I've wanted to post this for a long time now. It's one of those things where you write a bit, pack it away, and then write a little more. I don't know why it's taken me so long. Fear, maybe. Or getting the right words down (anyone who knows me knows my motto, "words are hard"). Or even a feeling of insecurity. Whatever it is, the time has come to hit the "publish" button for whatever reason.
And it’s scary. No, terrifying.
Because of the D word.
It’s not a bad word. But it is a word that we don’t like to hear. It’s a word I don’t like to say. I still have trouble saying it. We get uncomfortable when someone brings it up. There’s an uneasy feeling in the air and the subject is quickly changed. But should it be? I think it needs to be talked about.
I’ve been trying to think of something enlightening to say. Something eye-opening about the subject of mental health. Maybe something with a “click-bait” title that will be posted all over Facebook. But whatever I thought about saying, it wasn’t going to involve me. I was going to be the onlooker just trying to bring attention to an issue. But that just can’t happen. Because the issue is a part of me.
I have Depression.
Ugh. I hate that word. I hate typing it out. God-forbid I have to say it out loud (I still avoid that at all costs).
Whenever it’s brought up, I get anxious. My heart beats a little faster. My limbs pull in closer to my chest. And my head lowers. As if it’s something to be embarrassed about. As if I’m guilty of a crime and being judged in front of a compromised jury.
Everyone always gets kinda weird when it’s said. A lot of us feel uncomfortable. Some think “please, just change the subject.” Others feel uneasy and suddenly “have to meet someone.” And some of us feel shame. Why? Why is it so uncomfortable a topic? According to the Center of Disease Control, 1 in 20 Americans reported having depression; and only 29% of people with depression contacted a mental health professional for help. And that’s only what’s actually reported.
I can tell you from personal experience, this video is a 100% accurate representation of what depression is like.
So this is a pretty widespread issue, and yet one that’s not talked about much. This is true within my own family. I had no idea how many of my family members had taken medication for depression or other mental health issues until only after I revealed my struggle to my family. Whether it was intentional or not, I was not in the “our family has a history of mental illness” loop. And here I was–terrified–thinking I was going to be the Black Sheep of the family once everyone found out.
Before I go on, there’s one thing I want to make clear from the beginning: depression is not a character trait. You’ll notice earlier I said that depression is a part of me–depression is not me. Depression is no more to me than a tumor is to a cancer patient. Just like depression, a cancerous tumor is not a personality trait. It’s a disease. Yes, it’s a disease that can have certain effects including your mood. But it is not linked with the true person. Depression does not define who I am. I am the fun, pun-loving, smily guy with embarrassing dance moves.
This is the best description of depression I've heard. Darlene Withers, a character in Jeffery Eugenides' book is at an AA meeting describing the difference between addiction and depression:
Obviously, I’m no doctor. Everything I know about "the D word" is from personal experience. So I’m going just going to jump-in and share just that. Hopefully you can learn something from it–whether it’s learning about the illness or finding some appropriate ways to interact with someone inflicted with it.
Here we go.
For me, depression was not something that just appeared. Yes, depression can be triggered by certain events and can fade away after some time, but it can also be a lifelong ailment. For me, it was the latter. I can trace symptoms back to when I was young with no traumatic event in sight–and honestly, I don’t see a finite end to it. A little scary, yes, but I’m being real here.
If you knew me throughout grade school, this news will probably come as a shock to you. I had the reputation of being the happy kid with the perfect family that always had a smile on his face.
Looking back, something was always a little off. But at the time, I didn’t know it. I thought it was normal. So I didn’t mention it. I soon started to realize that I wasn’t going through things that everyone else goes through. Not knowing what was really wrong, I tried talking to a high school friend about what was going on inside my head, but was cut off and told to stop talking about it because he didn’t want to hear it. From that I just assumed that it was something I wasn’t supposed to talk about. So I stopped talking and kept that part of my life private.
However, burying it didn’t help. I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t concentrate in class. I began to lose my appetite and felt anxious about 80-90% of the time. Senior year stress of grades, SATs, and looming college applications didn’t help. It all kept building up until one day, after school, I grabbed a razor blade and started cutting my arm. After the first cut I threw the blade to the floor and thought “what kind of monster am I that I start cutting up my own body?” But it kinda worked. People talk about cutting being a release, but that’s because it is. The tightness in my chest was gone and I was distracted from the stress and the anxiety. So I kept doing it to the point where I cut a couple times a day. But I had traded that release for guilt, shame, and an utter disgust of myself. I hated the person I thought I had become.
I thought I could deal with it on my own until it manifested into suicidal thoughts. Driving home from a friend’s house at 1 in the morning, I would think how easy it would me to jerk the wheel and slam into a tree. So I would unbuckle my seatbelt and drive too close to the edge of the road. At that point I realized I needed help. I started seeing a therapist (ugh, I still hate that word) every week after school February of my senior year. I was diagnosed with Anxiety and Major Depressive Disorder. I rolled my eyes a bit. I thought, “Mental illness isn’t a real thing. It’s just a scapegoat. I don’t know how to deal with some stupid stuff. I just need to learn what to fix and I’ll be good.” I thought I had gotten my problems under control and was able to stop cutting by the end of the school year.
Summer came and went, and I was starting college. It was great. I was getting out of my comfort zone, meeting so many awesome people, and was more confident than I’d ever been. I joined a Christian ministry called InterVarsity where I was able to join a small group. Leading up to the freshman retreat, I felt this overwhelming feeling that I was going to share my story with my small group. I kept hearing in my head “you are going to share.” I was really confused. What could sharing my story do for anyone? But when the time came to talk, I knew I had to do it. But I was far from confident. The only person that knew was my therapist. I was scared these great guys I had gotten to know were going to freak out and run away. But I still had that overwhelming feeling that I was supposed to share. So I did. My heart was beating out of my chest. My hands were shaking. And I couldn’t look up from the ground. When I finished, it was silent. I was terrified about how it was received. I looked up and everyone got up, circled around me, and hugged me. I had never felt love like that before. No one ran away. No one treated me differently. I was just loved. I was blown away.
But as the school year wore on, it got tougher and tougher. I started cutting again to the point where I was doing it up to three times a day. Sometimes I would do bad on a test. So I would punish myself. Sometimes I was say something embarrassing with a group of friends. So I would punish myself. Sometimes I would wake up depressed for no reason and would be so frustrated I’d punish myself for being “broken.” I lost my appetite. I started skipping meals until I was eating maybe four times in two weeks. I had no energy so all I tried to do was sleep. I failed a course because I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed to go to class. Once I didn’t leave my bed for three days. I was in constant pain. Not only emotionally, but physically. I had cuts lining both my shoulders, across my chest, around my hips, and up and down my right thigh with words carved in the other. They were deep and would take a long time to scab over. And when they did, they were immediately reopened by any kind of movement. Almost all of my clothes were stained with blood. My sheets and blankets too. Anything touching a cut was painful. And even worse, I thought I deserved it.
Suicide became more and more of a viable option. I was scared. I was ashamed that I would even consider it. My mind was constantly at war with itself. It became a shouting match that I thought could only be silenced by one thing. I felt like I had lost control over my body. I’ve never felt such complete darkness. It’s hard to describe. It was like this big, heavy, dark mass that completely engulfs you–like a dark, dense fog that no matter how hard you look, you can’t see anything around you. It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s empty. Depression had won, and the real Jonathan was no where to be found. I wanted to die. I prayed, begging God that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. This became a daily ritual that went on for weeks. I began pushing people away so that if or when I killed myself, I would hurt fewer people.
But through it all, my friends were there for me. They were there to check in with me every few days. They were there to pick me up and console me after wondering the streets at 3 am. They were there to take me to their house and sleep on the couch next to me after a rough night. They were always there–even when I tried to push them away.
So I’m writing this, right? So we all know the ending. But I’m here after too many close calls and a failed suicide attempt. I was still refusing help until a friend dragged out of me how serious it had gotten. After a very uncomfortable chat, I realized how sick I really was. On March, 28th this year, I was hospitalized. I was put into an outpatient partial hospitalization program. I spent a week in treatment from 8am to 3pm every day (and yes, it’s just like the tv shows. Group therapy. Yoga. Art therapy. It’s all real. And as cheesy as it sounds.). I had to withdraw from most of my classes and take an incomplete in others.
But just because I finished the program and started taking medicine doesn’t mean everything is back to normal. I am constantly evaluating my environment–thinking if it is best for my health to be there. I’m more picky about the people I spend my time with. I won’t allow myself to keep large amounts of medicine in one place. And I keep sharp objects in places in harder-to-reach places.
The thing is, you can't always make it go away. Yes, counseling can help. Yes, medication can do wonders. But for me, it will always be there. It came with no reason, and there isn't a conflict to get over to make it go away.
A lot of people always ask the question “but what can i do?” The truth is different people need different things. But one universal solution I’ve found is love. So what can you do for people like me? Be there. And love them. Rarely will you ever have the right words to say. In fact, you may even say the exact wrong thing. But for me, it meant the world knowing I didn’t have to suffer alone. It was my closest friends that rushed to my side to be there when i needed them most. No special words needed. In those moments, I knew everything was going to be all right–a feeling that depression too often robs from its victims.
My story is a lot longer and more personal than I’d like to share here, but if you’d like to talk about it further feel free to reach out to me. I can’t promise I’ll spill everything, but I’d love to discuss the issue with you.