In 2009 about 5% of the U.S., 9.9 million adults, suffer from life-long clinical depression. About 16% of adults in the U.S. may experience it at least once in their life. Twice as many women suffer as men and they are not sure why. It is not uncommon for depression sufferers to also suffer from anxiety disorders. Some common anxiety disorders you have probably heard of include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
The reason I am writing about this today was because I just read a very touching post by Jenny Lawson, advice columnist for The Houston Chronicle and online blogger. She writes about her struggle with depression and anxiety and I could very much relate. Jenny felt that she couldn’t fully recover unless she was honest. This is an issue I have been debating my entire adult life. Should I tell the world about my mental illness or keep it hidden? There are actually very few people who even know about the internal battles in which I struggle.
I have suffered from depression since I was 6 years old. At least, that was the first depressive episode that I can recall. I fought the diagnosis and taking medication for decades until I finally realized in my late 20’s that if I did not do something about it I would end up dead. I have also always had a touch of anxiety, a little PTSD from childhood trauma. As I have gotten older, that anxiety has increased because we simply accumulate stress from life–sh*t happens in life and for someone suffering from depression, it adds tremendous pressure on the psyche. For me, when life gets stressful it literally feels like I am being compressed into an increasingly small space. That does not really come close to explaining the horrible panic and fear I have to beat back far too often.
I have never been public about it until now because the shame and fear of rejection is so strong. Mental illness is poorly understood and tolerated in the U.S. It is no wonder millions of people live their lives like I do. We are icebergs….90% of who we are and what is going on with us is under water. The world only sees the functional 10%–the part of me that goes to work and does a good job every day, that helps her daughter sell girl scout cookies, that plays on the floor with her little boy, and who writes serious political commentary and very silly stuff on her blog.
All the internal stuff, the unseen battles, you will never see and I hope, God forbid, that you never have to experience them yourself. I won’t go into the details because it only serves to show you the symptoms, which do not and cannot explain what goes on in the mind of a depressed person. The only way I can describe it is to think about the worst day of your life. Maybe someone left you at the altar or you lost someone you loved or you were betrayed by a spouse….imagine that worst day and how much mental anguish you were in. Now imagine having that every day of your life for no apparent reason.
That’s what makes it so hard to understand because there is often nothing you can point to, nothing to lay hands on, no virus or bacteria to say “see there is the cause”. And that’s why too many people cannot understand that someone could actually be depressed day in and day out, no matter what might be happening in their lives. It’s frustrating for me too because I can’t explain it any better. A sure sign of someone who does not understand the true nature of long-term depression is the question, “Why can’t you just be happy?” I don’t WANT to be like this! It’s not a choice….For the love of all that’s holy, I really wish it was a choice. You cannot know how much I wish it was a choice. It is not melodrama in the hopes of getting attention. If that were so I would have been telling everyone I met throughout my life. I haven’t…I’ve kept it a secret and secrets becomes burdens and obstacles after a while. So I understand why Jenny Lawson felt the need to be open about her illness.
There are medications to keep it at bay and that help many lead normal lives. Thank all the powers that be for modern medicine. Otherwise I would not be here today. Therapy helps the depressed learn how to recognize the signs of worsening mood early and avoid things that actually might trigger a down swing. There are things on which I can act and that helps, being able to be proactive and head off the worst of it.
And as ashamed as I am and regardless of the guilt I feel for exposing my children to my illness, I am proud of myself. I refuse to give in to my illness and not live a full life. In spite of my illness I was able to do well in school all the way through a graduate degree (I even finished it early). I was able to have and still have a good career. I have friends (although not many close friends) and a very busy life. I have two healthy, beautiful kids. When I am at my worst the one thing that keeps me hanging on is the fact that I know my children need me. When my daughter was born eight and half years ago, I knew that suicide was no longer an option. And that is a blessing which I did not expect. At this point in my life I am happier now than I have ever been and I am extremely grateful for it. Every day is a gift that I did not expect and that is more than most people can say.
So to all of you that suffer in silence and emerge triumphant unheralded from unseen battles, this is for you. I know what you are going through and I see you truly. You’re not alone and it’s okay. Life can be good for someone with depression, it just means that we have to work ten times harder than the average person. And for our loved ones, thank you so much for putting up with us and understanding that we do have to work harder at having a normal life. Realize that it is your love that motivates us to keep going and to try to live life to the fullest.