I write to you after a much needed break from, well, everything. I can’t say that I took this break willingly. Quite the opposite actually. Something crept in and gave me no choice but to slow down. That ‘something’ is what I’d like to share with you today.
I last blogged in May and headed off to a distant island the size of Connecticut – Jamaica! I spent a wonderful week in blissful gratitude for each experience, but I returned in June feeling less than renewed after a week in paradise. I knew that something wasn’t quite right. A friend suggested maybe I was experiencing post-vacation blues, and maybe I was for a while, but a heaviness developed and carried over into July. I wasn’t willing to admit it at the time, but I knew something was terribly off. July faintly blurred into August, September, and eventually October.
I do a wonderful job of convincing myself that it isn’t what it really is. It couldn’t be. I’m fine. I just need to work a little harder in school, do a little more at home, go for a long run or spend some extra time with Lucas. Those THINGS will make me feel better. Yes, I’ll feel better. It can’t be what I think it is. No, it absolutely cannot be that. I don’t want it to be that. It would be too embarrassing to admit to those closest to me that indeed, my depression has returned.
I can remember experiencing intense episodes of anxiety beginning in the 4th grade. Battles with depression began at age 14. My anxiety has consistently hung around since I was young, but depression is less predictable for me and appears whenever it so pleases. I am always amazed at how quietly it returns the very moment I least expect it. At those times when strangers look at my life and think to themselves, “Wow, what a beautiful life she is living. What could ever make her so incredibly sad?”
I rarely talk about this with friends, and most family members don’t know the depth of the suffering, and that is okay. I choose safe environments in which to share my story, and I am infinitely grateful when the heaviness lifts just enough to allow me a clear mind and the ability to share my experience once again.
I recently described to a friend what my struggle looks like, feels like, sounds like. He encouraged me to share this on the blog when I felt ready, so here goes nothing!
Depression is quite unique to every individual, so I can only speak on my experience. I’d like to first say that this is truly difficult for me to share but imperative that it be spread for others to hear. As I mentioned, I have seen depression come and go since I was a teenager. It invites itself into my life at any age, during my happiest moments and worst of days. It doesn’t care how far I’ve come or what accomplishments I’ve achieved. It pays no mind to how grateful I am to be alive and healthy. It comes, and it stays, on its own terms.
It looks like a dark room inside of my head. Sometimes the door is open, allowing darkness to creep out and into each facet of my life. In the early stages, it covers my world with a haze, and I wonder why everyone else is outside playing in the sun. It tells me to fear the future, to doubt my dreams, and to stay inside – literally, and as the dark builds, I begin to avoid all social interaction unless it is absolutely necessary. Cancelling on friends, avoiding phone calls, slinking through my house so that the neighbors don’t know that I’m home. It makes me anxious to chat with even my closest of friends because I’m too embarrassed to admit that I’m suffocating under something so heavy that I wouldn’t get out of bed were it not for the sole purpose that I need to get Lucas to school. It asks me why I even bother showering when there is no one to see. It tells me that nobody cares enough to look my way anyway. In the darkest hours, I lack any excitement for being outdoors, I feel completely uninspired creatively, and I am unable to read for pleasure. But you’d never know because I continue to smile through the hurt. And honestly, I will deny deny deny that anything is wrong. I’ll push through it. Because I’m fine. It is only when I meet with my best friend for lunch and she comments that I ‘have a sort of melancholy about me’ that I know it’s time to seek help.
Depression is such a good liar that after 4 months of barely avoiding a mental breakdown, I am completely convinced that this will not pass, and I need to tell someone that I cannot ride it out alone any longer. So I seek the comfort of a few close friends. Some of us even have code words and phrases. One loved one in particular looks me in the eye and asks, “Is it bad-bad?” and when I answer yes, we drop everything we are doing and talk strategy. We discuss my thoughts and whether they entertain the suicidal dance, and if so, I reinforce that I am okay but absolutely not okay at the same time. I am experiencing too much heaviness, but remarkably at the very same time I hold an area of awareness that knows that this episode will pass. So for the moment I feel stuck. I feel awful. I am tired. It is heavy. Joy and happiness are so distant that I can hardly tell if I still see them or if everything is an illusion. I feel empty. And hollow. I can’t tell you what day it is or who I am, and no one’s laughter brings an ounce of joy. And I am floating in this strange moment where I exist in both the darkness and the light.
