True to my vision, Mind Remake Project features real-life experiences about living with mental illness and/or addiction. To date, a handful of guest writers have courageously shared about how they experienced depression or battled with alcoholism. On an even grittier, soul-baring level, an anonymous person, impromptu, shared in a comment about being homeless and addicted to drugs.
Meanwhile, when it comes to my mental health and personal experiences, I’ve disclosed very little. Talking about this isn’t something I shy away from, but I find the subject rarely comes up. Polite exchange in social settings allows for topics limited to the weather, current events, career, physical health, etc. To openly discuss a mental condition is too taboo for the office watering hole or cocktail hour.
In the event that mental illness is mentioned, it brings about a palpable shift, an undercurrent of tension to the room. (I witnessed this phenomenon when I single-handedly [mouthedly?] shut down a lively group conversation; someone asked me how I got the scar on my ankle, and I answered honestly.) In response to the discomfort, some use humor to lighten the mood while others quickly change the topic; some become quiet, shifting nervously, while others exit the conversation.
Meanwhile, it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about, say, a colonoscopy, which is a medical procedure involving someone (a doctor, ideally) putting a scope up your butt. This takes place only after you’ve cleared out your bowels, a feat accomplished via pharmaceutically-induced diarrhea.
The above shows how stigma, even in a passive role, persists.
The absurdity of it is that in today’s society:
- Explosive poops and scope up your butt = okay to talk about
- Your mental illness = not okay to talk about, absolutely not!
And if someone feels uncomfortable (or fears making others uncomfortable) when talking about their depression experience, imagine how difficult it would be to seek treatment!
Thus far, as this site’s creator (a mental health professional who has struggled with depression and anxiety in the past), I’ve posted only research findings, information/resources related to mental health topics, and guest contributions, but have not shared my own experiences, including the very ones that influenced my career path while fostering empathy. That’s about to change.
I’m writing this post, not to provide resources or clinical tools, but to be transparent with readers about my own mental health and how I experienced depression. Also, this is to take a healthy risk while taking a stand against stigma, and, as always, in the hopes of helping anyone out there feel a little less alone.
How I Experienced Depression: Tears, Poetry, & Pain
In my teens and early 20’s, I experienced depression, including several episodes that were severe. And while nearly two decades separate me from those times, the memories can come back in a rush if, for example, I’m working with a client who is severely depressed, and I recognize the all-too-familiar signs. It attests to how powerful depression is.
This post is not to advise or offer tips for healthy coping; it’s simply to share my experience. The following are some of the ways I experienced depression and how I coped with it:
1. I cried
So much. Nearly every night, I sobbed myself to sleep. Life hurt so, so bad.
I cried during the day too, sometimes in the bathroom at school. Once, I couldn’t stop crying and I had to go home.
I took walks in the rain and wept with the sky. Other times, I would sob in the mirror, and it would make me cry harder because of how ugly I looked, red-faced and nose streaming. My puffy eyelids would be pink and swollen, like two fat earthworms.
Alone, I would sob aloud. When I thought others might be within hearing distance, I’d muffle my cries, hyperventilating into my pillow or a wad of tissues.
Supposedly, the tears produced by emotional pain contain a chemical (oxytocin) not found in the tears that spring from your eyes when you stub your toe or chop up an onion. The idea is that the release of oxytocin brings about a sense of relief and calm.
However, when a person is depressed, the crying persists, but without any sense of relief. My tears only brought headaches and more tears, a faucet I couldn’t shut off.
2. I skipped class
It’s possible my teachers wrote me off as a delinquent. I was regularly late to class, or I would leave early. In college, I sometimes didn’t go at all.
The teachers, professors, and pastors placed in my life to guide and mentor me ascertained that if I was serious about my studies, I would be on time, engage in class, or at least not have so many absences. I was reprimanded as they saw fit. But it’s hard to focus on school when you don’t want to be alive.
My reality was that I struggled to get out of bed in the mornings because I didn’t want to live – I woke up feeling disappointed that I was still alive, dreading the day. What’s more, being around others, attempting to hold it together, was too much to endure. I could barely function, and being surrounded by seemingly happy-go-lucky, oblivious classmates and teachers made it worse.
