My name is immaterial. I am 22 years old and I have (been diagnosed with) clinical depression and anxiety. Do you know what that means? Well. Some of you might. Most of you will just think I’m sad and wary of things, and that’s all there is to it. Some others amongst you might think I’m crazy, and that’s where you’ll leave it. Maybe you’ll find it ironic, when I tell you I am also an introvert. You might find it ironic especially if you know me – ‘social slut’ is not a phrase unused to describe me. Some of you might have shared your own problems with me, some of you may have just messaged me and we might have talked about some random, idiotic idea or some childish prank, some of you might have seen me around taking pictures and capturing moments so that you all would have memories preserved and smiles on your faces. I am still the same person, but here is my secret, that should never have had to be one to start with.
I heard a joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Life seems harsh, and cruel. Says he feels all alone in threatening world. Doctor says: “Treatment is simple. The great clown – Pagliacci – is in town. Go see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. “But doctor…” he says “I am Pagliacci.” Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.
– RORSCHACH, The Watchmen
I will not go too deep into describing what depression, or living with it, is like for me. Or what clinical anxiety means and how paralyzing it can be in its worst of moments. I am not writing to explain the thoughts in my head that no longer can be assimilated, or the dreams that can no longer be discerned from reality. I am not writing to justify my absence from social media or my need for reclusivity or space. This is not a justification or an answer for anything. This is my frail attempt to request you to listen, to read, to think and to maybe connect.
This is probably not the first time you’re hearing about depression. It’s a term tossed around a lot of times. “I’m depressed – I failed my exam.” “They didn’t have my favourite ice cream in stock and now I’m depressed.” But depression isn’t that. Remember how when we were little, they asked us to define the difference between the weather and the climate? And we understood then that one is momentary while the other tends to hover for a while. The weather is just sadness – a change in mood that happens to each and every single one of us. Depression is a climate, that strikes some of us, but more of us than you think. And how do we react to it? We confuse it with sadness.
It’s a strange poverty of the English language, and indeed of many other languages, that we use this same word, depression, to describe how a kid feels when it rains on his birthday, and to describe how somebody feels the minute before they commit suicide.
People say to me, “Well, is it continuous with normal sadness?” And I say, in a way it’s continuous with normal sadness. There is a certain amount of continuity, but it’s the same way there’s continuity between having an iron fence outside your house that gets a little rust spot that you have to sand off and do a little repainting, and what happens if you leave the house for 100 years and it rusts through until it’s only a pile of orange dust. And it’s that orange dust spot, that orange dust problem, that’s the one we’re setting out to address.
Let me draw further upon Andrew Solomon‘s TED talk to highlight this a little better, especially as he draw’s upon Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘I Felt a Funeral in My Brain’, to open up his talk.
As for me, I had always thought myself tough, one of the people who could survive if I’d been sent to a concentration camp … But in 1994, three years later, I found myself losing interest in almost everything. I didn’t want to do any of the things I had previously wanted to do, and I didn’t know why. The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality. And it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment … I would come home and I would see the red light flashing on my answering machine, and instead of being thrilled to hear from my friends, I would think, “What a lot of people that is to have to call back.” … And one of the things that often gets lost in discussions of depression is that you know it’s ridiculous … You know that most people manage to listen to their messages and eat lunch and organize themselves to take a shower and go out the front door and that it’s not a big deal, and yet you are nonetheless in its grip and you are unable to figure out any way around it.And so I began to feel myself doing less and thinking less and feeling less. It was a kind of nullity.
And then the anxiety set in. If you told me that I’d have to be depressed for the next month, I would say, “As long I know it’ll be over in November, I can do it.” But if you said to me, “You have to have acute anxiety for the next month,” I would rather slit my wrist than go through it. It was the feeling all the time like that feeling you have if you’re walking and you slip or trip and the ground is rushing up at you, but instead of lasting half a second, the way that does, it lasted for six months. It’s a sensation of being afraid all the time but not even knowing what it is that you’re afraid of. And it was at that point that I began to think that it was just too painful to be alive, and that the only reason not to kill oneself was so as not to hurt other people.
And finally one day, I woke up and I thought perhaps I’d had a stroke, because I lay in bed completely frozen, looking at the telephone, thinking, “Something is wrong and I should call for help,” and I couldn’t reach out my arm and pick up the phone and dial. And finally, after four full hours of my lying and staring at it, the phone rang, and somehow I managed to pick it up, and it was my father, and I said, “I’m in serious trouble. We need to do something.”
