a mental illness. Depression is not something anyone has done to themselves or is causing because they are not trying hard enough. We don’t understand how we even ended up on this ride, let alone how to get off. How can we adequately explain something we don’t even understand ourselves?
The confusion surrounding depression is also in part due to the stigma attached to mental illness in general. For years, anyone with a mental illness was labeled as lazy, crazy, dangerous or a joke. Either way, they were not taken seriously. Mental illness was a dirty word that wasn’t discussed openly. People fear or mock what they don’t understand. The lack of education about medical conditions like depression led to wide-spread ignorance and misinformation. Unfortunately, once that cat is out of the bag, the damage is done and it will take much longer to properly educate people about mental illness than it took to originally spread the falsehoods and misconceptions.
I understand fully that depression makes no sense to someone who has never experienced it themselves. It honestly makes no sense to us, either. But please know that depression is much more than just merely feeling sad from time to time. With depression, you sometimes feel everything so strongly that it is completely overwhelming, the emotions feel agonizingly painful and never-ending, and the world feels utterly hopeless. Other times, someone with depression is completely numb, feeling absolutely nothing at all. Either way, everything feels much harder, more intense. Depression is exhausting, both physically and mentally. Perhaps worst of all, you feel helpless to do anything, like you have no control over your own mind. And depression is not linear. It goes up and down, every which way, changing direction and intensity on the drop of a dime.
I wish I could provide a chart that was more relatable for those who have never experienced depression, but, as I have stated before, there really is no way to rationalize the irrational. The best I can do is to lay out what depression is like in a very simplified form and hope for your empathy, compassion, understanding and patience.
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Much like the classic question of whether the chicken or the egg came first, it is equally as hard to determine whether depression or loneliness comes first.
Does depression come first, causing a person to isolate, contributing to their own increased loneliness?
Or was the loneliness there first, causing worsening depression because you feel alone, like you have nobody there who cares, nobody who understands?
Often the two go hand in hand, causing a vicious cycle that spirals down, magnifying the impact of both.
In the beginning of the downward spiral, you don’t want to bother or inconvenience anyone with your problems. The depression is there, but it feels like more of a trivial nuisance in your life than a bonafide issue. You minimize your struggles because you don’t want to appear weak or helpless. Your depression fools you into believing that you’re doing others a favor by not bothering them, that they have other, more important things to worry about than you. You feel like you should be able to handle everything on your own so you begin to pull away, to isolate, and to justify those actions because you don’t want to trouble anyone else.
You feel disconnected and lonely, like you’re completely on your own.
And, over time, your depression continues to worsen, unchecked.
You close doors, put up walls and stop communicating. It is not long until you’ve distanced yourself for so long that you feel you’re no longer entitled to reach out to those you have pushed away. You feel guilty for being a bad friend. You rationalize that it has been so long since you’ve spoken to everyone that to contact them now, just because you’re struggling more, would be wrong. Even the thought of reaching out to anyone else feels awkward. You feel like you’re being unreasonably needy for even wanting or wishing someone was there.
By this point, the depression has bled into every aspect of your life. Everything feels utterly hopeless. You feel completely lost, isolated and alone, like no one else could possibly understand. Your depression convinces you of the fact that you are inherently broken in some strange and unique way that nobody else could ever understand. You are struggling to function, struggling to even pull yourself out of bed.
You have not only pushed away everyone who was close to you, but you have also started to avoid everyone and everything else, as well. You have stopped doing many of the things that once brought you joy because you feel you don’t deserve to be happy. You don’t want anyone else to see the mess you’ve become. You shut yourself off from the world, telling yourself the world is a better place without you in it, mucking it up.
And you have nobody to turn to, no one to talk with, nobody to lean on or confide in.
You’re completely alone.
The farther into the depths you spiral, the worse the loneliness and the worse the depression. It isn’t a cycle that just loops endlessly in circles. Instead it is a downward spiral that feeds off each other, making each worse in turn, dragging you further and further into the darkness.
Ironically, at the bottom of the spiral, you feel betrayed and abandoned. Despite the fact that you intentionally isolated yourself and pushed everyone else away, your depression lies to you, telling you that if others truly cared, they would have seen all the signs, that they would have been there all along. Your depression deceives you into believing that they would have fought harder to be there, refused to be pushed away. It convinces you that nobody truly cares, that you are completely alone now and could not turn to anyone else even if you wanted to do so. Your depression projects onto them the ability to read minds and to see everything you have hidden from them all along. In the depth of depression, the irrational seems completely rational.
