"...There is no finish line with depression, anxiety, or any other sort of mental illness. We're on this path, and the path is constantly changing. Sometimes it's flat and well-marked, and we can see all the way to the horizon. Other times, it's so heavily shrouded in fog and mist, we can't even see past our fingertips and we need someone to show us where the path is." This beautifully written quote is by someone who was recently playing a round of Magic: The Gathering with actor Wil Wheaton, as fully described in one of Wheaton's latest posts. I know, you're thinking, what the hell is up with this nerdy stuff? Putting it simply, for all the doctors and specialists we talk to about mental illness and its daily struggles, the most comfort we receive is so often from a fellow sufferer. I am one of the many who struggle with depression and anxiety, and I offer hope and encouragement to others that they are not alone in this daily fight, and they are in very good, esteemed company.
This isn't Breaking News -- as anyone with depression knows, it's something you've lived with for what feels like your whole life, it's a part of who you are, and it can take years (or never) to come to terms with how to face it. You're always a little different from everyone else; an Other among the masses, where contentment at being The Awkward Weird Lonely One was the best case scenario for life. That's a win, baby! You felt things deeply, were easily affected, basic daily tasks felt like hurdles, and frankly, you were always a little pissed how life seemed so much easier for everyone else. Or at least, I did -- I still do, in fact. Which is the thing about depression and anxiety -- it's different for everyone, and maybe the hardest thing is to just admit that sense of fear and self-doubt, of being barely tethered to the world instead of one of the many so effortlessly living within it. And like so many people, after years of worrying about the stigma attached to mental illness, I sought help. I got on medication a while back, and though it's a relatively light dose, I know it's the start of a lifelong journey of adjusting the chemicals in my kooky brainpan to combat the days when you feel like you're trapped in a body of stone, or so full of despair, the darkest thoughts masquerade as a beacon of light.
September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day, and by all accounts, a day of mental health awareness. I'm not one for awareness days that don't include ice cream or hamburgers, nor do I wear special ribbons or bracelets of solidarity, but seeing that day of recognition, along with Wil Wheaton's recent post, and knowing one of my favorite humor writers/anxiety sufferers, Jenny Lawson, has a new book coming out (Furiously Happy , JFYI) well, it all seemed like Kismet. A Kismet on lithium, but whatever. Because this kind of struggle shouldn't be shrouded in shame. It's languished in shadow long enough -- it languishes there, still -- and it only continues the stigma that brands us dismissively as simply "crazy." I particularly like actor Jared Padalecki's "Always Keep Fighting" campaign to build support and awareness of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide. Kind of a nice Rebel Yell approach to the Debbie Downer Days. I'm a fan of reading Jenny Lawson's (aka The Bloggess) posts under the "Depression Lies" subject, as well as Hyperbole and a Half, another real life/mental health life blog that is as funny as it is heartfelt. They don't just talk about depression and anxiety being whisked away with a "Keep Calm and Carry On" meme (which I'd love to throw lighter fluid on and burn); they share what the really Bad Days are like. And for those who have felt those Bad Days, just knowing someone else is fighting makes us want to keep our dukes up, as futile as it may feel at the time.
But I admit. I'm stalling. I'm putting rah-rah social-issue-speak in place of what I really want to write about, but have such a hard time putting into words. It's harder than admitting my own illness. It's difficult to just type it out, because the words make it real, and reality is crushing. Life hit a hard, brutal stop this year when I lost a loved one to suicide. It was someone so very dear, my heart still aches to think about this person. And as much as I'd like to talk about this person and how important they were to me, I can't. Or won't. Because it's that stigma of mental illness; a morbid curiosity to know how it happened, and how the specter of suicide forever taints the person's memory and the life they lived. It's hard enough to lose a loved one so suddenly, and then to have them gone by their own actions. They suddenly become a stranger; both attacker and victim, with only unresolved grief for the survivors. Yes, there was a note. I've seen the note. It was short, with a sense of finality. Of despair. To know these were the final thoughts in this person's mind before they died... it all went back to the single thought I had when I found out: I couldn't have saved you, but I wish we had more time.
We naturally sought answers, knowing in the back of our minds there would be none. I looked through a paper trail of everyday documents -- financials, emails, business materials -- and a pattern of this person's suffering with depression was there, along with odd mood swings that would periodically occur, but always reassured with, "Don't worry, just a phase, I'm fine now." As beloved as this person was, we gave them respectful distance; a private person, always open to hear about others, but rarely opened up about themselves. There would never be a cry for help because this person's fierce independence (or pride), would see themselves dead before what they saw as dishonor. I don't know how you intervene in that situation, or if it's even possible. Maybe it makes it easier to not second guess, knowing how few signs there were. Maybe it allows us a tiny, lonely island to grieve upon amid the ocean of guilt that remains. I just don't know. And I never will. If anyone asks if ghosts exist, there's a part of me that will say, "yes," because some haunt us every day.
Suffering from mental illness and being faced with the brutal results of a loved one's own suffering is a strange perspective. There are questions everyone has, wondering how this tragedy can happen, how a person can feel so lost that they couldn't reach out to their dearest family and friends, but I admit to being burdened with fewer questions than others. I've participated in acts of self-harm, been dismissive over the consequences, truly believing it would be better off for everyone to not have me as a burden in their lives. I have a spare inkling of what those final moments must have been, written simply and hastily on a piece of lined paper, left on a desk for family to find after the police have taken the body. The loss of this person was and will forever be devastating, but the nature of their passing is, I'm loathe to say, familiar as a demon companion.
Depression Lies -- that's exactly the truth. And it doesn't help when it feels like the rest of the world marginalizes you as a nutcase. The portrait of mental illness is not the crazed gunman on the news, being bandied about by pundits, throwing words like "mental health awareness" as carelessly as a Frisbee. Mental illness is not a separate thing, it's not a Them, it is Us. We are bankers, doctors, lawyers, professionals in every industry; we are parents already besieged with self-doubt, easily seeded with more; we are silent prisoners in a cage of daily worries and fears, compounded by the fact that we know they shouldn't affect us, and that makes us even more anxious. We have to build ourselves up for every Tomorrow. We have to remember to take our medication, get out into the world now and then, and be extremely selective about the people we surround ourselves with. We put on our happy, social faces knowing it will leave us exhausted the next day, but grateful to have been able to do it. And we are not alone. We are many, who simply seek a safe harbor now and then to weather an ever-present storm.
Jaunty Fine Print: Illustration by Denise Sakaki