I wrestled with whether to write this. And whether to share my name. I decided to share my story anonymously. I’m hopeful that in my lifetime the subtle (and not so subtle) biases around mental health will improve to the point that talking about depression (or any other mental condition) is no different from talking about a broken leg. We’re not there yet. But it’s getting better.
I’ve struggled with severe depression for the past 50 years. Others occasionally ask me what that’s like. I say it’s beyond explanation. I often encourage those who want to know about depression to read William Styron’s 1989 book, “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.” Styron does a phenomenal job of bringing the illness to life.
In the fall of 2013, at age 58, I fell into what I thought would be a short duration of another depressive episode. I knew the symptoms well: difficulty sleeping, difficulty eating, pervasive anxiety, inability to concentrate, severe memory impairment, overwhelming guilt about things I had nothing to do with and frequent thoughts of suicide. I followed the treatment that had always worked. But it failed. So I tried other types of treatment. They, too, failed.
Instead of months, this depressive episode lasted for 2½ years. I couldn’t work. I had to stop and take medical and disability leave, which eventually ran out. I began to think my career was over. In my mind, I thought everything I had worked on for the past 30 years was gone. I began to think illogically. Feeling overly responsible and guilty about my illness, I deleted my LinkedIn account so nobody could see what became of me. I avoided social and family gatherings whenever possible. I traveled to another state for treatment and didn’t tell anyone except my immediate family. If I couldn’t die, I wanted to be invisible.
I consider myself extremely lucky. I got well eventually. All is in remission now. I’m feeling better now than I have in years. Why? How did this happen, you ask? That answer is why I chose to write this: to explain what others did to help me. If it weren’t for people reaching out and wanting to help, I’m not sure I’d even be here today.
- My family was always there: My wife stuck by me the whole time. While I was away getting treatment, almost half of the people in treatment with me reported that their spouses were divorcing them or already had. The reason? The spouses could not live with the “illness.” Not only did my wife provide unconditional support, my kids worked hard to hold things together at home when I couldn’t. They did so even while they were away at school pursuing degrees. I don’t know how they did it. They remained so strong. My church connected me with others. Our church organized some volunteer work for me, which gave me something to do, connected me with others, and got me out of the house. Soon, I began to feel useful.
- My doctor asked the right questions: A persistent internist had the wherewithal to run additional tests and lab work due to my symptoms. The results showed I needed hormone therapy, which I began. Looking back, these critical tests should have been run when I first became ill. By doing so, I could have received proper medication earlier, which would have sped my recovery and made my illness less severe.
- My colleagues reached out: While on medical leave, a few colleagues weren’t deterred by stigma. They simply reached out to me, told me they cared, and asked if I wanted contact. One person in my office asked and took me to lunch. Every week. For 2½ years. I know I won’t ever be able to return that kindness. It was simply heroic. When I was well enough to begin working again, one department created a list of needs and asked if I could help fill them. While I only worked a few hours at the beginning, I was back to a full-time schedule within six months. This was the single biggest confidence builder for me. Work has always been an important element in my life. And it’s what accelerated my wellness. When I returned to the office and greeted colleagues by extending my hand, they responded not with a handshake, but with a heartfelt hug. Some of the warmest responses came from some of the most unexpected people. I won’t ever forget them.
I wrote this because of the power of hope. So many people have given me hope throughout my journey. I hope my story will be hopeful and helpful to you – whether you have a mental illness or want to help someone who does.
Editors note: This article has been repurposed from New Directions, used with permission. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you need help or know someone who does, reach out to your doctor or another professional who can come up with the right treatment plan.
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