Thursday, April 03, 2014

that could have been me

Last week, I was very moved by an interview on CBC Radio with Newfoundland actor-comedian Andy Jones and his wife Mary-Lynn Bernard on the radio about the death of their son, Louis who "passed away by his own hand after a lengthy and brave battle with mental illness...age 28 years." (from Louis' obituary)

Despite pain that was practically palpable, Ms. Bernard and Mr. Jones have been doing media interviews across the country to shed light on mental illness and the very high toll takes on those affected and their loved ones. I was very, very moved by their story, and the brave decision they have made to share it. 

It brought back a very intense memory, part of my own ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety This is just one of my stories:

I remember crawling under the kitchen table in the house we were renting, turning to face the wall and pulling my knees to my chest. I wanted to make myself as small as possible. To disappear. To cease to exist.

I felt defeated and ashamed. I was a failure. 

After many, many months of pretending, hurting, numbing, self-disgust, suicidal fantasies and giving up on getting better, I had accepted a prescription for anti-depressants.

I can acutely recall the self-loathing I felt as I held the prescription bottle in my hand. I was disgusted that I was ill. Disgusted with the weakness of my will. Disgusted that I hadn't been able to just get better on my own.

Depression, as I experienced it, felt like a heavy weight on my chest and limbs. I could not fall asleep at night and then slept for most of the day. When I did get up, eating and dressing would exhaust me and I would sit in front of the television, hair and teeth unbrushed, flipping the channels aimlessly, not really watching. When I did have to leave the house on my own, I wanted nothing more than to be invisible. 

This lasted for months. I was 25 years old.

This was not my first episode of depression and anxiety (I started to wrestle with this in my teens) but it was the longest. And it was the first that did not seem to go away on its own. And so, in the end, I took the prescription. It took a few weeks and a change of meds (the first drug seemed to do nothing for me) and one day, as I was out with the dog, I realized that the fog had lifted. 

I wasn't euphoric. I didn't feel like a different person. I just felt lighter. And interested in the world around me. I felt better. I had hope. 

I'd like to say that was the day I stopped blaming myself for my illness but it wasn't. More than once over the next few years, I took myself off the medication that helps me stay healthy because I was ashamed to be taking it. I didn't know then that abrupt withdrawal can be very dangerous. One time, I actually got off a plane at a stop-over and went to a friend's house because I was so overwhelmed with the desire to harm myself. It took me years to realize that for me, the drugs help and there is no shame in taking them.

This is not to say that everyone dealing with depression needs medication (they don't). Or that everyone needs to stay on it (they don't) but I do, along with talk therapy, exercise, good nutrition and the support of the people I love. I have to stay vigilant and watch for the signs that I need to slow down and take care of myself.

It's only in the last couple of years that I've started to talk about my depression. When I worked, it was my deep, dark secret - onne I realize now I very likely shared with several of my co-workers. There are so many of us who live with mental illness and never talk about it.

My point in sharing all this is to let go of a bit of the shame and chip away a little at the stigma. Andy Jones said in his interview that "compared to people who do heart surgery, the mental health field is still in the 17th century."

Enough already. Mental illness runs in my family. I'm trying to teach my kids to take care of themselves, watch for the signs, seek help and to never be ashamed of who they are.

And we need to treat mental illnesses like any other. We need prevention, treatment and cure. 

Additional reading (otherwise known as some of my very favourite posts from writers who live with anxiety and depression):

"Depression Lies" by Wil Wheaton.

"Today and forever" by Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess).

"Adventures in Depression" and "Depression Part Two" by Allie Brosh (of Hyperbole and a Half)

"Depression. There. I said it." by Rachael Herron.

Update: This post was featured by BlogHer on April 4th.


Catherine said...

Well written and well shared, Laurie. I've tweeted out your post. It's important for people to read that they don't need to be ashamed. That's so very important. ~Catherine

Jim's Girl said...

Thank you for being so honest, Laurie. So many people just don't understand what depression looks like and how it contorts rational thought. I call it a cognitive disorder.

My husband's depression is treatment-resistant, and severe. It is a lot to deal with on top of my Stage IV diagnosis. I tell him everything will be OK but I'm lying, aren't i?

Thank you again. Kate, of Kate Has Cancer

laurie said...

There is still so much shame associated with mental illness. And fear. And we mock what we fear, which perpetuates the cycle.

And Kate, what a hard thing to be living through right now. A cognitive disorder is a good way of putting it. The roots are neurological, for sure.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. Made me feel less alone.

Andrea said...

Love you, Laurie.

tccomments2013 said...

Laurie, you did such a good job sharing your story with such honesty. i truly believe one of the most profound truths is what you wrote in your response to Kate - about the shame and fear - and that we mock what we fear, which perpetuates the cycle. thank you for this post.

Karen XO

Bob said...

Wow. I didn't know this about you. Perhaps I should have recognized a fellow traveler on the dark roads. Thank you for telling this story. It may well help someone out there. Or it may help you. Or me.

Anonymous said...

Laurie, I know your words will help others with cognitive disorders. When people known to be valuable, functioning, talented and extremely lovable talk about their own struggles, a path to well-being is carved out of the jungle of self-doubt and recrimination. Thank you for being a path-finder once again. You are making an important difference with your courageous writing.

B in T

laurie said...

And Bob, I didn't know that about you. It's funny how, perhaps more than others, knowing about other people is so beneficial and yet we so often don't.
And thanks to all of you. Love you right back.