From the moment Depression began to reveal itself in my life I denied it. At first completely denying it was happening, but over the years there have been stages of acceptance; even in this feeble acceptance I continued to damn the illness. I labeled depression, and the subsequent panic disorder as character flaws. Intellectually I accepted that mental illness in others was a variable that they could not govern; illness did not make them flawed or crazy, it made them vulnerable, having difficult lives. Intellectually, I knew this must also be true of myself. There is a great distance between knowing something is true and accepting it to be true.
“Mental Illness”: It sounds so harsh, so wrong, so pitiful. The stigma associated with the title invites judgments such as “Crazy”, “Weak”, and “Not quite right.” This could not be further form the truth, but this way of thinking has been brought about by years of misunderstanding. I abhor that many “Well” members of society jump to these conclusions. I have never thought these things where others are concerned; however I have believed them true of myself. Inherently flawed, pitiful, weak. I continuously got angry with myself, and felt tremendous guilt for damaging those who loved me – “If only I could just be stronger, try harder, I could control it.”
When I was well, without depression, I spoke more fondly of my illness; I pretended to be more understanding and accepting of it. ‘It is just a part of my chemical makeup. It can’t be helped…” These were the programmed responses I told others and myself. Nevertheless, when I was there…in darkness, I was ashamed. I was not good enough. Everybody who ever said I was nothing was right. It was as if they saw the flaw in me before I knew it was there. In my rational mind, I knew this was wrong, I told myself it was wrong, that I was ok. But in my emotional mind, I never fully believed it. Then, came the film, “The Hours.” Why was I so easily accepting of the darkness of these three women when I had spent two decades chastising my own?
I watched these women in their turmoil, I watched myself in these women. I felt every word they said to the core of me. When the film ended I was elevated. I honestly knew and believed I was ok. For the first time in my life I did not think of myself as two separate entities. No longer my well self and my ill self; just one person at peace as one; one very complex individual who feels life very deeply, sometimes to the point of feeling endless. It is a God-Awful place I go. Maybe that is why I chose to divorce myself from illness, why I became two separate people. Hiding the ill girl away from everybody. Thursday February 6th, 2002 I embraced my illness for the first time in my life; there was such a sense of relief.
Why do I know I am all right? It is near impossible to just look at myself and answer this question. I have to look at the three women in “The Hours” and remember why each one made me see myself more clearly.
My life encompasses many things, all of them part of who I am, all of them part of my journey. Hiding from the truth has brought me tremendous pain; in living for others I did not honor myself. Acceptance and honesty are crucial if I want to have a life that does not constrict my own soul. Regarding my “mental flaws”: The “character” of Virginia Woolf said so eloquently, “To look life in the face, to know it for what it is, to love it for what it is. It is the right of every human being.” This was one of the many statements that resonated very strongly with me. In that moment I knew it was important to also know ourselves for who we are, and to love ourselves for who we are. It was long past time for me to love myself for all that I was, to honor the difficult – it was time for mercy.
I am ok because I am whole, in darkness and in light. In my attempts to escape the darkness I found my passions. Out of the isolation my artistic ability flourished, my love of music was born out of my need for comfort. My love of film came from the need to exist outside of my world for a few hours at a time. In the pursuit to fill my head with something other than my own thoughts, I found the brilliance of the written word. Each of my escapes has enriched my life. Because I have known the anguish of unrelenting despair I can fully appreciate simple pleasures, and be thankful for the good days.
The demons have been dancing again. I have been back in the tunnel for a few months now. This round has not been easy but it has been nowhere near as brutal as the last time – almost six years have passed since my body has betrayed me to this extent. Yet, there is peace this time. A peace I’ve never known in depression. I’ve learned to take it day by day and do the best I can in each moment. Through meditation, diet, exercise, therapy, medication, and cognitive thinking, I am getting by. I know I will struggle from time to time. This is my lot in life. I think I’ve gotten off easy. I’ve watched a family member gradually lose her self to schizophrenia for the past twenty-seven years. She is a fragment of who she once was.
Nothing is exclusive. We all have our struggles. Just about every time my illness is brought to the forefront in conversation people assume I’m kidding. I’m perceived as far too “together” to be unwell. There are degrees of sanity. There are degrees of functionality. I ran the shop production of an aerospace overhaul facility for eleven years; at times I was in emotional hell. It did not affect my ability to do my job. I did my job, went home, and hid until I had to face life again the following day. Many of us need a distraction to save us from the voices. (Yes, there are voices in the depths of depression.) My hope is that the people who read this may become more aware (if they’re not already) of the fact that mental illness is all around us and it is not something to be ashamed of.
I am the face of mental illness – there are many more. Try to be kind.
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