I have a dirty little secret.
I suffer from depression.
Not the blues. Not feeling down in the dumps. Full on depression. The kind that takes me to a very dark place. And, apparently, I share this disorder with 14,999,999 other Americans – a vast majority of them women. I don’t necessarily keep this fact a secret but it is not typically my lead-in when I meet people. Oddly, I don’t actually think of myself as someone who gets depressed but, as part of my efforts to live authentically, I have had to come to terms with what I refer to as my “dark periods.” These periods do not pop up that frequently. In fact, I can go years without having any type of serious depressive episode but, like earthquakes, it is not about the frequency, it is about the magnitude.
I suppose it was my birth right. My mother suffered from depression most of her life. She attempted to take her own life on two separate occasions when I was a young child. Both times she downed an excessive amount of pills (likely aspirin because we didn’t have too many medications in our house) and I remember being in the ER at the hospital wondering what was wrong with her. Despite the fact that she was often going to therapy, she never seemed to be able to treat her depression and, I suspect, it is because she desperately needed to be medicated. Her depression was only one one of her many mental ailments. My father struggled with alcoholism his entire life. My brother is bipolar and my sister, like me, lives with depression and, likely, other forms of mental illness. Our family legacy is both biological and environmental. There is severe mental illness in my mother’s family and my parents, fighting with their own demons, inflicted a significant amount of trauma on my siblings and myself which, according to science, likely created a chemical imbalance and a form of PTSD that we each confront in our own unique ways.
Over the years, I have become skilled at dealing with my depression, from looking for the warning signs and fortifying myself, using exercise and diet as a minimizer, as well as treating it with antidepressants. One of my challenges, however, is that my depression typically creeps up on me when I have either run out of things to distract my attention from it or when crushing stress becomes too much for me to bear. Sometimes there are specific incidents that bring it on like negative interactions with people that leave me empty, wasted or diminished. But, in most cases, I don’t see it coming and once it is upon me, I can’t find a way out of it.
I recently researched symptoms of depression to help me understand it a bit further. I wanted to determine if what I was experiencing was truly depression or just some low periods. I compared my feelings to the list:
- persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood – check
- loss of interest or pleasure in activities, including sex – check
- restlessness, irritability, or excessive crying – check
- feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, pessimism – check, check
- sleeping too much or too little, early-morning awakening – check
- thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts – check
- difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions – check
People often think that those of us who suffer from depression are downers who have difficulty functioning in everyday life. These are just some of the myths that create stigmas and often prevent people from being honest about their own mental illness. For me, the truth is I function very well and, most often, I am pretty upbeat – typically the life of the party. And no, I am not bipolar. I simply am not depressed every single day. But when I go down, I go down hard. And once I am down, it is very hard to get back up.
Recently, I went through an extremely dark period. It felt like it came out of nowhere but, upon reflection and analysis, there were many triggers including work stress, holidays, and some challenging personal relationships. I realized it was chasing me down and I was running from it like an animal being hunted as prey. I just didn’t consciously realize I was scurrying from capture until it caught me and pummeled me. When I saw the face of my demon, I recognized instantly that it had been sneaking up on me for a while. Unfortunately, once I thought I got rid of the beast, I relaxed a bit and was shocked when it quickly reappeared and lingered like a stalled-out hurricane. It blew in, did some destruction and then seemed like it was moving out to sea. Much to my surprise and severe disappointment, it changed direction and ended up blowing back in, this time much stronger and hanging on for a much longer period of time. I was absolutely certain I was having a nervous breakdown. The darkness was so severe and so intense that I could not see my way to clarity. I did not think the clouds would ever pass, that the winds would ever let up or that the rain would stop pouring down. But, as is always the case with storms, they do pass and the sun shines through the clouds offering the hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Depression is even more complicated in my life because it is magnified by the echoes of the traumas of my childhood – the scars of which layer on top of my depression and validate many of my dark thoughts. When I sink into worthlessness, my memories of words or experiences that traumatized me as a child, come to the surface and haunt me, giving credence to every distorted feeling I experience during these episodes. It’s as if I am an alcoholic and, despite my efforts at recovery, there is always an open bar or a friend standing by with a bottle to prevent me from ever achieving sobriety. I have enough ammunition to keep me down for decades and, during some of these dark periods, I am rather confident that the sun will never shine again and that all of my worst experiences are my truth and personify who I am and what my life is meant to be.
The scariest part of depression, however, is not the admission of my illness nor is it the actual experience of going through the dark periods. The scariest piece comes in the aftermath when, with a clear head, you realize just how low you have fallen. When you realize just how easy it is for your mind to take you to places that seem unfathomable when you are rational and have your senses intact. You realize that, in a split second, the pain that you are experiencing will take hold and you are captive to its powers and incapable of freeing yourself, left only with futile attempts to defend yourself and preserve some level of sanity so as not to have devastating outcomes. I recently had a conversation with a close friend who had spent some time with me while I was in the middle of this recent episode and he shared with me his and his wife’s experiences and concerns for me. It was humbling and, to some extent, overwhelming and humiliating. He was kind and thoughtful in his comments and shared his fears in a compassionate and loving way. But, it was in that moment that I realized how far away I go during those periods and how far removed from reality I am. That is frightening and makes me feel vulnerable in the worst possible way.
Ultimately, my depression does not make me a bad person. It does not prevent me from engaging in intimate and meaningful relationships. It does not inhibit my ability to live a productive and successful life. It does, however, force me to be acutely aware of the triggers and make choices differently than others who might not endure the same struggles. It is like any other disease. If I were diabetic, sugar would be my enemy. If I had a heart condition, cardio would be a danger for me. My medical ailment, caused by chemical imbalances in my brain (and, possibly, exacerbated by the hormonal disruption caused by the onset of menopause) forces me to think very seriously about how I interact with people, situations I put myself in, and how I deal with stress and anxiety. I am neither ashamed nor afraid to share my truth but I realize that many will never understand this dimension of my life. I need not be pitied or treated any differently. It is just part of my truth. And, fortunately, severe depression is something that rarely strikes me but, I acknowledge, that even if it happens once every five or ten years, it is real and it is dangerous.
So, I share my dirty little secret for the millions of Americans who are afraid to share their truth for fear that they will be stigmatized or ostracized. I am not afraid because I am fortunate enough to have a small, intimate group of friends and family to whom I can turn for support during my dark periods and who understand my struggles and provide me with the love and nurturing that I need to get through the haze. I also have an amazing therapist who works with me during dark days and, more importantly, during the bright ones to keep me focused on tackling the demons that bring me down and keep me down. But, for many, they don’t have such luxuries and cannot be honest with themselves or anyone else because they feel shameful or afraid of the consequences of revealing their truth. And, for some, like my own mother, they simply are not capable of seeing the truth in themselves and spend their lives living in denial, inflicting pain on those around them.
If you struggle with depression or know someone who does, take a moment to learn more and create a safe environment for yourself and others to live honestly and authentically.