Making the time to learn about mental health issues is much harder than posting an "RIP" message on Facebook. People who suffer from illnesses like clinical depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disease often suffer in silence and "put on a happy face" until they can no longer bear the pain or sustain the effort. Robin Wiliams' recent suicide is a case in point. Please, take the time to learn about these diseases. They can, and often do, kill.
I am a depressive.
Yes, that’s right - me. The woman who is “so successful in everything she does,” “manages a million things effortlessly”, and “makes it all look so easy.” The woman you envy... you know, the one who has it all: doting husband, well-adjusted teenagers, beautiful home, foreign holidays, successful writing career, enduring friendships, and financial ease. What on earth could such a woman be “depressed” about.
The Glass Wall
When asked what depression feels like, I’ve often described my experience of it as “living behind glass”. You can see the beautiful home, the loving husband, the great kids, the holidays, the good stuff... but you can’t reach out and touch it or be part of it. You feel overwhelmingly sad, cut off, and lonely - even when surrounded by people. It’s like you can see the sun shining, but you can’t feel its warmth.
So you try and you try just as hard as you know how. You laugh the loudest, smile the widest, and pack more into your life than anyone you know. You’re more loving, more giving, more outgoing, more driven. Because since there’s nothing wrong externally, it must be your fault for not being able to enjoy the wonderful life everyone else seems to envy. If only you tried harder, you’d be able to be a part of the pretty picture that everyone else sees.
Round And Round It Goes...
Every now and then the sheer effort of it all exhausts you. You feel hopeless, because you have tried so hard but nothing has changed. No one - not even your closest friends - can contact you. You don’t want to speak to anyone, because then they will know the truth - you’re a fraud, you’re not strong or outgoing at all. Worse, you seem ungrateful for the blessings you have. You make false excuses for skipping out on meetings and social occasions. You are too exhausted to get up and wash your hair or change your clothes - you simply don’t have the energy. The sadness you’ve been stuffing down for so long floods over you with the force of a hurricane and leaves just as much devastation in its wake. It’s overwhelming and painful and you think you’re crazy because you’ve nothing really to be sad about. You drop off the face of the earth until you gain enough energy to put the mask back on
This cycle repeats itself endlessly, wearing you down, and slowly altering your thought patterns until you convince yourself that nothing is wrong. I lived with it for 10 years. Ten. Years.
For a decade, I battled the notion that anything was seriously wrong with me. I variously thought it was “just a phase”, “pre-partum blues”, “post-partum blues”, “stress-induced”, even “marriage-induced”. I tried hypnotherapy, counselling, marital counselling, yoga, gymming, swimming, and homeopathy. Each new approach, undertaken with hope, turned into yet another disappointment. Throughout it all I was taking care of two young children, cooking, doing laundry, volunteering at the kids’ school and freelancing as a writer. I got so good at hiding how I felt that the act I put on fooled everyone. EVERYONE. I even began to believe it myself. The only person who wasn’t buying it was my husband.
Getting Off The Rollercoaster
One morning in early 2002, he dragged me out of bed, made me put my shoes one and bundled me off to a doctor. I was too lethargic to care - I hadn’t gotten out of bed or eaten for two days, I was crying a river for no real reason, and I just wanted to die. The doctor told me I had two options: medication or hospitalization. For the next eight weeks, my husband ensured that I took my meds. Slowly, that impenetrable sheet of glass between me and my world began to dissolve. For the first time in over a decade, I felt light inside.
And then came the complicated, arduous process of unlearning the thought patterns created by the disease. Therapy is hard work. Very hard work. I not only had to unlearn old habits of thinking, but also learn new ones. I had to learn to recognize the symptoms of my depression, and find ways to head it off at the pass.
Today, 11 years on, I can finally say that I no longer feel once removed from the good things in my life. Over the years, I’ve made it my mission to learn everything about the enemy inside of me. I wanted to to know it intimately, to look it in the eye and stare it down. So I read - medical journals, non-fiction, fiction, memoirs, anything to do with the subject. I talked - to doctors, to other depressives, to scientists, to therapists. I learnt. I questioned. I read some more. And here, distilled into nine words, is the most important thing I have learnt:
Depression is not a feeling; it is a disease.
Like any other disease, it has a cause (a chemical deficiency in the brain) and a set of symptoms (altered sleep and appetite, inexplicable fatigue, impaired ability to concentrate, and loss of interest in normally pleasurable activities). The only way to rectify the symptoms is to correct the deficiency by artificially supplementing it with a combination of medication, breathing practices, and exercise. And because it will have altered not only your moods but also your thought patterns and behavior, it is essential to complement any form of treatment with psychotherapy to help recognize and correct those changes. As I said before - it’s hard work.
Depression is not an easy beast to tame. Sometimes, even now, it rears its ugly head to say hello. The best you can do is learn to recognize your symptoms and have a plan for when they come knocking. Right now, though, I’m just grateful that I can feel the sun’s warmth on my skin again.