I have been there myself more than once.
Every time my depression begins to worsen again and spiral downward, I find myself isolating more and more.
I pull away because I don’t want to bother anyone else with my issues. I always feel like a massive burden to everyone in my life. My family and friends have seen me struggling for years. I figure they must be tired of it all, exhausted from it by now. I tell myself they don’t deserve to be plagued by my problems any more than they already have been. I tell myself I am sparing them from my drama, saving them from any more heartbreak from seeing my continued struggling.
I feel like a horrible friend, a horrible person for even wanting to have them there during my bad times. I feel like they deserve better than me.
I tell myself that I am doing them a kindness by keeping them away.
I desperately yearn for someone to talk to, someone to lean on, to have someone who truly understands.
Yet I feel completely alone…
…Because I have chosen to make myself alone.
It isn’t that I’m alone. I have an amazing fiance who loves me to death and is both caring and compassionate about my mental illness. I have wonderful children that have grown into incredible adults who want to be there for me. I have a loyal and understanding circle of friends that have stood by me over the years. I have a supportive team of doctors and other professionals whose primary goal is to help me.
That is the reality. I am not alone.
However, the reality is also that I have depression, a mental illness that often convinces me both that I am alone and that I am a nuisance to everyone else in my life.
I don’t want to be alone.
But I don’t want to trouble any of them with my struggles or be a burden, either.
It is a catch-22, spurred on by the lies that my depression tells me.
It takes a continuous, conscious effort to remind myself that I am not a burden to any of them, that they love me, care about me and truly want to be there for me and help me. I have to remind myself regularly that I am not alone and that others do truly care. Again and again, I find myself itching to pull away, wanting to distance myself and my problems from everyone else. It is a constant struggle not to isolate myself for the perceived benefit of others.
I have to remind myself, as well, that I don’t have to carry everything on my shoulders alone. Often, I have to push myself to reopen those doors, tear down those walls and let others back in. It is admittedly very hard a lot of the time to lean on others, to bother them with my problems, to even ask for help when I need it. Instinctively, I always feel like everyone else has enough on their own plates without adding my mess to the mix. I always feel guilty for needing other people. Whenever I start feeling that way, I have to remind myself that others are there because they want to be.
Deep down, I know I am not a burden.
I know I am not troubling or bothering anyone with my problems nor am I forcing anyone to be there against their will.
I know I don’t have to face my illness alone.
I know all these negative feelings are lies, though they feel completely legitimate and real to me at the time.
We feel completely and utterly alone because our depression lies to us, convincing us that loneliness is a reality when you have a mental illness. We don’t have to be alone, though. Don’t let your depression deceive you. There are others that care, others that want to be there.
There are people you have pushed away who are yearning to be back in your life, people who truly care about you and your well-being.
There are also others out there who you may not even have met yet who would be willing to be there, who understand what you are going through and don’t want you to have to struggle alone.
There are doctors and therapists, as well, and support groups out there who are willing to help.
I honestly cannot tell you whether the spiral starts with depression or with loneliness, though the two often go hand in hand. Together they form a symbiotic relationship that feasts on your mental health, starving you of your happiness and well-being.
I do know one thing, though.
You don’t have to be alone…
…So please don’t choose to be.
Not everyone understands what it is like living with a mental illness. I get that. Most people, at their core, mean well and are trying to help in one way or another. Whether they are attempting to be supportive or trying to snap someone back into their perceived “reality”, they just don’t know what to say. I understand that completely, too. But using tired old cliches about life that don’t apply to living with a serious illness does not help at all. Nor does it help to offer outdated advice that has been proven to be both ignorant and ineffective. They do much more harm than good. It not only minimizes our condition and our struggles, but it also tells us that you neither understand what we are going through nor do you take our illness, or us, seriously.
