Outsmarting Depression

I was depressed on Wednesday.

This is pretty unusual for me. I tend my more toward heart-pounding anxiety than flat, hopeless depression. And while anxiety causes more physical pain than depression and a good deal of mental anguish, it has one major advantage over depression: I know how to make it stop.

I can shut down anxiety with a pill. That sounds like some unrealistic magical whatever, but it’s true. When I have an anxiety attack, Xanax puts an end to it. Just stops it cold. This doesn’t solve my anxiety disorder and it comes with its own drawbacks (mainly that it makes it hard for me to *do* anything through the haze that comes over my brain), but it’s the psychiatric equivalent of an epi pen – you’re still allergic to shellfish after you get the shot, but the specific shrimp you ate ten minutes ago has lost its ability to kill you.

There’s no rescue drug for depression. You treat depression as a chronic issue and antidepressants are great for that, but they’re not perfect. Sometimes, even when you follow your treatment plan to a T, you still get depressed and have no easy way out of it.

For years I handled depressive episodes by holing up in my room and repeating cruel thoughts on a loop in my head: You’re worthless. Nobody cares about you. Nobody should. You deserve to feel this way. You’re worthless. Nobody cares about you. Nobody should. You deserve to feel this way. You’re worthless…

Help never came because I didn’t let anyone know I needed it, or at least I didn’t let them know in a way they could understand. I’d speak in a slightly lower tone than usual when someone called, for example, and then convince myself that if they really cared about me they would have picked up on it. Every interaction was a test rigged for failure. That’s how depression protects itself.

On Wednesday, though, I pierced depression’s armor. After many, many years of therapy and education I am finally smarter than my depression. I know how to fight back.

The answer – and I know this sounds cliche, but hear me out – is to ask for help. It’s not to hope for help, not to hint at the need for help, not to expect help, but to ASK for help. When the depression came over me Wednesday I put out a couple semi-cryptic tweets and received, understandably, little to no response. In the past, that would have been the end of it; I’d have stayed lonely and depressed until the weight of it all wore me out and I slept.

But on Wednesday I took an extra step. Instead of just waiting for people to read my mind, I followed my initial tweets with this: “If you do happen to care, now would be a good time to let me know.”

It was a little salty and borderline combative but it was clear, unambiguous: I need you to tell me you care. I need help.

And people helped.

People I’d only ever interacted with online told me they cared. People I’d never interacted with at all told me I matter. Days later I’m still hearing from people who apologize for not seeing my tweet right away but hope I’m feeling better.

This isn’t because I’m some super special amazing person. It’s because I’m OK and so are plenty of others. We don’t want people to suffer. We want to help each other. We appreciate each other and will gladly say so when prompted.

The Melissa of a few years ago would have been disgusted at the idea of openly asking for validation. She’d have beaten herself up for even thinking about doing something she’d have thought of as fishing for compliments. The Melissa of Wednesday knew better. Asking for help is not the same as fishing for compliments any more than wearing glasses is cheating on an eye test. I wasn’t trying to put one over on anybody; I was just trying to help myself see what was suddenly almost hopelessly blurry.

A social media site full of strangers isn’t the answer for everyone, but the same principle applies to friends, family, doctors, therapists and mental health hotlines: If you don’t let people know you need help then you’re very unlikely to get it. Don’t be shy or embarrassed or depression-style clever. Just ask for what you need.

Just ask for what you need.

Just ASK for what you NEED.

People care about you and want to help. You just have to give them the chance.

Hey! It’s a blog post about mental illness!

Depression doesn’t show up on x-rays, but it’s readily visible in the morgue. When a famous person commits suicide then the world gets a tangible reminder that depression is real, and deadly. And so today, healthy people believe in clinical depression.

As an unhealthy person, I also believe in clinical depression. But when a famous person commits suicide and proves to the world that his depression was real, my own personal doubt always comes to the surface.

That doubt never fully goes away. I’ve been diagnosed, treated, even hospitalized for my mental illness (for me it’s an anxiety disorder with a side of depression), but I still always wonder whether it’s real. I’m the only one in my head, after all, and I know it’s possible that I’m just malingering. It’s possible that I’m using my diagnosis to get out of having to hold down a job or lose weight or find a boyfriend. It’s possible that I’m taking the easy way out.

I’m terrified of death, so for me suicide would be the absolute hardest way out. I’m not suicidal, and that makes me a poor example of a depressive person on days like today. More than that, it makes my depression suspect. Suicidal ideation is a clear sign of depression; its absence, then, might be a clear sign that mine isn’t a ‘true’ depression, whatever that means.

My mental illness isn’t romantic. It won’t lead to a profound, tragic end that forces people to rethink their views of human nature. I slog along and will continue to slog along, grossly underfunctioning in a way that makes me so angry at myself that sometimes I don’t know what to do with all that rage. My solution is to tamp it down as best I can so as not to be consumed by it. I tamp down the anger and the sadness and I tamp down hope and ambition alongside them. I don’t have the energy for any of it, anyway, since all my emotional resources go into trying to survive a gnawing, festering anxiety that never completely goes away.

