Trigger Warning: Discussion of depression and suicide.
(Finally posting this because I just posted about vulnerability and the Break the Silence event is coming up.)
I started working on this post last summer. I haven’t posted it yet because 1.) I’m scared and 2) I’d rather tell people this in person. But the reality is that I don’t know when I’d have the opportunity to sit down with people one by one, or if I’d ever have the courage, or if I’d want to dump that on people when they weren’t ready for it.
So if you aren’t ready for this or would rather hear it from me in person, please stop reading and give me a call.
The point that I’m avoiding is that I’ve been struggling with depression since I was about sixteen, that is my junior year in high school. I didn’t realize it was called depression or that anyone else might be going through similar things until my freshman year of college. In high school, I just thought I was bad at being a person and worse, just a bad person. I had trouble focusing and getting out of bed. I lost interest in everything. I snapped at friends for no reason. And I had suicidal thoughts.
I have attempted suicide twice in my life. Once my junior year of high school, around the height of my depression, when one morning I just couldn’t stand up. The other time my sophomore year of college when everything else in my life was pretty darn perfect, new job as an RA, happy, healthy relationship, still loving my school, and I found myself crying almost every day for no reason. Eventually I reached the place where nothing else made sense, and the spiteful voices in my head had hissed at me for long enough, and I just sat down and took some pills. The only reason I stopped was because I had a meeting. Thank God for the ceaseless call of punctuality.
That was definitely the low point. And I’ve had bad days since. Days when I couldn’t stop crying, when the world around me shifted without warning into the prehistoric gray, the land of mist and fog. In that place the only way out seemed to be self-destruction. I’ve since had more suicidal ideation, that is thinking of ways to end my life, making semi-plans, without necessarily taking steps to accomplish them.
I don’t really want to go into those details, though, other than to say this: please don’t minimize the experiences of people with mental illness. It is really and truly an awful and isolating thing to go through and is only made worse by its stigmatization. It is a physiological over-stimulation of the brain’s chemical processes in response to stress and no less “real” than any other disease that attacks the brain. As if the pain were not enough, putting the blame on the person struggling with the illness adds unnecessary shame and isolation. And believe me, it isn’t as if the person hasn’t been telling themselves the same words. I can’t count the number of times I told myself “Get over it, Laura, it’s only in your head.”
But I consider myself to be unbelievably lucky. I’ve been surrounded by friends and family members who have done everything they can to support me, who have sat with me and saved my life over and over again, often without knowing it. I’ve been privileged enough to go to a college that offers counselors. I have health insurance. I have the language to talk about this and people willing to listen.
Tragically, this is not the case for most people with mental illness. And that’s why I’m really writing this: beyond attempting to end the silence that surrounds and confuses mental illness, there are some things we can all do. Be on the look-out for friends going through similar struggles. Although the symptoms vary from person to person, you can look for withdrawal from typical activity, dramatic changes in sleeping and eating patterns, withdrawal from social involvement, and spontaneous and seemingly random mood shifts including anger, aggression, or crying as some common signals. Hopefully you’d notice these anyway. If these symptoms continue for extended periods of time or are accompanied by other negative thought patterns, it might be a good idea for the person to talk to a professional. If not a professional then a supportive friend can be helpful, although also terrifying.
This isn’t to say go out and start diagnosing people, it’s to say be aware.
And if you do think you have a mental illness or if you’ve been having suicidal thoughts, please, please reach out to people. It’s one of the scariest and most difficult things to do, but you are incredibly and unquestionably worth it.
Thanks for reading, and if you’d like to talk this through with me or someone more qualified, please do. I’m putting this out there as a conversation starter and not an exhaustive diatribe. Though it did get lengthy.
As an end note: thank you to everyone who has helped me knowingly or unknowingly throughout the years. I wouldn’t be here without you, and I am so grateful every day. I have been doing amazingly well. In 2014, my breakdowns were relatively low and often sparked by outside events rather than simply occurring at random as they have in the past, and 2015 is breakdown free so far! I don’t know how long this trend will continue, but it is encouraging!