There are many clinical components to depression including hormones, enzymes, physical manifestations, and emotional experiences. They can be objectively and subjectively assessed, categorized, and treated. What about the personal experience of depression? How would one describe that?
For each person, depression is a deeply personal event. Each episode is varied and unique in its expression. For me, today, it is a lethargy, a dark shadow cast over everything and everyone I see. No matter how much I love those around me, these momentary glitches in my brain chemistry leave me feeling very much alone, inadequate, and sad. These dips in my otherwise healthy emotional state, are surprises to me, even after nearly 40 years since receiving my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, then called manic depression.
I hated the medications prescribed for me. Some made me feel like a zombie. Others gave me hives. Others caused me to go to sleep. None of them truly helped. I chose a more spiritual path in my treatment. I chose to look at the disorder as something that was present irregularly or mildly because I am fortunate to have a less injurious level of bipolar. Some of my peers, with a more serious condition, could not afford to take the path I take because it could lead to severe and deleterious effects. I suppose by some accounts, I am lucky.
Today, though, most feelings of good fortune and joy elude me. They are memories in my past and hope for my future. I don’t usually talk about my depression much because most people are afraid of that word. They fear it for themselves and for their families. They avoid the possibility that someone they love could experience such deep sadness for no reason other than the body disconnecting with those chemicals that would heal the weighty malaise. So, most don’t talk about it.
The funniest part is when some people whisper like chattering monkeys, “She must be depressed because she’s not very strong,” or “He must not have very good tools at his disposal if he’s giving into his depression.” Anyone who knows me knows that my personal, emotional strength is abundant, and that my tools are many. It simply is a fact that I have a medically psychiatric condition called bipolar. That’s all. In the same way as someone with high cholesterol or mild type-2 diabetes tries to keep his numbers down through diet and exercise, I work very hard at staying mentally healthy. Most of the time I am effective. Once in a while, like now, it gets away from me.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that silence magnifies my condition. Isolation adds fuel to the fire of sadness. So, here I am telling the truth about how I feel. Acknowledging that I am struggling with what has become a lifelong difficulty. Quite honestly, I feel better for doing so.
I share this information with you, dear reader, not because I need your sympathy or pity, because I don’t. I simply want to share with you my process. I want you to understand that perfectly normal people, strong people, wise people, happy people, sometimes have a condition that can, on occasion, get out of control.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one-quarter of all adults in the United States are diagnosed with one or more mental disorders. That’s 75 million people. 2.6% of the adult population have severe bipolar disorder. I am not the oddball by any stretch of the imagination. Many go undiagnosed because of the stigma of mental illness. Sorry, but that’s just plain stupid. If one had cancer, phlebitis, alopecia, or gingivitis, one would not have a stigma applied to those conditions or diseases. So, why should mental illness? There is no reason except that people are afraid that they will succumb to some mental insufficiency.
Again, fear plays out as judgment against a group of people. So, to face that fear, I speak out against the ugly stigma, tell the truth about my disorder, and share with you what happens for me, at least. And I’m one of the lucky ones. It doesn’t strike very hard, even at its worst. For others, it hits harder. It is debilitating. It is overwhelmingly lonely. It can even be deadly. Yet because of the stigma, they cannot reach out for help, even to professionals or programs that would certainly assist in diagnosis and treatment.
I reach out to you so that perhaps, somehow, you will find a way to reach out when you sense someone close to you is having difficulty with mental illness. Speak honestly and without harsh judgment. Avoid terms like, “buck up,” or “toughen up,” or “don’t worry, this, too, shall pass.” Would you say that to someone with an obvious tumor on their head or bleeding profusely? Not likely.
Thank you for reading this message. I will feel better more likely sooner than later. For those who need you, don’t be afraid. They are simply the same people you love when they are healthier as when they are feeling worse. They may reach out to you verbally, or by a change in their interactions with you. They are not trying to drag you down in the darkness with them. They simply are reaching for the light.