A few days ago my sister sent me this post. If you haven’t already read it… you should immediately. After reading it I felt as though I needed to keep the conversation going and write about my own struggles with depression. For those of you who read my blog or follow me on social media, you know that I mention it occasionally or post articles about struggles with mental health but I’ve never publicly gone into detail about my battle with my own mental illness. It’s scary to talk about something that people don’t really understand unless they’ve battled with it themselves. It’s scary to talk about something that has such a deep-rooted negative stigma. As I continue to hear about people choosing to take their own lives and read about suicide the more evident it becomes that this is something that needs to be talked about, no matter how scary it is.
Since middle school I have struggled with depression although at the age of 12 I didn’t have a word for what I was dealing with. I just knew that it wasn’t “normal” to wish I didn’t exist. Instead of telling someone about the dark thoughts I was having I kept it all to myself. I didn’t know that I wasn’t alone in what I was struggling with. It was also engrained in my head that suicide equaled hell. So not only was I scared because I thought I was alone in this, I was also convinced that I was a bad person for having suicidal thoughts. While my inner dialogue grew darker and more debilitating, the person people saw was flourishing. I stayed busy with cheerleading in the fall and winter and soccer in the spring. I had a big group of friends and was active in numerous extra curricular activities. I made good grades. I went to church every Sunday and Wednesday. To everyone who saw me I was happy and well-rounded with a bright future ahead of me. I was 14 when I told a friend that the marks on my wrists and arms were from my cat. Soon after I began wearing stacks of woven bracelets and bands to avoid questions.
By the time college rolled around I was still struggling and still didn’t feel as though I could ask for help or talk about what was really going on. The only people who ever saw something more going on was my family who were witness to my outbursts when I couldn’t control my emotions nor understand why I was reacting the way that I did. The door to my room has long been destroyed from me slamming it as hard as I could on multiple occasions. The snow globe collection I have consists of more broken globes than intact ones from my outbursts. But in a way that also helped mask the real issue at hand by instead writing it off as a bad temper. I hoped that once I got to college that things would change. I thought that maybe once I was happy enough that the thoughts would go away and I would become “normal.” I didn’t realize that depression had nothing to do with happiness.
“It always shocked me when I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought and felt such strange and awful things.” –Looking For Alaska, John Green
In August of 2008, I moved into my dream school, Wofford. Everything was going great. I had no trouble making friends, was on the cheerleading squad and I felt as though I had all the opportunities in the world. I was going to do great things. I was going to get rid of whatever was wrong with me. I was going to be normal. Then things started to fall apart. I stopped showing up for morning cheerleading practice. I skipped class more and more frequently. I couldn’t stand to be alone. Every night I either drank enough to pass out or slept on my best friend’s floor. By the time Christmas break rolled around I was on Academic Probation. My parents didn’t want me to go back but I promised them I would do better. I promised myself I would do better. And I did. I did a little better but still not enough. At the end of Spring Semester I was told that if I didn’t attend Summer School and make a certain GPA then I couldn’t come back in the Fall. Somehow I managed to get it together enough for the summer to make the grades and was able to be back at Wofford in the fall. For the next two years, things went by relatively smoothly. I still knew something was wrong with me, but I lived with my best friend and rarely had to spend time alone. We fell asleep every night with the doors to our cubes open. So from sophomore year up until the end of Junior year I did what I was supposed to. I went to class, made good grades and was able to attend sorority functions since my GPA was once again decent. By the end of Junior year though, something changed. There wasn’t really a specific incident but I began to spiral again. I dropped out of my sorority, stopped eating, decided I didn’t want to go to summer school and began making bad decisions. Luckily, I had a more-or-less responsibility free summer living at home and nannying. I spent the weekends visiting friends and the week working on my tan at the pool. I had big plans for Senior year and I was excited to be living with three of my best friends.
“I couldn’t be with people and I didn’t want to be alone. Suddenly my perspective whooshed and I was far out in space, watching the world. I could see millions and millions of people, all slotted into their lives; then I could see me—I’d lost my place in the universe. It had closed up and there was nowhere for me to be. I was more lost than I had known it was possible for any human being to be.” – Anybody Out There?, Marian Keyes
First semester went by without any real hitches. My grades were good. My friends and I were spending quality time together and I was happy. But you see? That’s the thing about depression. It doesn’t care how happy you are or how great your life is going. It strikes back when it wants, with a vengeance, and a lot of the time without being triggered by anything at all. Four months before graduation I began the worst downhill spiral I had experienced so far during my entire struggle. I stopped going to class and spent most of the day holed up in my dark room in bed. When I wasn’t in bed I was bouncing from place to place. I couldn’t eat. I went days without showering. I lost my temper on my roommates. I didn’t show up for important events. I made my best friend cry when she came to visit. I was turning into someone the people I was closest to didn’t recognize.
A month before graduation my mom showed up on campus after my friends and professors had contacted her. I somehow convinced her to leave. I said that I was fine! Everything was great! No one knew what they were talking about! They were just mad at me! None of that was true. My mom knew it. Everyone knew it. But what can you do short of forcibly removing a person from a situation? I felt trapped. I became convinced that none of my friends liked me anymore. I felt myself continue to slip and become more and more withdrawn into myself.