The next day I started with the medications and the therapy. And I also started reckoning with this terrible question: If I’m not the tough person who could have made it through a concentration camp, then who am I?
Most of the time people who suffer from such dysfunctionality choose to hide it, to keep from talking about it and to stuff it away under their bed or in their closet, where they don’t have to talk about it. I’m doing the same thing right now: calling it ‘dysfunctionality’ rather than what it is – mental illness. But this is me coming out of my closet. As Ash Beckham puts it in her TED Talk,
I’m going to talk to you tonight about coming out of the closet, and not in the traditional sense, not just the gay closet. I think we all have closets. Your closet may be telling someone you love her for the first time, or telling someone that you’re pregnant, or telling someone you have cancer, or any of the other hard conversations we have throughout our lives. All a closet is is a hard conversation, and although our topics may vary tremendously, the experience of being in and coming out of the closet is universal. It is scary, and we hate it, and it needs to be done …
So like many of us, I’ve lived in a few closets in my life, and yeah, most often, my walls happened to be rainbow. But inside, in the dark, you can’t tell what color the walls are. You just know what it feels like to live in a closet. So really, my closet is no different than yours or yours or yours. Sure, I’ll give you 100 reasons why coming out of my closet was harder than coming out of yours, but here’s the thing: Hard is not relative. Hard is hard. Who can tell me that explaining to someone you’ve just declared bankruptcy is harder than telling someone you just cheated on them? Who can tell me that his coming out story is harder than telling your five-year-old you’re getting a divorce? There is no harder, there is just hard. We need to stop ranking our hard against everyone else’s hard to make us feel better or worse about our closets and just commiserate on the fact that we all have hard. At some point in our lives, we all live in closets, and they may feel safe, or at least safer than what lies on the other side of that door. But I am here to tell you, no matter what your walls are made of, a closet is no place for a person to live.
One of the major reasons I’m coming out of my closet and disclosing this piece of information to all of you, is because not only is it high time that someone comes out and admits that there is a problem, but that we understand that there should be no stigma attached to such things. That there may be more than meets the eye, and that each person has their own unique situation, circumstances, backstory, fears, troubles, insecurities, doubts and demons, but it is not for us to judge, because we all have them. And so what if ours are different than theirs? That is no affirmation allowing us to judge them or to treat them any differently. Remember when we were little and we were introduced to the ideas of bullies? Well, that idea isn’t extinct or dead. That idea and the manifestation of it is still very much alive. Bullies might not use fists now – they use words and ideas, but they have the power to bruise and cripple all the same. And yet, no one talks about them. Do you remember how we were told to hold an elder’s hand while crossing the street? That fear of crossing, is not dead. It still exists. But we each overcome it in our own way. Some of us might fear the traffic; others might fear the other side.
There is another side to the story though. And that is, in and of itself, half the problem. That for most people suffering from a mental health issue, there are two sides to the problem – the side that they portray to the world, and the side they keep deep inside them, worried that if the world were to catch a glimpse of what is inside, it might never be the same again. Kevin Breel sums it up very aptly while discussing his own story:
For a long time in my life, I felt like I’d been living two different lives. There’s the life that everyone sees,and then there’s the life that only I see. And in the life that everyone sees, who I am is a friend, a son, a brother, a stand-up comedian and a teenager. That’s the life everyone sees. If you were to ask my friends and family to describe me, that’s what they would tell you. And that’s a huge part of me. That is who I am. And if you were to ask me to describe myself, I’d probably say some of those same things. And I wouldn’t be lying, but I wouldn’t totally be telling you the truth, either, because the truth is, that’s just the life everyone else sees. In the life that only I see, who I am, who I really am, is someone who struggles intensely with depression. I have for the last six years of my life, and I continue to every day.
Now, for someone who has never experienced depression or doesn’t really know what that means, that might surprise them to hear, because there’s this pretty popular misconception that depression is just being sad when something in your life goes wrong, when you break up with your girlfriend, when you lose a loved one, when you don’t get the job you wanted. But that’s sadness. That’s a natural thing. That’s a natural human emotion. Real depression isn’t being sad when something in your life goes wrong. Real depression is being sad when everything in your life is going right. That’s real depression, and that’s what I suffer from.
And to be totally honest, that’s hard for me to stand up here and say. It’s hard for me to talk about, and it seems to be hard for everyone to talk about, so much so that no one’s talking about it. And no one’s talking about depression, but we need to be, because right now it’s a massive problem. It’s a massive problem. But we don’t see it on social media, right? We don’t see it on Facebook. We don’t see it on Twitter. We don’t see it on the news, because it’s not happy, it’s not fun, it’s not light. And so because we don’t see it, we don’t see the severity of it.
