These days, it seems like half of everyone I know is on anti-depressants, and I’m a little conflicted about that. On one hand, I’ve personally been on the receiving end of the stigma and all of the worst judgmental attitudes that accompany mental illness, and so anything that de-stigmatizes depression, mental illness, and psychiatric care is a good thing in my book.
On the other hand, the cynic in me thinks that out of all of those people, there surely must be some hasty or incorrect diagnoses. And on a third, anatomically-incorrect but especially wise hand, I realize it’s none of my business; I don’t know these people, their lives, their doctors, or their brains. And just as I’d hate to have anyone judge me for the way that my illness manifests itself, I really can’t impose my own experiences on other people regarding what is an intensely personal situation. And that’s the problem with depression. It’s so personal, so isolating, that we think no one else can possibly experience what we have.
In the seventeen years or so that I’ve been actively dealing with my mental illness, I’ve had six different diagnoses. I was diagnosed as bipolar while still in high school, and was put on lithium and Valium. That’s when we figured out I was misdiagnosed, big time. Since then, I’ve had a variety of treatments, some of which worked, some of which kind of worked, and some of which made me worse than when I started. My current doctor is a firm believer in the patient having input into their own treatment, and since I’m somewhat of an obsessive researcher, this works out well for me. I’ve been seeing the same doctor for about eight years, and we have a good routine, and he knows my brain pretty well. Our treatment plan consists of treating my symptoms, rather than a particular diagnosis, and that’s been working well. I’ve been in therapy a number of times over the years, which has been helpful, but I haven’t been in a long time, as my illness, as I experience it now, is far more chemical than situational. I also have an anxiety disorder (or possibly a panic disorder, or maybe both- we’re still working that one out), and this is my “visible” illness: the social anxiety, the sudden sensitivity to noise and crowds and too many things going on, the paralyzing fear of walking into a public place I’ve never been before, the decision that it’s easier to stay home than to go somewhere new; all of that is out there and hard to hide. Depression, though, is harder to spot if you don’t know what you’re looking for, and so it becomes a secret illness, one you try to hide and one others can’t really see.
In the beginning, I tried my absolute hardest to keep my illness and the fact that I was medicated hidden, but it wasn’t a secret to my closest friends and my family, and I received some surprisingly harsh reactions from those who were closest to me. I had one parent who was completely supportive of my treatment plan, and one who wasn’t. My supportive parent had been diagnosed with a similar illness a few years prior, and was a strong proponent of medical treatment, even though it was not the norm at the time. My other parent, while very clearly wanting the best for me and having had a difficult time with seeing me in the worst stages of my illness before medication, made pretty clear that they thought I was just having “moods,” and that psychiatric care and medication was an unnecessary crutch, especially in a teenager. (Ironically, fast forward about fifteen years, and that parent is now medicated and extolling the virtues of psychiatric medication. I’m more glad that it’s working out than I am upset over the shift in opinion. It took me a while to get there.)
Meeting other people who have been diagnosed with and are being treated for mental illness is a relief, in a way. Depression, especially, is an inherently solitary illness, and though knowing that other people are suffering it doesn’t make you any less depressed, it does go a long way in feeling a little less isolated. Hearing other people talk about their depression, though, sometimes perplexes me, because I’ve been living with it for so long that I sometimes forget that other people’s experiences can be so different from my own. I hear others describe their depression in a way that sounds very much like me when I’m in a slightly melancholy mood. I rarely meet anyone who can identify with me when I talk about what a depressive episode is like for me.
My depression manifests mostly as a complete lack of drive, motvation, and energy. While that sounds pretty common (I mean, doesn’t everyone sometimes feel like not doing anything?), this lack of drive means I can’t gather the energy or desire to lift my head from the pillow, to get out of bed, to take a shower, to eat breakfast, sometimes to even pull the blankets up after they’ve fallen to the ground. A trip to the kitchen is unfathomable. Summoning the ability to have a conversation is impossible. My mind seems incapable of creating new thoughts. I’m thinking about nothing, in the scariest sense possible. When a thought does enter my head, it’s generally self-defeating and negative. I’m convinced I’ll never snap out of it, that it’s not worth it to even move to the next room. I cut off all interactions, whether in person, on the phone, even online. I avoid my usual Internet communities. I convince myself that I have nothing of value or worth to say, and that even if I did, no one would be listening. I frustrate my friends and family, who want nothing more than to see me happy, but often don’t realize what an impossibility “happy” can be. In the midst of a depressive episode, I’m completely alone, no matter how many supportive people are around me. And I want to be alone. I want everything to be quiet and still and I don’t want to have to try to spend any of my tiny reserve of energy on trying to act normal for the people around me.
So when I say that knowing other people with depression and other mental illnesses are all around me is reassuring and makes me feel more “normal,” I say that with the pretty major caveat that I know I’m not exactly normal. It’s not that I just get sad sometimes. I shut down. I turn off. I lose my ability to function in any sort of way that’s productive. And I just can’t believe that there are other people, with my diagnosis, on the same medications I take, who are going through this, too. I feel like they must handle it better. They must have it all managed. And then I realize that they’re making that part of them invisible, too, just like I do. So there’s a whole bunch of us out there who are all feeling completely isolated, totally solitary, due almost entirely to the fact that the very thing that we have in common makes us think we’re all alone.
And that’s why I feel it’s important to talk about it. Maybe someone will read my description of my depression, the same situation I find myself in, over and over again for the better part of two decades, and that person will have a name for the things they’re feeling. They’ll know someone else is going through it, too. Because no matter how well you manage mental illness, it’s still always there. And I’ll admit I’m guilty of thinking that many of the other people who say they’re depressed, who take anti-depressants, who carry that label around with them, aren’t really depressed. And I think this because their experiences are different from mine. But having lived for so long, going through things that other people can’t or don’t understand, trying desperately to make it clear that I’m not just sad or upset or having a bad day, well, you’d think I’d be more understanding.
But just as depression is inherently solitary, it’s also inherently selfish, in the strictest sense of the word. You withdraw so far into yourself that you are unable to think of other people. So I feel I owe it to myself, when I’m at a point when I can articulate myself and share my experiences, that I talk about it. Sometimes just knowing that someone else knows exactly what you’re talking about can make all the difference, even if you aren’t interacting with them. So while a support group for people with depression wouldn’t be a viable option for me, if only for the fact that when I’m having a depressive episode, it would be a physical and mental impossibility for me to get up and go to a place where I’d have to interact with other people, just knowing that my experiences are shared by others is a little spark of support. And sometimes, a little spark is all you can hope for.