Well, my friends, I am at last breaking the radio silence that has deafened this blog for the past two months. Many of you reached out via social media and in person to ask whether I was okay, or if a new blog post would be up soon. Thank you for caring enough to check in -- that kind of support is incredibly humbling and cheering. I’m grateful for you.
The truth is, I have been absent from this written world for a wonderful reason. I have, at last, and for now, anyway, pulled myself out of the muck and mire that is my depression. (Now, for the love of all things holy, let’s all please knock on some wood together.) I’ve not been writing because I’ve been out living! Doing busy, normal, happy things! Without the three-hour naps in the afternoon, without the nighttime dread of the following morning (well, almost, because still, I will always be the person who snoozes three times and wishes for a nap as soon as she is out of bed). Without the crippling fear of leaving the house or the distinct, stomach-wrenching feeling that nothing at all in this life matters.
Instead, I’ve been reading at the beach. I’ve been helping a friend with her little ones (is there anything happier than a two-year-old who gazes up at you when you wake him from his nap and says, “Auntie Lauren, I’m glad you’re here!”?) I’ve been painting our master bedroom and refashioning it into a relaxing, clutter-free haven from the rest of my cheerful, lived-in apartment. I’ve been enjoying time with family: celebrating my father’s semi-retirement from the local fire department and meeting an aunt and cousin for lunch with my mom to reminisce about our sweet Gram.
And in all these good, good things of life, I managed to cram the fact of my depression into a teeny, tiny box and shove it way back, into the corner of my mind, and ignore it for awhile! Well, mostly ignore it, anyway. Of course I’ve kept up with therapy appointments and my medication. I’m not throwing caution to the wind, and I’m under no illusions that I am actually depression-free, because I don’t think that will ever be a reality for me. But as I felt more well, and engaged more fully with the world around me, it became hard to want to sit down and write about the disease that has taken those things from me before. Why would I want to continue to write about mental illness, force myself to think about the difficulties with which it has engendered my life, when I finally felt able to just go about my business and live?
And so, as days strung together into weeks, and those weeks into months, my accidental summer hiatus from blogging unfolded itself into my lap and stayed there. Whereas previously I had thought constantly about the blog, jotting down new ideas for posts and checking my views, I now felt strong enough to give myself freedom from that. I had new, real-world obligations and engagements, and my therapist viewed it as a healthy thing that I was not making myself beholden to my blog followers (sorry -- I really do love you!) since it is, in fact, my blog, not anyone else’s. It was good to remind myself that I didn’t owe this writing to anyone.
But time has passed and I am learning to settle into life as a mentally healthy person. (Once again, and I cannot stress this enough: I am not taking this for granted, and I am certainly not magically healed. I’m just doing better.) And I have found that I do miss the writing, and the processing that it helps me do as I pick my way through the brambly, overgrown pathways of living with depression and anxiety. And those of you who have reached out have made it clear to me that there is something of value here for others, as well. So rather than continue the hiatus, which has allowed me some time to enjoy the summer and heal privately, I will journey on publicly once again. I hope you’ll find the trek valuable, whether it offers you encouragement, solidarity, information, or understanding.
So, here we go again! Thanks -- as always --for being here.
I’ve been quiet on here for the past week, and while it’s partly because I’ve been in a bit of a slump -- missed a bit of work, fought off a lot of headaches, took a lot of naps -- it’s also because I’ve been thinking about what to write next.
You know what my depression is like on a bad day. You know how it has affected my marriage. You know how my diagnosis came about, what my major symptoms are, how I feel about medication. Prior to beginning this blog, I pretty much knew all of those things myself.
What I didn’t know, and what you therefore can’t yet know, is how writing posts for this blog has brought me to feel about owning the labels of depression, anxiety, and most of all, mental illness. Whether we want them to be hard-and-fast labels or not, that’s what they are. Being the person of words and language that I am (once an English major, always an English major), I’m generally a fan of labels. I like things to be defined, to be clearly delineated, so that everyone can be on the same page about whatever they’re talking about. It makes for more efficient, productive conversation, and to me that’s always a good thing. Even and especially regarding mental health.
But how would I feel once I defined myself as mentally ill?
It’s one thing to admit to “having depression.” I’ve been owning that one for awhile now amongst friends and family, and it doesn’t bother me. While I never know how someone might react when they hear this for the first time, I generally don’t think much more of making this admission than I do about telling someone that I have high blood pressure, or that I wear glasses for near-sightedness. But to own up to that depression as a true mental illness -- how does that feel? I’m still not sure.
At times, in previous entries, I have referred to my depression as an illness, and I know intellectually that’s true. But how I feel about that personally -- that’s a bit of a different story. Sometimes I feel unworthy of the label: am I truly mentally ill? Isn’t that term reserved for people in a psychiatric hospital, or with more severe diagnoses, with something worse than “just” depression? I don’t self-harm; I’m not suicidal; I can work most days, and see my friends and family, and generally live my life (with some exceptions, naturally). Does my condition really warrant the label of “mental illness”?
