The loss of Robin Williams last week got me thinking about my own battle with depression and how hard it was just to admit what was going on with me. I remember my doctor in Seattle always asking me if I thought I might be depressed. It was in my chart that I had a family history (for those of you that don’t know, my dad is diagnosed type 1 bipolar, which had previously been diagnosed as severe clinical depression), and I’m sure that she was just doing her job, but the question was always framed in such a way that it almost felt accusatory. I understand why so many people are afraid to admit that they might have this horrible disease.
I always lied to her and faithfully defended that although I was exhibiting many of the symptoms, I was fine. I even recall my ex-husband asking me how I could possibly be depressed? Wasn’t I happy? Didn’t he make me happy? We had just gotten married and he could not understand how the circumstances of our life could lend itself to a feeling of depression.
The thing that most people don’t understand about depression is that it isn’t a matter of happiness or gratitude – it’s that in spite of all those things, you’ve still got an overwhelming need to crawl into a hole and be alone. I often wonder if the migraines I experience are a symptom of that self-exclusion; some way for me to make it ok to want to be alone in a dark room all day. They were the worst at a point in my life when my depression went untreated (you know, back in Seattle when I was lying to my doctor about my mental health). I don’t really know what hurts worst, the physical pain of depression or the emotional pain of being a stigma, an outcast, someone who is labeled as crazy.
I will never forget three years ago when I finally “caved” and answered the doctor’s assessment questions honestly for the first time in a decade. They don’t feel so accusatory or direct anymore, but it still sucked. It was like I walked out of that room with a giant stamp on my forehead for all to see: DEPRESSED. I would walk about town with my head hanging low, as if trying to hide my scarlet “A” so that no one would look at me with pity or disgust. The thing is, no one saw me any differently that day. Or any other day.
I went home that day and admitted to my “sister-wife” (my affectionate nickname for my very dear friend whom I lived with for a short time when I relocated back to Denver that year) what had happened at my doctor’s appointment. I was devastated. I had a fear of becoming my dad. She hugged me and admitted that she was also diagnosed with severe depression and was taking the exact medication I was prescribed. Suddenly, I felt more normal – as though this stigma of the diagnosis became as banal as “has a cavity,” or “high blood pressure.” I no longer felt like an outcast of society.
Once the meds kicked in, I felt human again. I still have ups and downs, but most of the time, I feel pretty darn good.
Depression does not discriminate. The best way to make it through is to be open and honest with yourself and others about who you are and what you’re going through. Don’t be too proud to ask for help.
As for the rest of you that are lucky enough not to be tortured by this disease, I offer you the following advice: Love more. Judge less. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and don’t be afraid to seek help. If you see someone who has fallen, be the first to help them up. Depression kills. Kindness and compassion saves lives.