Trigger Warning: This piece contains discussion of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
This week, Dan Harmon, co-creator of the show “Rick and Morty” was asked by a fan about how to handle depression. In an eloquent response that has gone viral, Harmon tweeted about the importance of acknowledging your feelings and not hiding them, and recognizing that while they are real thoughts, they aren’t necessarily reality. “The most important thing I can say to you is please don’t deal with it alone. There is an incredible, miraculous magic to pushing your feelings out,” said Harmon. He continued to explain that if you try to hold them in, “dark thoughts will echo off the walls of your skull, they will distort and magnify.”
Harmon’s tweets clearly resonated with thousands of people, and for me, the timing was perfect. This month marks the one-year anniversary of a severe episode of depression and anxiety that nearly came as close to taking my life as my Crohn’s Disease has. As a disability activist, I often talk about my experiences with chronic illness, but I have not felt as comfortable talking about my struggle with depression and anxiety. A year later, I’m ready to share my story about how opening up to my loved ones about my struggle saved me.
Depression and anxiety have been in my life for longer than a year. Little did I know that when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease nearly ten years ago, I had acquired a condition that often is linked with depression. Crohn’s Disease is attached to a stigma due to being an inflammatory bowel disease since it comes with embarrassing and painful symptoms. Frequent and rapid weight gains and losses from flares and medications can cause body image issues, and bouts of diarrhea and vomiting, as well as bowel surgeries, can be embarrassing to deal with or acknowledge. I also had severe complications due to chronic infections that lead to more body image issues and pain, and culminated in a long and life-threatening battle with a muscle abscess and bone infection. Chronic pain and fatigue are nearly constant companions when my Crohn’s is out of remission, and have significant negative impacts on relationships, work, hobbies, and lifestyle.
I had been having depression issues throughout high school and college due to the impact of my disease and other personal struggles in my life, but I only sought help years after. In 2015, between my Crohn’s Disease, the infection troubles, and a difficult working environment, I was experiencing depression and frequent panic attacks. At the time, my doctor put me on an antidepressant regimen that required a few tweaks, but ultimately began to work. I also worked on improving the situations that were impacting my happiness and that I could change. However, these antidepressants and coping mechanisms were not capable of handling what was to come.
In the summer of 2016, I went out of remission after two medically uneventful years. Due to insurance bureaucracy, the new medicine I needed to treat my disease was delayed for months, and I was forced to go on a high dose of Prednisone, 60 milligrams a day, for months. Prednisone itself is a very difficult drug to handle, especially at high doses. I experienced rapid weight gain, intense facial swelling, and hot flashes daily. In November of that year, I finally transitioned to my new medication while also handling another severe infection (and ensuing surgery) from Prednisone’s immunosuppression. Due to the severity of the infection, my doctor tried to taper me down quicker than usual from the Prednisone. Unfortunately, this led to a severe period of withdrawal that started right before Christmas, first with vomiting and cold sweats, and then with the mental symptoms.
Suddenly, it felt like my life crumbled around me and that I would never be happy again. I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s sobbing uncontrollably as horrible thoughts raced through my head, from something as random as missing summertime (my least favorite season) to as severe as constantly thinking my family was going to abandon me. It felt like I hit an invisible wall, where I knew of the existence of happiness and positive thoughts and knew that I had experienced them, but they were now off limits to me. I was convinced I would never feel happy again. I truly didn’t want to live anymore because of this mental anguish that filled every moment of my life. I didn’t fall asleep easily, but when I did, I wanted to stay that way, as it was the only relief I got from a torture that I felt was far more painful that the worst suffering I had ever experienced with my physical illnesses.
During that time, I tried to find a psychiatrist so that someone could adjust my antidepressants, but found that the ones available to me didn’t take insurance. It was a Herculean task to do even this much research with the distraction of my thoughts, and I quickly gave up.
As this depression continued through the New Year, it was impossible to hide my extreme distress from my parents, with whom I live. At times, my mom had to take off work to stay home with me because we were worried that I wasn’t safe by myself. As she helped me try to navigate finding a medical professional to help me deal with this crisis, we decided I should try a psychologist instead, and have my primary care physician try to adjust my antidepressants. I was skeptical about this plan, as my previous interactions with psychologists had been through studies at the Children’s Hospital and had been unhelpful experiences, limited to people who repeatedly asked me how I felt and nothing more. I thought that antidepressants were the only thing that could fix my broken self.
Getting a psychologist saved my life. Although I was skeptical, I was open to trying anything at this point to reduce my suffering, at least while adjustments in my antidepressants could take effect. I expected more tireless questions about my feelings, but what I got instead was someone who truly listened to me, helped me understand my thought patterns at the time, and gave me coping mechanisms to get through the days and weeks ahead. I knew that therapy wasn’t going to be an immediate fix; it was going to take time, patience, and work. Starting with weekly sessions, she showed me how I could take control of my thoughts instead of letting them control me. I found coping mechanisms that worked better for me and could help to distract, relax, guide, or refocus me. By the end of the month, my panic attacks lessened and my crying bouts wound down. I successfully made it through the worst part of my withdrawal. I survived.
This relationship with my therapist continues to this day, and has had an impact far beyond that initial episode from withdrawal. I was able to work on my depression and anxiety issues that weren’t created by Prednisone, going back into issues from years back that had impacted the way I thought about myself and the world. I now have a confidence and ability to speak up about my feelings in a way that is calm and understandable, and that allows other people to know how I’m processing a situation. I have a cache of coping mechanisms that I can employ when I have a panic attack or my depression worsens. Most importantly, I have laid the groundwork to understanding myself better and knowing what to do if a depression of such severity ever happens again.
Throughout this process, I have had access and privileges that others haven’t had to treatment and support for my mental health. I have insurance and financial means to get help, family members with whom I felt comfortable disclosing my feelings and who helped me find treatment, a psychologist whom I trust, and the privilege of having my needs and problems taken seriously and treated appropriately. I found treatments that worked for me, while others have had greater struggles finding the medications or medical professionals that are right for them. I know that many people, especially marginalized populations including people of color, the LGBT community, and people with more stigmatized mental illness often don’t have the same access to these resources and have more problems getting help, especially at a time in their lives when they may not be able to as effectively look for treatment due to the severity of a mental illness. This realization has made it all the more important for me to advocate for access to mental health treatment, treatment for substance abuse that can lead to withdrawal symptoms similar to what I experienced, and for reducing stigma and increasing tolerance and openness for all mental health conditions.
Dan Harmon is right. It is absolutely vital to your mental health to acknowledge your feelings and let them out. I don’t know if I would be alive today if I didn’t acknowledge my depression, share it with my family, and get the help I needed last year while I battled Prednisone withdrawal. My life is in a better place because of it. Acknowledging our feelings and sharing them are the first big step toward seeking treatment for our mental health, and for the rest of my life, I want to work toward fostering an environment that doesn’t stigmatize mental illness, a world that allows people to share their feelings so that they, too, can get the help they need and deserve.