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.

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Me, No Filter

Don’t want to die, just don’t really want to exist, either. Want to sleep, can’t sleep. Could drug into sleep but that would make it worse later. No food in the house, no ability to leave the house. Stuck. Mired. Physical problems going unaddressed, probably getting worse. Afraid to find out. Typing it out because that’s all I can do. More later, maybe. Sharing out of vanity, but hopefully someone is helped by seeing they’re not alone. Best I can do right now.

An Open Letter to Henry Rollins

Dear Mr. Rollins,

I read your comments about Robin Williams’ suicide, and suicide in general, and I think it’s time someone explained the reality of mental illness to you.

Let’s start with the name. Mental illness is illness. Mentally ill people are sick, just like people suffering from any other disease are sick. Do you condemn parents who have terminal cancer for leaving their children? Does dying of a brain aneurysm negate a person’s previous existence? Can you no longer take a person seriously after they’ve had a stroke?

Because terminal depression is a physical illness just like any other. It results from abnormal brain chemistry and it frequently causes its victims not just emotional devastation, but a range of physical symptoms as well. It’s not something a person chooses, Mr. Rollins. It’s something that batters him or her from the inside, unbidden and often not at all understood. It eats at your brain no less than a tumor does.

In some ways, though, it’s worse than a tumor. Nobody looks at you disdainfully for having a tumor. Nobody accuses you of “traumatizing your kids” when the tumor grows to the point when it’s inoperable. Nobody claims that you “blew it” by letting that tumor take your life.

You see, Mr. Rollins, people with severe clinical depression have no more choice in feeling unable to continue on than you have in feeling chills when you get a fever. You’re burning up, but your body tricks you into believing you’re cold; the depressed person has strength and value, but the body convinces him or her otherwise.

I won’t presume to speak for Robin Williams, because I didn’t know him and I don’t know any specifics about his health. But if it’s true that he was severely, clinically depressed, then he didn’t choose to commit suicide. Some conditions cause a person to lose agency, and depression can be one of them. Think of a woman who has had her drink spiked with a roofie: Her ability to make her own decisions has been compromised because a damaging chemical has – through no fault of her own – been introduced into her system. Depression is the evil asshole who spikes your drink when you’re not looking. It floods you with chemicals that impede your ability to control your own thoughts and actions.

Do you blame that woman if she fails to fight her rapist hard enough, Mr. Rollins? Is she somehow supposed to be able to fight him more successfully if she happens to have children?

Now I’m going to tell you a story about me because, as you noted, we can really only understand our own experiences with depression. When I was 18 I suffered my first major depressive episode. I spent the better part of a year believing that I was a waste of space, an anchor dragging down the people who loved me. I slept as much as possible. When I was awake, I often lashed out at the people around me, angry with them for putting up with me when I knew that I was a scourge on their lives. I thought about suicide, Mr Rollins. I thought about it a lot. I thought it was what I would do if I really cared about my friends and family as much as they cared about me.

I didn’t do it, and now I’m glad I didn’t. But at the time my failure to kill myself didn’t rise out of a brave choice to keep going for my family; it rose from my fear of death, plain and simple. I truly believed, in my chemically-altered state, that I was a coward for not swallowing a bottle of pills or drowning myself in a lake. I believed I was hurting my loved ones at the expense of my own selfish desire not to die. That was my reality, as much as it is my reality to see grass as green and mud as brown.

So please, Mr. Rollins, before you decide to write people off for the things they do when they’re in the grip of a mind-altering illness, remember that their reality doesn’t look like yours. Remember that you’re lucky that whatever depression you might have suffered in the past was not of the terminal variety. Real people – people who deserve to be respected and acknowledged for the contents of their lives – sometimes get sick with diseases you don’t understand. We have treatments for those diseases, good treatments, but they don’t always succeed. Not every tumor is operable.

I admire you for standing up for marriage equality and for your talent as an artist. I particularly enjoyed your work on Sons of Anarchy, and smiled my way through your appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race. But if you continue to stand in judgement of people for succumbing to illness, Mr. Rollins, then I will no longer be able to take you seriously. You will be cancelled out in my mind. You will have blown it.

Fuck ignorance. You’re healthy enough to be able to view the world clearly. Choose to do that, and be part of the solution instead of just another insidious part of the problem. Choose to do that for the sake of those who can’t.

Sincerely,

Melissa Geschwind, lucky depression survivor

UPDATE: Thank you for your apology, Mr. Rollins. I’m glad you were able to see and process what so many of us were saying. Do better as you move forward and hopefully we can put this behind us and work together, as a community of humans, to destigmatize mental illness and make treatment readily available to those in need.

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.