By Guest Blogger Becky Johnston
I have a friend with depression. Recently, the two of us were scheduled to be at an event together and she asked if she could ride with me. She said she knew she would back out of our event if she didn’t have the accountability of having to attend with me. I laughed and told her that was brilliant- so I couldn’t back out either. We have this relationship with each other… the kind where we can always reach out and say “I need to have lunch with you” or “I can’t handle getting out of my house today- can we reschedule?” It’s a beautiful and freeing friendship. Because, I, too, suffer from depression.
I don’t look like ‘someone with depression’. That is, I don’t look like what you think depression looks like. I tend to view myself as a positive person. I’m social. I’m generally happy. I consider myself someone that is fun to be around. I host parties, attend book clubs, function well in life. But after experiencing some horrific grief over the past several years, my upbeat exterior has been rubbed raw and has exposed a secondary layer of sadness.
Back in 2010, my stepmother Mary died. I had lost grandparents prior to that. I had even lost friends. But I had yet to lose someone in my immediate, daily orbit. I began to have intense sadness in a way I hadn’t yet experienced. Full disclosure: my husband is a mental health professional, so I’m keenly aware of what warning signs could be. I immediately scheduled an appointment with a therapist who I had a previous relationship with and asked, very directly, “Is this grief or depression? Because whatever it is, I want to treat it.” We looked, clinically, at the differences in the two and determined that it was indeed grief. While I still stand by that diagnosis as being accurate, in hindsight I see that it was the first strike against a rapidly thinning barrier.
I grieved Mary and supported my dad. We spent more and more time together as I helped him navigate life without her. At the same time, we were trying to sort through how to get my mother help: she was showing signs of Early Onset Dementia, and she was adamant that nothing was wrong with her. My dad and I journeyed these days both sad and grateful for each other. More strikes.
Early in 2012 (what later will be known as the worst year of my life), a dear friend’s 3-year-old was diagnosed with leukemia. Strike. My bestie and her family began packing up their life in Winston to move across the country. Strike. Then mid March, due to a freak accident, my father unexpectedly died. Striiiiiike. Two days later, my mom’s diagnosis became official and we began trying to sort through how to best care for her. We lived two hours away and she still saw nothing wrong with her own health. Strike. Funeral homes and obituaries for Daddy. Strike. Medication and in home health options for Mom. Strike.
And finally, I was broken.
Everything I had suppressed for years through positive thinking and peer support was ripped away. Every dark thought I’d ever harbored came to the surface. Functioning in the midst of that pain was only possible because of the support of my husband and those around me who picked up my slack, cared for my daughter, and quite literally held my hand as I dealt with the details of burying one parent and navigating care for the other. Strike, strike, strike…
At this point, I realized that while my trigger had been grief, I was battling depression. It wasn’t something- anymore- that I could “power through” and conquer. I needed help.
I saw a physician and poured out my concern and was ready to deal with both therapy and medication. Thankfully, given my husband’s specialty, he had picked up on what medication other family members had responded to, so the first anti-depressant I tried worked well with my genetic makeup. Therapy was not at all easy, but became critical.
Here is where things got interesting for me… while I had no problem saying I was “going through depression” I had no ability to say I was “depressed.” I had no problem talking about depression in others- I saw no shame in the diagnosis. But in my own case… I somehow heard it differently. It was as if, somewhere in my psyche, saying I had depression meant that I had allowed something that others handled on a regular basis (grief) to break me. I sat with my depression in solitude. While I feel no push to share these type diagnoses with others, in this case, I needed to be able to say it out loud for part of my own journey. I was able to say- as if it was some sort of badge of honor- that I had Anxiety. Anxiety meant that I was able to get things done- but overwhelmed by them. It meant I was a busy woman. It meant I was concerned with those around me- even to an extreme. But Depression? Depression was too dark. Too painful. Too frail. Too selfish.
