Suffering in Silence
Depression and anxiety sometimes still feel like dirty words to me. Mental illness carries a stigma with it that makes it difficult for those suffering in silence to speak up and share their struggles. I kept my fight with clinical depression and anxiety a secret for nearly two decades before I finally decided it was time to stop hiding. Sharing my story is one of the best decisions I ever made.
I cannot remember a time when I have not been mentally ill. My childhood was a difficult one that I don’t often reflect on. I was bullied so much at school that I stopped going regularly by the time I was in middle school. I have suffered the consequences of a lost education and low self-esteem because of this. My home life was not much of a reprieve other than the days I was home alone missing out on forming friendships and learning. In my mid-twenties I finally decided to address my issues and sought out a therapist to help me heal old wounds. I was fortunate to find an excellent psychologist who helped me to put my past behind me so I could finally move forward.
Unfortunately, my mental illness is not just a cause of – or a reaction to – bullying, but also a chemical imbalance. Only last year did I finally start to forgive myself for the things I cannot control. This forgiveness combined with my openness about my mental illness and the help of medication administered by a psychiatrist has put me on the path to wellness. The biggest thing that I have learned is that mental illness cannot be treated by one thing only. It has to be attacked on multiple fronts.
Another realization I came to last year was that I will probably always be on medication. I am no longer ashamed that I have to take medication twice a day, every day, in order to keep myself well. Mental illness is an illness. It is not a result of laziness or an unwillingness to be happy. I think that many people still see mental illness as a choice and while you do have the choice to try and do something about your mental illness, it is not something that can simply be willed away. Believe me, I have tried. I had also tried at least a dozen different medications before I landed on a dosage that was right for me. Last year, I went through a terrible withdrawal coming off a medication that I was on for years, finally realizing it wasn’t helping me. I had a headache for weeks and was nauseous from when I woke to when I fell asleep at night. Medication is a trial and error process. Just because one drug doesn’t work for you doesn’t mean that something else won’t. And again, I must reiterate that there should be NO shame in taking medication. If you were diabetic no one would look down on you for needing to take insulin. There is no difference. If you are depressed there is a chemical imbalance in your brain.
Another excellent way to correct this imbalance is through exercise. I have found that this is one of the best ways for me to battle my depression. Getting my butt kicked in a spin class or just going for a walk always makes me feel better. I seem to forget these benefits when I’m tired or in the throes of a deep depression but no matter what I always come back to exercise. The last therapist preferred to call it movement because of some of the negative connotations attached to the word exercise. Exercise is another dirty word that often leads to reluctance to get off one's behind. I believe that anyone can fall in love with exercise as long as you find an activity that works for you. My years of depression and inactivity led to a significant weight gain that I’ll be tackling for at least the next year. Weight gain, like turning thirty, is one of those things that sneaks up on you. You’re busy living your life and all of a sudden you’re overweight which just gives you another reason to be depressed. That’s why this year I have pledged to simply be more active. I count my steps every day and I forgive myself for the days I don’t have the energy for a lot of movement.
Recently I have started to tackle my depression on a third front. I have been studying up on mindfulness. I was wary of reading self-help books but when I decided to own my mental illness I knew I would have to do some research on alternative methods for treating depression and anxiety. I’m still in the process of learning about mindfulness but I have already noticed the benefits of being more self-aware and practicing self-compassion. In the past no one has been harder on me than I have been on myself. For years I blamed myself for not being able to get better. Now that I know that it is not my fault a weight has been lifted off my shoulders and I’m able to do more self-reflection. Part of mindfulness is recognizing what you are feeling and being aware of your automatic negative thoughts. One thing I know for certain is that depression lies to you. Your brain starts to tell you that you are worthless and incapable of change. Learning to recognize these as simply thoughts rather than truths has been incredibly beneficial to me. When I’m feeling down or anxious I force myself to reflect on what I’m thinking rather than simple accepting my thoughts.
Medication, exercise, and mindfulness are my pillars of maintaining good mental health. The past couple of weeks have been difficult for me and I have felt my self slipping back into what Elisha Goldstein calls a “depressive loop”1. To keep myself from falling too far down the well, I have forced myself to get out of the house and exercise. I have stopped to reflect on my thoughts and feelings more and I am taking my medication every day. I know that I’m in this for the long haul and that no matter what I do I may relapse again but having the tools to keep fighting makes my odds that much better.
To recognize mental illness as an illness is not to say that a person has no control over their mental health. Once you make the choice to get better and to seek help you will never look back. I cannot emphasize enough that if you are suffering from a mental illness, that you are not alone. By sharing my story, I have had friends and family open up to me about their own battles with mental illness. Solidarity is infinitely important and the more awareness we have about mental illness the easier it will be for people like me to open up about their own battles. As one of my heroes, Carrie Fisher said, mental illness is “an opportunity to be heroic—not ‘I survived living in Mosul during an attack’ heroic, but an emotional survival. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder.”2 If you are suffering or know someone who is, reach out. After all, we are all in this together.
1. Goldstein, Elisha. Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion. Atria Books, 2015.
2. Fisher, Carrie. Guardian advice column, "Ask Carrie Fisher." November 2016.