Me, My Depression and I
I remember the day I started taking antidepressants. I waited a couple days after picking up the prescription, partially in denial and partially terrified. I was a teacher at the time and had arrived at school early, scrambling to get some-sort-of-ready for the day. Sitting at my desk, surrounded by bulletin boards and bookshelves stacked with young adult novels, I swallowed the little yellow pill alone in my quiet classroom.
It was probably a combination of anxiety about being medicated + taking it on an empty stomach that led to panic an hour later. My belly was on fire, and I was mad and sad and didn't know when it would pass, and the thought of suffering through the day in front of 150 pre-teens was more than I could handle. The teacher next door arranged for a substitute, and I went home. That was February, 2009. I was 24.
I was dealing with a breakup. I lived in Nashville, TN at the time and was considering moving back home to Indiana. I didn't know if I wanted to be a teacher anymore. Everything in my life was Category: Unknown, completely out of control, and every second felt like I was losing my grip on the tiny thread that anchored me to reality. One evening, hibernating in my tiny bedroom, the thought entered my brain that maybe I was more than just sad.
I found one of those "Are You Depressed?" online surveys where you rate yourself on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (most of the time) on a long list of characteristics. I didn't want any of the descriptors to pertain to me, but almost all of them did. With each question and accompanying explanation, it was like puzzle pieces coming together in slow motion.
5. Most of the time. 4. Usually. 5. Most of the time. 5. Most of the time.
That night I realized I had probably been dealing with depression and anxiety for most of my life and just didn't know it.
On a good day, I wake up on time. I spend the day focused on my work and take pride in what I accomplish. I am present with my friends and family. I spend time outside if I can. I pay attention to what I eat. I feel creative. I learn new things. I take care of myself and my home.
Bad days can turn into bad weeks, sometimes months. Usually a few days go by before I even realize that I'm stuck in the middle of a bad week, and two weeks go by before I realize that I’m stuck in the middle of a bad month.
On a bad day, I oversleep or I'm up all night. Sometimes I don't go to work. I battle obsessive thoughts. I am detached, like watching myself from outside of my own body. I take a 5-hour nap. My eating is erratic. I make up excuses to break plans. I stay inside for entire weekends. I ignore my hygiene and my home. I don't want to do anything, so I don't do anything. I watch 14 straight hours of TV. Everything is heavy.
These aren't behaviors that started when I was 24; that's just when they started to make sense. Since then, I have been able to recognize an anxiety attack instead of just dismissing it as an overreaction or blaming it on my sensitivity. I've learned the difference between depression and laziness / moodiness / sadness. Puzzle pieces.
As far as isolating circumstances go, I'd put depression and anxiety toward the top of the list. It feels easier to try to keep them a secret — and where there are secrets, there is shame.
I still shy away from freely broadcasting the intimate details of how mental illness affects my life. Only in the last couple years have I felt safe enough to disclose my experiences to close friends, let alone strangers on the internet, because of the shame I couldn’t separate from it. I didn't want it to be a part of me, or at least I didn't want to admit it out loud, because that made it real. But once I finally understood that I had nothing to be ashamed of, I experienced freedom and grace that I couldn't let in when I believed I had to be alone in it.
Winter is really hard for me. One particularly rough December, I texted my sister and asked her to make sure I saw the light of day on a regular basis. I told her that I needed her to invite me over and not take no for an answer. I needed accountability, and asking for it was a new development for me. She didn't ask questions; she just said ok.
I had a few bad weeks after Christmas. I told my best friend, and she sent me an email with suggestions of things to do to change my routine: books, podcasts, writing, going to church. I don't know how to accurately explain this, but that list of stuff wasn't anything I had the capacity to tell myself to do. A list of simple activities was more than I could wrap my brain around on my own.
I needed to let both of them in, and they were gracious enough to respond in love.
I know my story isn't unique. Millions of people suffer from depression and anxiety, and many of them more severely than I do. Sometimes I feel guilty. Poor little middle-class white girl, what reasons could you possibly have for being depressed? Get your shit together and figure it out. Your life is easy.
I think about people with more difficult circumstances and less resources — those who have no support and no means to seek medical attention. But sometimes I snap out of it and remember that every person with depression and anxiety experiences them differently, and I don't have to justify mine to anyone, not even to myself.
Claiming my mental health issues has given me so many opportunities to encourage friends through their own experiences. I've been able to offer insight and hope and truly listen. I've been able to cry with them and comfort them and most importantly, look them in the eyes and say me, too.
Connecting with others through shared pain doesn't necessarily make it easier, but it does make it more meaningful. In my isolation (and with the help of many hours of therapy), I've learned a lot about myself — things I maybe wouldn't have paid attention to otherwise: How ungracefully I cope with grief, how my actions affect other people, the limits of my strength and vulnerability, why I crave depth and meaning, how much I really care about what people think of me.
And if I can manage to channel that into authentic empathy for another person who may be making similar self-discoveries, I'm putting my pain to good use.
My pet peeve is the phrase "struggle(s) with depression." I struggle with math. I struggle to run a mile. I don't struggle with depression; I sufferfrom it. The dialogue is so often misguided and misinformed.
Mental illness is more than something that is difficult for me; it's a part of me that affects my daily life, my relationships, my self-worth, every area of my physical and spiritual health. I think sometimes even people who havedepression choose the word "struggle" because it minimizes the severity. It sounds more temporary. I get it.
But I think it's way past time to stop the perpetuation of shame. I don't know exactly what that looks like, but I know it involves honesty and vulnerability, so maybe we can start there.
To the next person who discovers she’s depressed after taking an online assessment and is terrified to take antidepressants or enter therapy or even say the word “depression” aloud: You are normal, you are loved, and you have nothing to hide. I may be nobody, but I'm here to tell you that you are important and worthy of love, and you owe it to yourself to get the help you need.
And to anyone who hasn’t experienced mental illness firsthand: We need you — your open arms, your support, your acceptance. We need your gracious "yesses" and your invitations and your patience and your unconditional love. Every. Single. Bit.
A version of this essay is also on noneedformirrors.net.
Tara Bender is a graphic designer and writer in Indianapolis, IN. Her blog No Need for Mirrors chronicles the awkward mishaps and triumphant revelations of a single woman in her 30s. Tara lives with her dog, Gretta, and is currently learning to play guitar and enjoying being “Aunt Tata” to her nephews, Milo & Will. You can find her on Instagram @noneedformirrors.