Sharing Our Stories: This is Why We Need to Talk about Mental Illness
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 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 it 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 on-going 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 - one that 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.