Spring turned to summer in 2012. Grief continued to attack us in waves. I was still reconciling my own losses, then heaped upon them were the losses of others. We lost two dear friends that year- one in May and one in August. Strike, Strike. In October, my mother got moved to an assisted living facility in Winston after a horrible moment of confusion for her where she drove three hours from home not knowing where she was going or how she got there. Strike, strike.
My beloved dear aunt died in December. We looked ahead to 2013 with hope for healing. We had made it. *I* had made it. I had lived through the very worst year and was ready to turn that calendar page. We took a collective sigh at a family wedding. Then as 2013 began, we waited with bated breath as another friend nearly died, but survived! Then we celebrated a surprise pregnancy! Finally! I was started to come out of the fog… come out of the ache.
Until we lost that pregnancy at 16 weeks.
That was the final straw for me. The final switch that was flipped for me to say “I am depressed.” People began to give me a wide berth. They were unsure what to do with my tears. They were weary for me, knowing I had to be tired of crying them on my own. I started pulling back on the invitations to events. I was uncertain if I could stomach the joy of those around me… and I definitely didn’t want to be the one to ruin the mood because of my sadness. I found comfort in those around me who were sad. I found comfort in Netflix, in shopping, in food. I Amazon-Primed my pain away. I hid from the hurt because it was just too damn much. Life burdens piled up around me: laundry stayed unwashed, correspondence wasn’t dealt with, relationships became stagnant.
The weight of caring for my mother turned to the weight of losing her as her dementia progressed and she died. Once again, I dealt with settling her estate and powering through the needed “to do” list that came with death. But there were some days that I just could not. Strike. Strike. Strike.
I write this now from a healthier place. Not because things have miraculously gotten easier, because to be quite honest they have not. I actually bottomed out recently. November and December nearly did me in. I had to schedule appointments with my physician to increase and add medications, as well as I had to ramp up therapy. I am now weekly seeing someone with a little more intense plan of care.
I share all of this with you, dear reader, not to wave my “Depression Flag” boldly… although I am grateful that I am finally able to do just that. I share it with you because while it took me years to acknowledge- even to MYSELF- that I had depression, I am certain there are so many others around us who are not yet ready to acknowledge it. To anyone else… or to even to themselves.
So what then do we do? We walk alongside those who are broken. Those who are tearful. Those who are weary of their own tears. We sit with them- even when it’s draining. We give them space when they cancel on our coffee date, again… and we continue to ask to reschedule it. We send them cards. We lean in. We back off. We let them lead and tell us with what they are comfortable. We let them share their journey and listen intently when they use words like “anxiety” and “depression.” We show them that our love for them is not because of the events they host or the fun that they bring- but because of who they are at their core.
And those of us who are depressed? What do we do? We invite people over when we’re able. We cancel when we’re not. We don’t care about our laundry that is piled up- and we trust that those who are in our space won’t care either. We stay away from attempting to KonMarie the things in our home that we aren’t yet ready to tackle. We breathe and celebrate the small victories. We enlist help when we need it. We find a tribe- even if the people are brand new to us- with whom we can be honest. We engage in things that bring us joy. We find somewhere to serve- to focus on giving to someone else allows us to not focus all of our energy on ourselves. And sometimes we allow traditions to die. That Knitting Group that you used to love that now brings you pain? Acknowledge it- and walk away. Hosting a Christmas Party that used to fill your home with friends a family now feels like a nightmare? Maybe take a year off. I recommend having someone that you trust- a spouse, a therapist, a best friend- to run these things by. Sometimes it will help to have someone one step removed give us insight into what we’re running away from that could be helpful versus the freedom that comes from pushing pause on something unnecessary. “Ain’t no mountain gonna fall” if you aren’t playing Bridge anymore. Your family will find somewhere else to eat Thanksgiving Dinner. Maybe you don’t have to send Christmas Cards this year. Give yourself a break.
Be gentle. With yourself and with others. Whether you are the one who is depressed or the one dealing with a depressed friend, there is beauty in sharing the journey. Or… in canceling the plans and being honest why.