The pain of depression is all-encompassing and emotionally draining; to have to pretend to be okay on top of it devours whatever’s left. When I could no longer hold together the façade, I escaped.
3. I self-injured
The previously mentioned scar on my ankle is from a burn. I used a cigarette lighter to singe my own flesh. (The scar is still there, but today completely covered with a tattoo.) And my conversation-stopping response? It was just the truth, which was, “I was really depressed when I was younger so I would cut myself and burn myself with lighters.”
I even wrote a poem about self-mutilation (titled ‘Self-Inflicted Relief’) in which I graphically described self-harming, how Gillette became a weapon, and how the pain on the outside matched what was within.
Did it help to self-harm? Yes. It allowed me to express myself as well as punish myself. What’s more, it provided me with a sense of control.
Did I do it for attention or was it a cry for help? Not consciously, but maybe on a subconscious level? Self-harm is counterintuitive to one of our most basic, primitive drives: survival.
To purposefully hurt oneself goes against the self-preservation instinct. Due to this, when self-harm occurs, it means something is very wrong, and some form of ‘attention’ or help (i.e., intervention, treatment, etc.) is needed. In a roundabout way, a person who self-harms is getting their needs met by doing whatever it takes to survive.
4. I wrote
Trapped in a classroom, in my bedroom, or in my own head, alone with my pain, I wrote. In my depression, I journaled and I wrote poetry – lots and lots of poetry. It helped.
I also wrote notes and letters to friends. I wrote about boys and homework or drew peace signs or copied whatever the girls in the grade above me were scrawling on the covers of their composition books. The notes and letters I wrote served as distractions.
What I never wrote about to my friends was how sometimes, I wanted to die, or how I would feel paralyzed, turn bright red, and be irrationally embarrassed every time a teacher called on me in class (which I later learned was social anxiety). Those types of things were my deepest secrets, secrets I guarded with my life.
5. I ate and slept
If my depression had been a starving beast, and all I had to do to appease it was feed it, I would have conquered that monster the day I started college.
My first year at the small, private university I attended, I gained the ‘freshman 15’… each and every month. I worked in the cafeteria and, after serving lunch, I’d make myself a to-go box filled with double (sometimes triple) portions of everything. (Due to my social anxiety, I was never able to face the dining room alone. I would rather have all my fingers cut off – slowly – with a rusty tomato knife, than walk into the vast sea of students eating and socializing.) I’d take my cafeteria carryout back to my dorm room and eat by myself.
What’s more, I had round-the-clock access to junk food: chips, candy bars, milkshakes, etc. Eating was my main (sometimes my only) source of pleasure.
Along with the gluttony and lack of a social life came excessive sleeping. I’d go to bed early (as in, before 9’o’clock) every night and sleep until I had to be up the next morning.
In fact, my sleep habits were such a sure bet, the one night I stayed out past curfew, it went unnoticed by the resident assistant who did bed checks. She must have assumed that the dark lump of pillows on my bed was me because: when I had never not been in bed by 9:00 p.m.? And figuratively, I was a lump – a depressed, food-devouring lump of pillows and pain.
6. I tried to kill myself
What if you know with a certainty that things won’t change? What happens when you’re hopeless, drowning in your misery, and death starts to look more and more appealing? Sometimes, the only way to end the pain is to end yourself.
At least, that’s how I felt when I was severely depressed. That’s what the suicidal mind feels, thinks, and believes. But that isn’t (and wasn’t my) reality. Depression has a way of dimming your vision, making you forget that the world was once bright or that you’re not actually going blind.
For me to see the light, I had to stop viewing darkness as my fate, my friend… a long-term solution to my short-term pain. It never was. I wanted the pain to end, but I didn’t want to die. So, I lived. I learned to endure, and eventually, learned to love my life.
To conclude… depression really f***ing sucks. And it’s so lonely, bearing that heavy burden by yourself. And it gets so old, having to hide the pain all the time.
At least, that was how I experienced depression. It took me too long to learn that while it sucked, I didn’t have to deal with it alone or hide it. I only wish I had known sooner; I would have reached out and found the support and care I needed.
If you can relate to feeling depressed but think you can’t speak up or that no one will understand, you don’t have to go through this alone! Help is out there. It gets better. It will be better, you will feel better, and you will be better… I promise.