Last week, Jenny Lawson, The Bloggess, wrote a about her continued battle with depression. I have a few close friends who I have seen struggle with various forms of depression and I have always felt somewhat at a loss as to how to help or what to say.
I’ve seen a few discussions about depression recently: Jenny’s post, the response she received, Allie’s recent post at Hyperbole and a Half, the story from a few years ago about New Orleans reporter Chris Rose and JT Eberhart’s recent discussion of mental illness at Skepticon 4.
What struck me most about all these discussions was how much depression and mental illness is stigmatized and how much people who suffer from it have to battle the myth that it is somehow their own fault. That admitting to being depressed means that they are admitting to some sort of personal weakness.
There’s clear evidence that depression is a very real, extremely serious illness. But it seems that for many people, it remains a blind spot. It also seems that the more people speak out about depression, the more others are willing to speak out as well and stop hiding the problem. The response to Jenny’s post has been overwhelming. And that got me thinking. A single anecdote from a single person can help a lot of people. It seems that the problem of depression is one that benefits from anecdotes, from personal stories of individuals who have struggled with this. Yes, the plural of anecdote is not evidence. But in this case, perhaps the plural of anecdote is antidote.
So here is my story.
I’m generally a pretty happy person. Above and beyond the fact that I have a pretty good life, I tend to have a relatively optimistic outlook on the world. In the past few years, I have had a few minor issues with depression but nothing that I wasn’t able to attribute to things going on in my life or track back to nutritional deficiencies that I’ve been able to work around. But last year, I got a taste – a tiny glimpse into the world that so many people live in every day.
At the beginning of 2011, I was having a hard time. My marriage of 13 years was ending and I was dealing with the chaos and excitement of moving out on my own along with the regret and sadness of saying goodbye to someone I still deeply cared for but knew I could not be with. I was stressed and worried and sad, and I decided to go to therapy to help me deal with the issues I was having. I had a strong support structure of people who had my back and although things were tough, I was doing OK.
Then, in July, my mother passed away, unexpectedly. And everything. Just. Stopped.
My mother was a force of nature. I talked to her weekly, if not daily and having her gone just made no sense. I went to work every day because it was the bare minimum of what I had to do. But I couldn’t do anything else. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, I just couldn’t. I was exhausted all the time, I wasn’t sleeping, I couldn’t focus on anything and my grief constantly threatened to overwhelm me. Normally incredibly social, I didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. Things like writing for Skepchick, that I thought were integral to my daily life, simply fell by the wayside.
Over time, my depression eased. I continued with therapy, which helped a lot. In the past month or so, I’ve found myself wanting to go out a little more, see more people, do new things. I’ve been writing again and venturing out into new projects. But I still struggle with the grief every day. And it’s starting to get embarrassing and difficult to explain away – how long can I keep using the ‘dead mom’ excuse?! There are people out there who have it far worse. People who have lost so much more. Why can’t I just be stronger?
And then I read about Jenny, or Allie or Chris and I realize that I am lucky. The fact that I can point to this incident as the REASON for my depression makes me lucky. It gives me an excuse. The great tragedy is that so many people have to deal with feeling the deep, endless sadness without having a reason. And for them, the shame and the self-hatred can be entirely overwhelming.
As a society, it seems many people struggle with understanding depression. We think we understand depression as just an emotion that can be controlled, can be handled rationally and logically. We don’t think of it as a disease – we think of it as a nuisance. It’s not like cancer! We think of it as being really super sad. And we’ve all been sad and gotten over it. It’s not like we’ve all had a lesser version of cancer and gotten over it. So, yeah, cancer must be way worse, right?
Hardly. Comparing sadness to depression is like comparing a paper cut to cutting your hand off. It’s all about scale. Maybe in skeptical terms, sadness is homeopathic depression. It really can’t compare.
The one thing we don’t do well, is talk about it. We don’t know how, I think. Jenny is seeing a huge influx of support and gratefulness for people who read what she said and identified with it, understood it, spoke out when they were too scared or embarrassed to speak out before.
So that’s what I am doing today. I struggle with depression daily but even as I write this, I am terrified of actually publishing that fact. I worry that by comparing my problems from the past few months with the full-blown, crippling illness that others have. Am I minimizing their situation? My depression is relatively mild and situational and really can’t compare. It somehow doesn’t seem right to use the same word, because it is so much worse for others.
But I suspect that, no matter how bad your situation is, everyone with depression somehow thinks the same thing. That admitting it makes me sound weak. That I really should be able to handle this and admitting how hard it is makes me somehow inadequate. I am writing this because if I feel this way, then it must be a hundredfold worse for people who have struggled with this for years.
So I will simply say this: the key, as far as I can tell, is to talk about it. To bring it out into the open and to make it OK to talk about it. In the hopes that those who can’t talk about it may listen and hear and know that they are not alone and that help is out there.
And also, celebrate the survivors. I am amazed by Jenny, by Allie, by Chris and the thousands of others who fight to survive every day and find their way through the darkness, only to know that it could consume them again at any time.
I fought my depression by allowing myself to be sad, by refusing to allow the guilt of what I was doing to others consume me. I fought by forcing myself to focus on things that made me happy. By finding the best friends I had and leaning on them as hard as I needed to. Everyone seems to have to find a slightly different way in this battle.
I have an unending supply of respect for anyone who has to go through this. I am amazed at their ability to talk about it, their ability to fight it in any way they can – with medicine, with horror movies and Skittles, with a parasol wielded like a ninja, with red dresses or silver ribbons.
This post is for all of you who are still in the dark and feel that it’s hopeless. It’s not. Don’t give up. You’re not alone.
And if you want to share your story, here’s a place you can do it: Silver Ribbon Stories. It’s just a tumblr I set up – it’s small and simple but it’s a place where you can submit your story about your personal struggles and little victories – anonymously or not. I don’t know if it will be used or will help. But if you have a story and you want to tell it, submit it there and maybe others will hear and hopefully, it will help.
Depression & Grief resources: