‘Coming out’ to erase the stigma of depression

Depressed womanBY CANDY PARKER

As details continue to emerge in the tragic suicide death of Robin Williams, it occurs to me that one of the things that makes depression so insidious is the stigma (and – judging by some of the reactions surfacing in the media, social or otherwise – ignorance) which surrounds the disease.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my almost 53-years, it’s that there is very little in this human experience that is truly unique – and yet many continue to suffer alone with their challenges, whether that be depression, mental illness or something else – because we are embarrassed, believing our feelings, thoughts or circumstances are exclusive to us. We view others’ lives as more perfect, more in control, more successful; simply put – happier.

We’re embarrassed to reveal our weaknesses, our imperfections for fear of embarrassment or ridicule. So we bottle them inside and our insecurities and negative thoughts become the stuff of which sleepless nights are made and those sleepless nights amplify the insecurities and negative thoughts and the downward spiral continues until those destructive thoughts become our only – and seemingly inescapable – reality.

Taking a cue from an acquaintance who “came out” on Facebook regarding her own struggles with depression, I’m going to take one tiny step toward dispelling the stigma and ignorance of the disease by sharing that I, too, went through a time about four years ago where I required therapy and medication to recover from a period of depression. While I never want to be in that murky, irrational, hopeless place again – nor would I ever wish it upon anyone else – I can say that it provided me with insight I’d not previously had regarding the disease.

We can read all the “10 things not to say to someone who’s depressed” or “5 differences between being sad vs. being depressed” or “10 ways to support someone who’s depressed” articles we want, but – much like child birth – unless someone has actually been there, it is impossible to fully comprehend how the mind functions while afflicted – how alone, how angry one feels; how insurmountable the situation seems; how nonsensical our thought processes become.

I don’t presume that my experience with depression is universal; I feel quite fortunate in that my episode was “event-induced” and fairly easily overcome. (My recovery was actually far shorter in duration than was my initial suffering as I waited ten months to seek help.) I know that there are nuances to each person’s experience and, sadly, some struggle a lifetime with the disease. But I want to share some of the signs I should have seen as I sank further into the abyss four years ago.

Please bear in mind that I do not purport to be a mental health or medical professional of any sort and the list below doesn’t constitute an official “are you depressed?” litmus test. That said, if you see yourself feeling or thinking or experiencing several of these things and you aren’t already talking to a therapist or doctor, please consider doing so.

“It’s everyone else!”

What I mean here is that as things progressively worsened for me, I found myself with an increasingly short fuse and blaming everyone else for every confrontation. Already not the most passive driver or best sufferer of fools, my tolerance for the even the tiniest mistake or act of incompetence on the part of someone else set me off. I was angry all the time – less patient with co-workers, more likely to lay on the horn for any perceived traffic infraction and far more apt to storm out of a line at the post office or grocery store grousing about ineptitude. Once restored to my more rational self via the wonders of modern medicine, it became crystal clear to me that at any point in one’s life when it appears everyone else is wrong all the time, there is a problem. Because “everyone else” can’t be wrong all of the time. It just doesn’t work that way. The problem was me; I just couldn’t see it.

“Sleep, you are not my friend.”

Or rather, sleep was a friend who abandoned me in my hour of greatest need. I went weeks – probably months – without getting more than a few hours of sleep at night. While some may think that the fast track to productivity, it’s also the express train to hopelessness. My most memorably miserable moments all seem to have occurred between 2am and 5am, for during those hours my mind would shift into overdrive, churning with questions to which I had (and, really, there were) no answers, thoughts of “woulda, coulda, shoulda” haunted me and, as I approached Full-blown Depression Depot, thoughts of ending it all in some form or fashion crept into my consciousness.

If you’re single, there are few times more lonely than 2am to 5am, regardless of the coast on which you reside. I found myself not wanting to “bother” my friends with a call, either due to the late hour or because they’d already heard my rehashing of events too many times to recount. (I should explain that my depression was triggered by the end of an 8-year relationship.) Mostly, though, I knew that there was nothing they could say to make me feel better – if that were possible, they’d already have said it. The standard issue advice – just give it time, you’ll get over her; she wasn’t good for you anyway; you deserve better – just doesn’t register when you’re depressed

In reality, when your mind, and hence your emotions, are completely out of whack, off kilter due to the chemical imbalance that is depression, nothing makes sense; there are no answers and there is no hope. Yet, at least in my case, my mind worked overtime to pose the questions over and over and over again and to search for answers that didn’t exist. As a result, I didn’t get the precious sleep that I needed then, more than ever. And that only made things worse.

“Tears fall like rain.”

Already a sap known to cry at everything from lesson-laced sitcoms to major sporting event outcomes, my tear ducts shifted into high gear as I slipped further into the depression. How I, a normally rather rational individual, didn’t realize that it simply wasn’t “normal” to wake up every morning and cry in the shower, or for a simple work-related question from a colleague to trigger tears, is beyond me now. But I cried morning, noon and night, again with those frustrating hours of 2am to 5am seeming to be my most prolific.

I cried because I felt angry; I cried because I felt sad; I cried for seemingly no reason at all. And many times, particularly late at night, the crying wasn’t of the gentle spring rain variety – it was the torrential downpour of agony, a wailing inspired by an emotional pain so deep, so unrelenting, and – perhaps most revealing of an issue – so completely unrelated to anything that was actually happening in my life at the moment. Unless you’re suffering from a hormonal imbalance of some sort, when you’re sobbing uncontrollably at 3am countless nights in a row for no apparent reason, there’s a problem.

“They’d be better off without me.”

This is where things get really dark and dangerous. In my irrational state, I actually started to enumerate the ways in which those around me would be better served should I no longer exist on the planet. My status as a mom served double-duty here – one minute I was thinking about how my son would be set for life financially if I were to kill myself (making it appear as an accident, of course, so as not to void my life insurance policy) and the next I was thinking how terrible it would be to burden him with the task of clearing out the garage by himself if I went through with it. Mind you, I wasn’t considering how upset he might be that his mom was gone – I’d discounted my own worth sufficiently by then so as not to factor that into the equation at that point – but rather I fretted about inconveniencing him with a day’s work of sorting and purging.

If we’re honest, there’s probably not one of us who doesn’t reach a certain age without having had a momentary thought about suicide. It’s one of those things that, as humans, may flit through our minds quickly, but never truly takes root. But when I was depressed, that thought settled in and made itself comfortable. It branched out from a late night notion about over the counter sleeping medications to broad daylight impulses to gun the engine of my Mustang and point it toward the closest and sturdiest roadside obstacle. And it was on the heels of such a thought that I made a beeline to my general practitioner’s office, unannounced and without an appointment. I’d perhaps not yet hit rock bottom, but I knew if I stretched out my toes it was within reach. I remain thankful that she and her staff welcomed and consoled me that day and set me on the path to recovery.

So those are the notes from my depression story. Yes, the woman many know as the life of the party with the huge smile and the quick one-liners has come out as once having been clinically depressed. Some may find it more surprising than the fact that I was married (to a man) for 11 years, and honestly, it’s a secret I’ve kept from far more people than I have my sexual orientation.

I share these bits of my personal story not to garner sympathy or accolades, but rather with the hope that someone may recognize herself in the reflection of my experience and seek help as a result. If you’re going through a rough time, reach out to a friend or a relative; talk to your doctor; call a suicide hotline. It doesn’t matter what time of the day or night it is, there is always someone to talk to somewhere. And while true depression cannot be healed by mere words – there’s no “cheer up” pep talk to overcome the chemical imbalance – those words may be just enough of a lifeline to hold you over until you can get the help you need.

Most importantly, please remember – regardless of what your irrational mind may be telling you at the moment – you are not alone; you are not weak; what you’re feeling is not permanent; you are loved; and you have absolutely nothing to be ashamed about in seeking help. All you have to do is “come out” about your disease.

You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255. Their phones are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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