But the severity of it and the seriousness of it is this: every 30 seconds, every 30 seconds, somewhere,someone in the world takes their own life because of depression, and it might be two blocks away, it might be two countries away, it might be two continents away, but it’s happening, and it’s happening every single day. And we have a tendency, as a society, to look at that and go, “So what?” So what? We look at that, and we go, “That’s your problem. That’s their problem.” We say we’re sad and we say we’re sorry, but we also say, “So what?”
Empathy as an emotion, as a feeling, as a sensation is on a rapid decline. You find traces of it, sometimes in the most unlikely of all places, but that’s all there is to it – traces. I do not write this for sympathy: the world has too much of it, mostly hypocritical, and it does no one any good.
No. I am writing this to try and reach into the depths of your soul, in the dark pits of your heart, into the darkest parts of the tunnels of your tiniest capillaries, and evoke your empathy. And to evoke you to think, to question, to wonder and to, maybe, understand – nay, try to understand: to just make the effort. As Kevin goes on to say:
… But for me, for a large part of my life, I feared myself. I feared my truth, I feared my honesty, I feared my vulnerability, and that fear made me feel like I was forced into a corner, like I was forced into a corner and there was only one way out, and so I thought about that way every single day. I thought about it every single day, and if I’m being totally honest, standing here I’ve thought about it again since, because that’s the sickness, that’s the struggle, that’s depression, and depression isn’t chicken pox. You don’t beat it once and it’s gone forever. It’s something you live with. It’s something you live in.It’s the roommate you can’t kick out. It’s the voice you can’t ignore. It’s the feelings you can’t seem to escape, the scariest part is that after a while, you become numb to it. It becomes normal for you, and what you really fear the most isn’t the suffering inside of you. It’s the stigma inside of others, it’s the shame, it’s the embarrassment, it’s the disapproving look on a friend’s face, it’s the whispers in the hallway that you’re weak, it’s the comments that you’re crazy. That’s what keeps you from getting help.That’s what makes you hold it in and hide it. It’s the stigma. So you hold it in and you hide it, and you hold it in and you hide it, and even though it’s keeping you in bed every day and it’s making your life feel empty no matter how much you try and fill it, you hide it, because the stigma in our society around depression is very real. It’s very real, and if you think that it isn’t, ask yourself this: Would you rather make your next Facebook status say you’re having a tough time getting out of bed because you hurt your back or you’re having a tough time getting out of bed every morning because you’re depressed? That’s the stigma, because unfortunately, we live in a world where if you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast, but if you tell people you’re depressed, everyone runs the other way. That’s the stigma … So we need to stop the ignorance, stop the intolerance, stop the stigma, and stop the silence, and we need to take away the taboos, take a look at the truth, and start talking, because the only way we’re going to beat a problem that people are battling alone is by standing strong together, by standing strong together.
Yes. There is a certain degree of idealism in this note. Yes. There is a certain aspiration towards utopia. But I know people around me, hiding in their self created cocoons that won’t make them butterflies: they will only serve to strangle them. I know friends who are suffering from depression, form anxiety, from suicidal thoughts, from bipolar disorder, from OCD. It’s all real. It’s all very real, and it’s right there. Amongst all of us. So I write this and bare myself in hopes that it will help one or some of you to come forward with your story, to share with the world and that in turn, it might help you to know that there is at least one person out there who understands.
“Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” – Stephen Fry
And if some day, you can be that friend to someone around you, know that that person will forever be grateful to you, in words and emotions that can perhaps not be contained on paper (or social media for that matter).
1) There are a lot of (three) TED Talks referred to in the article. Do go through them. Not only do they address some of the heaviest subjects in a relatively light fashion, they are informative and helpful, for those suffering and those concerned alike.
2) There was an article that a friend of mine shared with me and it resonated deeply within me for how I feel sometimes towards friends, and socializing, and I assure you it is worth a read. It is A Letter of Regret from Your Anxious and Depressed Friend by Kirsten Young.
3) If you feel you too might be suffering from a mental illness, do not hesitate to talk about it, with your friends or your family. You will be surprised how understanding some of them can be.
4) Time to Change is an organization in the United Kingdom that tries to raise awareness on mental health issues, and following them or other such pages might help in understanding the problem and easing the process of dealing with it.
5) Do NOT self-medicate or self-diagnose an illness, unless you are a qualified medical practitioner, though I would advise against it even then.