I have depression and anxiety. It’s not really a secret, I just don’t really talk about it. Which I guess kind of makes it a secret, just not one I never fully intended to keep. I was diagnosed a little over 4 years ago when I made an appointment with a neuropsychologist to determine if I had ADD, desperately hoping there was a reason for how I felt, but not a real serious reason, you know?
Because of my lack of “official” school records, I could not be diagnosed with ADD. However, I could be diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Not severe. Not even terribly bad. The doctor did not recommend medication, but he did recommend cognitive behavioral therapy, which I have yet to commit to.
I can remember being sad for no reason as early as 11 or 12. I would have a few periods of that every now and then and basically I’d just give in to it, cry my eyes out, and move on. I made that work for me without questioning it or thinking too much about it. Eventually, it manifested in other ways that were seriously affecting my life… which is what led me to the doctor, someone my friend knew from guitar class (thank God I had good health insurance at the time).
As soon as the doctor told me he was diagnosing me with depression and anxiety, I thought, “OF COURSE”. I felt this huge weight come off me. I almost cried I was so relieved.
That seems weird, right? That I’d be happy to be diagnosed with depression? But let me tell you… I thought I was just terrible at life. I’d get overwhelmed by housework and just shut the door on it. Literally. I’d ignore it because I couldn’t deal with it. I’d forget to pay my bills on time and then being late with them would stress me out so much that I would ignore them further. I know. It makes NO SENSE. But it did to me at the time; it’s how I got through the day. I’m STILL dealing with the fact that I was unable to complete my tax forms four years in a row. I also perseverate. That’s how I like to refer to it. That one foolish or awkward thing I said? That moment I accidently insulted someone? I hold onto it and revisit it over and over and over again. If I did one stupid thing, I would revisit all the other stupid things that I had ever done. I also perseverate on all the things that can possibly go wrong in my life. It sounds like a joke, but I worry a lot about having left appliances on when I leave the apartment, or did I leave the car doors unlocked? I worry that something’s happened to my husband if he’s home late from work (that this patient man continues to lovingly deal with my anxiety is one of the greatest gifts in my life). I worry about why a family member is calling me in the middle of the day. Did I check to make sure the cat wasn’t in the spare room before I shut the door and left the apartment? I perseverate. About everything that could possibly go wrong, which apparently leads to a need to control everything.
Amazingly, I was still mostly managing to be good at my jobs over the years. Helping people complete the same activities I could not do on my own, like housecleaning, bill paying, grocery shopping, meal planning, etc. Helping to coordinate massive city-wide grant processes. Renewing millions of dollars of grants for housing for people dealing with homelessness. I ended up losing a job the week before my first appointment with the doctor who would end up diagnosing me. I made the appointment because I knew I was slipping… and I didn’t know how to reach out for help, so I went looking for an ADD diagnosis because that one seemed okay to me. I’m an alpha personality. I’m a superhero. I help others – I don’t need any help myself because I can do it all. At least that’s what I thought. And I hid the fact that I was drowning from everyone.
It didn’t take me long to come to grips with having these things, especially since it was kind of a relief to find out that I don’t suck at life and there’s a reason that some things are really hard for me to do. But it’s taken me about 4 years to come to grips that I actually need to do something about it and get better at taking care of myself so I can keep functioning in the world.
I accepted the diagnosis. I figured I knew what was wrong with me and now I’d just move on.
What happened was that I ignored it. I refused to let it get me down. But I didn’t do anything to stop it, I just refused. That’s not really effective, FYI.
Let me say this: I am extraordinarily lucky in that I do not need to take medication. I’m able to control it primarily with exercise and strategically scheduled downtime. I’m not against medication at all; I’ve witnessed how it can appear to be nearly miraculous in helping people with severe depression. I know that I am lucky that my depression is not that severe.
