Personal Stories

I Have Depression. And It's OK.

I wish I knew your name; I wish I could be sitting there with you, listening. I wish I could look into your eyes and you could see in my steady gaze how much I care. That I understand that I don’t understand, that the chaos in your head is yours alone, that no matter how many therapists you talk to, no matter how many friends tell you it will be ok, there are things – thoughts, images, memories, feelings – that just can’t be vocalized. Only you will ever know how you felt the night you tried to end it all. Only I will ever know how I felt that night. And that’s okay.

As humans, we tend to idolize happiness, whatever that even is. And in the process, we ultimately demonize its perceived antithesis. We fear it. And as a result, we fall silent and we shy away. In so many ways, this is our nature, to compete and to prove to others that we are doing well, that we are happy and that we are successful. And it’s the illusion propagated by social media, the dilemma of the multidimensional person gone flat.

It’s the stigma I’ve struggled to overcome for nine years, this idea that somehow I am weak because I cannot be “happy” in the way society demands. I often hate myself for my inability to just be okay. Even my parents, as they tried to understand, asked me the question I’ve come to resent: “why are you depressed?” It’s not that simple. I don’t know the answer. It’s like asking someone with cancer why they are sick.

The way I see it, there’s a clear distinction between sadness and depression as a clinical condition. It’s our failure to recognize that distinction in the midst of our happiness-oriented culture that leads so many of us who struggle with depression to hide it not only from our friends and family, but to deny its reality in our own lives. I have no intention of belittling the pain of sadness, but merely want to distinguish it, a very human emotion, from depression, an illness. Yet calling it an illness is no excuse; it doesn’t mean we can’t do anything to help ourselves, but rather the opposite. There is hope. There is therapy, there is medication and there is life beyond the haze. We are not victims. We are not sufferers. We are people with our challenges, fighting our battle alongside everyone else.

I was the sort of person who seemed to have my life together. I went to a well-known university; I landed several high-power internships. I had good grades and I had great friends. Everything told me I should be happy, and that I was on the road towards this sought-after “success.” But perhaps my biggest talent doesn’t appear on any line of my resume. I am a great actor. Over time, I’ve perfected this art of being okay. And yet, behind the A’s are too many panic attacks to count; beneath the long sleeves of my hoodie, the scars from long nights of wrestling with a gut-wrenching pain; masked by the smile, a pain so deep, destructive, and unshakeable it passes all feeling. No one knew, and I was proud of that, as if that made me somehow strong and made my depression less real.

But the façade began to crumble in the fall of my sophomore year of college. Before then I’d missed one class in my life, but suddenly I couldn’t get out of bed and I started skipping class more and more often. I couldn’t focus to study. I called in sick to work more often than not. My little dream world, the one where I was okay, where I was happy, was being overtaken by the reality of my depression, this alternate universe whose existence I preferred to ignore. I could barely eat or sleep. Finally, I was standing on a ledge, six stories above the asphalt pavement, shivering, shaking, terrified, and yet so trapped and alone that my foggy brain could think of no alternative to a split second free fall.

I made it through that night, which I guess is obvious since I’m sitting here writing this today. Since then, I’ve made it through so many more. I finally clued my parents in, albeit barely, and started taking antidepressants. I began to work doubly hard in therapy. I wish I could say my story has a happy ending. But, really, what does that even mean? I’m not writing this piece to say that I have it all figured out, or that I’ve triumphed and come out on the other side. No. I don’t know that there ever will be another side at all.

What I’ve realized, though, is that in hiding my depression, in running from it and pretending that it doesn’t exist, I’m contributing to the stigma against mental illness. I’m prejudiced against myself. In keeping silent, I’m affirming that somehow my depression is not okay. I’m isolating myself, and completely unnecessarily.

The thing that drove me to that balcony was fear, and the thing that drove me to fear was silence. I didn’t want to die; I never have. But I felt unbearably trapped; I was in too much pain to carry on as if everything was fine. My walls were crumbling and I was unable to push them back up. And yet, I was determined that no one should know. I was afraid of being labeled weak, a failure, crazy – and that fear became crippling. What I’ve realized since then is that by staying silent, I’m playing along with a culture that can seem so threatening to those facing the challenge of a mental illness. I’m encouraging the silence. I’m buying into it. Maybe I’m even believing its unspoken message. And that’s not okay.

That’s why I’m writing this. I want my friends and my family to better understand who I am. I want to give them a fair chance to see that depression doesn’t define me, but that it is a part of me, and that’s okay. My hope is that as I’m more honest with others about my depression, I’ll be able to be more honest with myself. Beyond that, I’m writing because the silence is too powerful. If my words become even the smallest whisper, they will be worthwhile. But if they encourage just one more person to speak, to break their own silence and thus break its stifling power, then they have accomplished their real purpose.

The goal isn’t happiness, and it never has been. The goal is to experience life in its fullest sense, with all of its ups and downs. There is no shame, no weakness, in owning that you are not okay. In fact, it takes more courage than many people could ever imagine. I’m still trying to find that courage as much as anyone else. Yet, depression has been my best, most honest teacher, and I’m forever grateful for its lessons. That doesn’t mean my scars aren’t fresh; it doesn’t mean there aren’t nights when I want to end it all. But in understanding that those nights will happen, in accepting them, they lose some of their power.

Depression is not weakness. I know I’m not alone. You’re not alone. We’re all in this together. So why do we try so hard to live this dreamy happy fantasy? The real strength is in owning the beautiful reality that is each one of our lives; the true meaning is found in embracing the complex web of stories that encapsulates what it means to be human. For many of us, depression is a part of that story. And it’s in the many that we find strength to be our own. So then, why do we keep the silence? What are we so afraid of? Let’s move forward; let’s do this, whatever “this” means for each of us, right now, in this moment. For me, it means sharing this piece, and whether you have experienced a mental illness or not, I hope breaking the silence can be part of “this” for you, too, because it matters.

So do you.