Growing up, I learned that African Americans do not publicly discuss or "put our personal business in the street." But I believe that, as a community, we must break our silence and openly discuss certain "unmentionable" subjects so that the veil of shame can be lifted and healing can truly begin. Depression has traditionally been an unmentionable subject in the African-American community. I have experienced debilitating bouts of depression since I was about 15 years old. During these bouts, death stalked me daily. I was constantly tortured by a loud voice inside my head that pushed and taunted me to end my life. Sadly, I endured this torture in silence for 29 years before finally deciding to take medication to treat my depression. Given the vice grip that my loud inner voice had on my mind, it is only by grace and mercy that I am still here. Arresting my loud inner voice has been a process. Early on that loud voice was powerful and nearly drove me to the brink of ending my life. I can remember holding a large quantity of pills in my hand, prepared to ingest all of the medication. But something inside would not allow me to do it. I now understand that the mind is incredibly powerful. Through counseling and treatment I discovered that my loud inner voice was not offering comfort, peace, or freedom but setting the stage for horrific pain. Slowly, I learned to take that loud inner voice and the destructive thinking it promotes captive, silencing it before it starts.
At the outset I admit that I hate taking any type of medication. In my case, finding the right medication to treat my depression was a process made all the more complicated because I was uninsured. My then-treating physician started me on 10 milligrams of Lexapro a day, a dosage that gave me only seven good days a month. After about three months, my doctor increased my dosage of Lexapro to 20 milligrams daily. While helpful, it became apparent that Lexapro alone was not enough. It took about 18 months to find a combination of medications that worked. It was then that my ego took over. I then began what became a destructive cycle of taking depression medication as prescribed for four or five months only to abruptly stop because I felt better. I did not want to rely upon pills to manage my depression. This practice proved disastrous. Abruptly stopping medication can trigger other life-threatening conditions. Once the medications were out of my system, I would mentally and physically unravel and break down. Trust me: Mentally unraveling is scary. I cry and fall completely apart. I become overwhelmed and cannot think straight. On a few occasions I have even become suicidal. Eventually, I hit a wall and stopped functioning in any meaningful way. As a single parent raising children entirely on my own, I do not have the luxury of falling a part. It took a few years of repeating this cycle over and over before I finally got tired of unraveling and all of the drama that comes with it. I decided, or perhaps realized, that I should not be ashamed because I suffer from depression. The real shame or tragedy lies with all of the time that I spent neglecting and not accepting my whole physical and mental self.
Why am I so candid about what I call my "dance with depression"? I am candid about my depression because my continued silence will not help anyone. I share my dance to remind that 15-year-old girl who is lying on her bed in a darkened room covered by a heaviness that she cannot define that she is not alone. I openly write about my struggle to encourage others facing the sometimes-overwhelming task of managing their own mental illnesses. After all, we each are on the same journey. We need not travel in silence, shame, and isolation.
As always be encouraged.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
This blog post originally appeared on MariaShriver.com.