I have kept my depression a secret from my loved ones, keeping the mask of togetherness intact, busying myself with “work” during my most fragile periods, in hopes that they will not glimpse behind the curtain. I banish myself to battle my demons in isolation, only to be terribly misperceived as neglecting the people I love or sending out an unsavory air of self involvement.
Perhaps most shocking, is how I managed to keep my depression a secret from myself until recent adulthood. The daily survival of growing up in an alcoholic home engrained the distraction of caring for others in hopes that this love will one day be returned or cure me of sadness. I prayed to the God of banked love. If I love you hard enough you will not leave me.
My family’s medical history will cite multiple visits to psych wards, 5150’s, a litany of prescription medications, and addictions. My mother’s battle with her own mind led her to self medicate with drugs and alcohol and her now 20 years of sobriety was hard won through years of therapy, twelve step programs, medication, spirituality, yoga, prayer, and tears. To deny that her DNA runs through me is to erase myself. Depression is a house guest I am learning to live with. My blood is not wired for ease. It’s a thing I have to work for, fight for, cultivate, grow, and choose daily, and especially when I don’t want to. I am at long last doing the work of creating new neural pathways in my brain because I finally had the courage to ask for help. A complete sentence: help.
My mother was a drug addict. I have always resisted the idea of drugs as a cure for feeling better. I resented the stigma associated with depression. I resented the idea of being a privileged girl with petty problems that only a pharmacy could fix. I didn’t want to take the easy way out. I was terrified that I would lose access to my emotions, the very foundation of what my life as an artist is built upon. I was afraid of losing myself even if that self was broken.
As a 9 year old, I remember sitting on a city bus with my parents in Colorado one afternoon clutching my doll, Catherine, in my lap. We hit a bump and her head tumbled off and rolled down the aisle of the crowded bus. The entire bus laughed. My mother began singing a KD Lang song. Where is your head, Catherine, where is your head. People cheered and cackled. I had wept. Would everyone laugh when I revealed I’d lost my head?
On a Monday morning I’m wearing an “I Love NY” T-shirt that I’ve been sleeping in for a week and has become an ironic badge of what I considered failure after two months of unsuccessfully trying to find acting representation in New York City, a final attempt at claiming a shield to fend off depression, low self worth, prove to myself and my family that my years at NYU had been worthwhile, and to cope with and distract myself from the debilitating heartbreak of a recent breakup. If I succeed at my career I will still have worth. I hadn’t found the strength to show up for my job in days. Showering had become a task I could barely fathom. I weighed in at 94 pounds. I couldn’t slow the frightening loss if weight. That morning I slipped out of my room as my father was drinking his morning coffee, head buried in his computer, and sat down at the kitchen table with him, clenching courage in my fists.
I’d been attending Alanon meetings nearly every night, sound bathes, meditation morning and night, talk therapy, natural supplements, yoga when my mother drove me there in tears, countless books on healing. I will not pretend all of the efforts I was making toward natural healing did not help, they do and continue to, but I needed to rewire my entire brain for new neural pathways and I was terrified I would not survive the process without medical guidance from a psychiatrist given that all of my efforts thus far had yielded very little fruit. I’d hit a wall. I could no longer get out of bed. The words I’d feared branding myself with began to echo on repeat in my head. Clinical Depression.
For days my father had been leaving notes in my bedroom. There’s left overs for you in the kitchen. He’d leave a couple of Oreos or a candy bar on my pillow and I would choke them down or stuff them in my sock drawer before bed. Eating in the company of others was painful. Their faces watching me, urging me to eat more. I was offered spoon fulls of food. You need to eat. They said. Fake it until you feel happy again. Go for a walk. They begged. I also understood that my parents were speaking to each other on the phone daily for the first time in 20 years, deliberating over whether to have me checked into a hospital. I knew they were scared. I knew they didn’t want me to know how afraid they were. My mother cried each time she held me. You’re disappearing. I don’t know how to help you. I felt guilty for rendering them helpless. Some nights I prayed they would check me in somewhere. Other nights I prayed they wouldn’t pass me onto doctors and throw up their hands. I prayed for peace. I prayed for strength. For courage. I prayed to be struck by a meteor. I didn’t want to die but didn’t know how to live. I prayed for a spontaneous healing. I prayed I would desire food again.
