Mental Health Awareness Day (Another Post About Depression)
October 10 is Mental Health Awareness Day. If you’re a regular reader, you probably already know I’ve been dealing with depression for a while now. Got the official diagnosis back in April of 2012. Started on antidepressants the next month. Began seeing a counselor shortly after that.
The depression had been there a lot longer. I remember feeling suicidal as a kid, and getting close enough to scare myself at least twice. Looking back, I can see stretches where the brain weasels got the best of me in college too, and they had a good old time messing with my head the year I spent living in Nevada.
The pills helped to stabilize my mood and get me back to a healthier baseline. The counselor helped me make some changes with my life. Neither of these things actually fixed or cured the depression. Like my diabetes, it’s still there — I’m just doing a better job of managing it.
Unlike the diabetes, I can’t take a drop of blood and measure how Depressed I am today. Wouldn’t that be nice? “My Depression Level is 193. Better watch a half hour of kitten videos.”
A big difference in my pre- and post-diagnosis life is that I now know the brain weasels are there. I’m better at recognizing when I’m just having a lousy day vs. when the Depression is getting the upper hand. Being able to identify the problem, knowing it’s real, helps a lot.
But it doesn’t make the problem go away. I know it’s there, and I know there are cracks in my mental health the brain weasels can sneak through. To choose a totally hypothetical example, say a book I’m working on is going a lot more slowly than I want…
One of the best things I’ve learned over the past six years is that I’m not alone. Since I started talking about the depression, I’ve spoken with a lot of people who are fighting the same disease. Others are battling different mental illnesses. And none of us are alone in that fight, even though the brain weasels will totally lie and try to make you think you are.
Lesson One: Depression lies. It says you’re alone, you’re unworthy of love, your failures are deserved and your successes are flukes, your happiness is fleeting but sadness is eternal, your problems are inescapable, and things will never get better. It’s all lies.
Lesson Two: Mental illness is real. You know, I had zero problem going to the hospital for my diabetes back when I was diagnosed. My blood sugar was over 600 at one point. It didn’t matter how strong or determined or optimistic I was if my pancreas was taking early retirement.
Mental illness is just as real and valid as any other. Willpower won’t make my pancreas start working. Willpower also won’t rebalance the chemical makeup of my brain. There are things I can do to help — exercise can be a useful tool for both diseases — but it won’t cure the problems.
People get sick. That doesn’t make you a failure, and it’s not your fault.
Lesson Three: Getting help is … helpful. Going to the doctor and the counselor was hard. Really hard. But it made a huge difference. It may have saved my marriage. It helped my relationship with my kids, and with the other people in my life. It helped my writing.
It may take time to find a doctor and/or therapist who’s the right fit. If you go on medication, it may take time to find the right dosage and the right med or combination of meds. And some health insurance plans can be a nightmare.
But if you can, it’s worth reaching out for help.
For those in the U.S., Mental Health America has what looks like a good set of tools for getting started, including screening tools and steps to find help. MentalHealth.gov has some resources as well.
Be kind to yourself. You deserve health and happiness.
October 10, 2018 @ 8:08 pm
It certainly is no picnic being mentally ill. I was first diagnosed 28 years ago, and my most recent med changes were *this year*. It definitely isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing. I’m so glad you were able to get help, and that it has aided you so much! That’s really the best we can hope for. Thank you for using your platform to speak about things like this.
October 10, 2018 @ 9:34 pm
Zen hugs from me if you wish. Depression bites.
I’ve been fortunate in that my depression phase rarely goes beyond ‘meh.’
October 11, 2018 @ 9:55 am
I just wanted to say ‘thank you’. Sometimes I need a reminder.
October 11, 2018 @ 3:56 pm
The usually odious right-winger Mona Charen had a column some twenty-plus years back when doctors were apparently switching from “chronic fatigue is due to depression” to “chronic fatigue is due to unidentified physical cause.” She said the CFS sufferers she knew were delighted their illness was now “real” even though the odds of successful treatment are much better for depression than for “unidentified physical disease” which showed people’s perceptions depression is “all in your head.”
October 11, 2018 @ 10:01 pm
Depression: a real thing which tries to make you believe things which are not real.
I’ve never understood why people use “all in your head” as a dismissal. Your brain is all in your head, for pity’s sake!
October 12, 2018 @ 10:07 pm
“All in your head” implies that you can get over it. That whatever problem you’re suffering through can be thought away. Overcome. Bested. And who knows? Maybe there’s some truth to that. Maybe there’s some trick. Some twist of willpower that will switch all those nasty brain signals, curve them away from the mud and into the light.
I don’t know. If there is a trick, I sure haven’t found it.
I’ve heard it said that one should look at their life when feeling down. Is the bad feeling rational? In the sense of … say, you’ve recently lost loved ones and you’ve lost your job and you’re underwater financially. In such a case it’s pretty natural to feel lousy. Anyone would feel that way, right? So is that depression? Or just feeling lousy because you’re in the midst of a pretty darn lousy situation.
The problem I have with that is this: I find that the mental issues (at least the ones I have) lead to miserable real life issues, as well. Just a painful spiral, depression leading to life problems leading to more depression leading leading leading.
Anyway. I don’t know what the answer is. Keep fighting, right. Keep fighting. Good luck, all and everyone, and God bless.
October 14, 2018 @ 6:02 am
And sometimes depression is due to another mental illness.
In my case, I’ve lived with depression all my life. At least, that’s what I called it. I now see that it was more like despair, which is caused (in my case) by a form of PTSD.
I’ve always known that my childhood was hell (though I still have trouble seeing why it was), and they now know that prolonged traumatic circumstances alter your personality, especially if they started young enough that your personality wasn’t all that formed in the first place. (Cf.: Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery.) Trauma rewires your brain. The term for the result is Complex PTSD, and whenever I see a list of symptoms, I can check off almost every one of them. And despair is one of them.
It’s not all that mysterious, either. When I think back to what I know I experienced as a child, despair seems like a reasonable response. It was as if everything around me was designed to destroy my sense of self and worth and even my sense of being human, and there was no way out (except to grow up — I left as soon as I could.) It was hopeless.
The nice thing about knowing it’s really C-PTSD is that I have some hope that I can do something about it. Trauma treatment has advanced a lot in the past 10-20 years, and my therapist is trained in a lot of them. There are now times when I can actually feel joy.
I’m not saying that everyone’s depression is due to trauma. But some people’s is.