Please do not tell us that “everyone has problems sometimes“, “into everyone’s life a little rain must fall“, or that “nobody said life was fair“. Likewise, please don’t tell us “it is what it is” or “everyone gets depressed sometimes“, as if our diagnosis is an everyday, trivial, meaningless bit of happenstance that is unimportant and should be paid no mind. A mental illness is not an average, run of the mill problem, a typical bump in the road of life that everyone faces at some point and is easily cast aside or overcome. It is a medical diagnosis, a medical condition that drastically affects every aspect of our lives. You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer that everyone has problems sometimes, laughing it off like it was nothing. You would show an appropriate level of concern over their health and well-being. You would encourage them to see a doctor and take care of themselves. You would be supportive. You wouldn’t dream of minimizing their condition because, left untreated, it could have deadly consequences. So could my mental illness and it deserves to be treated in the same regard.
Asking us if we’ve “just tried being happy“, telling us we “need to just learn to focus on the positives” or otherwise suggesting we’re not trying hard enough misplaces the blame on us for our diagnosis. The patient is never to blame when their body goes haywire and runs amuck. We understand that sometimes our bodies malfunction, become unbalanced, and horrible things like tumors occur. You can’t will away cancer with a positive outlook and trying harder won’t make tumors disappear. The same goes for mental illnesses. We don’t tell someone with cancer that it is “all in their head“, “mind over matter“, and expect them to become healthy again by sheer willpower alone. We encourage them to see a doctor immediately, get everything taken care of and treated so their body can work properly and be healthy again. Untreated cancer can eat a person alive from the inside out, deteriorating their health and destroying the quality of their life in every way. So can mental illness. The only difference is cancer mainly attacks and destroys the physical body while mental illnesses primarily attack the mind.
Please don’t judge us on our appearance, telling us that we “don’t look sick” or that we “just need to smile more” as if our diagnosis is even remotely dependent on our outward appearance. Also, please don’t tell us that we “don’t look all that sad to you” or that we “looked just fine the other day” because we have briefly managed to put on a brave face or wear a mask to hide our pain. Having a good day here and there does not negate all the bad ones. Invisible illnesses are still illnesses. Like many other serious health conditions inside the body, you cannot often or easily see mental illness with the naked eye. Not seeing a tumor growing inside someone does not make it any less real or dangerous. Not seeing a diabetic’s pancreas malfunctioning does not mean it is not happening or that they do not need treatment. Someone with cancer or another serious medical condition occasionally smiling, laughing or briefly enjoying life does not mean that they are instantly cured and tumor-free. Just because you cannot see our mental illness does not mean we are not suffering.
Asking us “why can’t you just be normal?” or suggesting that we “need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves” not only blames us for our diagnosis but treats us as if we’re somehow broken or flawed and it is all in our head. Nobody asks to have a mental illness nor does anyone want to be sick. We are not doing this to ourselves. We are not having pity parties. Please don’t suggest we’re just looking for attention or tell us that “the only one we’re hurting is ourselves” either, as if we’re intentionally sabotaging our own happiness by entertaining the absurd idea of some make-believe malady. Mental illness is a very real medical diagnosis, one that is often completely beyond our control. Our behavior did not cause it any more than a person’s attitude or imagination can cause tumors.
Please do not suggest we should just “snap out of it and get over things already“, either. A person cannot snap out of a mental illness diagnosis any more than they can snap out of diabetes. There is no set time frame that someone should be better, or even show marked improvement. Like diabetes, a mental health diagnosis often lasts a lifetime. And the healing process with most illnesses is not linear. A diabetic can alternate between periods of stability, and episodes of sugar spikes and crashes, dangerous highs and lows that drastically and dangerously impact their health. Similarly, even when in ongoing mental health treatment, a series of good days can be interrupted by periods of downward spiraling or numbness, and worsening symptoms as we attempt to balance medications and work through both past and new traumas. Along the same lines as the fact that we refuse to take the blame for our illness, we are also under no obligation to heal on anyone else’s schedule or whim. It is our illness, our treatment, and we will take as long as we need to take to heal fully and properly, even if it takes a lifetime.
Do not remind us that “every cloud has a silver lining” or tell us to “look on the bright side“, suggesting that we need to look for something positive at the core of our struggle. Likewise, please never tell us that “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” or tell us that “it is God’s will“, as if our suffering was some divine gift or that it will be worth it in the long run. Again, it is an illness, a medical diagnosis. You would not confront a diabetic who must have their feet amputated due to their condition and suggest that they would somehow come out stronger for their loss. You would not imply to a patient who cannot keep down any food because they are undergoing chemotherapy that the silver lining is that they always did want to lose a few pounds. You would not tell anyone that their illness was a blessing in disguise, that they should be grateful for their suffering and pain. Comments like those would be not only wildly inappropriate but also extremely insensitive, as well. You would offer the person suffering your compassion, sympathy and support. People with mental illnesses deserve the same. There is nothing positive about our diagnosis or our struggle so please don’t insist we look for a silver lining or a bright side that is not there.
