The thought of admitting to a life-long struggle with depression and anxiety on a public forum has been terrifying because I have spent a life-time feeling incredibly ashamed of this fact. I have to wonder, what would my healing trajectory have been like if, instead of putting energy into trying to hide it and make excuses, I could have felt safe enough to openly and freely admit what I was dealing with? More on this later.
First, I want to say that I am presently in the best place emotionally that I have ever been in my whole life, but the recent suicides of two public figures in the last few days leaves me feeling very sad and vulnerable. This is not to say that other suicides of public figures or people that I have known personally were not just as upsetting, but I wasn’t even able to verbalize this in the past, except maybe with my therapist.
I did not know much about Kate Spade, but I got to know about Anthony Bourdain because he is one of my husband’s heroes. I know Joshua is pretty devastated about this and I feel his pain. It’s confusing and frightening to hear this kind of news about someone that, you were aware, had many struggles with addiction and mental illness, but that you thought had maybe, just maybe, finally found a way to protect themselves from the horrible fate of suicide. If they are a public figure, you may see them doing amazing things, reaping the rewards of their success, developing better relationships and seeming, in many ways, impervious to their past struggles. If they are someone that you knew personally, it can be even more devastating because of your relationship to them.
Unfortunately, mental illness is, for the most part, a chronic, life-long disease which needs to be managed on a regular basis. In that way, it is very similar to many other chronic diseases. In my experience though, it has also been, in the past and certainly still in the present, a disease which has been stigmatized and treated as more of a series of character flaws (or worse) instead of a medical condition which can be treated.
It is this stigmatization that creates an incredible barrier to care and especially to people with mental illness seeking out the kind of treatment which could mean the difference between life and death.
According to an article from www.mentalhelp.net, titled The Stigma of Mental Illness: “In America, 1 out of 5 adults is living with a mental illness. Despite the prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders, the “stigma” of mental illness can prevent people from reaching out and getting the help they need, even from their own families. In fact, approximately 60 percent of adults with a mental illness don’t receive any mental health services.”
So this brings me back to the shame, as well as confusion, that I personally felt as both a child and as an adult living with depression and anxiety. In retrospect, I remember dealing with it as a young child, but I was unable to articulate this to anyone. As an adolescent, I didn’t even know what depression and anxiety were and I simply thought it was a part of my personality. When I was 25 years old, I attempted suicide. I swallowed a bottle of OTC sleeping pills. Luckily I was able to get to a hospital and have receive treatment before any serious liver damage was done but it was there that I had one of my first experiences with stigma. The emergency room.
Yes, the emergency room. I remember it fairly well, the doctors and nurses were abrupt, slightly rough and very unkind when dealing with me. No one was looking directly at me or explaining what was happening.
After the whole ordeal was over and I was in therapy, I thought maybe I had imagined the way I was treated or that it was a symptom of my own self-stigmatization (yes this is a thing too) but after talking about it with a trusted health care practitioner, I was told, yes, actually many ER docs and nurses consider suicide attempts, especially ones which may not have resulted in death, a real waste of their time.
Another issue I faced was dealing with employers and not feeling that I could explain my illness for fear of being looked at as unreliable. Fellow colleagues often treated my absences with skepticism or even with hostility. I noticed this especially when I was dealing with symptoms of PTSD (another discussion entirely) that people could be especially unkind regarding their assessment of what was “really” going on with me. In addition, family members who found my illness to be especially inconvenient would say things like “why can’t you just fake it?” or “depressed again? (Eye-roll, exasperated sigh.”)
Finally, being in the alternative medicine field, some of my colleagues that I went to for treatment really seemed to have a problem with the anti-depressant medication I was on. There was a lot of subtle judgement and dire warnings of the long-term side effects. I guess what they didn’t realize was that suicide was the ultimate "side-effect" for me and that my experience was that being on medication stopped thoughts of suicide and really allowed me to function again. Acupuncture and herbal medicine helped me with a great deal, I also needed to be on medication. Everyone’s experience is different and medical choices and decisions made by a patient and their health care provider need to be respected in a clinical setting.
I am not looking for sympathy or an outpouring of “I never knew” or “that explains a lot.” I don’t need or want it. What I do want is for people to rethink what they think they know about mental illness. According to The Stigma of Mental Illness, “A survey published in 2015 found that only 7% of respondents from developed countries believed that mental illness could be overcome. With these kinds of misconceptions, it’s easy to see why stigma surrounding mental health is rampant.”
Think before you say something to a friend, colleague or family member with mental illness. Educate yourself. Be kind when you can. This is not to say that you should just let people in your life with mental illness get away with not taking responsibility for their lives or let their illness take over your life but communication is important and developing a plan together to manage their illness can be life-changing and extremely useful.
So, what would my healing trajectory have been like if, instead of putting energy into trying to hide it and make excuses, I could have felt safe enough to openly and freely admit what I was dealing with? Who knows? This has been my journey and though it may sound trite, I would not change one thing about it. We all suffer at the hands of ignorance and misinformation at certain times in our lives, we all, to some extent cause that suffering. All we can do is learn and move forward.
AND, for those of you who might think that I’m doing so great because I finally, finally got married at age 45, I want you to know that is completely false. It is actually the other way around. If it wasn’t for a lot of hard work in therapy, acupuncture, energy healing, body work and millions of conversations with supportive friends, family, colleagues and mentors, I would not be able to sustain a long-term relationship. Romantic love is amazing and wonderful, but it is not the answer, self-love is the answer. Self-love and self-knowledge.
I want to give a shout out to my friend Eve, who during a quick private message exchange yesterday told me that she thought I was one of the bravest people she knows. It really helped me to write this blog. Thanks Eve, you are an amazing lady.
For additional information, I highly recommend the following: