I’ve had depression for most of my life. It started when I was 12. I went to bed at night and silently prayed that I would fall asleep and never wake up.
I lived with dread and gloom daily. I knew something was wrong with me. Twelve-year-olds shouldn’t be wishing to die. But back then I didn’t know how to express myself and I certainly was not aware there was medical help for whatever it was that was making me cry for no apparent reason — whether at school or hanging out with my friends, I’d frequently run to the bathroom and sob as quietly as I could. I thought doctors only treated colds and scraped elbows. It never occurred to me that there were remedies for inexplicable, profound sadness. I’d heard about grown-ups going to their analysts once a week for “neuroses” but it didn’t dawn on me that I could get help. It was turbulent at home. My parents were getting divorced, and I saw the emotional toll it was taking on them. Wanting to be the good daughter, I kept my problems a secret so it wouldn’t add to anyone’s tension. Last thing I wanted was to be a burden.
The sadness made me feel ashamed. I couldn’t understand the power it had over me. Each day seemed to get worse and I became more withdrawn and embarrassed. I couldn’t control this thing that was taking over my life. I learned to smile and laugh when it was expected of me, a skill I mastered over time.
My teenage brain made rules: Don’t make waves, don’t ruin everyone’s day, cry alone in your room or on your closet floor. Bite your cheek to distract from the chaos, and if asked, pretend it’s your head that hurts, not your heart. Take aspirin, retreat, sob until there are no tears left to cry, bang your head against the wall four to five times for being a failure at life, for not belonging on this earth, crawl into bed, pray for the pain to end.
Throughout college anxiety attacks entered into my daily routine. Balancing 18 credits per semester, an internship and a part-time job as a waitress in a busy Mexican restaurant, all while suffering with inescapable melancholy and self-hatred, was too much for me. The innate pressure I put on myself to succeed at everything caused me to have episodes of dizziness and nausea, tightening in my throat, heart palpitations and throbbing headaches. I was positive that I was going TO DIE RIGHT NOW in front of all my classmates. Thanks to one of my astute professors, she suggested I make an appointment with the campus social worker. From there began the journey of years searching for the right doctors and mental health specialists who could figure out what was wrong with me. Wanting to live was the new goal I worked towards, even to this day.
Just a few weeks ago, I was part of a panel at the New York City Bar. It was titled, “Lawyers and Non-Lawyers with a Mental Health Diagnosis: A Conversation About Stigma.” I was the only panel participant with a diagnosis, making me the designated mental patient.
The two-hour discourse was described as: “A candid discussion of issues involving the stigma of mental illness: the ‘sanism’ bias in the mental disability law system; character and fitness for Bar applicants/attorneys with a mental health history; the stigma’s chilling effect on getting help; confidentiality issues; the value of supported employment; and helpful resources.”
When it was my turn to address the room of lawyers, law students and assorted professionals, I opened with the first five paragraphs of this blog. Speaking to an audience in the mental health field is something I’m comfortable doing. Even if I don’t know anyone, I’m among people who get it. They are both strangers and friends. If I stumble in front of them – no biggie.
In the 10-minute time slot I had to drive home the gravity and momentous correlation of stigma and mental illness to the widely diverse group at the NYC Bar, I used the tactic that has always worked best for me. I told my story and used the words depression, anxiety, fear, death and stigma while attempting eye contact with each individual.
In my five years with Bring Change 2 Mind (BC2M), it has become clearer by the day that the more we speak openly about mental illness, the more empowered we become. Without BC2M, I don’t know if I would have the courage to tell my story to a room of strangers without worrying how I’d be perceived and judged.
Although I was nervous as I walked to the microphone to speak, I also knew that statistically one in four of those in the audience either have experienced mental illness themselves or know someone who has. I was bound to have friends in the audience who’d relate.
Depression and anxiety are diagnoses that are broad in description, but unique to each person. As I summed up my speech with 10 seconds to go, I went back to the origins of my story and reminded everyone that this was my story. Like snowflakes, no two accounts of mental illness are the same although they may sound alike and share similarities. We are all one-of-a-kind. With each story told, we get closer to chipping away the stigma that keeps millions of people secretly suffering from getting the help they need.
Let’s keep the conversation going.