But yes, I have decided, it does. People who are not mentally ill do not spend days on end in bed, avoiding sunlight, feeling too tired and too worthless to shower or brush their teeth. People who are not mentally ill do not miss the wedding of two close friends because they feel too low to leave the house or too anxious to fly. People who are not mentally ill do not go out to their favorite restaurant, eat their favorite meal with their favorite cocktail, and shrug, indifferent, because they don’t even feel a glimmer of enjoyment.
Society has taught us a lot about which people we label as mentally ill. People who are mentally ill (or mentally “unstable,” that’s a good one, too) are crazy; they hear voices, act irrationally, do things that make no sense to the people around them. The label is a catchall to explain behavior we don’t understand, to reason away instances of inexplicable violence in our communities, to dismiss people on the margins of society. It’s a way to push people who are different into a category, to force them into a box we can stick a neatly printed label on and put on a shelf, gathering dust and staying safely contained away from everybody else we love and want to keep safe.
This is not okay. This is stigma, and it’s a reason I am writing openly and honestly about my own mental illness here and now.
Who are the mentally ill, really? We are not people sitting in corners, crying or holding our heads in our hands or staring into a dark room. We are not aggressive or violent; we are actually more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. We are not a punchline, a joke to make your friends or coworkers chuckle.
Sure, sometimes we sit in a dark room and cry. Sometimes some of us can act aggressively when we are hurting or scared. Some of us hear voices. Many of us can handle a joke at our own expense. But essentially, we are just people. We are writers, thinkers, students, graduates, professionals. We are the person sitting in the park, playing with our dogs or reading a book. The person serving you coffee with a smile at your local cafe. We are probably even your doctor, your accountant, your child’s teacher. We are your parents, your children, your siblings, your friends -- and we are sick. That’s all. We are people, who happen to be sick in a way you can’t always see or expect to understand.
Yes, I am mentally ill. No, I don’t need you to sympathize or try to fix it. What I need you to do is keep me out of the labeled box on your dusty top shelf, and keep me in your life the way you hold the rest of your loved ones dear.
I’m mentally ill, and I can own that. Can you?
for my husband, with gratitude, on the eve of our fifth wedding anniversary
From our bed, under the covers, I hear the front door to our apartment open. It’s around five in the evening, and I’m in some semblance of pajamas. I have not showered. Maybe I didn’t shower yesterday, either. I have no makeup on, or else it’s remnants of mascara from days ago, transforming my bleary eyes into dark smudges reflecting the chaos I feel inside. You are home from work and I have not worked all day. I have not touched the piles of laundry scattered across the floor, sorted during a more ambitious time. I have not thought about dinner, let alone made anything for you to eat. I have not even pulled the curtains open in our bedroom.
Upon hearing the door creak open, I instantly feel relief that you are home and I have a vague idea that it is good you are here, combined with shame that I am not dressed and have not done anything productive with my day. I roll over to face the bedroom door and you appear, greeting me with a gentle smile. You come to sit on the edge of the bed next to me, reading my body language to make sure it’s okay. You brush the hair away from my face and kiss my forehead. You might say that you’re sorry it’s a “dumb day” -- our lighthearted way of referring to the monster in my head that takes over at any given moment, seemingly, at least temporarily, stopping my life in its tracks. You ask if I have eaten or what I want to eat. You ask what we can do to make me feel better. I shake my head, hovering somewhere between distressed and wildly agitated. I want to tear my hair out and scream, but instead I sink into you, hiding my face in your chest, wishing tears would come but knowing they won’t.
You kick your shoes off and crawl into bed next to me, holding me if I let you and just being there if I won’t. After a little while I might pick up my phone or my Kindle, seeking distraction, or else I might just sort of stare into space. You browse the Internet on your phone and sit quietly with me. I’m sure you’re hungry, or could be working, or maybe catching a game with the guys, but instead you sit. If I talk, you listen. If I don’t, you don’t force it. You might ask if I want to watch something on Netflix or offer to get some dinner for us. More likely I will fall asleep with my head nestled against your shoulder, and you will refuse to move because you know that I need you there. You will do everything you can to let me sleep, because you know there I will find peace. You will be quiet and still, you will pray that tomorrow is a better day, and you will be there.
In the morning, you wake up ready to see who wakes up beside you -- will it be the woman you married, who lives with joy, and loves to cook and plan meals and entertain friends and spend time with family? Or will it be this woman who fell asleep on you last night, who was broken and devastated by the voices in her mind who convince her that she is not okay? Whichever one awakes, you will love and protect her, making sure she feels safe, with no demonstrable bewilderment, confusion or frustration at how you came to be married to both of these people.
Our wedding vows were traditional ones, and I doubt either of us thought that “for better or for worse; in sickness and in health” meant days like this. I know it wasn’t in my rosy, optimistic, newly-wedded vision for our marriage. And while I’m sure neither of us would choose for me to experience this kind of sickness, you are able to tenderly remind me, when I need it, that the what-ifs won’t change the reality that is my illness or our marriage.
“I love you,” you insist when I question how you live with the uncertainty, the volatility of who my depression makes me. You almost laugh when you say it, because to you it is so obvious, how you live with it. It’s because you love me. Everything you are for me, to me -- your patience, your flexibility, your calm, safe presence next to me -- all falls in line because that is the fact that precedes all the rest.