I’m prouder of that title than I probably should be. Since May is mental illness awareness month, I thought I’d better do my part and contribute to the conversation.
I’ve been living with moderate to severe depression my entire life. My earliest memories are accompanied with knowing that something was off. I think, for me, it’s best described as a heavy blanket I carry with me everywhere. An underlying sadness that is present at all times- even joyful ones.
Depression is strange. It unveils itself at odd times and sometimes when you’d least expect. I remember a time during my sophomore year of high school in the middle of my worst bout of severe depression I’ve experienced. I was sitting in my school counselor’s office for a regular meeting. She was asking me about prom and if I was excited about the upcoming dance. I remember looking at her and just blankly stating, “No, not really.” I was unemotional. I had a beautiful dress, the stretch limo was reserved and the older boy had asked. And yet, I would have rather stayed at home in bed.
Happy times, such as Christmas, can prove problematic too. Having children has alleviated some of the normal grief and sadness I routinely experience on holidays. Creating my family has healed me in such enormous ways. Pouring love into my babies has been the greatest joy of my life. Every time I kiss their sweet faces, tickle them or receive affection, it’s literally feels like God’s healing hand.
Depression manifests itself inside of me in multiple ways. Clearly, sadness is one of them. But it also presents itself in anger, apathy and exhaustion. Because I’ve been living with this disease my entire life, I’m much more aware of its presence and when I’m dealing with an especially difficult period. I can tell when things are shifting and I try to pay attention to what I’m doing and how I’m behaving. Many of you know how important intense and regular exercise is to me. It plays an important role in managing my mental health along with adequate sleep and a healthy diet.
To be fully transparent, I’m going to shift gears a bit and share details of my life that are hard. Typing this makes me feel vulnerable and a bit afraid.
Suicide is something I thought about every single day for nearly two years of my life. I prayed to God for death- which sounds so scary and I assure you it was. I participated in self harm- cutting and burning myself. I acted out in school. I spent more time in “in-school suspension” in eighth grade than I did in a regular classroom. I lashed out in class, I disobeyed my mother and I embarrassed my siblings.
I was suffering terribly. My mother tried to help me. She took me to several psychologists who worked for years to get me on the right meds and the right dosages. But things didn’t get better. In fact, they got much worse for a while. I have no idea how I made it through high school. I almost didn’t.
When I left for college, things didn’t get better right away. For two years, I slowly weaned myself from medications. I wanted to try a different route since this one had not seemed to work for me. Let me be clear. Medicine is a perfectly great way to manage mental health and I highly encourage people to explore it as an option. For me, though, it did not prove helpful. Many studies now show that the medications I was taking (in very high doses) contributed to my suicidal ideations and problems.
I found ways to manage my mental illness. I won’t say that everything was perfect or easy. I still struggled- a lot some years but I found structure (and a decent shrink).
Fast forward to 2014. When my sweet and fierce Rachel died.
It turns out, lots of people are good about hiding their sadness. They work hard to keep a strong face and appear like they have it together. Nothing has been as hard for me as Rachel’s death. The ripple effect of suicide never ends. I frequently talk to my friend and I have a beautiful tree in my backyard that I call my “Rachel tree”. Oh how I wish I could tell her my stories face-to-face.
One good thing that came from Rachel’s passing is that it made me braver. I’m more fully myself than ever before. I don’t hide the ugly from those closest to me. And I try and allow most people to see me struggle a bit. The Atwood Center for Women was created in her honor- and I’m doing my best every day to make her proud.
Thank you all for loving me. For acknowledging the messy parts. Thank you, Matty, for your unconditional love and support. You saw me through the worst of it and I hope to give you the best of it.
One foot in front of the other, folks. Just keep swimming.