Please don’t tell us that “other people have it worse“, as if our struggle is insignificant because someone else has struggled more. Don’t ask us “what do you even have to be depressed about?“, expecting us to justify our diagnosis or quantify our suffering so you can determine its validity. A mental illness is a bonafide medical diagnosis that deserves acknowledgement and actual medical treatment regardless of its severity in comparison to someone else’s. It is always a serious health condition that can continue to worsen if left untreated. You wouldn’t shrug off anyone’s cancer diagnosis as trivial or be so unsympathetic as to suggest their tumors were insignificant because someone else had larger ones. Cancer is always taken seriously. Mental illness should be, as well.
If we trust you enough to open up about our diagnosis, please don’t shut us down by telling us “there are just some things you just shouldn’t talk about” or reminding us that “some things should be kept private“. That is ignorance and stigma talking. Yes, we understand that mental illness is uncomfortable to discuss. So is any other serious medical diagnosis. The difference is that families and friends will discuss other illnesses and the impact they will have on everyone’s lives. We sincerely apologize for any discomfort our diagnosis might give you, but please know that we are not confiding in you hoping you can solve it or make anything better. We are sharing our diagnosis because we consider you an integral part of our lives and we want you to be aware of everything that is going on. Don’t tell us that we shouldn’t talk about mental illness as if it is something we should be ashamed of having. The biggest reason this diagnosis has become so rampant in society today is because no one talked about it for far too long. No one talked and nobody sought treatment. But silence won’t make the problem go away. Health issues don’t vanish because you refuse to acknowledge them. It will only make it worse.
Please stop shaming us for our diagnosis altogether or our efforts to seek treatment. Don’t tell us that “all we really need is some fresh air and some running shoes” in order to feel better. Don’t tell us that “only weak people rely on medication” or suggest we try vitamin regimens, scented oils or other homeopathic remedies instead of what we have been prescribed. We have seen actual doctors. Medical professionals have given us a verifiable medical diagnosis and prescribed us the appropriate medications to treat that diagnosis. You wouldn’t shame a diabetic for using insulin to balance their body so please stop shaming us for taking our prescriptions to balance our minds. You wouldn’t tell a cancer patient that they didn’t need chemo, to just go for a brisk run or take a nice, long bath instead. That is because it is widely accepted that chemotherapy is used to treat cancer and insulin to treat diabetes. If you are willing to accept other medical diagnoses and treatments as valid, please accept ours, as well.
Please don’t attack us, demanding to know “what have you even done with yourself lately?” or otherwise question why we are not able to function as well as a healthy person. Don’t interrogate us about what we have and have not accomplished recently, either, as if our level of productivity must meet your standards or our activity must be on par with yours. Having a mental illness takes a lot out of a person, both mentally and physically. It is perfectly acceptable for someone who has just undergone chemotherapy to spend a day in bed if they so need it. If a diabetic has a sugar crash and feels under the weather, others will suggest they go lay down and feel better. Healing and recovery time is acceptable for all other illnesses. It should be for mental illnesses, too.
For so many years, mental illness was treated as something shameful, something you just didn’t discuss, something whispered about in dark corners. With the continuing rise of suicides, addictions and other mental health crisis in our society, mental illness is being spoken about today on a scale previously unimaginable. I understand that it might take some time for everyone to fully understand how to openly discuss our diagnosis with both compassion and respect after being shrouded in secrecy and stigma for so long. When unsure how to proceed, many people turn to old cliches and outdated advice that they believe have stood the test of time. However, many of those statements and sayings are not at all appropriate or applicable to mental illnesses. If you are unsure what to say to someone with a mental illness, a good place to start would be to ask yourself if you would say those words to someone else with any other serious illness. If you cannot imagine saying it to someone with cancer or diabetes, for example, it’s a good bet that it is not an appropriate response to our diagnosis, either.
After all, people with mental illnesses are not asking for special treatment. We are just asking to be treated with the same courtesy you would treat anyone else who is ill.