Each morning I’d greet my father at the coffee pot and muster a smile, his eyes following me as I retreated to my room , coffee in hand, trying to gage if I was getting better or worse. On this morning, I sat down at the table with him and took a deep breath. I need help. I need a doctor. I’m afraid.
It is incredible to me that even with the luxury of a supportive family unit, even one with experience in the realm of mental illness, the act of asking for help feels incomprehensible while in the throws of depression in a society that disregards the validity and debilitating nature of mental illness. Would it be easier to identify my need for a doctor if my wounds were visible to the naked eye? In time I began to recognize depression as a kind of internal bleeding, equally deadly as the wound that bloodies the floor.
Years ago, when diagnosed with a brain tumor, it hadn’t occurred to me to feel shameful about the need to seek treatment. I felt a myriad of emotions, but shame wasn’t one of them. Why should this be any different? And yet mental illness is associated with the idea of mental weakness in our culture. We are trained to believe we have the capacity to control our own minds, and to some degree we can, but we don’t expect a person who has been paralyzed from the waist down to one day will themselves to get up and walk, nor can we expect a person who suffers from mental illness to will themselves well. Spontaneous miracles happen for our minds and bodies, but we do ourselves a disservice by relying on them alone. All illnesses have the capacity to confront our pride or cause us to recede into denial. No one wants to be perceived as weak. We often can’t know the depths of emotional trauma or the impact those traumas have on our lives and minds until they present themselves in the form of mental illness. We then can’t discount the reality that those wounds are real and undeniably valid and in some cases require medical attention. We also can’t discount mentally limiting genetic predispositions simply because we don’t know enough about them.
I can’t know for certain if the depression I have experienced is genetic or the symptom of untreated childhood trauma, or some combination of the two. What I do know for certain is that once I hit my bottom, I was not equipped to heal without the outside help of a medical professional. I now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is no shame in wanting to live. There is no room for pride once a life threatening illness takes our one and only life hostage. There comes a point when living becomes more important than what the world may think of the means we pursue for survival. Our lives are precious. There is no shame in seeking help for mental illness. There is no shame in taking time and space to heal. There is no shame in taking prescription medications for depression or seeing a therapist regularly, just as there is no shame in an alcoholic needing AA meetings to stay sober or a diabetic taking insulin. There is no shame in creating boundaries that help one cope with mental illness. There is no shame in needing quiet time alone. There is no shame in requiring exercise, or enough sleep, or water, or meals at specific hours, or structure, or a hug, or to carry crystals in our pockets. Whatever healthy means aid one in living with mental illness are valid in my book. There is no shame in being human. There is no shame in asking for help.
I have been fortunate to learn that help is accessible and that if we don’t know where to start, we can start there. One word. Help. And when someone is brave enough to speak this gentle word to us, please, please may we direct them toward resources and professionals who can provide it. We would not ask the person who has been struck by a car to call 911 for themselves. I myself would not understand this metaphor in any kind of intimate way until I found myself incapacitated by my own mind and managed simply to ask for help. I couldn’t even make a phone call. I didn’t know where to start. I was paralyzed. A terribly frightening thing that up until that point I had not registered the legitimacy of in others I’d witnessed struggling. My father picked up the phone on my behalf and made a call to a person who could lead me toward the well. My father couldn’t help me, but he had the foresight to call someone who could and I could start there and that alone created some sensation of relief. Help was coming and I was dropping the weight of the secret I’d carried and guarded for most of my life. I was not well.
There is not one tried and true way to live in harmony with mental illness, just as there is not one way to battle cancer. There are a myriad of resources, groups, medications, doctors, holistic practices, and so on. It is about finding the means that suit the need/person. I don’t believe in medicine alone as a cure-all for depression, but for some, and at least for me, it is a viable aid and component on my journey toward wellness. There is zero shame in utilizing medicine and zero shame in choosing not to. What is important is not feeling shameful about needing a professional to aid one in navigating options and decisions that will alleviate the burden of living with mental illness.
Collapse the stigma. Ask for help.