Going public with depression
Editor’s note: Politicians Jesse Jackson Jr. and Patrick Kennedy have each recently revealed struggles with depression and mental illness. After the death this week of “Top Gun” director Tony Scott in an apparent suicide (it’s unclear whether Scott suffered from mental health issues), CNN’s Kat Kinsman writes that talking freely about personal mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, whether you’re a public figure or a private person, can help those who share the struggle.
(CNN) — I am 14 years old, it’s the middle of the afternoon, and I’m curled into a ball at the bottom of the stairs. I’ve intended to drag my uncooperative limbs upstairs to my dark disaster of a bedroom and sleep until everything hurts a little less, but my body and brain have simply drained down. I crumple into a bony, frizzy-haired heap on the gold shag rug, convinced that the only thing I have left to offer the world is the removal of my ugly presence from it, but at that moment, I’m too exhausted to do anything about it.
I sink into unconsciousness, mumbling over and over again, “I need help… I need help… I need help.” I’m too quiet. No one hears.
Several months, countless medical tests and many slept-through school days later, a diagnosis is dispensed, along with a bottle of thick, chalky pills. There is palpable relief from my physician and parents; nothing is physically wrong with me (thank God, not the cancer they’ve quietly feared) — likely just a bout of depression. While it helps a little to have a name for the sensation, I’m less enthralled with the diagnosis, because I know it will return. While this is the first time it’s manifested heavily enough for anyone else to see it, I’ve been slipping in and out of this dull gray sweater for as long as I can remember.
What doesn’t help at the time are the pills: clunky mid-1980s tricyclic antidepressants that seize up my bowels, cause my tongue to click from lack of moisture, and upon my return to school cause me to nearly pitch over a third-story railing from dizziness. I flush the rest and, mercifully, no one bothers me about it.
If they do, I probably don’t even notice; my brain is too occupied, thrumming with guilt, stupidity and embarrassment. Nothing is physically wrong. It’s all in your head. This ache, this low, this sickness, this sadness — they are of your making and there is no cure.
Now, 25 years later, I’ve lost too much time and too many people to feel any shame about the way my psyche is built. How from time to time, for no good reason, it drops a thick, dark jar over me to block out air and love and light, and keeps me at arm’s length from the people I love most.
The pain and ferocity of the bouts have never eased, but I’ve lived in my body long enough to know that while I’ll never “snap out of it,” at some point the glass will crack and I’ll be free to walk about in the world again. It happens every time, and I have developed a few tricks to remind myself of that as best I can when I’m buried deepest.
The thing that’s always saved me has been regular sessions with an excellent therapist and solidarity with other people battling the same gray monster (medication worked for me for a little while — I take nothing now, but it’s a lifesaver and a necessity for some). When I was diagnosed, it was not in an era of Depression Pride parades on the main street of my small Kentucky town. In 1987, less than one person in 100 was being treated for depression. That had doubled in 1997, and by 2007, the number had increased to slightly less than three.
My friend Dave was part of that tally. We met in our freshman year of college, and he was one of the loudest, funniest, most exuberant humans I’d ever met — and the most deeply depressed. Not that anyone outside our intimate circle knew; like many of us who live with the condition, he wore a brighter self in public to distract from the darkness that settled over him behind closed doors. Most people don’t see depression in others, and that’s by design. We depressives simply spirit ourselves away when we’ve dimmed so as not to stain those who live in the sun.
Dave saw it in me, though, and I in him; and for the first time in my life, I felt somewhat normal. Like I didn’t have to tap dance, sparkle and shine to distract from the fact that I was broken. I could just be me, and that wasn’t a half-bad thing in his eyes. I began to tell more people as plainly as I did other facts of my being — I was born in New Jersey, my real hair color under all this pink dye is very dark brown, and I’ve suffered from depression as long as I can remember. I’m Kat — nice to know you.
Dave never made it that far. His cracks were too deep and dark, and he poured so much vodka down into them to dilute the pain. A year after graduation, in the late summer of 1995, I was unsurprised but thoroughly gutted when I got the call — Dave had tidied his apartment, neatly laid out a note, his accounts and bills, next to checks from his balanced checkbook, and stepped into a closet with a belt.
I see Dave in little flashes all the time, still — hear his braying OHMYGAAWWWDD laugh around a corner and see his handsome gap-toothed smile in a crowd. I want to smack him full across the face for giving up and leaving us all, and I want to drag him to a computer and sit him down: Look — we’re not alone.
Dave was the first person I ever knew with Internet access. Among a million other things I wish he’d lived to see is the community of souls online, generously baring and sharing their depression struggles with strangers. There’s no substitute for quality therapy (in whatever flavor you take it) or medication (if that’s your cup of homeopathic tea), but by God, it’s hard to get there.
To see your feelings echoed and normalized in essays like comedian Rob Delaney’s much-forwarded “On Depression and Getting Help”; author Stephen Fry’s legendary letter to a fan, “It will be sunny one day”; the ongoing, public struggles of widely read bloggers and authors Dooce and The Bloggess; and guests of the no-edges-blunted WTF Podcast from comedian Marc Maron — all highly successful and public people — is to dare to let a crack of blue sky into the basement where you’ve been tucked away. I can barely imagine what it would have meant to my 14-year-old self to read Delaney’s words:
“The sole reason I’ve written this is so that someone who is depressed or knows someone who is depressed might see it. … But after having been through depression and having had the wonderful good fortune to help a couple of people who’ve been through it, I will say that as hard as it is, IT CAN BE SURVIVED. And after the stabilization process, which can be and often is f**king terrifying, a HAPPY PRODUCTIVE LIFE is possible and statistically likely. Get help. Don’t think. Get help.”
“Here are some obvious things about the weather:
You can’t change it by wishing it away.
If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can’t alter it.
It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.
It will be sunny one day.
It isn’t under one’s control as to when the sun comes out, but come out it will.
It really is the same with one’s moods, I think. The wrong approach is to believe that they are illusions. They are real. Depression, anxiety, listlessness — these are as real as the weather — AND EQUALLY NOT UNDER ONE’S CONTROL. Not one’s fault.
They will pass: they really will.”
Dave will never see those words, or these, but someone will — including the 14-year-old me who still sometimes rides shotgun as I’m driving through a storm. I show her these words, these essays, these poems, these podcasts beamed out by the other souls who glitter out in the darkness. And I take her hand and lead her up the stairs.