I started working on this blog post several months ago and felt a greater urgency to finish it when Robin Williams died. As a society, we cannot continue to hide in secrecy. There are many people out there that need to know they are not alone and know that there is hope. As someone who externally seems fine, I have had the privilege of hiding. I have raised kids and worked while many have no idea the struggles I have gone through. Although, technically, I don't see this as a great privilege, I know that for some, who cannot work, who are stuck in wreckage and darkness, there is no hiding.
As much as I like to hide behind, well, whatever I can hide behind, I realize more and more that I cannot stay silent about my own limitations. My own internalized stigma about the limitations and gifts that I have creates walls around myself and the whole world. Without openness about my own issues, I cannot effectively help others.
This all became very clear to me a few months ago when I had to reach out for help to treat a condition that brings me great shame. For years, I have worked with people with mental health issues and I have treated them with kindness and a great deal of respect. Why cannot I give myself the same respect? Why is it so hard to even talk about my limitations and issues? Growing up in a family where it was taboo to talk about difficult issues like depression and addiction gave me a great shame about my own issues. I did not talk about being troubled or sad or angry and when I did, the subject was often changed or I was dismissed. In my family, I was often the one who did talk about issues, and when I did, I was told I was oversensitive. When I was still angry about something that deeply hurt me, I would always be the one who was told to 'forget' about it and move on.
In high school, I became extremely depressed and almost died from anorexia. This experience gave me an even deeper shame about my depression. I was 16, an age at which peer acceptance matters the most. And I was obviously, visibly, deathly ill. Strangely, my peers did not seem to stigmatize me, but I just continued to stigmatize myself and become more invisible, with only one close friend at the time who probably helped keep me alive. (That is not to say that there were not others around who tried to support me, it's just that she was the only one that I really let in.) This same friend saved my life by talking to her mom about how worried she was about me.
Due to my family's inability to grasp mental health issues, they did not see the severity of my situation. My friend's mom talked to my parents and the light finally turned on for them that something was horribly wrong. Being hospitalized, being locked up and treated like I was a 'sick' person who could not be trusted, drove the shame even deeper. It made it difficult for me to go to medical or mental health professionals for any condition, to this day. This experience along with my ongoing family stoicism created in me a deep seated shame, a belief that I should just be able to push through and fix things without help and that sometimes asking for help is met with indifference or shaming.
For the last six years, my depression increased, sometimes to the same scary levels that I experienced in high school. This slow descent down started when my best friend, my soul sister, Heidi A., died tragically and unexpectedly. It marked a greater descent into alcoholism that had already planted its seeds before Heidi's death. Alcohol was the only way I knew how to medicate the extreme pain I was feeling. However, I knew that it was a substance that would physically continue to make everything worse. But I kept doing it, up until almost two years ago, just before my dad's death, when my depression reached a scary dark point and I knew that alcohol, had in part, led me to that dark place. I did reach out for help, but, I never told my family or hardly anyone except my closest family members. I found help in the most unlikely of places, a place that was somewhat stigmatized in my family of origin. Finally, I was able to break of free of this long period of self-medication through the help of a program and some amazing people that still continue to help me walk the path of recovering.
I started the path of ongoing recovery and sobriety, but still there was this dark cloud hanging over me. At around one year sober, I started to feel more and more depressed. The focus on sobriety and moving forward that first year without alcohol gave me a focus and slightly lifted my depression.
For years, I had been extremely leery of any type of psychiatric medication and these medications scared me due to experiences of loved ones and my own research. Thus, they were out of the question. I had a orthopedic surgery to help with my ongoing struggles with pain and fairly soon after, I started exercising in hopes that it would provide relief from my depression. It helped slightly. But, soon, something new came up. Something that scared me with its daily intensity and extreme discomfort. It was constant and chronic anxiety. For years, I had learned to 'cope' with my depression, but this 'new' condition, scared me more because I did not know how to cope with it as I had my ongoing 'pal' depression.
Finally, I found myself in a doctor's waiting room, scared I was having a heart attack. As I talked to the doctor, I felt my shame intensely. I got the 'depression' screening and passed with flying colors, of course. I was convinced that I must be having heart issues, because I could not 'explain' these feelings any other way, even though after years of working with people, I logically knew that I was having panic attacks.
