In observance of Mental Health Awareness Month (October), our blogger Marisa opens up about her journey and what she wants other people to know about depression and other mental health issues.
I live my life pretty transparently; it’s the only way I know how. For me, owning my strong means putting a lot of effort into self-awareness, and being as real and authentic as possible in my day to day life. I’m pretty much an open book, and I like it that way.
But there is one thing that doesn’t really make it outside my inner circles, something that maybe people wouldn’t guess about me, and something that really challenges my perception of myself as strong:
I struggle with depression.
My experience of depression is more cyclical than constant, and is often aggravated by outside factors. This means that most of the time I am functional, happy, productive, successful, and able to take joy in life and look forward to the future. But when those demons rise up… I’m a different person. A person that very few others get to see, because she is too ashamed to be seen that way.
[Full disclosure: I’ve never been clinically diagnosed, nor am I on medication. I have treated my depression for years with therapy, but the therapists I’ve seen do not have diagnosing or prescribing authority. I say this out of sensitivity to those who are diagnosed and/or on meds, because I do not wish to co-opt their experience.]
Summa Cum Laude Success Story
On paper, I’m pretty badass. I thrived in school and college, making honor rolls and principal’s lists on the regular, earning scholarships, and graduating near the top of my class. I completed my Bachelor’s degree a year early and had almost no student debt upon graduation. I married my high school sweetheart at 21, bought a condo, got a dog, and spent my early 20s building a strong professional background in journalism and marketing that kept me employed through the recession.
I wound up getting divorced a few years later after the marriage turned sour, but that was hardly a setback — I hit the ground running after we split, and fully blossomed into my own person. I quickly found myself with a thriving social life and no shortage of luck on the dating scene. I also took a risk and left the safety of my steady, full-time, well-paying job, where I was lined up to become the leader of my department, to try out (and succeed with) self-employment.
This is the Marisa that is most visible to the outside world. Someone who’s got her s**t together. Someone who’s going places. Someone who can take care of herself. Someone strong.
But there is a shadow side to all this achievement — the shadow cast by high expectations and the precedents I’ve set for myself. I am deeply fearful of people knowing what goes on when I’m not busy kicking ass and taking names. In the open book of my life, these are the pages I’d rather tear out and burn than let anyone read.
Behind the Scenes
When depression hits, the world looks, feels, and sounds different. Muffled. Muted. Like all the colors and flavors have been sucked out. Everything I usually believe in suddenly feels fake and delusional — I am convinced that these are just tricks I play on myself, and that this depressed, weak, pitiful version of me is the real me. The tools and mantras that usually make me feel better are suddenly out of reach, and no amount of logic can bring them back.
The emotional experience of depression is less about sadness and more about emptiness. It feels like being cornered with no escape but to just give up. It feels like being hit by a truck and left to bleed out. It feels like a lot of things, and like nothing. It’s not feeling, it’s lack of feeling. It’s a void I fall into that renders me nearly incapable of pulling myself back out. Sometimes I see it coming, and sometimes the ground drops out from under me unexpectedly.
When I’m depressed, I retreat from the world and can’t find the motivation or willpower to do anything to help myself. Molehills morph into mountains: every little thing (and I do mean the little things, as simple as answering a text or even getting out of bed) feels like too much effort. As important things start piling up, and consequences loom, I become utterly paralyzed.
Aye, there’s the rub: the times when I am most in need of help, I am least likely (or able) to ask for it.
Instead, I browbeat and belittle myself for being so weak. I am not suicidal, but I fantasize about just ‘disappearing’ somehow. Barring that, I’ll self-medicate and seek out every available escape, like Netflix binges, impulse purchases, and late nights out with friends. I sleep, a lot. I eat, horribly, or I don’t eat at all. All the while, I’m painfully aware that these avoidance tactics are just temporary distractions. Depression still waits when this episode is over or it’s time to go home.
I get mad at myself for being depressed — what have I got to complain about, anyway? I think about reaching out to someone, but I feel terrible guilt asking anyone else to take on the weight of my problems, and deep shame that I can’t take care of myself. I squirm under other people’s sympathy and kindness because I don’t believe I deserve it. My girlfriend is among the few who gets a front-row seat to this circus, and my gratitude to her can’t be measured — but even with her, I feel guilt and shame for being so dependent and helpless that she goes out of her way to help me.
Eventually, I do climb out of the void. Episodes can last for just a day or two, or stretch to weeks. Sometimes I can rescue myself from the more shallow depressions, sometimes I need an external factor, like a friend or my therapist, to snap me out of it. And then it’s like nothing ever happened and I’m back to the Marisa everyone knows and loves, and no one’s the wiser. The world changes back to color from black-and-white. Sometimes it’s even hard to remember or imagine how I was feeling just a day or two before, like the depressed me is unrecognizable.
What I Wish More People Knew About Mental Health
A particularly severe and drawn-out recent episode of depression is what prompted me to write this testimonial for Mental Health Awareness Month. After the snap-out, I saw my therapist, and we’re working together on identifying some of the triggering factors and underlying issues. I may eventually decide to pursue the possibility of medication. As of yet, there is no happy ending resolution, just a constant and grueling work in progress. It may always be that way.
In the meantime, here are some things I wish other people knew about living with depression, which likely apply to many other mental illnesses (and even some physical ones):
- It is likely there are people in your life who suffer invisibly. Not only are there the barriers of internal guilt and shame, and external stigmas, but access to professional help is not as easy you might think. In fact, it’s a pain in the ass to start treatment, emotionally, logistically, and financially. Those who need help most often have the least access to it and are left to fend for themselves. Some have learned to disguise it and cope, but for others, it can have serious detrimental effects on their day to day lives at work or at home.
- Depression is a living hell. It’s unbearable. It’s exhausting. It’s maddening. It’s difficult to describe to those who don’t have direct experience with it. Some people suffer in silence because they’ve been questioned, ridiculed, or accused of making it up — or worse, even blamed for their own disease. It doesn’t help that the media, both news and entertainment, tend to display mental health issues as spectacles, horror stories, or even humor. Guess who’s not laughing.
- We are not in control. Mental illness is an affliction, it is real, and it can take over at any time. Treatment and medication can help, as can spiritual work like prayer and meditation, or physical work like diet and exercise. For many of us, though, these are coping mechanisms, not cures. In the midst of a deep depression, getting up the will to exercise or make a therapy appointment might as well be like trying to fight gravity.
- Depression doesn’t look the same for everyone. Here’s the “fun” thing about brain chemistry: we’re each unique. There’s still a lot that scientists don’t know about how the brain works. Depression can show up in all kinds of ways, big and small, obvious and subtle. It manifests differently across genders and ages. So it’s not always easy to recognize when someone — including yourself — is depressed.
- Speaking openly of depression is not attention-seeking. I’d be willing to bet that most people who suffer from it hate drawing attention to it – I know I do. Talking about it, being open about it, accepting it as part of our lives, is a courageous act of vulnerability. Take these people seriously. Resist the urge to dismiss them. Let them know they are seen and heard and loved — and know that they will have trouble believing it, no matter how many times they are reassured. Unconditional love may not cure depression, but it sure makes it easier to live with, even if only a little.
This was originally published on my private Facebook profile, and expanded and reformatted for this blog. I still feel squirmy about being so public about it, but if it helps other people, I’ll fidget my way through.
We’re all in this together, even when we feel most alone.
The webcomic artist Allie Brosh, known as Hyperbole & A Half, captured the experience expertly in her two-part Adventures in Depression series. I couldn’t recommend it more.