In conversations with editors about whether I had weighed every possible negative consequence of publishing a column confessing to living with clinical depression, someone asked whether I had considered how it might affect my significant other because he’s a public school teacher.
Insert every known exclamation of astonishment here. And then a couple more.
Affect him how? Would it affect him negatively if I had written about having cancer?
That such a question would arise only reinforced the importance of trying to address the stigma in that column that was published March 11. Any shred of hesitancy I might have had about sharing my struggles disappeared.
Sharing, I’m happy to say, begets sharing. Almost 200 neighbors reached out to offer suggestions, support and their own stories. Please listen to a few of them:
▪ I understand the darkness that just comes from nowhere and at anytime. I often feel that I just do not measure up to everyone else. I constantly feel that I have failed to meet up to some unrealistic expectations that I set for myself. I always seem to fall just a little short of being the “best.” … The more people are educated about this, the more understanding comes. ... It is my hope and desire that as people are more educated about this illness that it will become less of a stigma. People will think of it no differently as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.
▪ Every word resonated. For me, it was: You are such a burden. I was four. And my mother was “sorry” she ever had me. That was because her worthless husband, my abusive father, left her. Before I was four. We can be “successful.” We can’t escape. All my life, my “success” has felt like I’m just fooling everyone.
▪ I lost my grandfather, father and, most recently, my beloved brother-in-law to suicide. (He) fought depression his entire life, was highly intelligent, and a loving father and husband. He worked hard all his life to fight his depression. It was an illness, like cancer, and it finally beat him when he was 61. Your article helped me understand how hard he worked.
▪ Here’s hoping you and I both can listen to the kind voices outside our heads more than the insistently mean ones inside. And here’s hoping that more “healthy people” will have at least a bit of understanding about depression, about broken brains, and about the all-too-constant struggle so many share.
I’m hoping people will accept mental illness for what it is: an illness that we have, but which does not define us entirely.
▪ Fortunately for me, a combination of counseling and medication made it possible to have a family, a 40-year work career and involvement in community affairs as I am a retired community journalist and teacher. But my heart goes out to those without a support system in a state that has greatly neglected those with mental and emotional issues.
▪ Thank you for making so real, so tangible, the pain you have experienced and which our daughter experiences. Your article hurts to read and at the same time gives us hope. You are still here. She is still here. … Your descriptions of finding the right therapist, the struggles with insurance, the 2nd class Newtonian separation of body/mind, resonate and validate where we are.
▪ I will save this writing to go back to when I become frustrated with the erratic and sometimes angry behavior of my son who also deals with depression. Your account helps me better understand his existence from the inside that I was not able to appreciate before.
▪ I began reading and, as I read further into your description, I felt compassion because I know how it feels. The surprise was that, when I finished reading, I felt compassion for myself. Lately I have been trying to stop kicking and punishing myself for the self-destruct commands my brain has been telling my heart these past 67 years. Or maybe it’s vice versa. Years ago I succeeded in regards to the first part of my life and got rid of my hatred of that “stupid” child that I thought I was, and I loved her. Today I did that for the other part of my life – the person I was as a wife and mother. Today I love that person, too.
▪ My heart breaks when I see stories like those you referred to of people who decide that suicide is the only way to end their pain. My career in biomedical research has helped me understand why mental illness is such a tough nut to crack; those stories, my own experiences, and the experiences of my friends and family that live with mental illness remind me that it’s urgent that we do so.
▪ Even though I better understand my illness, I still find myself slipping into unexplainable periods of sadness. I use all of my coping skills to stay out of that dark place I know I can go. Finding the correct drugs and dosages still feels like an Easter egg hunt. Through an honest psychiatrist, drugs, exercise, occasional therapy and the love of family and friends I rarely sit in a chair and stare into nothingness all day. I am one of the lucky ones. However the feelings you describe, guilt, helplessness, despair, inferiority, glass half empty are always just under the surface. Holding those back is an exhausting exercise.
▪ You have helped bring the PR of psychiatric medicine farther into this century. As it has crawled and dragged itself without much help into modern times, it still needs many good pushes. When folks speak up about their psych illnesses, the public slowly catches on to the fact these problems are legitimately medical.
▪ Depression and anxiety run rampant in our family; my mom was hospitalized for a while, and my brother and I both suffer from depression in varying degrees. Unfortunately, to my intense guilt and worry, two of my three children are afflicted also. … I’m hoping people will accept mental illness for what it is: an illness that we have, but which does not define us entirely.
▪ My late husband suffered from depression from age 5; my sister attempted suicide 10 years ago; my brother committed suicide last April. No one would ever tell someone that “you can get rid of that pneumonia if you just tried hard enough” yet all too often that is what people with depression are either told or, worse, believe themselves.
▪ As someone who has family members with bouts of deep depression, I am familiar with many of the scenarios that you so aptly describe. … My appreciation for helping me to see and understand why I don’t need to tell loved ones to count their blessings when we don’t live in poverty, we can expect to survive a trip to the grocery store, and can go on vacation etc. Even though these things work for me when I’m down, it is not satisfying to someone who is walking with a 200-pound bag of concrete on their back and voices that shout it is not going to get better.
▪ One thing that does matter is that we start looking at mental health issues in a different way. It is not “the other” – it’s all of us, in different ways, at different times of our lives.
▪ While depression is incredibly debilitating, it’s nothing to be ashamed about; in fact I often think that it’s the inevitable downside of being a sensitive human being. Having been involved in the creative arts since my youth, I’m convinced there is a direct connection between depression and creativity and intelligence. And, no, there’s nothing “wrong” with you other than the fact that you’re human.
As are we all. As are we all.
Wheeler: 919-829-4825, firstname.lastname@example.org, @burgetta_nando
Many people offered suggested readings.
Dese’Rae Stage’s project “Live Through This” is a collection of portraits and stories of suicide attempt survivors, as told by those survivors: livethroughthis.org/the-project/
Glennon Doyle Melton – author, speaker and activist – writes the blog Momastery. She says “Life is brutal. But it’s also beautiful. Brutiful, I call it.”: http://momastery.com/blog/
“Rational Suicide, Irrational Laws” by Susan Stefan, who interviewed 100 people who made serious suicide attempts: nando.com/rationalsuicide
“When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron, “a treasury of wisdom for going on living when we are overcome by pain and difficulties.”
“Terminal Depression: Is It Just Me?” by Raleigh writer Hal Crowther, an essay in Narrative magazine: nando.com/crowtherdepression.