Now and then I write about it, and that writing always sounds insufferably whiny when I read it back. Boo fucking hoo, Melissa. You get nervous a lot. Robin Williams – a genius and a philanthropist and true boon to the world – fought a titanic battle and in losing, gave society the final gift of awareness. I’m not fit to stand in his shadow.

And so my unhealthy mind finds ways to batter itself for not being unhealthy in the proper way. I’m writing this not for sympathy or validation – actually, I want to discourage anyone from putting anything of that sort in the comments. I’m writing it because everyone is writing about their bouts with thoughts of suicide today, and someone needs to speak for the people whose depression doesn’t flow in that direction.

As much as I sometimes doubt that my own problems are more than just character flaws, I nonetheless have plenty of evidence of my anxiety disorder as a real, medical issue. Not everyone is lucky enough to have the remarkable support structure I get from my family, friends and doctor. I’m writing this for those who compare their own depressions to Robin Williams’, and believe that they don’t measure up.

You don’t have to be suicidal to need, and deserve, to feel better. You don’t even have to believe in your own mental illness. You just have to know that not everybody dreads waking up every day, and looks forward to nothing more than getting to sleep again. You have to know that sadness is fleeting, and if it lingers too long that means it’s more than just sadness. You have to know that there’s help for you even if your disease isn’t likely to be terminal.

And once you accept those things, you have to remember that mental illness doesn’t strike only those who deserve to suffer. Robin Williams certainly didn’t deserve that, and unless you take active pleasure in harming others, neither do you.

You deserve help, and you deserve it even if you’re not dying.

Let’s Talk

In the spirit of Bell “Let’s Talk” Day, I’m dusting off the old blog to talk about my own mental illness.

I have a severe anxiety disorder. At least I believe it’s severe, since I can’t imagine this could possibly be the mild version.

Even simple tasks can induce enough anxiety in me to make me physically sick – nauseous and dizzy, pulse racing and head pounding – and so panicky that I have trouble just carrying on a conversation. As a result, I do very little to push myself, which in turn brings the depression – including fatigue, a feeling of hopelessness and the inability to feel anything resembling joy – associated with inactivity and a sense of failure. I spend my life attempting to balance my terror at taking any kind of risk with my loathing of the depression that’s likely to follow if I don’t take a risk now and then. My brain fights itself at every turn.

Right now, for example, I’m working on a freelance piece for a large media outlet. It’s the first time I’ve even attempted something like it in years, and even though things are going relatively smoothly I still wake up with a knot in my stomach and a relentless headache every weekday morning. I dread making phone calls to set up interviews just as much as I dread the interviews themselves, and I dread that I’ll eventually have to sit down and write the thing. More than one friend has asked me if I’m getting paid for the article; the answer is that I have no idea, and I can’t bring myself to ask. If I did ask I’d just be adding one more stressor, and I’d constantly be checking my inbox for a response that I didn’t really want to read.

I’m working as a substitute teacher tomorrow – a good job for someone who feels claustrophobic at the mention of any kind of commitment – and while I’m no longer anxious about the work itself, I hate the prospect of having to wake up early, make myself presentable and feign the casual, sociable air that I hope will keep the other teachers from actively disliking me.

There isn’t much in life that I truly look forward to. Most everything involves at least some degree of anxiety, and while I might enjoy a job or a social activity once it’s underway, there’s always a period of worry that precedes it. I continue to push myself, though, because a touch of anxiety is better than full-fledged depression. That’s also why I’m doing a freelance job that has me in a constant low-grade panic and might not even come with a paycheck – because I’m a writer, and ultimately, writers want to be read. Take that away and I lose an essential part of my identity.

Therapy and medication help; without them I’d either be dead or completely non-functioning. So I continue treatment in the hope that someday there will be a true cure. When that day comes I want to be around to see it, to revel in it, to breathe freely for the first time. The best thing I’ve gotten from my years of therapy is the knowledge that I deserve that wellness. This is a disease, not a character flaw.

Canadian TV sports personality Michael Landsberg (@heylandsberg) uses the spot-on hashtag #sicknotweak to talk about mental health issues. I’m writing this mostly as a little bit more therapy for myself, but it’s also my hope to communicate that message to however many people read this: Mental illness means a person is sick; it does not mean that person is weak. Anyone who suffers from mental illness but still manages to function – hell, still manages to keep breathing – has demonstrated his or her strength. And you can help that person, whether it’s yourself or someone else, grow even stronger by showing compassion. Nobody chooses this, any more than anyone chooses cancer. The mentally ill deserve the same respect and support as victims of any other disease, and if anything we need it even more.

Thank you, Bell Canada, for bringing us “Let’s Talk” day and making mental health a priority.

And thank you, reader, for being part of my treatment. Simply talking helps, but it is exponentially more valuable when someone else is listening.