I remember the day I started taking antidepressants. I waited a couple days after picking up the prescription, partially in denial and partially terrified. I was a teacher at the time and arrived at school early, scrambling to get some-sort-of-ready for the day. Sitting at my desk, surrounded by bulletin boards and bookshelves stacked with young adult novels, I swallowed the little yellow pill alone in my quiet classroom, dreading the day ahead.
It was probably a combination of anxiety over being medicated + taking it on an empty stomach that led to a freakout an hour later. My belly was on fire, and I was mad and sad and didn’t know when it would pass, and the thought of suffering through the day in front of 150 pre-teens was more than I could handle. The teacher next door arranged for a substitute, and I went home. That was in February 2009.
I was dealing with a breakup. I lived in Nashville, TN at the time and was considering moving back to Indiana. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a teacher anymore. Everything in my life was Category: Unknown, completely out of control, and every second felt like I was losing my grip on the tiny thread that anchored me to reality. One evening, hibernating in my tiny bedroom, the thought entered my brain that maybe I was more than just sad.
I found one of those “Are You Depressed?” online surveys where you rate yourself on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (most of the time) on a long list of characteristics. I didn’t want any of it to describe me, but almost all of it did. With each question and accompanying description, it was like puzzle pieces coming together in slow motion.
5. Most of the time. 4. Usually. 5. Most of the time.
That night I realized that I had probably been dealing with depression and anxiety for most of my life and just didn’t know it.
If you know me at all and we’ve never talked about mental illness before, it may be surprising to learn that I have one. I’m a generally outgoing, optimistic person who no one would pinpoint as “depressed.” Mental illness is confusing and scary and embarrassing and stigmatizing, so people — including me — typically shy away from broadcasting the intimate details of how it affects their lives. And I can be pretty ok at hiding it.
I know, I know. My story isn’t unique. Millions and millions of people suffer from depression and anxiety, and many of them more severely than I do. Sometimes I feel guilty. Poor little middle-class white girl, what reasons could you possibly have for being depressed? Get it together and figure it out. Your life is easy.
I think about people with more difficult circumstances and less resources. Those who have no support and no means to seek medical attention. But sometimes I snap out of it and remember that every person with depression and anxiety experiences them differently, and I don’t have to justify mine to anyone, not even to myself.
On a good day, I wake up on time. I spend the day focused on my work and take pride in what I accomplish. I am present with my friends and family. I spend time outside if I can. I pay attention to what I eat. I feel creative. I learn new things. I take care of myself and my home.
Bad days usually turn into bad weeks, sometimes months. It can take me a few days to realize that I’m in the middle of a bad week or month, and then it takes just as long waiting for it to pass.
On a bad day, I oversleep. Or I’m up all night. Sometimes I don’t go to work. I battle obsessive thoughts. I am detached, like watching myself from outside of my own body. I take a 5-hour nap. My eating is disordered. I make up excuses to break plans. I stay inside for entire weekends. I ignore my hygiene and my home. I don’t want to do anything, so I don’t do anything. I watch 14 straight hours of TV. Everything is heavy.
These aren’t behaviors that started 8 years ago; that’s just when they started to make sense. Since then, I have been able to recognize an anxiety attack instead of just dismissing it as an overreaction or blaming it on my sensitivity. I’ve learned the difference between depression and laziness / moodiness / sadness. Puzzle pieces.
As far as isolating circumstances go, I’d put depression and anxiety toward the top. It feels easier to keep them a secret — and where there are secrets, there is shame. Most people I’ve talked to about their own depression mention a feeling of aloneness, like no one could ever possibly understand what they’re going through. It’s difficult to justify because depression is so prevalent that of course other people understand. But when you’re in the midst of a fog you can’t see through, truth loses out to lies on a regular basis.
It took years before I was able to talk about mental illness as a part of my identity because of the shame attached to it. I didn’t want it to be a part of me, or at least I didn’t want to admit it out loud, because that made it real. But once I finally owned it, I experienced a freedom and grace that I couldn’t let in when I chose to be alone in it.
Winter is really hard for me. Last December I texted my sister and asked her to make sure I saw the light of day on a regular basis. I told her that I needed her to invite me over and not take no for an answer. I needed accountability, and asking for it was a new development for me. She didn’t ask questions; she just said ok.
After Christmas I had a few bad weeks. I told my best friend, and she sent me this email with suggestions of things to do to change my routine. Books, podcasts, writing, going to church. I don’t know how to accurately explain this, but that list of stuff wasn’t anything I could have told myself to do, as simple as it was. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it on my own.
I needed to let both of them in, and they were gracious enough to respond in love.
Claiming my depression and anxiety has provided so many opportunities to encourage friends through their own experiences. I’ve been able to offer insight and hope and truly listen. I’ve been able to cry with them and comfort them and most importantly, look them in the eyes and say me, too.
Connecting with others through shared pain doesn’t necessarily make it easier, but it does make it more meaningful. In my isolation, I’ve learned a lot about myself — things I maybe wouldn’t have paid attention to otherwise: how ungracefully I cope with grief, how my actions affect other people, the limits of my strength and vulnerability, why I crave depth and meaning, how much I really care about what people think of me.
And if I can manage to channel that into an authentic empathy for another person who may be making similar self-discoveries, I’m putting my pain to good use.
Over the last 8 years, I’ve observed a misguided dialogue about depression. My pet peeve is the phrase “struggle(s) with depression.” I struggle with math. I struggle to run a mile. I don’t struggle with depression; I suffer from it.
It’s more than something that is difficult for me; it’s a part of me that affects my daily life, my relationships, my self worth, every area of my physical and spiritual health. I think sometimes even people who have depression choose the word “struggle” because it minimizes the severity. It sounds more temporary. I get it.
But I think it’s time stop the perpetuation of shame. I don’t know what that looks like, but I know it involves honesty and vulnerability, so maybe we can start there. To anyone who has experienced mental illness and to anyone who ever will: you are normal, you are loved, and you have nothing to hide. I may be nobody, but I’m here to tell you that you are important and worthy of love, and you owe it to yourself to get the help you need. And to anyone who hasn’t experienced it: we need you — your open arms, your support, your acceptance. We need your gracious “yes’s” and your unconditional love. Every. Single. Bit.
This stuff is real, and it’s hard, and no one should feel alone in it.
I know I’m not a pioneer here. I don’t assume that my story will be groundbreaking in any way. My only hope is that if someone somewhere in the world reads this and sees those puzzle pieces coming together, you’ll know that your story is valid and there’s a real person with a real life on the other end offering you a me, too.