Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Down the Rabbit Hole Again

I suddenly feel surrounded with talk of mental health, mostly in impersonal forms, like Buzzfeed charts and other brief lists of how to recognize signs of depression. Then today, all the tributes to Robin Williams, a year after his suicide. All of this is conversation, which is good.

But the charts and the top-five lists feel like only part of a conversation, one told loudly to cover up the quiet, serious talk happening in the corner between people that you know. And while Robin Williams' tragic death opened a door to some frankness about depression, as often happens when celebrities have public struggles, I feel that the piece still missing in all of this is a willingness to be open, unembarrassed, and thoughtful about the mental health issues that affect a significant part of the population, including our neighbors and loved ones. If any silver lining is to be found after the powerful sadness of Robin Williams' death, it is that we can begin to see that depression exists where we didn't think possible.

It exists everywhere. We are startled at the suicides of people who are outwardly cohesive, and shocked at the mental illness of friends who are always smiling. There are so many people who feel crushed under depression and feel completely alone in their sadness; no one around them or in their social media feed seems to struggle with their mental health. Humanity seems absent, and the stigma is present, so there is silence. We don't want to be complainers. We don't want pity. We don't want to cause angst. We don't want to admit to what feels like weakness. We are strong and thus feel we can overcome anything. And so we are silent.

But silence feeds the darkness, so in the interest of the light, here's a story. Last year at this time, I wrote a blog post about my depression and overcoming it in my early twenties, something of which I've always been very proud. In the last few months, I have relapsed and am battling not only depression but a hyperactive anxiety that is often nothing short of crippling.

If you looked at me, what might you see? A mother to four beautiful kids, a wife to a wonderful man, a child of a loving home, an educator in a dream job. Happy, healthy, stable. But this is precisely the point. Depression doesn't always live where you expect it. For me, it crawled in, stealthy and disguised as exhaustion, and spilled out into the words that I say to my kids and the self-disgust that I could no longer control. It saw me, overwhelmed by life and doubting my abilities, and made its move, yelling words like "worthless" and "burden" and "nothing."

The anxiety rose at the same time my self-worth fell. If I'm in a social situation with you, I most likely had to talk myself into it, feel overwhelmed and nervous while it's happening, and in the days afterward, obsessively agonize over every ridiculous thing I said. Sometimes at work I can't breathe. Small talk makes me panic. That ugly combination of "I hate myself" and "You probably hate me too" has become a battleground in my head.

Here's the disconnect. To some people, what I'm describing sounds like over-sensitivity. Get happy, they say. Talk about the weather, they say. I say: You try to tell someone with the flu to stop throwing up.

Why is there shame attached to mental illness? Why am I reluctant to take medication to help me feel balanced and try to erase those scary whispers that promise a way out? Why am I sitting here writing this, worrying about the people who read it who might think, "boy, she just needs some attention"?

Because to admit to mental illness is to admit to failure. I know I'm not the only one out there who feels this. We read about people who call suicide "selfish" and hear people talk about anxiety like it's a bad mood. If you've never experienced depression, and your reaction is to say that people need to "get over it" or "try to think about your family," please go sit down and talk with someone you know who is struggling. Ask me. I'll tell you that sometimes the hole is so deep and dark, climbing out of it feels impossible, even when you can see your beloved family at the top.

Please can we talk about this? With each other, the people that we see every day, so we can normalize the conversation. So we can begin to see that depression doesn't always look like the methamphetamines "after" picture. I don't need sympathy or platitudes, just an assurance that what I'm battling is nothing to be ashamed of and that people won't think less of me for how little I think of myself.

I am getting help, but there are many more who need it and are scared to ask. Let's create a culture that offers help without judgment, help that always comes with the words, "I am here for you," and means it.