By Nancy Boutot, Manager, Financial Empowerment, National Disability Institute
“Do not confuse my bad days as a sign of weakness…those are actually the days I am fighting my hardest.”
Revealing at age 50 that I am a person living with clinical depression is something I have been thinking about for over a year… perhaps close to two. There was something about turning 50 that made me think enough is enough. I have advocated for people with disabilities, literally, my entire life, yet I certainly was not advocating for myself. In fact, I was diagnosed in my very early twenties and have been living with my disability for about 30 years. Hiding it from most. What kind of a hypocrite was I?
There should be no shame in having a mental illness.
I have good days, great days, wonderful days, and luckily I have a lot of them. That’s how most people know me. Friendly, cheerful and, dare I say, occasionally witty? I also have bad days, but other than those closest to me, you will not know me on those days. You will not see me when I am too depressed to get out of bed, or brush my teeth or take a shower. You will not see me when I’ve been crying excessively. You will not talk to me when I’m anxious about being depressed, when I can’t make plans because I just don’t know what the next day holds. I won’t let you see ‘me.’ Or should I say, I used to not let you see me.
Now I do. I was tailgating at a football game once and someone said “Nancy, it is always nice to see you, you have such a positive attitude!” When situations like that arose, I used to think to myself, ‘If you only knew the real me,’ but I have learned to not say that to myself because that person with a positive attitude is the real me too!
Let me share some information with you: Millions of Americans have depression. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in 10 adults (defined as 18 and over) are depressed at any given time, and women, minorities, and those unemployed are most likely to meet the criteria of major depression. So why, with millions of Americans experiencing depression, does it still have such a negative stigma? When we hear about horrible things on the news, why does the topic of mental health immediately arise? According to a report in the Huffington Post in 2016, the news media disproportionately links mental illness and violent behavior.
Depression isn’t just being sad – it can cause anxiety, severe mood swings, feelings of guilt (for bailing on any number of social activities), discontent, apathy, fatigue, restlessness, irritability… well, you get the point. Several years ago, I was with a small group of friends. I stated that one friend would not be attending due to her depression and not being ‘in the mood’ to socialize. A person in the group made a face and spoke up: “Really? Come on, tell her to just get over it. I don’t get it, sorry.” I was a bit taken back by this declaration, and while I could have said something, I just let it go. Well, sort of. I never got over the feeling that this friend of mine, whom I consider a wonderful friend, would never totally get me, whether I told her about my depression or not. And I never did. Partially because it is simply hard to describe.
How do I tell someone that at times I feel nothing; I have neither happy nor sad feelings, just none? That I can’t see the joy in life some days? That lying in bed feels safe? That I’m tapped, spent, as if all the energy has been sucked out of my body? That I’m not quite the best guest when I can’t concentrate on anything, especially dinner conversation. Believe me, if I could just ‘snap out of it’, I would.
And if I did tell someone, would they want to hear it? When you tell people you have the flu or you broke a bone, you hear words of concern, comfort. When you tell someone you have depression, you hear silence. If I do tell someone, I immediately follow it up with how I have it under control so they do not think I will a) harm myself or b) harm others. It seems to ease them.
Saying to someone who has depression, “What do you have to be depressed about? You have a great life!” is the same thing as saying to a person with asthma: “What do you mean you can’t breathe? There’s lots of air in here!” (#endthestigma)
I will be in recovery from clinical depression for the rest of my life, and part of my recovery is to stop being embarrassed, and to stop pretending that I am always okay. After all, are any of us 100 percent on any given day? No. Recovery can look different for everyone, and what works for me some days may not work for others. One thing that seems to improve my depression is sunlight, and I try to get outside and into the sunlight for at least 10 or 15 minutes every day… more when I feel my body needs it. I seem to do best when I stick to a scheduled routine. I also incorporate some deep breathing exercises into my daily routine. Taking a few minutes to breathe and relax, especially when I start to feel anxious, can be a proactive way to stop that spiral into deep depression. Eating healthy and exercising are good ways to manage my depression, but I’m still working on those! I seem to eat well and do light exercise for a while, but don’t keep up with it on a regular basis like I should. Also, I can’t say enough about talk therapy! Call a friend, laugh, joke, and catch-up!
It is whatever works on any given day. I know my symptoms will never totally go away. But through these techniques, and taking and regulating my medication (thankfully, I’ve been on the same one for about 11 years now), I can live a pretty great life!
So, if you know someone with depression, here are some ways you may be able to be there for them. I say ‘may,’ because everyone is different. And I can only say what works for me.
On a good day, and I must stress good, ask how you can help me on a bad day.
On a bad day, never, and I repeat never, tell me to ‘get over it.’
Ask me what you can do to help, and if I say nothing, then do nothing.
Respect me as a person living with and managing depression.
Learn more about what people with depression deal with… research it, and understand as best you can.
Don’t feel sorry for me. It doesn’t help. Just be there for me.
There are a few resources that I go to on a regular basis, whether it be to find inspiration, tips on managing my depression, or sites where I can go to simply know I’m not alone. Maybe some of these can help someone else too.
- The Mightyis one of my favorites! Real people sharing real stories about a variety of mental health diagnoses, as well as other disabilities and health concerns.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): NAMI’s motto is “You Are Not Alone.” They are a great source to find local groups and resources.