Seven years ago this month, I found myself trudging up the hill and across the campus of my beloved, small-town Southern college to the local CVS. After browsing listlessly, feeling so exhausted I could hardly think straight, I rudely dropped a bag of peanut butter M&M’s down on the pharmacy counter and told the pharmacist I was picking up a prescription. She avoided eye contact and said, typing into her computer, “Celexa?” I nodded and wondered, vaguely amused, how many customers came in and wound up buying chocolate along with their antidepressants. Surely, I thought, I couldn’t be the only one.
As I dragged my aching body back across campus toward my apartment, I called my mother and my boyfriend (now my husband), tears in my eyes, to tell them that I had been diagnosed with depression and was starting medication, per the recommendations of the warm and reassuring counselor at the student health center. I felt simultaneously relieved and anxious; matter-of-fact and embarrassed; hopeless and yet at the same time, considering whether that might be a tiny blink of optimism I felt somewhere inside.
The diagnosis came after months of physical fatigue and malaise, vague aches and pains, a mind-numbing inability to concentrate, low-grade fevers, migraines. I thought everyone was tired all the time until, when I tired after about 30 minutes of shopping over winter break, my oldest childhood friend said to me: “Lauren, I don't think I ever feel tired like you do. Have you gone to a doctor for this?” This was a novel idea to me (Not everyone feels tired all the time?), and so I did as she suggested. My nurse practitioner tested me for lyme disease, mono, and the like -- nothing popped. She sent me to a rheumatologist to rule out fibromyalgia and an infectious disease doctor to eliminate the possibility of anything, well, infectious, and still: I got no answers.
Word of my mysterious ailment spread across our small senior class as I dropped my Spanish honors thesis, after several tearful sessions with my dear advisor, down to a regular one. “Tú tranquila,” he said to me. Calm down. “Sometimes life is more important than school.” I missed classes and passed on social events I would normally have looked forward to. Facebook recently dug up a post in my “Memories” in which a pre-med acquaintance who had heard I was sick asked if I had been tested for typhoid fever: “your symptoms seem to fit.” I was so very, very tired, and starting to be convinced I would never know why.
My roommates, friends and family did all they could to help. They organized a group of everyone I knew to write me encouraging letters (this was thoughtful and kind, and yet as I read them, my eyes stung with tears and my face burned with humiliation as I grew aware of how public my illness had become). They signed up for a farm share so we could enjoy healthy meals together. They encouraged me to exercise, to volunteer, to not just “sit around,” to which I said, fighting off tears, “I just can’t.” My mom came to visit, making the trek from Massachusetts to North Carolina just to be with me. Finally, two friends who had previously been helped by sessions with a counselor suggested I make an appointment so I could get help “dealing with not knowing what was wrong.”
That first visit marks the beginning of my journey with depression, in the sense that I was slowly becoming aware of what was really happening in my mind and body. I’m incredibly grateful (not to mention blessed!) to have had family and friends who supported me through such a stressful, frightening time; without each of them and their love, care, compassion and guidance, I may not have been diagnosed when I was. Seven years later, the struggle is realer than ever, harder than ever, and more painful than ever, but I have begun to learn that my personal moments of transparency and honesty -- with friends, with family members, with people in my social media network -- have allowed me a measure of peace, feeling that I am doing what I can to help my little corner of the world understand what it’s like to live with mental illness. That’s what I’m doing here. I’m going where it hurts, so that you can too, so that maybe one or two of you will better know how to approach mental illness when it touches someone you love. Because if it hasn’t yet, it will -- and they need you.