Depression and My Joyful Life (or how the Bomb learned to love Me)

Anne has depression. Anne is depressed? No, Anne is not depressed. She has Depression. Is that more confusing? But Anne writes fun things on Facebook and works at the farm and visits with her friends every day, and shows up for work. And travels and stuff. Naw, that’s not depression. Yes it is. Confusing unless you live with it, too. But does that mean you are a problem for society. Hell no, it never has.

With all of the “enlightened” talk about depression in the wake of a horrific plane crash, I want to speak loudly about my depression and say my part about the dangers of stigmatizing a very, very large part of our everyday community. This does not involve any heavy lifting or research or clinical expertise. I won’t even add statistics!

I’ll start with this: if you think we need to screen out “depressed” people from certain workplaces (like piloting or teaching), I hope you also aren’t planning a family trip on a plane anytime soon, and that you’re planning to home school from here on out. Great news: you have that choice! But if you want to make it compulsory to screen out depressive individuals, you’d better have a fantastic diagnostic module to prove they are a danger, and a lawyer that would make Saul Goodman blush.

I live with depression and will live with it every day of my life. A life I live to the fullest and I am very thankful for, in part as a result of early diagnosis and managing it. It runs in my family and was exacerbated by environmental stresses from a young age.  I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder when I was 17. I was incredibly smart, “gifted,” and in tune with the world, but was also extremely tired and anxious for someone at a tender age. I had a “noisy brain” and sometimes it literally hurt. I was unable to rest, I got sick a lot, had an extra-sensitive temper and would get incredibly morose about events I could not control. When it began to shut my energy down, affect my ability to perform at school, and participate as an equal in friendships, I sought help. And I had to do a lot of that on my own. It was embarrassing, terrifying, and I was convinced I would be judged in every relationship and job for the rest of my life. I had to deal with angry and guilt-ridden parents who were dealing with their own complex realities. I did not have helicopter parents, I was not popular in the social sense, and good grades could not shield me from the emotional and physical pain that was real in my everyday life. I never thought about killing myself let alone anyone else, but I sure did wish I could just go to sleep for a few years or hide so that I was not a problem to those around me. I just wanted to exist in my complicated, busy head, and let everyone else move on.

I left my home at 17 because I had serious work to do in order to get better. That, in conjunction with therapy and medication, helped me to be very functional as a student and to make new friends. I still suffered a lot and had some serious coping issues to deal with, but the fear of letting depression define my adult and professional life drove me to push even harder: make friends with sympathetic professors, befriend a broad range of peers, push hard on my talents like debating and writing, and to travel. Over the years I completed college with high marks, went on to work in the US Congress and two of the world’s top marketing and lobbying agencies. I participated in some terrible relationships, and some great ones, but through all of this, I continued therapy. When I thought I had “made it” and no longer needed medication, within months, the physical symptoms would reappear (in a stressful, fast-paced career,  it’s harder to separate anxiety from depression…that takes a lot of discernment and even some serious wisdom). I was disappointed to have to return to the regimen, but you know what, once again, it made me more able, more successful, ever more determined to live. Not wither, and not suck the life out of anyone else. With time and counsel, I began to know myself better, know my body and how it responds to anxiety versus depression (the latter is definitely more dangerous for me), and to never, ever be afraid of being labeled as “depressed.”

You see, I am not “depressed.” I live with depression. It’s a broad stroke of a word and diagnosis. People are opening their eyes up to the width of the autism spectrum now too, perhaps they can relate to that analogy. I live richly with depression. I’ve traveled from Timbuktu, Mali, to Talkeetna, Alaska, with depression inside of me. Sometimes it makes me more tired than I should be, but sometimes the world and its colors and my words about it become extra-inspiring because of it. I have to admit, at its best, it makes me a better writer, artist, lover, coworker, and friend. Depression taught me empathy for people and situations that are largely ignored by many others. At its worst, I am my worst enemy. I am tired, more frail, self-conscious, and it’s hard to focus. But it’s never denied me a job, a great relationship, or the ability to enjoy something every day. My worst vices: overeating, overdrinking, being overly critical of myself and others: those largely stem from anxiety, a beast that affects every one of you too.

I am lucky, not because I have a “good kind” of depression, but that I know that it’s up to me, not others around me, to right the ship when it lists. I’ve watched with great worry and sorrow as close friends and family have let it slide and it’s robbed them of health, joy, and lasting relationships. It’s OK to have bad days and for people to see it. Really it is, and most people can relate more than you know. Those who cannot do not deserve your friendship nor your service. I learned that the hard way too. A few years on, now, I can feel better about it, even relieved. I was bright and successful and recruited for a job at a US intelligence agency several years ago. I was so afraid to say I had been treated for depression. The war had just started in Iraq and I lost schoolmates and seen my community devastated after 9/11. I would do anything to put my talent forward and help. One woman at my office interview, a 30-year veteran and “spook” there, said it was OK to take antidepressants, just don’t admit it before being hired, take meds AFTER you are hired. Think about that and think about all of the corruption, excessive torture, treason, and just plain crazy (yes crazy) judgment that came out of these ranks, where managed depression is suppressed as a professional liability. What because you are afraid we will torture and burn villages? It just so happens, as we all know today, that it’s not the case. In fact, the desire for sex and money seem to be more dangerous to anxiety-riddled professionals than anything. They will go down and lose it all for these two things!

But I digress. I’m glad I was open and that I didn’t have to work in that kind of environment. I guess a lot of military personnel, pilots, and teachers also have to suppress or delay their treatment. I think it is a dangerous and ill-conceived paradigm, and it’s time for it to shift. Nothing frightens me more than the thought of a pilot leading me and a bunch of sweet kids to a terrifying and pointless death. The man could have been a sociopath, just plain murderous, or he may have had a stroke behind the wheel. We’ll never know, probably, as he is now dust. But you know what, he might have also been depressed, and it might not have mattered at all when decision-time came. Maybe continuing treatment could have redeemed his life, both personally and professionally.

In the wake of this tragedy, experts whom I respect have noted the importance of teamwork in treating depression and preventing the death of an individual or innocent bystanders. Whether it’s a school shooter, a kid about to run off to Syria and join ISIS, a coworker who could at any moment commit suicide, or in this case, a deeply anguished pilot, we are the eyes and ears and it’s our responsibility, in order to lift each other up –if not just survive—to speak up. THIS IS A SYMPTOM OF SOMETHING SO MUCH MORE DANGEROUS THAN DEPRESSION:  THE ABSENCE OF HOPE. Parents, friends, coworkers, siblings, coffee buddies, partners, kids, neighbors… please keep an eye on each other and say something. The only way to make this horror stop is to speak up, work through it, and end the stigma. We can live with depression, and in fact, I am living a life I never could have imagined because I wrestled it by the horns, had to be brave, and shed quite a few tears along the way. I made a lot of friends along the way too, and life started opening up for me.

Depression is a part of most of our lives. Why isn’t healing?