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.

BLIND SPOTS


“Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” – Brene Brown

This week I was, thanks to a fortuitous blog post from a friend, reminded of some of the powerful words of Brene Brown.  Her research, talks and writing on vulnerability have inspired me over the past year as I have embarked upon what has been a very painful journey to find the courage to be more vulnerable and, ultimately, find peace in my life.

My story began so many months ago after the death of my mother.  She and I had been estranged for many years after a lifetime of emotional abuse that resulted in me becoming hardened, cynical and judgmental.  I steeled myself with the belief that surrounding myself with love, going to therapy and practicing different behaviors would ensure that I could protect myself from the long-term effects of both the abuse from my mother and the scars left from my alcoholic father (who had also passed away just months prior to my mother).  It took a while but I did, ultimately, realize that this plan was not going to work.  Shoving all my feelings into a locker inside me and trying to forget the combination would not prevent the leakage of all the pain and abuse that I endured.  It is insidious.  It permeates our cells.  It comes out in every place we least expect it to and at the times we least want it to.

On Leap Day – February 29 – I shared in a blog post that my mother had passed and it was the first time anyone, except for a very close few, had heard the news.  It was not something that I shared publicly because it was only noteworthy in that I felt a bit freed from the grasp of her will.  Even at her advanced age, even as she suffered from cancer, she continued to try to torment me and I continued to play into her hand, allowing myself to question everything, doubt my feelings and resort to behaving like a petulant child.  Once I learned of her passing, I felt a sense of relief and, consequently, a sense of guilt at not feeling the appropriate grief that one feels when their parent dies.  There was no practical way for me to explain this to most of my friends who have not previously been dragged through the muck that comprised my relationship with my mother.  I simply commented on it and expected that some might take note but did not anticipate that the result would inspire a whole new level of self-examination.

Sometimes I underestimate my impact on others – both positively and negatively.  I frequently find myself surprised to learn that someone is thinking about me or has been inquiring about me outside of my presence.  It sounds silly but is deeply rooted in wounds from my childhood and makes perfect sense to me.  Similarly, I do not always realize how widespread the impact of my negative actions can be.  I assume they go unnoticed by most because who would be paying attention to me – and, of course, that is a giant underestimation of its impact.  It is like the opposite of narcissism but, sometimes, equally dangerous.  Despite my deep level of self-awareness resulting from careful analysis of my feelings, actions and behaviors, I have a unique ability to blindside myself with my actions and behaviors.

In my work, we use a tool called Johari Window to help people understand the concept of blind spots when giving feedback in a corporate setting.  Every one of us has blind spots and they reside in the window of what people know about us but we do not know about ourselves.  And, while I generally believe that is a very small window for me, I also recognize that I can be a bit more clueless than I imagine myself to me.  My inability to recognize how others view me or that they even spend the time to think about me sits squarely in my blind spot.  When I wrote that blog post, I was standing in my blind spot.  I never anticipated that anyone would actually pay attention to the information about my mother dying and react with such support.  The outpouring of love and positive messaging was unexpected and I was both grateful and uncomfortable because I had revealed something very personal and I did not appreciate or recognize its significance because of my blindness.  One of the very valuable and powerful outcomes was the gift given to me by my closest friend, an expert in the field of blind spots, who utilized his craft on me to help reveal to me what I was so painfully missing.  By revealing my blind spot , he helped to thrust me into a place where I needed to search for answers and my first stop on the journey was vulnerability.  And so, it became a huge focus for me this year.  What I knew then about vulnerability is that I dreaded it, I loathed it and, what I have come to know for certain is that it is the only pathway to freedom, love and happiness.  Brene Brown says, in one of her TED talks:  “And I know that vulnerability is kind of the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, and creativity, of belong, of love.”