Talking about this issue with a doctor was extremely difficult and scary and I had the feeling that now I would have the 'crazy' label in my chart (as if it was not already there!) I was prescribed an antidepressant medication that was also supposed to help with anxiety. The doctor said it should work in two weeks. When I asked her what to do about this crippling daily anxiety, she told me to just breathe (as if I have not meditated on and off for years and attended two meditation retreats). I knew how to breathe, but when stuck in this very physical anxiety, it seemed almost impossible to "relax and breathe."
Medication terrified me, but I felt there was no other choice. I waited two weeks with extreme anxiety and some unpleasant side effects. I did not feel better, but knew, from my own research that it could take much longer than two weeks for the medication to work. I was prescribed another medication for the anxiety, which terrified me more due to it's addictive nature. But, it worked. So, I did it. I was brought to my knees and had to reach out to something which I had always thought was not for me, that could permanently damage my brain.
At about four to five weeks after starting the antidepressant, my depression lifted. I have lived with depression for so long that it was almost uncomfortable to not have it lingering around by my side. My energy levels were vastly increased. I could do things that I had not been able to do in years. And most importantly, this dark daily cloud was gone.
It is hard to explain in words that heavy weight that lurks around, infiltrating everything when you have depression. If you have suffered for years, you begin think that it's just part of who you are. You have no idea that there is another state, another way of being that could make you more productive and able to deal with life. I remain uncomfortable with taking meds. I continue to take both meds, because the antidepressant did not completely help the anxiety. Not yet anyway.
As I did with my alcoholism, I questioned why it took me so long to get help and I beat myself up for waiting so long and for putting my family members through years of me not being present or having energy. But I know that I could only do what I can do with the knowledge I had, and that perhaps the anxiety was a gift that drove me to actually getting something that would help with my depression.
The stigma that I grew up with, that permeated the society around me, gave me such fear about reaching out for help that I missed years of my life that could have been different if I received the help I needed. Recently, a family member giggled when I mentioned being in an online support group for people who have loved ones with mental health issues. Would this person have giggled if my loved one had cancer and I was seeking support for this? I doubt it. Many do not want to acknowledge or hear about these painful conditions, and often that drives people like me further into hiding, feeling like they should just be able to handle it on their own. With both addiction issues and mental health issues, the results of silence and stigma literally kill people.
I still have uneasiness about being on both medications. Bottom line, they scare the hell out of me. But, I am also grateful for this opening in the clouds. I do not feel numbed out like I feared that I would. I feel like me, but just with more energy and less darkness.
I am writing this post, almost as a 'coming out,' for others like me who may be scared to reach out for help. The combination of exercise, continuing my program for alcoholism, meditation and finally, medication have changed my life. Without all of them, I do not know that I would have recovered from the intense darkness that overwhelmed my life after my friend died.
I remain scared to reach out for help when I need it, but when I have done so, the results have usually been remarkable. We need to stop stigmatizing addiction and mental health issues. My family's issues with silence and stigma are a result of the culture around them and do not reflect badly on them, but reflect on a society that has never been comfortable talking about these issues.
My heart breaks for those around me who have not figured out the right combo to find better health, who have years and years of dark clouds chasing them, who feel great shame about not being able to do the things that 'normal' people are doing. With more openness and more awareness about these issues, maybe we will finally start to open the door to better treatment options.
We need more people who have mental health issues and addiction to talk openly about it and share what works for them, to figure out creative ways to raise money to research all options, not just pharmaceutical options. I am grateful that I am alive. There are many times along this journey that I could have checked out completely. If we continue to hide and be afraid to challenge the status quo, we will lose countless more people to addiction and mental health issues. There is no one answer for anyone, and if you have tried one thing to the best of your ability and it has not worked, there are countless other programs, medications, and alternative medicine treatments out there.
Do it as if your life depends on it, because it does. Try to be open about your conditions. You may be surprised by how many others are going through similar struggles or who have loved ones with similar struggles. And finally, when the clouds lift, act and help others. By not being open and by not acting to change things, we will lose countless others who have great gifts to offer the world.
Have a story about depression that you'd like to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.