MY DIRTY LITTLE SECRET


secretI have a dirty little secret.

I suffer from depression.

Not the blues.  Not feeling down in the dumps.  Full on depression.  The kind that takes me to a very dark place.  And, apparently, I share this disorder with 14,999,999 other Americans – a vast majority of them women.  I don’t necessarily keep this fact a secret but it is not typically my lead-in when I meet people.  Oddly, I don’t actually think of myself as someone who gets depressed but, as part of my efforts to live authentically, I have had to come to terms with what I refer to as my “dark periods.”  These periods do not pop up that frequently.  In fact, I can go years without having any type of serious depressive episode but, like earthquakes, it is not about the frequency, it is about the magnitude.

I suppose it was my birth right.  My mother suffered from depression most of her life.  She attempted to take her own life on two separate occasions when I was a young child.  Both times she downed an excessive amount of pills (likely aspirin because we didn’t have too many medications in our house) and I remember being in the ER at the hospital wondering what was wrong with her.  Despite the fact that she was often going to therapy, she never seemed to be able to treat her depression and, I suspect, it is because she desperately needed to be medicated.  Her depression was only one one of her many mental ailments.  My father struggled with alcoholism his entire life.  My brother is bipolar and my sister, like me, lives with depression and, likely, other forms of mental illness.  Our family legacy is both biological and environmental.  There is severe mental illness in my mother’s family and my parents, fighting with their own demons, inflicted a significant amount of trauma on my siblings and myself which, according to science, likely created a chemical imbalance and a form of PTSD that we each confront in our own unique ways.

Over the years, I have become skilled at dealing with my depression, from looking for the warning signs and fortifying myself, using exercise and diet as a minimizer, as well as treating it with antidepressants.  One of my challenges, however, is that my depression typically creeps up on me when I have either run out of things to distract my attention from it or when crushing stress becomes too much for me to bear.  Sometimes there are specific incidents that bring it on like negative interactions with people that leave me empty, wasted or diminished.  But, in most cases, I don’t see it coming and once it is upon me, I can’t find a way out of it.

I recently researched symptoms of depression to help me understand it a bit further.  I wanted to determine if what I was experiencing was truly depression or just some low periods.  I compared my feelings to the list:

  • persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood – check
  • loss of interest or pleasure in activities, including sex – check
  • restlessness, irritability, or excessive crying – check
  • feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, pessimism – check, check
  • sleeping too much or too little, early-morning awakening – check
  • thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts – check
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions – check

People often think that those of us who suffer from depression are downers who have difficulty functioning in everyday life.  These are just some of the myths that create stigmas and often prevent people from being honest about their own mental illness.  For me, the truth is I function very well and, most often, I am pretty upbeat – typically the life of the party.  And no, I am not bipolar.  I simply am not depressed every single day.  But when I go down, I go down hard.  And once I am down, it is very hard to get back up.

Recently, I went through an extremely dark period.  It felt like it came out of nowhere but, upon reflection and analysis, there were many triggers including work stress, holidays, and some challenging personal relationships.  I realized it was chasing me down and I was running from it like an animal being hunted as prey.  I just didn’t consciously realize I was scurrying from capture until it caught me and pummeled me.  When I saw the face of my demon, I recognized instantly that it had been sneaking up on me for a while.  Unfortunately, once I thought I got rid of the beast, I relaxed a bit and was shocked when it quickly reappeared and lingered  like a stalled-out hurricane.  It blew in, did some destruction and then seemed like it was moving out to sea.  Much to my surprise and severe disappointment, it changed direction and ended up blowing back in, this time much stronger and hanging on for a much longer period of time.  I was absolutely certain I was having a nervous breakdown. The darkness was so severe and so intense that I could not see my way to clarity.  I did not think the clouds would ever pass, that the winds would ever let up or that the rain would stop pouring down.  But, as is always the case with storms, they do pass and the sun shines through the clouds offering the hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Depression is even more complicated in my life because it is magnified by the echoes of the traumas of my childhood – the scars of which layer on top of my depression and validate many of my dark thoughts.  When I sink into worthlessness, my memories of words or experiences that traumatized me as a child, come to the surface and haunt me, giving credence to every distorted feeling I experience during these episodes.  It’s as if I am an alcoholic and, despite my efforts at recovery, there is always an open bar or a  friend standing by with a bottle to prevent me from ever achieving sobriety.  I have enough ammunition to keep me down for decades and, during some of these dark periods, I am rather confident that the sun will never shine again and that all of my worst experiences are my truth and personify who I am and what my life is meant to be.

The scariest part of depression, however, is not the admission of my illness nor is it the actual experience of going through the dark periods.  The scariest piece comes in the aftermath when, with a clear head, you realize just how low you have fallen.  When you realize just how easy it is for your mind to take you to places that seem unfathomable when you are rational and have your senses intact.  You realize that, in a split second, the pain that you are experiencing will take hold and you are captive to its powers and incapable of freeing yourself, left only with futile attempts to defend yourself and preserve some level of sanity so as not to have devastating outcomes.  I recently had a conversation with a close friend who had spent some time with me while I was in the middle of this recent episode and he shared with me his and his wife’s experiences and concerns for me.  It was humbling and, to some extent, overwhelming and humiliating.  He was kind and thoughtful in his comments and shared his fears in a compassionate and loving way.  But, it was in that moment that I realized how far away I go during those periods and how far removed from reality I am.  That is frightening and makes me feel vulnerable in the worst possible way.

Ultimately, my depression does not make me a bad person.  It does not prevent me from engaging in intimate and meaningful relationships.  It does not inhibit my ability to live a productive and successful life.  It does, however, force me to be acutely aware of the triggers and make choices differently than others who might not endure the same struggles.  It is like any other disease.  If I were diabetic, sugar would be my enemy.  If I had a heart condition, cardio would be a danger for me.  My medical ailment, caused by chemical imbalances in my brain (and, possibly, exacerbated by the hormonal disruption caused by the onset of menopause) forces me to think very seriously about how I interact with people, situations I put myself in, and how I deal with stress and anxiety.  I am neither ashamed nor afraid to share my truth but I realize that many will never understand this dimension of my life.  I need not be pitied or treated any differently.  It is just part of my truth.  And, fortunately, severe depression is something that rarely strikes me but, I acknowledge, that even if it happens once every five or ten years, it is real and it is dangerous.

So, I share my dirty little secret for the millions of Americans who are afraid to share their truth for fear that they will be stigmatized or ostracized.  I am not afraid because I am fortunate enough to have a small, intimate group of friends and family to whom I can turn for support during my dark periods and who understand my struggles and provide me with the love and nurturing that I need to get through the haze.  I also have an amazing therapist who works with me during dark days and, more importantly, during the bright ones to keep me focused on tackling the demons that bring me down and keep me down.  But, for many, they don’t have such luxuries and cannot be honest with themselves or anyone else because they feel shameful or afraid of the consequences of revealing their truth.  And, for some, like my own mother, they simply are not capable of seeing the truth in themselves and spend their lives living in denial, inflicting pain on those around them.

If you struggle with depression or know someone who does, take a moment to learn more and create a safe environment for yourself and others to live honestly and authentically.

MISSING


“Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brene Brown

I am currently working on a very meaningful project – coaching someone to help them uncover their story.  I love this for so many reasons but mainly because I am helping them find their story to authentically and passionately share with others the importance of the work that they are doing.  It is an exciting journey for them because they are being pushed to explore aspects of themselves in ways they may not have before and it is interesting for me because I am challenging myself to be present on their ride and partake in the same activities.  Part of my role is to provide journal prompts each day to encourage them to write.  The prompts are often benign and are intended to simply get them to explore some thoughts and put them down on paper.  I’m not particularly interested in what they write.  I simply want them to write.  But, of course, the mere exploration of thought creates pathways to information and the act of scribing creates further connections and suddenly stories are unfolding right in front of you.