Another valuable outcome of the revelation of my blind spot, is that I am someone who values connections.  I need to feel connected – to be part of something.  Growing up without a strong sense of family and no formalized religion, I found myself drifting through life, often feeling like a misfit.  I never really belonged anywhere.  Lots of parents of friends would take me in and care for me over small periods of time but I always knew that I did not belong. The result was that I felt even more disconnected rather than being able to accept their offer of love and belonging.  I didn’t fall in love until i met my husband at the age of 24 so, until that time, I was a floater, seeking out personal and romantic connections. And even with him, it took years for me to shed my armor and truly connect.  Nearly 21 years later, I am still working on being raw and honest with him and finding a way to truly trust.  The wounds are deep and they show up nearly every day, with or without my notice.

The tragic reality of me is that, throughout my life, despite my desperate effort to make connections, I was always hiding.  I was hiding behind my vulnerability, afraid that if anyone really saw me, they would patently reject me.  I denied the fact that, in order to truly have a connection, you must be authentic.  You must bring your full and real self to the table.  Instead, I became masterful at matching other people’s behaviors and building artificial rapport in order to try to fit.  I never had to reveal anything to anyone that I didn’t want them to know because I was so adept at becoming whomever I needed to be in order to fit in.  I borrowed from other people’s personalities and adopted them as my own so I looked like I belonged.  I made superficial connections which, not surprisingly, did not have much strength and could not last beyond a little wear and tear.  As a result, many of my relationships were transient.

When I wrote my post in February, I truly believed that I was well on my way to becoming my authentic self.  And, to a great degree, that was true.  I had made some very meaningful connections and was allowing myself to be seen for who I truly was.  A little more naked than ever before.  But it was hard and took its toll on me.  And, what is also true is that, much like maintaining our bodies, we must also maintain our minds.  There is no final destination – it is always all about the journey.  If we spend months or years to build and tone our muscles and then suddenly stop working at it, our bodies will soften – and rather quickly.  When we are intentional about our beliefs and behaviors and feed ourselves positive thoughts and allow ourselves the time and space to accept ourselves, we tone our emotional muscles.  As soon as we take our eyes off the road and put our psyches on auto-pilot, we quickly return to unconscious negative input and easily sabotage our hard-earned efforts.  That is what is happening to me now.  I have lost focus and am straying far away trying to find my way back to my path.

I had a laser focus on what I wanted in my life and who I wanted to be.  Authenticity and vulnerability were priority #1 for me because I knew, without a doubt, that it was a passageway to freedom for me.  It was the route that most certainly ended in happiness.  So, how is it that I have felt so unhappy lately?  I have manufactured an environment surrounded by the people who I believe bring out the best in me.  I have consciously pushed away the influences that I believe are destructive and detrimental to my journey.  I have set intentions to be honest, authentic, loving and vulnerable so I can allow those who I want and need to be close to me get and stay close to me.  What I have not planned for is the reality of life and the bumps and hurts that come along.  Those who love us most also sometimes hurt us most.  And we also hurt them.  I have also not accounted for the leakage of my pain locker that has yet to be emptied.  Inside of it still resides years of residue that adds toxicity, even more fervently when I am in a weakened state.  When this occurs, I immediately retreat to a place where I can protect myself from feeling the pain until, all at once, the earth shudders a little too hard and the cracks spread and the walls collapse and I get sucked right into the floor, crushed under a pile of bricks.

Suffice it to say, I know that everything good and bad is only temporary and, as my husband often says “the difference between your best day and your worst day is your state of mind.”  I say with all authenticity and all vulnerability that I have stumbled.  I tripped over myself because I lost sight of my path.  I lost faith in myself and allowed the demons to take over.  I wish I could just will myself back into step but I know it is part of the journey to learn how to use the tools I have to pick myself up, dust myself off and keep moving forward.  Lately, I haven’t felt so motivated to move forward and thought perhaps my journey was futile.  But I had a moment, in between the raindrops of tears and anguish, when I realized that perhaps I had, in fact, made a major step forward because, if nothing else, I am feeling quite vulnerable and am just sitting with those feelings no matter how painful they may be right here and now.  With that, I know, at least, the road I am looking for is the right one and once I resume my journey I will do so, hopefully, without too many blind spots.