I suffer from depression. I don't just feel blue on bad days. I don't just have so-so days that improve with yoga or time with friends. My depression is physiological, relentless, and unforgiving. When it strikes, even the simplest of tasks — like getting dressed or taking a shower — seem insurmountable.
Depression is a disease, but unlike others with "conventional" illnesses, I won't ask friends for help or call in sick because I don't want to risk any judgment that might come with a plea for help. I don't want people to treat me differently because I have a mental illness.
I must take medication every day of my life to live. It's very similar to how people with heart disease or diabetes take medication to improve their condition. Medication assures me the ability to get up in the morning, take care of my family, work my job, and sleep through the night.
Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it?
Understand this: without medication, I can do none of those things. Without medication, I have no interest in day-to-day living. I force myself to go to work, I grapple with attention issues, and I struggle to maintain relationships with even my closest friends. I overcompensate by being loud and boisterous or I simply withdraw.
Without medication, I am consumed with overwhelming sadness so intense that it terrifies me. I can find no happiness in the things that otherwise bring me joy: music, words, faith. There is only silence. When that element takes hold, I can barely think — let alone act — rationally.
Last December, I stopped my anti-depressant medication because I felt confident that I had arrived at a place in life where I no longer needed medical intervention. I'd had a great 2014: I began blogging, published two books, and wrote articles on the wonder of turning 60. I felt as though I'd conquered my demons, and I wanted the opportunity to be "normal" like everyone else; to not be tied to pills every day. I decided to go off medication and my doctor supported the decision.
The downward spiral began almost immediately. At first the changes were subtle: I didn't sleep well. I became irritated over trivial things, like someone taking the last pen off my desk. As the days passed, I felt an inflated sense of urgency about everything, from getting a haircut to organizing my finances. Everything felt extreme.
Even then, I believed that I was fine, that I had it all under control. I was still working. I was seeing friends. I was taking a spiritual class for fun. I believed that I was happy. What I didn't realize was that I had lost myself.
In February, I tried to drive my car into a tree. I have no real memory of it other than swerving out of the way at the last moment. Then I went to work, and for six hours, I did what we who suffer from this illness do: I went through the motions of doing my job. In the end, a casual conversation with my boss precipitated a flood of tears, and she took steps to get me the help I so desperately needed
I was fortunate that someone was there for me, but that's not always the case for folks who suffer from this disease. Confronting depression in others frightens many people because it makes them feel helpless and afraid. Therein lies the conundrum. Those who suffer from this disease often won't reach out for fear of judgment. Those who don't suffer from depression often know it only through stereotypical "crazy" people we meet in movies or literature. (Think Jack Nicholson in The Shining.)
Everyone wrings their hands when someone they know (or someone famous) commits suicide. There are inevitable judgments attached to the act: they were cowards, they didn't think about those they left behind, etc.
As someone who has struggled with debilitating depression, I wish there were more understanding around this issue. With medication, sometimes suicides can be avoided, just as sometimes medication for high blood pressure can prevent a heart attack. But we'd never blame someone for her heart disease.
Even as I write this, I worry about how I will be viewed for speaking out about my experience. Will I be perceived as "crazy?" Will people walk on eggshells around me, afraid that I will hurt myself in their presence?
My hope is to create a little more compassion in the world around a difficult topic. True depression is a physiological short in our wiring —not a reason to back away from us in fear, or to pass judgment on us as weak or confused.