Yesterday, I offered up a prompt to write about someone that you miss, dead or alive.  I put no parameters around this topic because I wanted them to explore on their own who they missed and why and, perhaps, what it meant to miss someone.  Do you miss someone because they are no longer part of your life?  Do you miss someone because they have passed on?  Do you miss someone at that very moment even if you are going to see them the very next day?  The exercise was intended to allow them to journey along all those lines.  As I am trying to parallel the exercises and simultaneously write on the very same topics, I commissioned myself to tackle the same subject…and fell short.  With each journal prompt, I also ask that we write about something that we are grateful for and/or something we are disappointed about from our day and, last night, I got really hung up on the first part.  I focused on my lack of gratitude, which was, conversely, a source of disappointment for myself.

Ironically enough, I am not someone who enjoys journaling because, for me, it sometimes seems forced and I am often harshly critical of what I write.  Because I typically write with the intention of having others read it, I am extremely focused on my choice of words, the deeper messages and having compelling content.  And, of course, that is exactly what journaling is not and exactly why I should spend more time on that activity.  Journaling is most powerful as a tool to allow for a free stream of thought to enable you to find those pathways to your inner voices.  I recognize that it’s nuts that I resist it and, as a result, I am forcing myself to take advantage of this opportunity to embrace the art of journaling if only to have some connection and authenticity with this project.  What comes from it will only be the icing on the cake.

Last night when I set out to write about someone I miss, I struggled.  I could not really come up with anyone that I missed so much that I wanted to write about it.  There are a lot of people that have been a part of my life that I do not have any connection with anymore because of life circumstances.  I do miss some of them and, sometimes I feel badly about the role I played in our disconnection.  I miss what they used to mean to me and I feel sad about the fact that, in many cases, I allowed the person to slip out of my life.  There are also certainly people who are currently a part of my life who I do not see very often and I surely miss them.  In truth, some of the people that I am closest to live at a great distance from me so I am constantly missing them but that has become a regular, ordinary characteristic of my life.  I don’t like to write about it because it frustrates me and also makes me very sad.  So, ultimately, I avoided the topic entirely and I ended up spending my time writing about my own disappointment in myself for not feeling more grateful and for letting myself continually get caught up in malaise rather than focusing on the positive aspects of my life.  The subconscious thoughts about how missing people makes me feel bad surely inspired a whole lot of negativity towards myself and was a perfect platform to display my deep levels of disappointment in myself.

This morning, as often happens when I am returning from dropping my kids off at school, I took a few minutes for some self-reflection and started thinking about the exercise again (yes, this is how this stuff works.  A simple little prompt can permeate your thinking and just sit with you for days.  It’s pretty awesome).  With a somewhat clear head, the loud and resounding noise was that the person I missed most right now was me.

I’ve gone away.  I have allowed myself to get caught up with the messiness in my life.  I focus on all the things wrong and nothing that is right.  I have become blind to the beauty around me like the rich fall colors and the fragrant aromas of the season that so often make me feel whole and connected.  I feel disappointment in myself in regards to many areas of my life.  I am harshly judging myself and critical of my thinking and endeavors. I am, as the brilliant Brene Brown would say, caught up in a shame spiral.   She says that “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”  That is a potent message and, when I reflect on my life right now, it truly represents how I feel and why I miss myself.  I miss the person who rises above and feels tremendous gratitude for all the richness and texture that makes up my life.  I miss the strength that I typically exhibit to work through the clutter and chaos and the pride I feel for having muddled through and come out the other end feeling confident and powerful.  I miss waking up every day looking forward to the challenges before me and going to bed at night feeling tired but inspired and excited about what comes next.

I miss me.

The good news, I suppose, is that I can see myself in the distance and know that I am not far away.  And, chances are, it will likely not be too long before I return.  However, in the spirit of honoring this exercise, I will recognize that the person I miss is me and I will pine for myself and encourage myself to find my way back.  I will, like any good friend, extend a hand to help myself back up the hill, shout out directions as I traverse the rocks and catch myself if I slip.  And, until my return, I will keep on missing me and will remember another passage from Brene:

“Shame resilience [is] the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it.”

She says, “shame derives its power from being unspeakable…language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”  So, I guess this little exercise, this benign journal prompt is exactly what I need to help myself as only I can.