October arrived and my body completely gave up. A quote comes to mind: “The body keeps count and it always wins.” Anxiety and depression had taken their toll. After multiple trips to the doctor, an infection, an ulcer, the flu, and bronchitis in 4 weeks’ time – I began praying for it to end. For the darkness to lift, for my health to return, and for my life back. After antibiotics, rest, and one hell of a support system intervening, I am grateful to say that it has lifted, and the darkness has passed for now. With gratitude, I am able to speak about my experience, and the only conclusion I can make is that there is NO health without mental health, and we need to start talking openly about it. Now.
I wanted to share my experience on the blog because I believe it is imperative that we spread mental health awareness and share our stories to as many people as possible. The stigma surrounding anxiety and depression still exists today – and I’d be lying if I said I am completely stigma-free in my thinking. I must admit, even I feel ashamed some days that I struggle. But this is the very reason we must be brave and speak up. We need to talk about our experiences, our good thoughts and our not-so-good thoughts, our highs and our lows, our joys and our sadness. We must share with our friends, parents, spouses, and children. Hell, I’d even like to see mental health discussions as prevalent as sex education and drug-use prevention in our school systems. Mental illness is a national epidemic, and we cannot blame ourselves or feel ashamed any longer. It is OKAY to feel sad, to struggle, to experience anxiety and depression, to feel the good and the not-so-good because all of it is a part of the human experience. No one is to blame. We need not feel ashamed.
I am completely saddened when people talk about those suffering with mental illness and make comments like, “Why can’t she just snap out of it?” We would never look at a cancer patient and ask why her body can’t heal itself, so we absolutely cannot look at those suffering with mental illness and wonder the same. Mental illness is a disease and we cannot control the onset.
To those of you reading who have struggled in the past, are struggling now, or know someone who struggles – my heart goes out to you. I may not understand your individual struggle, but I hear you and I see you, and I know how difficult this moment seems. Please remember, it is not your fault if depression sneaks up on you and lies to you too. It hurts and it is heavy, but it is possible to live with it and to grow with it. I think for me, accepting that depression is a part of my life is where the healing process begins. I’ve begun to ask myself daily, “Can I accept that depression may be with me for the rest of my life? What does life look like after acceptance? Is this where my life begins? ” Maybe accepting it and not blaming myself is my path to healthy living. Or as a wise teacher suggests, “We can lay out the welcome mat for everything in our lives. To be with it all.”
I struggled to write this post because I don’t have any good answers when it comes to living with mental illness. I wanted to lift people up and say, “Here’s how you can live successfully with depression!!” But the honest truth is that I don’t have any answers at all. Sometimes I don’t know what to say when I am struggling or when my loved ones are struggling, and that is such a difficult truth to live with. But that’s okay. It’s okay that we don’t have all the answers. It’s okay that we suffer, and it’s PHENOMENAL when we regain our health and return to the light. No matter how long it takes. 5 months, 5 years, 5 lifetimes. It’s okay. Sometimes we don’t need the answers, we just need to know that we’re not alone in our suffering. And I truly believe that THAT’S enough to ignite the healing process. To know that we are never alone. To be present with it ALL – the good AND the not-so-good. We CAN live healthier, lighter lives. Every experience is teaching us something. Life is here for us now.
The end of this 5 month battle has bloomed the most magnificent beginning I’ve felt in years. I’m still here. I live with depression, and that’s okay. I accept it. The welcome mat for everything in my life is here to stay. Not everything is pretty, or light, or easy now. I still have my not-so-good moments, and stressful times are here to stay. Accepting things as they are doesn’t mean that things are always good, it just means that we choose to be with it all, to see and hear and allow whatever is in front of us to be, to run its course, and to end. I know that this period of good will be followed by some not-so-good stuff. And that’s okay. That is the ebb and flow that is life. Thankfully what I know now after years and years of dwelling in my suffering is that as one moment comes to an end, the beginning of another is what keeps our inner being alive, growing ever so quietly toward the light.
An ending, a beginning, it is all here for us now.
May you have the strength to be with it all.
Light & love,