Carrie Fisher was a mother, daughter, sister, actress and author. She also candidly discussed and openly chronicled her own bipolar disorder. I appreciated Ms. Fisher’s raw candor and humor about living with a mental illness. Her candor encouraged me to continue talking about my own depression.
My story is about living with insidious bouts of depression since at least 1978. I was 15 years old and did not understand the nature of my condition. As a 15-year-old living in the 1970s, I did not have the language to explain the heaviness and melancholy that covered me like a blanket. Mental illness was, and in certain circles still is, an unmentionable subject that conjures up images of extremely dysfunctional and violent behavior. I did not understand why I spent hours over summer vacation lying on my bed with the curtains drawn instead of hanging out with my friends. Once I locked myself in my room while the rest of my family was away. I closed the curtains and laid on my bed in total darkness. When my family returned home, I did not get up to unlock or open my bedroom door. Instead I continued lying on my bed, relishing the darkness. I listened while my father tried, but could not open, my bedroom door. Eventually my father managed to unlock the door and found me. My parents swore that I was crazy and on drugs. For the record, I have never used illegal drugs and, despite the heaviness that covered me, did not find anything wrong with my behavior. Perhaps it was because in every other way I was just any other “normal teenager.” I took advanced placement courses, excelled academically, and participated in a wide variety of extracurricular activities. I had good friends and did not get into trouble in or outside of school.
Fortunately, for several years following this incident my bouts of melancholy and heaviness were relatively infrequent. Eventually I learned that my bouts of melancholy were actually depression. Despite these sometimes debilitating bouts, I managed to graduate from college, attend graduate school, earn a law degree, and even pass the bar exam. Along the way, I discovered more about my depression. For example, too much idleness would trigger a depressive episode. I developed, what I now realize, were inadequate coping skills for managing my depression Though inadequate, these coping skills helped me climb out of my depression rabbit hole again and again. However, within that same process I became expert at holding my depression and suicidal thoughts inside. This was easy to do because I was not yet overwhelmed with the heavy baggage that comes with living.
Then I started practicing law. A few years later I got married and had two beautiful children. When my marriage ended fourteen years later, I was overburdened by extremely heavy baggage. I had completely lost touch with myself and did not realize that I had been deeply depressed for many years.
So what does all of this have to do with Carrie Fisher? Carrie Fisher’s candor gave me the courage to tell this story. In the wake of her passing, it is now my responsibility to carry the baton by speaking truth to power about what it means to live with a mental illness. So I carry the baton by respectfully disrupting the shame and stigma perpetrated by those who do not know what it means to live with depression or any other mental illness. I am carrying the baton for those who, for whatever the reason, cannot. My mantra for living with depression is #noapology #noretreat #nosurrender.
How can you carry the baton:
1. Educate yourself about what it means to live with a mental illness and the issues affecting our community.
2. Ask how you can support the mental health community in general and those who live with a mental illness or their family members.
3. Challenge the stigma, shame, and stereotypes associated with living with a mental illness.
4. Support organizations like NAMI and Mental Health of America.
5. Tell your story.