when i was first diagnosed with depression, i made the difficult decision to be honest about my condition with family and friends. the first thing they said when they found out i was suicidal was, “but you don’t seem depressed at all!” while i was happy i didn’t outwardly appear to be the wreck i knew i was in the privacy of my own home, it eventually became burdensome to hear that over and over. anyone who has experienced a mental illness knows how difficult it is to present a “normal” face to the public, because most people don’t know how to or want to deal with a chronically sick person. so to 1) save face, and 2) not make other people uncomfortable, people with depression are likely to keep their problems to themselves and keep their mental illness low-profile when they are around people they don’t share living space with.
this picture above pretty well illustrates why no one in my life (other than people i tell directly) ever knows when i’m having an episode. i took this picture in april of 2013, when i was at the lowest point of the worst depressive episode i’d ever experienced. i was on a fast track to a downward spiral; in fact, two months after this picture, i would be admitted to an in-patient psychiatric treatment center after trying to slash my wrists with a blade i pried out of sei’s razor with my bare fingers.
and yet, the alexis in this picture is the one who moved about in public. she smiled, she wore earrings and makeup, she took her beautiful children to the pool and to the gym and to their soccer games, she went on dates with her incredible husband, she had regular girls’ nights with the same friends she’d been close to for years on end. but inside, she was empty.
it’s hard to explain depression. it’s not an emotion, like sadness or happiness or anger or delight. it’s more like a way of life; it informs everything you say, think, and do. the best comparison i can come up with is to wearing dark sunglasses inside. you can still see objects, but they are discolored. there are shadows where there shouldn’t be, and sometimes you bump into stuff because there are frames obstructing your peripheral vision. in my mind, a depressed person might also be likened to someone who is committed to a healthy lifestyle. but instead of eating clean, working out every day, and telling everyone and their mother how many squats you can do in a minute, a depressed person becomes withdrawn, stops taking care of herself, and loses interest in normally pleasurable activities, along with many other undesirable symptoms. the difference between these two “lifestyles” is that depression gives its sufferer exactly zero choice in the matter.
talking about depression with people who have no personal experience with the illness can be difficult. first of all, depression can manifest itself in some embarrassing ways, and a lot of people don’t like to expose things that might embarrass themselves, or like i said earlier, make others uncomfortable. second, depression is not a physical illness, though it sometimes presents with physiological symptoms. it is an illness of the mind, so it’s no easy task to point to a body part and say “this is where it hurts.” this is probably part of the reason that a lot of people don’t actually believe that depression is a thing. it’s hard to show someone how depressed i am without inconveniencing that person, so for the most part i just keep it to myself.
these are major obstacles to open and productive conversations about depression, and they’re not going to go away overnight. but i’m going to do my part to help, even if it’s only a little bit. so i’m going to talk about the ways in which i suffer, even though i will be embarrassed, and you may or may not be uncomfortable–these things are a lot easier to hear when they’re not said face-to-face.
my grandmother once told me when i was a new mother and in the middle of my first (diagnosed) major depressive episode that i was so together, so with it. she told me that she had been so frazzled as a young mother of her first child that she could barely keep her head on straight, but that i looked like i had everything all figured out. i said thank you, but what i really wanted to do was laugh hysterically at how ridiculous it felt to me that no one could see what a terrible person i was. at that time i felt like the world’s worst mother for being a failure at breastfeeding (which i actually wasn’t), i could hardly bear to look at myself in the mirror because i felt so ugly and fat (i wasn’t), and i was drowning in guilt because i was a horrible excuse for a housewife (again, i wasn’t).
here’s what my grandma didn’t know, and what i would never tell her, because i love her and didn’t want to worry her: i probably hadn’t showered or brushed my teeth that day until a few minutes before i had to leave for dinner, and i most likely had been in dirty pajamas all day, too. in fact, it’s possible i hadn’t showered in days, maybe even a week if things were particularly bad. even though dragging myself out of bed for dinner would have been a monumental task, i was probably really grateful to be going out to eat, because god knows i had no desire to cook or wash dishes (not like that desire is ever very strong for me, depressed or healthy). there’s a good chance i’d spent a good part of the day either on the bed or on the couch, because when i am in the throes of depression, walking even a few steps can make me feel like i just ran a mile. and i can almost guarantee that i spent the hours of 7 am (when my son would’ve woken up) to 11 am (time for his first nap) counting the minutes till i could put him down in his crib, then turn up the air conditioning, turn off all the lights, and crawl into my unmade bed and sleep for a little while. during the hours my son was awake, i would probably try really hard to play with him, read to him, feed him healthy food–because i wanted to be World’s Best Mother–but i’d most likely be glassy-eyed and slack-jawed after a couple hours, exhausted from the mental and physical exertion of doing anything more than hating myself. and later that night, after getting home from dinner, i would want to spend time with sei after putting our son to bed for the night, but would probably become withdrawn and silent. he would ask me how he could help me, tell me how much he loves me and that he would give his life if it meant i could be happy, but i’d only be able to shrug my shoulders in defeat, maybe cry a little bit. i had no answers for him: it felt like i would never be normal again.
this is only a small glimpse into what being depressed is like for me, but i hope you can see why people with depression hesitate to tell others about their illness. no one wants to admit to other people that they need to convince themselves to shower and brush their teeth. no mother wants her friends with children to know she’s been feeding her kid takeout for a couple meals a day for weeks on end, and that she let her child watch tv for four hours straight that day so she didn’t have to get off the couch. who wants to be judged for what seem like failings of personality or quality of character when those “failings” are actually symptoms of a life-threatening illness? to me, being labeled as a lazy person because i physically cannot get myself out of bed when i’m depressed (which labeling i have experienced) seems similar to calling a diabetic person picky because they refuse to eat birthday cake. however, it seems callous of me to point that discrepancy out to other people because i, unlike diabetic people who can die from eating too much sugar, am not going to die from being tired.
but see, that’s where society has it wrong. depressed people with symptoms like extreme fatigue can die. and they do. i wanted to, and if i had been a little less squeamish, i might have dug deep enough into my wrist to make it happen. but i didn’t die, so now i have the privilege of sharing my experience and hoping someone can identify in one of two ways–either by coming to the conclusion that they are strong enough to share the details of their illness with their loved ones, or by realizing that someone they love is suffering from depression. no matter how you are connected to depression, i can promise you that you are connected, though you may not know it.
depression shouldn’t be swept under the rug, hidden in musty closets. no one should be ashamed of having an illness. the responsibility for a better awareness of depression and its symptoms lies with all of us; each one of us can do more to destigmatize this devastating mental disorder. i’ll be here, doing my part, small though it is.
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