I’d like to dedicate some posts talking about the specifics of mental illness. This isn’t about self-pity or pointing fingers. It’s about trying to give those who don’t know mental illness a better understanding of what it really is, and letting those who do suffer from it know they are not alone.
Let’s start with depression. Depression is darkness. That has always been the best way for me to describe it. If you’ve never experienced depression, try spending an entire day living in a completely dark house. Try to do all of your normal daily activities without a shred of light. This is how living with depression feels, only it is an even deeper darkness, one that sinks into your stomach, one that carves a big, hollow pit out inside your chest, your heart. It is hopelessness.
When I first started experiencing depression as a sophomore in high school, I didn’t understand it. I just knew how different I felt, how lonely, how sad. I wasn’t entirely sure why I was so sad, I just was. And it’s not that I didn’t try. I tried so damn hard! So hard to be good, to do what was right, to be what I was expected to be. Yet the walls of happiness and hope turned black and closed in on me. I remember the agony of walking to school each day. I’d leave my house hoping it would be a good day, but with each step I took, the sicker I got. Yes, I would become physically ill to the point I could barely walk, barely talk, I always felt as if I were going to throw up. There was this particularly rough time my junior year of high school where I was so depressed and so sick that I barely ate anything. I lost ten pounds in two weeks. For a tall, thin girl, that was a lot to lose. It took months of regular eating to get it back.
It’s easy for others to think that you can just get over depression, to think, “Just try harder.” Believe me, we do try. Mental illness warps your sense of reality, though. It makes you do things a healthy person wouldn’t do. Things like contemplating suicide, self-harming, telling yourself over and over again how worthless you are. This behavior is normal for someone with depression. It’s lonely, and it’s exhausting. There have been times I’ve looked at other women who have four, five, six children and wonder how in the world they do it. When my depression was at its worst, I could barely handle my two. I just felt so exhausted all the time. Even when I would get a good night’s sleep, I felt like a zombie all the time during the day. Another good experiment for those who don’t know what depression is like would be to strap heavy weights to your ankles and wrists. Try spending an entire day like this. Go to work, make the bed, do dishes, do laundry, play with your kids, spend time with your spouse all day and night like this. That’s how it feels doing these things with depression—all day, every day for weeks, months, years. But you can’t just unstrap the weights attached to your mind and your emotions. Yes, there are things you can do to help. I talked about it in a previous post. But just like there is no one set cure for cancer, there is no one set cure for depression.
So for those of you living with depression, you are not alone. I know it’s so hard to open up and allow yourselves to be vulnerable, but if you do, you will be surprised at how many others you find that are like you. And for those of you who don’t have depression, but know or live with someone who does, please be compassionate. Be patient and understanding. No, you don’t have to just let a depressed person get away with everything, but be gentle and helpful. If there is a task they need to accomplish, offer to help them with it. I remember one time the kitchen was a huge mess, and I just couldn’t bring myself to clean it. I could tell it would give me a panic attack. So my ex-husband suggested we do it together. He said he would do the dishes if I cleaned off the table. Suddenly that monumental task seemed a bit smaller—small enough that I could do it. Listen to what someone with depression has to say. Don’t assume you know what’s best for them. Let them tell you. And just be there for them. I know it can be hard. I’ve seen both sides of the coin. I have lived with mental illness myself, and I have lived with someone who has it. Neither is easy. But if we all had a bit more understanding, compassion and empathy, what a world of difference it could make!