Thought Thursday: October is National Depression Awareness Month; My Story
Among many other things, October is also National Depression Education and Awareness Month. Most people don’t know that because we get caught up in Halloween and breast cancer awareness, and it’s really too bad; about 3.3 million Americans over the age of 18 are affected by depression and other depression-related illnesses.
I should know. I’m bipolar. I was diagnosed when I was fifteen, but looking back I’ve realized that it’s affected me my entire life. I can remember falling into deep depressions back in first and second grade. I remember being severely depressed at least one solid week every year, but then being fantastically happy the following week. I didn’t know what “depression” was back then … my teacher once referred to students being “burned out,” and when I heard that I was so relieved, because now I had a name to go with what I was feeling.
I was burned out.
No. I wasn’t.
By September 1998, I had gone through a few health classes and had learned about depression, but never thought that what I went through was actually that. I began high school that year, and within about a week and a half, I became depressed. I remember feeling it start to build up, like an entity looming over me … and I actually thought, “I wish it would just start already … in a week I’ll feel so much better.”
I think it was the very next day the depression hit like a hammer, and I was actually comforted; okay, so a week of sadness, listlessness, irritability, body aches, sleeplessness and confusion, and then I’ll be golden. Let’s just get through this week, and everything will be better.
The week came and went. And so did the next week.
I didn’t improve.
Another week passed. Then another.
I came home every day, sat in my room and cried for about thirty minutes, and didn’t know why; there was no reason to be feeling so sad. School wasn’t fun, but nothing bad was going on. I thought maybe my sleep schedule was just too screwed up—I had to get up extra early to get the bus, and I wasn’t sleeping well at night … maybe all I needed was some rest.
A few more days of this and I really started to wonder if I could have depression. At that time, it didn’t really make any sense that I would be. I was stressed out; I was struggling in my math class, I had an allergic reaction that caused nine fingernails to completely fall off, I wasn’t sleeping well, boys were harassing me at school, people I thought were my friends weren’t paying attention to me anymore … People with depression were suicidal. I wasn’t suicidal. They cried all the time. I only cried once in a while. People who were depressed had a reason to be depressed. That’s what school taught me.
No, I wasn’t depressed … I just needed sleep and more time to adjust.
One day I went to my guidance counselor to tell her that there was a large group of boys that were regularly harassing me, my friends, and other girls in my grade. She kind of cocked her head at me and asked me if I was okay, if I was feeling depressed. I became angry, thinking that she was just trying to distract me, maybe get me to think that I was being unreasonable (I had several people in my life that tried to gaslight me like this, so I naturally assumed she was doing the same.) To my disbelief, I began crying—she hadn’t said anything to get me that mad, so why was I suddenly so upset? I calmed myself down and left.
The next day the school psychologist came to my class and asked to see me and, seeing as how it was math (math that my father the architect couldn’t even understand), I was more than happy to leave, even if I thought this lady was just trying to find problems that weren’t there. We went up to her office and talked for a while. I became extremely emotional, and, concerned, the psychologist said that this wasn’t a normal response for a healthy teenager. She met with me a few more times, introduced me to the other psychologist, had me talk with him for a while, and then they both suggested that I take an emotional wellness test.
What a weird test … multiple-choice, fill in the circled letter, with questions worded in such a way that I thought they were trying to trick me. It had questions like, “I like fast motorcycles,” and “Superman is a real person.” I didn’t see how this could tell them anything, but I answered truthfully (I was afraid that if I just filled in any old thing they’d think I was psychotic).
A few days later the test came back.
I had depression.
They set up a meeting for me with a psychologist in the city. I dug my heels in, initially refusing to go (I was not depressed!), but relented, only to get it over with. I was angry when he agreed that I was depressed, and wanted me to see one of his therapists.
I thought about it, then decided to go; okay, so maybe I wasn’t feeling well … if nothing else, I can complain to a stranger for an hour about things I couldn’t possibly talk about with my parents or friends.
So, I started seeing my therapist. She had me go to my doctor to rule out any physical causes for my depression, and when I came back otherwise healthy, she started me on the first of many medicines.
That’s when the realization fully struck me.
Oh my God … I HAD DEPRESSION.
It’s a long and winding tale from there, something I won’t get into in this particular blog. I just wanted to start by writing something that everybody can see and maybe learn something from. You see, back then, I was what a lot of people are now: uneducated about depression, and resentful of the suggestion. To me back then, to a lot of people even now, depression was some kind of weakness, a flaw, something that only those with serious problems in their lives had. I had no idea that depression could be caused by chemical imbalance. I had no idea that I didn’t need a reason to be sick … it was a long time before I realized that depression is not some kind of inconvenience, like a cold, it’s a major illness. I do know that I was afraid of what people would think of me. I know that I was scared of being put in “the nuthouse” …
But then, I found that being so depressed, so sick that you can’t get out of bed, that you feel irresistibly driven to harm yourself, that you feel like you’re going insane and have no control over your life and that maybe you never will, THAT IS MUCH SCARIER THAN ADMITTING THAT YOU ARE ILL.
I can’t help but think that when I was a kid, if we had gotten better education about depression and other mental illnesses, if my family had been upfront with me about our history of bipolar disorder, if society at large would stop treating it like a dirty secret, then I might have gotten help sooner. I might have had an easier time of it. Millions of people wouldn’t have to be suffering right now. That’s why now I’m open about my bipolar disorder, because I don’t want anyone to languish anymore.
So, bottom line: don’t hesitate, don’t fear. If you think you or a friend or relative may be depressed, get help. Get educated. Go to a hospital, get a therapist, a social worker, look at sites like the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI.org) and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (adaa.org). Don’t wait; being on medication and therapy and alive is much better than being incapacitated by misery or death.