Two celebrities committed suicide this week. People are posting suicide hotline numbers alongside advice for getting help for yourself or for helping others. I “like” each one of these posts. Sometimes I even “love” them. I have deep conversations with friends about the importance of removing the stigma around depression. I share confidently my opinion that if we could talk about mental illness without shame, the support we would find in one another could surely be life-saving.
But I have not been able to bring myself to post the hotline number. To share the paragraphs that are making the Facebook rounds about knowing at least one person who has suffered. And I feel ashamed that I don’t. I am talking the talk but not walking the walk. I think it is to protect the privacy of those I love. Yet it’s promoting the stigma. And I want to be brave enough to walk through the burning shame and out the other side less burdened, having left the secret behind in the flames.
At different times over the past decade, depression silently entered my house and loved ones, and made itself at home. It morphed and presented itself in a variety of ways. It challenged me to identify it anew each time as if for the first time, after my denials that it had returned were exhausted.
As silent as it was, depression ruled the household. It always took precedence. No other thought was strong enough to overrule my panic that my loved one would be overcome by it. And no feeling was stronger than the gratitude each morning that every family member woke up, and was alive each evening after I returned from work or they from school.
No matter what our plans were, everything stopped for depression. We missed social events, school, and work. The other kids quickly learned that at the drop of the hat, they needed to be second fiddle right now; every ounce of my energy was going to transfer to the one in the grips of the disease. The psychiatrist was our best friend. The hospital became too familiar, and I don’t state proudly that I got good at navigating the halls of psychiatric institutions.
I can still feel the hard wood under my exhausted, sleepless self as I vividly remember the many nights that I lay on a teenager’s floor next to their bed – the only way I could be reassured that they’d be safe through the night. I was literally a barrier between them and their possible self-destructive intentions. Sometimes the level of danger dropped from red to orange and then they would sleep on my floor, next to me, taking the place of where their bassinet used to be so many years before.
Nothing scared me more than the terror of a closed bedroom or bathroom door. A shower taking too long. If my knock met deaf ears, as I trepidatiously opened the door, I tried to ready myself for the worst nightmare that I might discover. Daily. I admit that I still get scared around doors that have been closed for too long, no matter who is behind it.
These patterns of fear are difficult to drop. My heart still skips an uncomfortable beat when a child calls out of the blue. What’s wrong? Unfortunately I’ve had too many experiences when the answer was actually something quite serious.
I was not posting about these fears on Facebook; I was not reaching out to others who may understand. I assumed that no good would come from sharing. My friend whose child suffers from diabetes also has sleepless nights filled with terror. She shares on Facebook and it resonates with me. There is no stigma there and I’ve learned a lot from her posts. But this feels different, although it should not. I wish it would not. Why do I feel that a mental illness deserves more privacy than a physical illness?
It can be simply baffling as a parent or spouse to know how to respond to a loved one who is experiencing depression. Exhausting as it’s been, I believe I’ve experienced enough depression tests over the past ten years to be able to earn a higher score with each trial. I’ve learned to validate, to believe, and to let my loved one know how sorry I am that they are experiencing this. I’ve learned to listen intuitively. I’ve learned to just “be” with the person, so they know they’re not alone. No conversation necessary. I just move my work to the room where they are. I’ve learned that I don’t always have the answers, but at least my child will know that I am on their side. They don’t have to expend any extra energy trying to convince me. That has helped a lot. I used to yell in frustration at all of the life that they were missing out on. I wanted them to get better to alleviate my own anxiety. I thought I could bully the depression out of them. But it only made depression dig deeper. Then I learned to ask, “What do you need right now?” And they were able to resume normal life more quickly.
Because I am who I am, it’s hard not to verbally paint a picture of the light at the end of the tunnel. I honor that they may not want to hear that right now – but I do let them know that I’m holding that space for them for when they are ready. They know that I can already see the day when they’ll look back and be grateful that they’re finally feeling mentally healthy and happy again.
Depression entered my home through a different door each time. Sometimes is was let in through a bad reaction to medication, sometimes from a misdiagnosed illness, sometimes in response to a situation, and sometimes it seemed to be something chemical in the brain. Sometimes it was short-lived and mild, and sometimes it stuck around for months or longer. Sometimes it played hide n seek, and sometimes it was consistently present. I’d like to say that we’ve finally reached that light at the end of the tunnel and that it is in our past forever now. It’s certainly possible, but I’m not naive enough anymore to assume anything.
What I do know is that we are all a lot less panicked when we experience difficult times. We all have become experienced enough in the downs and ups of life to truly believe that things will get better. My kids have learned that the less they focus on their illness and focus on what’s going right for them, the easier it is for them to thrive. They now have coping tools and skills that help in all kinds of situations. And looking for lessons during the hard times, helps create some purpose out of each experience. My kids will admit, though, that having experienced both, they’d take a chronic physical illness over a mental illness any day.
I still thank God every single morning that each of us is alive. I still worry. And I do feel so empathetically for anyone who is in the grips of this illness, for this is an illness. It is not a character flaw. It is also treatable. But not if it is kept a secret.
Need help? Call Suicide Prevention 1-800-273-8255. Go to Imalive.org. Text to 741741.
Want to talk to a supportive parent? Email Diana@changingmymindset.com.