I started this blog around Christmas, when I started to come out of a dark place. I have been struggling since then, but the light keeps peeking through the clouds. I'm grateful to my family and my friends for loving me through this pain.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”
It really is an amazing time of year. People are more giving and generous whether they have a little or a lot. Also, real houses start to look like gingerbread houses…or small theme parks, depending on how crazy their owners get with the lights and giant, blow-up Snowmen and Santas.
Speaking of crazy, it’s not always the most wonderful time of the year for some of us, the ones who carry a mental illness around like a (mostly) invisible label of shame, a label we carry on the inside, out of sight.
I am one of those people. My labels say, “Depression” and “Anxiety.” (Throughout this blog, I will rely heavily on examples of Depression and Anxiety due to first-hand experience). My labels are fairly invisible. Sometimes they start to show on the outside, as when physical symptoms like aches, pains, exhaustion and panic attacks make their appearances. The second biggest problem (I think) with my internal war is that my own brain is supposed to be the “good guy” but sometimes it’s an enemy that carries secret identities.
When you really think about it, your brain is the command center for your whole body. Most of what your brain does is so behind-the-scenes that you don’t even realize it’s in charge. Brain says, “Hey fingers, type these words.” Brain commands, “Hey mouth, chew this food.” (These are not “voices in your head.” That’s an entirely different mental illness, one I am fortunate not to have experienced.) You don't question the commands of your brain. You take it for granted that Brain is in charge here and you're a good soldier.
Anyway, if your brain is captured by an enemy (like Depression), it may turn on you, then give false (but very real) orders like, “Hey self, your life is not worth living; you feel hopeless; you are useless and worthless.” It flashes its “Brain Badge” along with its “Real Thoughts” credentials and continues to give dangerous commands.
Unless you’ve experienced this covert operation in the past and lived to tell about it, you most likely won’t even think to question Brain’s authority. Even if you have experienced this take-over in the past, every battle is different and Brain is an awfully worthy opponent, especially when it’s on a Suicide Mission.
I’ve already told you about the second biggest problem of the mental illness war, now let’s talk about the biggest problem. My opinion is that the number one reason people can’t get better and can’t get help when their brains wage a war on their lives (and unfortunately the lives around them) is because of the stigma that surrounds mental illness. Stigma is the propaganda of this war.
The stigma brings about a sense of shame for the sufferer and even for their loved ones. The sufferer is sometimes blamed for his or her own mental illness; therefore, she may isolate herself in an attempt to hide what she believes is a personal character flaw.
Personally, during episodes of Depression, I have uttered phrases that uphold self-blame. “This is all my fault.” “I ruin everything.” “I’m so sorry that I feel this way.” “I don’t deserve you.” “Why do you put up with me?” “I can’t do this anymore.” “I want to give up.”
Another option the sufferer has is to blame outside forces or other “real” ailments to try to explain their suffering. I have blamed PMS, the stranger who cut me off on the highway, the mess on the dining room table (which is usually mostly mine), neighbors who ring the doorbell (“why can’t they just leave me alone?”), the weather (which actually has some credence but can’t be blamed for everything), and so on and so forth.
To add another layer to the Depression/Anxiety chaos, although outside forces (like being robbed or your car breaking down) and “real” ailments (like the flu or an injury) don’t actually cause Depression and/or Anxiety, these things do add up to stressors that can trigger an episode. See, the Depression and Anxiety are already inside me. Most of the time they’re in a state of rest, but then stressors add up, a round of “friendly fire” is triggered and the enemy is engaged in a new battle.
What we need to remember is that blame is not helpful. Blame prevents a solution to the real problem. The real problem is an illness, not a curable illness but a very treatable illness.
Fortunately (or maybe by a grand design, who knows), I do have safe places to turn to when the battle becomes too big for me. Sometimes it takes awhile for me to seek their asylum (pun intended) and I have had some close calls, but I have always made it into the loving arms of my allies. My husband, my Mom, a wonderful (finally) family doctor and a few trusted friends are more than just a safe place to land. They are my advocates. They fight for me even when I’m ready to give up. They recognize the strength that it takes for me to go to them and say, “I need help. I’m not doing too well and I’m having bad thoughts.” They remind me that even though my dark thoughts are real, they are not my fault and they are not true, that I will get better and life can be good again, worth living for again.
These are the people who are helping to change the world, to make it a more habitable place for those of us who suffer from mental illness.
Many years ago, during another dark time, I asked my husband, “Why do you stick with me? Why don’t you give up on me when I’m ready to give up on me?” His answer was so simple and yet so profound. To paraphrase, he told me, “For one thing, you know you would do the same for me or for anyone you love. The other thing is that I know how great you are and how good things are when you are at your best. That’s worth fighting for.”
He is right (and my husband loves when I say he is “right!”). My life is worth fighting for. That is what is at stake here, my life. And I’ll tell you what, when I’m not in a state of Depression, I am a force to be reckoned with. I am empathetic, intelligent, wordy, kind, generous and sometimes pretty funny. I will laugh with you; I will cry with you; I will take on the world with you.
Just give me a chance to get back to feeling like me again.
Just give me a chance to get back to feeling like me again.
Know someone with Depression? Here are some helpful suggestions on what not to say to them.
The Wrong Things to Say:
“I know how you feel.”
Just remove this statement from your speech. Don’t say it. Ever. You never know how another person is feeling. This is not a helpful thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one. It is not helpful to say to someone who has Depression. Hell, it’s not even helpful to say to someone who just got a paper cut. You do not know how another person is feeling. Ever.
“Stop thinking about only yourself.”
I already feel selfish; I don’t need to be reminded of it. But you know what else I feel? Worthless, exhausted, useless, sad, hopeless and sometimes nothing at all. I don’t want to feel this way and I don’t choose to feel this way. Honestly, I would rather you say nothing at all to me than say something hurtful. If you can’t be helpful, at least avoid being hurtful.
If only it were that easy. Believe me, if I could inject cheer into my brain, I would do it in a heartbeat. But a depressed person cannot will himself into a state of cheer. Remember, Depression is not the same as Sadness. If telling a depressed person to “Cheer up” really worked, then you could tell them to “Energize up, have hope, be of use, feel worthy!” Sounds pretty stupid, huh? Depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Telling someone with Depression to “cheer up” is as effective as telling a person with Diabetes, “make your body create insulin!”
“Have you tried ________?”
Have you tried more caffeine? Less caffeine? Watching a funny movie? Chamomile tea? Working out? I’m tried a lot of things to help with Depression. Some things have helped, but have never cured it. There’s no cure for Depression. Like most illnesses, we can only treat the symptoms. And like most things in life, what works for one person may not work for another. Also, try to remember, the person you’re saying these things to may be at the lowest point of his or her life. They may even be suicidal. If your best friend was hanging from a cliff, you wouldn’t offer them a hot beverage and some friendly advice. You would give them a hand.
“Count your blessings.” “You have so much to be thankful for.” “You have so much going for you.” “Your life is so wonderful.” Etc.
When you point out how amazing a depressed person’s life looks from the outside, all you’re really doing is reinforcing that she is unable to enjoy the good things about life. I am aware of my blessings and nothing is more frustrating than not being able to enjoy life.