If you’ve known me for more than oh, say, fifteen minutes, you know that I’ve dealt with depression.
By nature I’m a private person, but I want people to know this about me. The sooner you know I have gone to several different therapists and take Prozac daily, the better. Nothing will change much after I tell you this. We will both just get on with our lives. But I won’t have to worry about accidentally mentioning that I have an appointment with my counselor, and if you need advice about navigating the field of clinical depression for yourself or a loved one, you know I’m a resource. Good all round.
Today, I saw a comment on Twitter about Sinead O’Connor having gone missing. She’s admitted to struggling with suicidal thoughts in the past, and the police were looking for her. Someone posted, “I hope she’s all right,” and another user came back with something to the effect of, “She’s rich. She’s famous. What does she have to be depressed about?”
As you might expect, this hit a nerve with me. I jumped into the conversation, posting, “You never, never, NEVER know what someone else is going through.”
I probably didn’t need to leap to all caps so fast. Still, when rich-famous-commentator told me I sounded as crazy as Sinead is, and that “you should go kill urself,” it took me aback.
Zero to death threat in three tweets.
Okay, it lacks the punch of a true death threat. To carry out the idea, I’d have to do all the work myself. So what do I call this, exactly? My first death suggestion? It didn’t exactly chill me to the bone – I think if Shakespeare had written, “2 b r nt 2 b” I would have taken him a lot less seriously too – but still. Not a nice thought, that someone can flippantly suggest you remove yourself from existence.
A group trying to erase the stigma around depression and other brain health issues, Mental Health Chat (@TimeToChangeJP) commented that they frequently got responses like this, and I’m not surprised. Cogent arguments against compassion are hard to come by. Even if you’re watching Sinead O’Connor through a telescope every minute and know all the intimate details of her life – and if you do, we have other problems to discuss, possibly with legal counsel present – you don’t know what’s going on in her head. Inside your brain, you get to keep secrets, even from the most determined paparazzi.
Like all grand plagues, depression is no respecter of status. It does not care how much money you have, or how many people admire you. On the contrary, like any formidable opponent, it finds ways to use your strength against you. You’ve got money? That’s all you’ve got, it will whisper. Everyone tolerates you because they want a handout. Doesn’t matter that it’s not true. Depression will say it again and again, until you start to think everyone else is lying to you.
If I had people tracking my life the way celebrities do, it might look like this:
You wouldn’t know I lost my grandmother. You wouldn’t see the bugs that infested my home, causing me to wake up with five new itchy bites every day. You wouldn’t have any idea how many things had gone wrong lately and how often I burst into tears. You’d just see the fun things that made for pretty pictures. I did go to a film premiere, to a wedding, and to the mountains. Those things are all true. They just aren’t the whole truth, and you won’t know that unless I choose to share it with you.
If you’ve never experienced it, you probably have trouble understanding clinical depression. A part of me wants to leave it at that. I don’t want anyone to know this feeling, this sense of bottomless desolation. Unfortunately, it’s become an epidemic. We don’t have the luxury of ignorance anymore. You need to know.
Depression is a hard disease to track, because so many incidences go untreated. One page said 10-25% of women and 5-12% of men will experience clinical depression in their lifetime. SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) reports depression affecting 20-25% of all Americans over the age of 18. Many children are affected, too – according to webmd.com, 2.5% of children will experience significant depression, and it’s most common in boys under 10. When you get to teenager years, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates 11.4% of the population between 12-17 gets hit, and incidence is highest among girls. An Australian website estimates that 45% of their population will endure a major depressive episode. It depends on the parameters you use. The idea of depression occurring less frequently in men strikes me as highly questionable, because everyone agrees men are less likely to report it, and more likely to try to take care of it themselves with drugs or alcohol. One cold hard fact we do know: men are more likely to die by suicide than women are. Males constitute 79% of all suicides in the U.S. Women attempt it more often, but are more likely to live to talk about it. Why? Speculation is rampant. We know that gender differences in methods used play into it – women are more likely to take poison, while men typically use firearms. People have theorized that men are more impulsive, or men are more likely to have access to guns, or women are more conscious of the fact that someone they love will probably find them and have to see the damage. No one really knows.
The real takeaway? People are hurting. If not you, very likely someone you know and love. Like all serious illnesses, depression leaves collateral damage. It hurts to watch a loved one turn into someone who can’t leave their bed without major effort – almost as much as enduring it yourself.
My challenges with depression started at seventeen – or were diagnosed at seventeen, at any rate. Looking back, I can see symptoms earlier than that. I can’t tell you what it looks like for everyone. Each person has their own unique experience. But maybe sharing things I’ve found will help you, so I’ll try.
- I already blamed myself. People with depression hear a lot that they need to think positive or that they just aren’t trying hard enough. Myself, I already thought everything was my fault, so you can bet my mind went straight to that conclusion with this, too. There’s a popular saying in therapy that depression is anger turned the wrong way around. People with depression often have low self-esteem to start with, so they’re used to the idea that whatever is wrong, it’s probably their own fault. Being unable to express anger at someone else, particularly someone I love, I found a way to assign myself the blame. That way, I didn’t have to get angry with them and risk them being angry back at me. As a means of problem-solving, it’s right up there with torching the inside of the house to put out the fire on the roof.
- It felt like a low-grade flu. During each episode, I felt achy and tired for months. I did all the stuff I was supposed to. I exercised more. I volunteered, to get my focus off myself. I tried to eat right. I talked to God, a lot. Getting out of bed still took every ounce of strength I had.
- Positive thinking wasn’t enough. I tried to find the upside in things, to remember that other people had it much worse, but I didn’t start to feel like I had some kind of control over my depression until I got hooked up with good therapists and eventually, Prozac. Look at it this way: positive thinking is helpful with cancer, too, but treatment usually still includes surgery and chemo. Talking to someone who will help you navigate through the ugliness in your brain is invaluable. As for the drugs, well, when research finds something better, I’ll be the first one cheering. I hate remembering to take the pills every day. But right now, Prozac helps me achieve my best health, and I’m not going to waste any more time feeling shame for that.
- I felt worthless, and it didn’t always help when people disagreed. This is a hard one to wrap your brain around, I know. I didn’t put it together myself until I read an interview with a therapist about women in abusive relationships. She pointed out that the person suffering abuse hears “You are worthless” and “You need to leave him” not as separate statements, one harmful and one encouraging, but as two people telling them what to do. For me, depression had the same effect. If I said I felt worthless and someone said, “No, you’re not,” I didn’t hear support. I heard that even my feelings were wrong. Much more effective was when someone sat with me and said, “Sometimes I feel that way, too,” and talked about their own experiences. I admit, I don’t always get this right when I deal with other people’s depression. That impulse to slap sense into them is so strong, sometimes it’s over-powering. And opening up about your own weaknesses is scary. Will I be strong enough? Will I end up on the floor weeping with them?
People with depression are not weak. They are often some of the strongest people you will ever meet. Let’s change the conversation around depression. Out with the stigma. Enough with the shame. No more blame. We can win the fight against depression, but only if we take the fight out into the open.
Kimberly writes novels, practices yoga and is a professional-grade cat snuggler. Depression has affected her, but it will never define her.