So back to the beginning of the post… sometimes the worst thing is that there’s no reason. If I tell someone that I’m having a really crappy week, their first response is to ask me why. I don’t want to sound flippant and say, “I have depression, that’s why”. Because I don’t want to be snarky at that time. I don’t want to be anything, actually. I pretty much have no desires at all. I feel blank. Why is my week crappy? Because it’s crappy. Why am I sad? Because I’m sad and there’s no reason and that’s making me even sadder, because I can’t explain it. I’m just… blank. I don’t care about anything. I don’t enjoy anything. I want to, and the wanting to enjoy things without being able to makes me feel even crappier. It’s a vicious circle. And the thing is… I can fake it. I can go out and I might even briefly feel good. But it’s for a moment and then it comes crashing down again. I don’t always feel like this. It comes in waves. And I’m beginning to get pretty good at actually coping with the triggers that I learned to recognize a long time ago. It gets worse in the winter when there’s less sunlight. It gets worse if I stop exercising. Seriously, the improvement to my mood if I go for even a 15 minute run before work is nothing short of miraculous in my mind. It gets worse when I don’t eat healthily.
I’m currently clawing my way out of one of these waves now. It was building for quite some time; I saw all the signs and I completely ignored them, hoping they’d go away (they never do). I couldn’t keep track of everything I needed to do – including a friend’s baby shower I’d known about for weeks, which I ended up flaking on. I was planning a wedding in the middle of all of this and told myself I just didn’t have time to not be well right now. And I was angry at myself for not always being able to feel happy when I knew I was happy. A couple months after the wedding, it just became overwhelming. I dragged my ass out of bed every morning and forced myself to go to work. Then I would come home and sit on the couch until my husband got home. I would sit next to him for an hour or so and go to bed. Lather, rinse, repeat. The breaking point came a couple months ago. I had a pretty bad tension headache from clenching my jaw all week (a thing I do when I’m stressed out or anxious), and it hurt bad enough to give me an excuse to leave a social event early. And even though it didn’t hurt at all the next day, I used it as an excuse again to get out of brunch with some friends. Because what do you say? That I can’t come today because I just can’t deal? That I can’t deal with one more day of pretending I’m fine when I am not? That the thought of having to fake it one more day made me burst into tears before I even got out of bed? Because saying those things makes me feel incompetent. A headache is a much better excuse. Of course, all the people who I bailed on read this blog. So now they know. Now everyone knows. And that is extremely scary. It’s one thing to say, “I have depression”. It’s another to say, “This is what depression looks like for me and all the ways I have difficulty navigating the world sometimes”. I’m not ashamed of having depression…. But I do feel shame at not being able to deal with it. I’m not saying that’s right. I’m just saying I do.
I’m struggling to climb out of this hole. I was trying to run every day until I was sidelined by shin splints, so now I’m trying to get up every morning and do a lower-stress workout routine. I vowed to buy a huge calendar so I could remember all my promises to go places with people…. But unfortunately not before I flaked on a really good friend’s wedding shower. The calendar now sits right next to the couch so I see it every night and remember all my appointments and plans. I’ve added additional doses of vitamins B-12 and D to my morning multivitamin. I’m trying to cook dinner each night instead of eating chips and salsa for dinner before my husband comes home. And although I’m mostly a social drinker, I’m still trying to cut back on how much alcohol I drink. And I’m looking into therapy. I’m still only at the “looking into” stage with that one, because it’s the hardest. It’s hard for me to admit that I need help with something.
I feel terrible for my new husband… since I fell into this hole just a couple months after we got married. And he has been nothing but wonderful. We’ve had a few talks about how I need time alone each weekend to recharge myself; I’m so glad he understands this need and will encourage me to take time for myself. Because he is pretty great like that.
So why am I writing this now? Because I’ve spent 11 years fiercely fighting stigma against people with mental illnesses and can’t seem to fight it for myself. Because I am currently a mental health outreach worker who has a mental illness that it looks like I’m hiding. Because I feel shame about a thing that I firmly believe people should not have to feel shame about. Because I am embarrassed by a thing that I routinely normalize for others. I don’t think it’s a thing that people necessarily have to know about me, but it shouldn’t be a thing that I am afraid of asking for the space to deal with.