In the fall after my senior year I found myself sobbing in my doctor’s office after a particularly rough night where all I could manage to do was rock back and forth in a fetal position on my bed because my mind was moving so fast I felt as though I were going to explode. I remember crying that night, talking to myself repeating that I wanted to die, that being alive just hurt too much. I didn’t want to do it anymore. We decided I should try out an antidepressant. I remember sitting in my car after picking up the prescription from Walgreens and crying some more. I was embarrassed and scared that I was going to have to take a pill every single day. But I was desperate. I knew I needed help. I knew that I was getting worse and it was getting more and more difficult to control what was happening to me. That February I got a job working as a journalist. I was excited. It was a real job with benefits and I got to say I was a reporter. I felt like everything was finally coming together. I thought that I was “all better.” I stopped taking my pills.
Things took a sharp downhill direction after that. One morning my little sister had to physically get me out of the fetal position I had assumed in my bed and dress me for work. I was a shell. I felt nothing. I showed up late to work if I even showed up at all. I stopped eating. I couldn’t make myself care about anything. And then I was fired.
Soon after, my mom convinced me I needed to go back on my medication and I haven’t been off it since. I’ve learned that I’m never going to be “all better.” Last winter I experienced another difficult “dark time.” I got in bed after work until the next morning when I dragged myself back to work if I even was able to get out of bed. I picked fights with my boyfriend. I hid from my friends. I drank too much. I spent money that I didn’t have. I added more scars to the collection on my arm.
There are still times when I can’t feel anything. There are times when I stand outside in just a t-shirt in the February night air and still don’t feel cold. There are times when I stare at a razor blade in my hand and want so desperately to create a thin line on my arm just so I can feel it. Just to feel something.
But then it gets better. Not immediately but it does. Sometimes it takes longer to recover. Sometimes the lows aren’t as low as the last time and sometimes they’re lower. But it always gets better.
If I had to choose one thing that I regret in my life it would be not talking to someone about my suicidal thoughts when I first had them. I wish that I had known that I wasn’t the only person who felt how I felt and thought the way that I felt. If I had known there were other people like me it would have been easier to talk about it.
Instead, I thought I was a bad person. I thought that I had something evil and terrible inside of me that was rotten. But I’m not rotten. I’m sick. I will always be sick. I will always have this illness. But that isn’t all that my identity is based upon.
I read things about depression and bipolar and suicide every day. I see posts on social media from people saying that suicide is selfish. That depression isn’t real, if you’re strong enough you can overcome it. Depression isn’t sadness. Sure, being sad sometimes goes right along with it, but when I’m sad, I am sad. I am also depressed. When I’m happy, I am happy. I am also depressed. Depression is an illness in the brain that you don’t have control over. Similarly to how you can’t really control having cancer. You can’t beat cancer just from being strong. It takes more than willpower to overcome cancer. Just like how it takes more than willpower to overcome depression. Mental disorders. Eating disorders. Substance abuse. Alcoholism. They don’t just go away through the power of positive thinking.
“It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other easily understood disease just to make it easier on me and also on them.”-All The Bright Places, Jennifer Niven
It’s hard to explain to someone who has never struggled with depression why you can’t get out of bed. It’s such a simple task – you roll over, put your feet on the ground and stand up. But it’s not that simple. People call suicide selfish because they don’t understand what it’s like to struggle with a mental illness. They don’t understand what it’s like to feel as though you’re trapped in some dark abyss with no way of getting out and can only sink deeper. They don’t understand what it’s like to feel as though the only way to stop hurting and to gain peace is to kill yourself. They don’t understand what it’s like to feel as though committing suicide would be the most selfless thing to do for those that care about you because you feel as though you are that much of a burden.
When people lose their lives to cancer we understand. The treatments stopped working. Surgery wasn’t enough. They fought as hard as they could but it still, somehow, wasn’t enough. Suicide is someone losing their battle with depression or mental illness. Whether it’s because they were too afraid to ask for help and therefore it went on untreated or maybe the pills just stopped being effective. Therapy stopped helping. They succumbed to the disease that has infected their lives.
We need to stop being afraid to ask for help when we’re struggling with suicidal thoughts. I think of how different things could have been, not only for me, but others who have struggled the same as I have. Especially for those who lost their fight with the illness. If only the conversation had been open. If only it wasn’t so scary and we weren’t so afraid of what we would be labeled as if we chose to actually admit what is actually going on.
I have allowed depression to take so much from me. I have let it ruin relationships, jobs, school. It has left me with scars and a wake of destruction in my path. It has left me with a broken heart when I have come out of one of the spirals and have come face-to-face with the damage I have done.
But it has also given me things. It has given me an understanding of people and has made my love for people grow. It has given me a greater sense compassion. It has given me a desire to be better. And now it has given me a voice and a (for the most part) fearlessness in talking about it. For every time it has made me weak, it has also given me strength.
Depression doesn’t look like a person dressed all in black sitting alone. Although it sometimes does. Depression looks like me. It could look like you. It doesn’t discriminate based on the color of your skin, if you’re into girls or guys or both, your religion, where you shop, if you have a good relationship with your parents, if you have parents at all.
I urge you to stop labeling those suffering with mental illness as crazy. I urge you to stop stereotyping what mental illness looks like. I urge you to stop referring to suicide as selfish. I urge you to stop thinking that depression is something that can be overcome if you’re strong enough. I urge you not to tiptoe around the cause of death when someone commits suicide. I urge you to be open if you’re struggling. And I urge you to continue the conversation if you have your own story to add.