Does anyone really want to talk about depression?
I didn’t think so.
Starting last month, though, I vowed to (and Scoutie Girl agreed to let me) do just that. Remember that I’m not a professional. I had an experience, and I am getting better at talking about it.
When you’re depressed, you both do and don’t want to talk about it. Both, with strong feeling. You want someone, anyone, to listen to and understand you. You want the people in your life to “get” how certain things feel impossible for you, and how you’re not making it up. And then you diligently go to your helper people (doctor, therapist, acupuncturist, nutritionist, psychiatrist, and so on), even when you can barely make it down the stairs (you know that it will help, somehow, so you get someone to take you), and you must talk about it. About, like, every last detail, including whether your bowel movements have gotten any more regular, because depression slows everything down, and we all want to know if anything is getting any better yet.
And you simultaneously, desperately, want to stop talking about it because all you do is talk about it.
Part of depression also involves wariness of others: they can hurt you with their unknowing words. The whole scene can also be quite confusing to people around you. It’s not like one day you were in a crash and your leg snapped and now you’re in a cast and everyone can see it. There is no defined minute when depression happened, and there is no glaringly obvious visual cue to others that something has changed. It’s hard to talk to others about what’s going on for you. (And you might not be so sure yourself.)
How to talk about it: the basics
When you start feeling strange – not quite yourself, out of energy, having trouble concentrating and feeling bad about yourself (these are some basic symptoms, and the Mayo clinic has a good self-diagnosis guide) — it is critical that you talk about it with your health care people. I started with my GP. It’s important that you are as thorough as you can be with her or him so that they can try to help you.
When you know that something is wrong and you are trying to make it better, let your closest people know. For me, that started with my partner. He actively became my primary caregiver when I couldn’t really take care of myself. I told close friends. I told my family of origin. Some wanted to listen. Others decidedly didn’t. Some asked how they could help. When you can, tell them how. Let them in and let them help. There is no one set path through talking about it. None of it was easy for me, and I found that people were triggered by their own scripts and experiences. People wanted me to help them through receiving this news — when I could barely look after my own self.
Know that telling people might make your condition worse and learn when you are best able to deal with this possibility — and gauge your disclosures appropriately.
How to talk about it at work and in the community
My day job is in a unionized workplace. They are bound by law to respect my illness and support me in recovery and wellness. However, people are people, and mental illness, as much as we might want it to be otherwise, has stigma attached. I have been both careful and reckless about telling colleagues. Some will never understand and my energy is better spent elsewhere. My immediate supervisor, though, is supportive and understanding (I understand that I am fortunate here).
Out in the larger community, a friend saw that I was becoming stronger, and asked me to speak about what depression is like at a local Rotary club. I jumped at the chance. Well, I was completely freaked-out nervous, but felt an obligation to talk, to help people to learn something about mental illness, and maybe to chip through the stigma. I talked about my journey and what it was like, how it felt, and the medical hoops I crawled through. I could hear hearts beating and eyelashes touching eyelids, it was so quiet in the room. Then, I had three public disclosures and people lined up to talk to me privately afterward. I believe that it’s not so much that people don’t want to hear about it as people don’t know where to begin the conversation.
Leaders in “talking about it”
Some public figures have recently helped the discussion along and are good examples of how to talk about mental illness. Canadian Olympic cyclist and speedskater Clara Hughes began talking about about depression a few years ago and heads a public campaign on the topic. Popular author Marian Keyes writes in her newsletters about her debilitating depression and how it functions for her. Actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Courtney Cox have spoken about their post-partum (post-natal) depression. And this spring, Sinéad O’Connor cancelled her North American tour due to her bipolar disorder and spoke out quite clearly about her illness.
The more we talk about mental illnesses, the more informed our public will be and, perhaps, we can lessen the stigmas and incorrect information out there. Maybe we can make it, somehow, easier for someone who is living through it. And maybe it can somehow be easier for us to live through, too.
How do you talk about mental illness? Do you feel comfortable telling people about your lows and other symptoms? How have you navigated these sometimes seemingly treacherous waters?