Answer: Both were attempts to describe in words the feeling of depression. (Dementors-JK Rowling; Black Dog-Winston Churchill.)
I created this blog over a year ago, wanting to share some of my experience in the hopes it could be of help for families and individuals with mental illness. And here it has sat. I shared it with a few friends and family members, but have just been too chicken to throw it out there to the world. I mean, really, I'm a little nuts most of the time anyway...do I really want to add to the evidence?!
So I've sat back and watched this past year as suicide after suicide has been reported not only in my state, but throughout the nation. According to the CDC, Utah has the 5th highest suicide rate in the nation. NOT OK. And then yesterday it hit a little closer to home, when a sophomore at the local high school committed suicide on a trail in the mountains near my home.
Frankly, I am tired of feeling as though there is nothing I can do to help--because when I watch these stories I totally get it. While other people are shocked and dismayed and wonder how someone could give up on life...I just get it, because I've been there and (barely) survived.
Ok. Enough dramatics. Let's talk for a minute. Actually, the way we "talk" and communicate is exactly what I want to discuss in this post. So here goes...
There are currently around 171,476 words in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Approximately 3,000 of those words describe emotion.
And yet, there are no words that can accurately describe depression. No wonder it can be so hard to communicate! When someone asks how you are, they might be scared off if your reply is "well actually, I'm experiencing soul crushing blackness at the moment." That is problem A. "How do you respond to that?!" is problem B. I hope that in this post I can offer some insight for both individuals
When I was first diagnosed with depression and OCD at the age of 15, I had no idea what had hit me. One day I was fine, just the normal up's and down's of high school. The next? An unfathomable darkness and hopelessness that I did not understand, compounded with horrifying intrusive thoughts. Add to this my own judgement of myself--what is wrong with me? what sort of terrible person thinks these things? I am so weak! I can not do this. I can't. I stopped eating. I didn't sleep. I didn't want to be around anyone. I had horrible, debilitating panic attacks that left me breathless and sobbing in the girls bathroom. But you want to know the scariest part? After all that, I would walk out and go back to class. And if someone asked how I was, I always said "fine." Few knew how bleak and terrifying the world had suddenly become for me.
Those who did know that something was "up" and I wasn't feeling great had different reactions. Here are a few of the comments I received, and a) my reaction at the time, as well as b) my thoughts now and insights into what might have been more helpful.
1. You look fine. I don't see anything different.
- a) I think I physically looked down at myself when I got this comment. I was in so much pain, how could that not be radiating out of me? I wished people could see it, not because I wanted to be dramatic and "woe is me" but because then maybe it would seem more real, that I wasn't just making it up.
- b) Depression, like other mental illnesses is an invisible disease. Keyword here is disease. Not weakness, or lack of fortitude, etc. It often is hereditary. (I sometimes say that my depression is my least favorite genetic gift!) Regardless, it is easy to miss, even in someone you love and see often.
- If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, it's okay to ask for help. Contrary to popular belief on social media, it is even ok to not be "fine" all the time! At one point when I was struggling as a young mother, I asked for help from a family member. She asked what she could help with, and I just cried that I did not know, that things were just not okay. She just said "alright, I got it." And within a day was at my home doing the laundry, caring for the kids, and helping with meals. Lifting the burden of household chores is often automatic when someone we know has a visible illness. It is less so, but just as imperative when someone has an invisible illness. My depression did not last forever. I did not need help for years. But I absolutely did need help at that time.
- a) I'm really, really trying! I'm doing everything I can! But nothing is working!
- b) Come closer. I would like to now hit you with said boot straps.
- I cannot stress enough that depression is an illness. We call it a mental illness, but research is showing that it could be more accurately described as a physical illness of the brain, and should be treated as such.
- a) "Maybe. I don't know. Probably. I guess I'm just being dramatic. I'll try not to be." My interpretation of this was that something was wrong with me, and that I was somehow making myself miserable through my own theatrics. The takeaway? This was MY fault-I was doing this to myself.
- b) You know what? Hormones were definitely part of the equation. But it wasn't simply roller coaster emotions. This was way more. This was it's own special brand of hell.
- a) "You're right! That's it! I totally should!" and I did all of those things. But none of them helped me feel better. Not one. Which actually made me feel worse, because in my heart I thought they should. And when they didn't I thought it was MY fault, that somehow I had sinned or displeased God.
- b) This one is tricky. I live in a very religious environment. I myself am a very active member of the LDS church. I am eternally grateful for a loving Heavenly Father. He has been my one lifeline many times, even when I thought for sure he had quit listening. One thing that is taught at church (any church) is that feelings of despair can be a direct result of sin. Which it can be sometimes. That's called having a conscience. HOWEVER, depression is NOT a result of sin. It is not the person's fault. Therefore, the usual arsenal of tools that can be helpful when you are experiencing sadness are rarely effective on their own in providing relief for depression.
- Consider this: you would not tell a person fighting cancer that they would feel better if they would just do more service, or pray more. That said, I do not mean to imply in any way that if you are a religious person that you should not pray. God loves you! Even if you feel that He is not there, He is.
- a) I know! I should be happy. I am so ungrateful. What is wrong with me?
- b) Oh my. This is probably one of the hardest. Once again we have a situation where the typical arsenal of tools in our toolbox is just not going to work. Having gratitude, looking on the bright side, being positive...all are very powerful tools for everyday living. But they are in large part ineffective against the pain of depression, and can often only add feelings of shame and guilt to whatever is already happening.
So if our usual tools are so woefully inadequate in helping with depression, what can we do? Over the next few weeks I will go into detail on some of the tools and strategies I have developed over the years that have been useful in helping both myself and my family gain the upper hand. Because guess what? This can get better. It does get better. It will get better.
You can also look at the resources located at the top of this blog for more strategies.