Mental health issues should be at the top of the list of things you never talk about at parties — even before religion, sex, money and politics. I realized yesterday, trying to shut off my thoughts before sleeping, that although I've mentioned before here that I think I may have had a touch of postpartum depression after my older son was born, that wasn't the first time I stared at a long list of mental health providers on the computer screen: Eenie, meenie, miney, moe.
Cartoonists and illustrators always get it right — depression is your own personal rain cloud, hovering up above your head, isolating you from friends and family, casting a lonely gray shadow wherever you go.
I was in college when I saw my first therapist. She was an intern, in a tiny little office right on campus, and she spoke to me softly about how I seemed very sensitive, kind, caring. I liked being alone in the quiet of the house, but at the same time I felt lonely, uncertain, sad and detached. She never diagnosed me with anything, never did anything more bold than to hand me the Kleenex when I cried. But even then, I felt the stigma of being there, in that office — with other people around. I ran into one girl from my psychology class, appropriately enough, who acted like it was no big deal that we were there, who felt the need to tell me about her gay brother and how she knew I was wearing clothes I thought she'd like when we got together to work on a class project, because she was from New York and I picked a sheer graffiti-themed shirt from Urban Outfitters and cutoff jean shorts. I had been found out.
Therapy helped, and yoga helped, but when my therapist graduated, I didn't bother trying to find a new one. Instead, as so many college students do, I made poor decision after poor decision, and no one was there to rescue me. I didn't have a cheerleader; I didn't have any friends who weren't right there in it with me or who were brave enough to take me by the shoulders and shake me: Snap out of it. So my little gray rain cloud came back.
It was commuting to work one day, riding shotgun, coming around a curve in Coconut Grove, when I said through tears, I don't even know if I want to be alive. I was unhappy, exhausted and that familiar feeling of loneliness had come in, sat down on the bed and said I'm not moving.
Only after a move back to Chicago and the passing of my grandfather did I finally try to find a therapist again. It was a chilly night, and as I found my way to the doctor's office, there it was again: The stigma of having to deal with this issue, right above the pediatrician, in secret, all the phone calls and the insurance company and the code they had to give me just to be able to make an appointment...he looked like the guy from the Perdue chicken commercials. Everything about it was wrong. Everything about it just reinforced my belief that I shouldn't be there, but there I was.
I saw that therapist exactly once, but in the space of those 30 or 60 or 45 minutes, he recommended a book to me that I didn't even need to finish for it to have a lasting effect on me. What this book explained was that your thoughts create your feelings, not the other way around. I was "feeling" depressed because I was "thinking" all of those terrible thoughts you think when you're depressed — what am I doing, I'm such an idiot, I'm so stupid, I'm unhappy, how did I get here...Letting my mind run wild, letting my thoughts go unexamined and uncontrolled and believing everything I was thinking was what created the feelings of sadness and loneliness. It wasn't that I was bad or defective and therefore it dawned on me that I really was a piece of crap. I had it all backwards.
I was lucky. I still had no cheerleader, no one to rescue me, no deus ex machina. But mine was just a little rain cloud, not the kind that eats away at you and swallows you whole, like it did Robin Williams. I've seen a couple different therapists and a healer since then. Finding the right person to talk to — even if you wonder, What will I say? I have nothing to say — is crucial. You try them on like a pair of shoes, and sometimes you outgrow them like a pair of shoes. It can be hard to want to be seen when you feel like it's your fault, or you should be able to just pray and be better, or no one cares and no one would miss you anyways. Depression, sadness, loneliness — if you've felt it once before, you know how to wind up there again and again and again. It can be so easy to slip into that familiar cloak of pain. Talking about it helps. I wish it could have helped Robin Williams and so many others.
I would be remiss to conclude without saying this: If you know someone who is suffering — even if it's not depression — tell them that you see them. If there is something you can do today to let them know that you're sorry, or you feel for them, or you get it, be their cheerleader. Let them know that they matter, they have a hand to hold and there are resources they can try on like shoes, until they find the right fit. Let them know that they're seen.
If you want to let someone know that you see them in their pain today, get out your Sharpie and tell them like I did in the photo: I see you. Stick a note in the mail, leave a card under someone's doormat, change your profile picture and start a conversation. The ice bucket challenge is helping raise awareness around Lou Gehrig's disease; will you help someone out today so that we can start eliminating the stigma associated with mental health issues? Share this post and leave me a comment below so that I know you see me and all the other people you know who have struggled, who need a cheerleader, who just need to talk.
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Filed under: Chasing peace