I was vaguely aware that there was probably something wrong. My friend and I had sat on one of the lower bunks in our somewhat crowded retreat cabin for almost half an hour, talking. She kept asking me questions – how was I eating, sleeping, focusing in class, feeling about spending time with the Engineer?
“Just one more thing,” she said. “Are you reading?”
I shook my head.
“That,” she said, looking me in the eye, “does not sound like you.”
I hadn’t felt like “me” for weeks, but I was slogging through, wasn’t I? I was still helping lead this retreat. I was still maintaining my grades. I was still fun to be around at our weekly church dinners, even if I did sometimes hang out quietly in a corner or slip out early. But I was probably just tired. Everyone gets tired.
These were the thought processes that kept me from telling anyone, from thinking about it too much, from pushing too hard against the curtain that had fallen between me and the rest of the world. Because that’s what it felt like. I was just numb, all the time. Nothing really seemed worth the effort of pushing through that.
Besides, I was probably just tired, or maybe not getting enough vitamin C. I didn’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill, even in my own head. Why make a big deal about something I was “handling” just fine?
Somewhere, in my two decades on this planet, I had picked up social habits that informed the way I thought about my own mental health. These habits led me to believe that as long as no one could tell anything was wrong, there wasn’t anything wrong. Furthermore, these habits led me to fear others’ reactions when I admitted to this “fault” of mine, this depression. Every time I told a friend or family member my shameful secret, I flinched at the words, preparing myself for the comments I’d already heard so much from myself.
“I’m sure it’s not that bad. Just cheer up.”
“Focus on positive things.”
“You’re just having a bad week. It’ll pass.”
“Wow, overdramatic much?”
I had only told my friend about my feelings on a whim – something she’d said about her own experiences in counseling had stuck with me despite the numbness, and I just wanted to see if there were any similarities between our cases. Or rather, if I was being honest, I wanted to know that she saw those similarities too, that I wasn’t just making it up.
But even though she asked every day for the next week if I’d made an appointment with a counselor, even though the Southern Belle said I didn’t seem like myself lately and the Engineer expressed his worry for me, it took me another two weeks to actually go in.
And when I did? “If I had the textbook open in front of me to Depression,” the counselor said, “it would say all the things you’re telling me.”
“But nothing’s happened,” I wanted to say. “No one died. I didn’t get fired. There’s no trauma that should have caused this.” Apparently, my brain didn’t care about my need to legitimize my depression to others. This was just what was happening, regardless of events in my life.
Not one of my friends or family members said anything dismissive when I finally opened up to them. They gave me nothing but love and support.
But I still dismissed my mental health. I compared my own numbness to what I thought of as “real depression,” the struggles of people suffering from physical illness or devastating loss. I felt like an impostor, and, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I thought others would see me that way too.
I worried I was talking about it too much – that the Engineer or Bird or any of my friends might secretly be rolling their eyes and thinking, “This again? Isn’t she over it by now?”
Our society does not do well with mental health. For one thing, it’s invisible – I can’t count the number of times someone has said (in the nicest possible way) that I “always seemed so happy.” And the stigmas surrounding mental health issues encourage us to keep it invisible. As John Green said in a recent video (which I highly recommend you go watch – the relevant part starts at about 1:00), “The central way we imagine sickness, as a thing that we must conquer and then put behind us, doesn’t really apply to chronic illness.” I don’t blame anyone for wanting to assume I’m “better,” but every time I have to re-admit to having depression, it opens me up to that fear of disappointing them, as though I’ve failed to attain something, even though that something is actually out of my control.
This is why I want to talk about my depression – because those stigmas and those fears stemming from them make me so angry. The way our society deals with mental health is preventing people from admitting to themselves that something might be wrong. It’s preventing the friends and family of people with mental health issues from finding the best ways to help.
And this fear of talking about it isn’t helping any of us.
Some food for thought:
“Explaining My Depression to My Mother” by Sabrina Benaim (an excellent poem about an experience I was blessed enough not to have)
HPWritesBlogs, especially her post “Depression is a Liar”
10 Depression Myths We Need to Stop Believing from Huffington Post