I have struggled with depression my entire life, in part due to a genetic mutation passed down to me from my parents that affects the way my body metabolizes specific chemicals my brain needs to moderate my moods. I regularly go through horrendous downward spirals where I feel completely broken and worthless, where life feels utterly hopeless. I struggle with long periods of numbness where I have difficulty functioning or even finding the motivation to get out of bed. On bad days, I will cry until my face is sore and my voice is hoarse, and it is unlikely I will be able to accomplish much more than basic self-care. I am battling an illness that warps my very perceptions of life and continuously exhausts and pains me both physically and mentally.
But I am happy.
I have an amazing fiance who is very supportive of me and my diagnosis. I have healthy, kind, smart and all-around wonderful children who have grown into incredible adults. My fiance’s children are both amazing, as well. Together we have all formed a beautiful, blended family that I love with all my heart and am proud to call my own. I have a team of doctors who actually listen to me and a treatment plan that is slowly but surely helping improve my quality of life. And I have a blossoming writing career that has given me a true sense of purpose and an ability to help others in need. I have many wonderful blessings in my life to be grateful for, many reasons to be happy.
Yet I have been diagnosed with depression.
That is because a mental illness like depression has nothing to do with happiness. Depression is not caused by being in the wrong frame of mind or just not trying hard enough to be happy. Having a depression diagnosis has nothing to do with feeling sad, a little blue or under the weather. People with depression aren’t being Negative Nancys or Debbie Downers who just need to learn to lighten up and look on the bright side. My diagnosis wouldn’t just disappear if I just tried to smile a little harder or maintained a more positive outlook on life. My depression has nothing to do with whether or not I am happy.
I have trained myself to find reasons to smile everyday. I am usually the first to look for something positive in even the roughest of situations. No matter how hard my own day might feel, I always try to show compassion and kindness to others. If nothing else, I am grateful each day I wake up and thankful of all the loving and supportive people in my life and share that sentiment regularly. I am hopeful for the possibilities the future may have in store for me, as well. Some of my friends lovingly joke that I am the happiest, most positive little depressed person they know.
Yet I continue to struggle with my depression diagnosis.
My brain does not care whether or not I am happy or grateful, whether I am hopeful, compassionate or kind. My mental illness is caused by my brain not working properly, much like a diabetic’s pancreas malfunctioning causes their condition. I have no more control over having a mental illness than someone else having diabetes, heart disease or another medical condition they may have been passed genetically. Yes, events in my life may have further exasperated my mental illness, much like having excessive sugar might worsen a person’s diabetes or having foods high in cholesterol might affect the severity of heart disease, but my condition preceded any of the traumas and abuses I have endured over the years. I have even sought treatment to help resolve those issues to the best of my ability, yet my depression has remained.
Because depression is an illness, a medical diagnosis with both mental and physical causations.
It is not all in my head.
It is not a state of mind or an emotion.
Depression isn’t about being sad.
The cure for depression is not happiness.
Like any other illness, depression needs ongoing medical treatment. Doctors need to not only diagnose the condition, but also to isolate and treat both the mental and physical reasons for the illness, as well. Though doctors often utilize psychological treatments like therapy, meditation and mindfulness, they usually also include psychiatric methods and medications to help treat the physical causation. That is because doctors recognize mental illnesses such as depression as a verifiable disability that deserves a comprehensive, multi-pronged treatment.
In cases like mine where my depression has a genetic causation, my diagnosis is permanent. I was born with it much like some children are born diabetic. You would not blame a child for being born with a pancreas that was incapable of functioning properly so please don’t blame me for the fact that I was born with organs that malfunctioned, as well. The only difference in my case are the organs affected. No matter how happy I am or how positive my outlook is on life, my liver will never be able to metabolize the substances my brain needs in order to function properly. I will have this medical diagnosis and need ongoing treatment until the day I die.
If I confide in you that I am struggling with depression, please don’t try to encourage me to try to be happier and more positive, or point out all the blessings I have in my life. I am happy and grateful already. You do not need to remind me to be hopeful for the future because I already am. Please don’t blame me for my diagnosis either, insinuating that I wouldn’t be ill if I just tried a little harder. I did not ask for this diagnosis, nor did I cause it. What I need from you is the same compassion, understanding and support you would give anyone else with any other medical diagnosis.
Because, though I am already happy, knowing you were doing your best to be supportive and treat me with the same respect you would someone struggling with other illnesses would make me even happier.
Republished on the Mighty on 4/4/19.