Sunday, March 1, 2015
Bringing Mental Illness into the Light
Good morning. I want to thank Pastor Don for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today. About 2 months ago he approached me and asked me if I'd like to speak at church about my experiences living with depression and anxiety and the work I have been doing over the last couple of years to raise awareness and end the stigma surrounding mental illness. I have been open with Don and many others about my struggles and successes, and he thought it would be a good message to share with all of you. I was very reluctant, mostly because I don't much like public speaking and the idea made me really nervous. Especially given the topic. Today I will be speaking openly with you about things I worked very hard for many years to keep secret,. Things I was once ashamed of. I have learned, though, over the last several years that living with depression is nothing to be ashamed of. It is an illness, a medical issue, just like diabetes and cancer.
However, many people don't see it this way. Some think of those of us who suffer as weak, or believe our mental illnesses are character flaws. Still others don't even believe mental illnesses exist. These stereotypes are the result of stigma. Stigma is a mark of disgrace which sets a person apart from others. Stigma is a very large part of living with a mental illness, and some, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia carry an even greater stigma than others.. I avoided facing stigma for the most part because I kept my depression and anxiety from other people. However, self stigma has really affected me a great deal. I have learned recently that my greatest issue with stigma is the stigma I hold towards my own illness. This is a work in progress, but it is coming along.
It is because of this stigma that over the years I have chosen to fight my depression like many people do, in secrecy. I chose this because I didn't really think there were any other options. You don't just go around telling people you have depression. Well, at least that's what I thought then. Obviously I've had a change of heart, I have been in and out of therapy and on and off medication since around the age of 20. It has been very helpful and has definitely changed my life for the better. I don't see mental illness as just black and white. There are different levels of the illness, and also two people with the same diagnosis can present very differently. I'm fortunate in that my depression responds well to medication, when I am on medication my symptoms are greatly reduced. However, because I didn't want to see myself as someone with a mental illness I always chose to go off of my medication once I started feeling better. Inevitably, the symptoms would return.
In the summer of 2011 I was again not on any medication. I had gone off several months before, with my doctor's help, because I hadn't had any symptoms of depression for several months. Near the end of the summer I slipped into one of the worst episodes of depression I have ever had. It really just hit me out of the blue, and it hit me hard. Things were going fine. I was getting ready to go back to school and on the outside everything was pretty normal. But inside I was falling apart. When the depression gets really bad I feel like an entirely different person. I don't feel like myself anymore. There's no joy or smiling. I wasn't sleeping normally, I wasn't functioning very well at work, it was hard to concentrate, and I felt hopeless. Depression is an illness of the brain and it makes my thinking really negative. I can remember getting home from work, which I was barely able to get through during that period, and just crying for long periods of time for no apparent reason. Depression tells me lies about myself and my life. Intrusive thoughts are negative thoughts that you cannot control. This was what was happening with me. I remember so clearly I had the absolute belief that everyone in the world would be better off if I wasn't here. I didn't ever attempt suicide, I didn't have a plan, but I was absolutely convinced that life would be better for everyone else if I were gone. In those moments I didn't want to be alive. It was a terribly scary thing to experience, and I really didn't know if I was going to make it through. There was a sense of losing control. I didn't know from one moment to the next how I would feel.
So at this point in my life I did what I had done several times before. I made an appointment with my doctor to get back on medication and went back to my therapist. This was definitely the scariest episode of depression I had ever been through, and I was very afraid. Slowly I began to come out of the depression, and at that point something began to shift in me. I became extremely aware of how difficult it was for me to keep my depression to myself. I didn't want to live in the darkness alone anymore, I was done hiding it, so slowly I began telling the people in my life. The conversations were scary and difficult at first. I still feared what people would think. But with each conversation it got easier and more importantly it was a huge weight off of my shoulders.
Around this time I became involved in something that would impact me even more. In the summer of 2012 I participated in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in San Francisco with three friends. It is an 18 mile walk from sunset to sunrise that raises money for suicide prevention. There were about 2,000 of us walking that night. Most walk because they have lost someone to suicide, while others of us walk because of our own experiences of living with mental illnesses. One of the most empowering parts of the experience was the wearing of the honor beads. There are different colors of necklaces that represent different connections to the cause. The green necklace of honor beads I wore that night signified that I had personally struggled with a mental illness. While it made me feel rather vulnerable at first, I quickly realized I was surrounded by people that understood, that didn't judge me, and whose lives had also been touched by mental illness. It was a community full of love, tears, acceptance, and healing.
This walk had such an impact on me that I decided to do it again this last summer in Seattle. There were many aspects of the walk in Seattle this year that affected me, but one short conversation I had right as I arrived was the most memorable. When you arrive you have to fill out some medical paperwork as part of checking in. The woman who was helping me was very friendly and gracious.. She thanked me multiple times for walking, and we were just having a pleasant conversation. I asked her if she was also going to be walking, and she said she wasn't ready yet because she had just lost her son to suicide 8 months before. It's not everyday a stranger tells you upon meeting you the most painful thing that has ever happened in their life. This woman, who I have managed to stay in touch with thanks to social media, had her life turned upside down by this illness. Her son was 17 at the time and had just been diagnosed with depression a few days before he took his life. At that point they tried to get him into an inpatient program immediately for his own safety as she believed he was at risk. However, the insurance required an intake process, so they had to wait 4 days. Three hours before that appointment he took his life. The fact that had the insurance company not delayed treatment he likely would have lived only makes this more difficult for her and her family. And yet, she is already using her experience to help others by advocating for treatment and awareness of mental illness. She, and so many others I met at the walk, are using their suffering to bring healing and hope to others. I knew that was something I wanted for myself as well. This is indeed an epidemic, with millions of Americans suffering from mental illness and nearly 40,000 each year taking their lives.
This experience lit a fire under me. It has been just over three months since I walked in Seattle, and I have been busy with my work as an advocate. I have started a private Facebook page, which now has about 60 people involved, for anyone who has been affected by mental illness. This group has been a place of healing for me as well as others. Connecting with others who understand has been an essential part of my healing. Creating this safe space to really talk about our daily struggles and receive support is so powerful. A big part of being able to hold off episodes of depression is having people to talk to.
Shortly after this I decided I was going to start a blog to write about my life with depression. I was very scared about this step, because I knew I was opening doors that could not be closed. This would be public, anyone could read it. Coworkers, friends, family, parents of my students, anyone! People in all of these groups have now read it, and it's okay. There have been so many people who have come out in support of me. Many have shared their struggles with me thanked me for opening up the conversation. I feel that for people that have been affected, which is so many of us, there is a need to talk about these things but not always a place to do it. By sharing my experiences, I realize now I have given others permission to do the same.
So now I am completely out in the open about the fact that I have depression and anxiety. It is one of the most freeing and healing things I have ever done. I have finally come to believe that there is no shame in having depression. I am ready to use my struggles to help others and let them know they are not alone. But it's still there. I still live with my depression and anxiety and take steps each day to keep it at bay. I go to therapy every week, I have support groups and people to talk to and connect with, and if things get rough I have a lot of tools and people to help me through. I've accepted that this is something I will live with and have to work on for the rest of my life, but the difference between now and where I was even last year is that I know now there is nothing wrong with me as a person and that I'm not alone.
In the scripture reading this morning it talked about our weaknesses making us stronger. "The weaker I become the stronger I get". That has certainly been my experience these last several years. The more I acknowledge my struggles, share my vulnerability, and let people know what I really experience the stronger I feel. I don't know what lies in store for me, but I am committed to using my experiences to help others. And for this, I am extremely grateful.