[This post includes semi-graphic descriptions of physical and mental illness.]
How do I explain this?
Where do I start?
If you’ve never had depression, if you’ve never lived with a chronic illness, how do I make you understand what I mean when I say I can’t do something as normal and easy as going out to see my friends?
Let’s try this: Remember the last time you had food poisoning?
Remember how you felt the day before it hit – kind of uneasy, yeah? Kind of unsettled in your body, tired for no reason, a vague sense that something’s wrong with absolutely no idea what it is – there’s an actual medical term for that. It’s called malaise. Malaise is the barometer dropping before the storm hits.
And then you start to get a little queasy. Your gut clenches. You have a sudden, awful premonition of the future, and the next thing you know you’re hunched over a toilet looking at yesterday’s lunch and your nose is burning and your eyes are watering and you’re turning yourself inside out trying to get the poison out of you. And maybe for approximately thirty seconds after you puke you think Oh thank god, it’s over, and your whole body sags, but then another wave of nausea hits you and you would sell your soul for it just to be over already.
When it’s finally over, five or twelve or forty-eight hours later, you’re lying curled up on the couch, with a glass of ginger ale and a single saltine sitting untouched next to you, feeling bruised from the inside out and so profoundly exhausted that you can’t actually remember what being able to stand up feels like, and the only thing you can do with your sorry smelly self is watch infomercials for the next twenty-four hours.
Remember that? Food poisoning. Tell someone you had it and they cringe. Call in sick with it and your boss gives you the day off, no questions asked. If you get food poisoning more than once a year, you would be considered near-cursed.
Now imagine you’re getting food poisoning once or twice a week. Except instead of nausea and vomiting, you’re flooded with waves of self-hatred and senseless grief so intense they make you dry-heave. Emotional pain becomes physical, uncontrollable shaking and hyperventilating and sobbing as every worst fear you ever had is turned real and solid in the grips of a fever dream you can’t control. Just like food poisoning, there’s nothing you can do but wait it out; just like food poisoning, it could last for hours only to ease up in the space of minutes, leaving you limp and embarrassed by your body’s loss of control. Days of exhaustion afterwards, feeling weak and bruised and so tired that you need to lie down for an hour after the big task of eating breakfast.
With food poisoning, you might vow never to eat carnival hot dogs or buffet shrimp again, as if that will protect you. But with depression, you don’t even get the illusion of ‘never again.’ Your illness is caused by something inside you that you can’t see or control or stop and it’s just going to come back, probably in about a week, maybe sooner. And if it happens on a work day, too freakin bad, because it’s not like you can call in depressed, is it?
Imagine having food poisoning once or twice a week while you’re going through finals. While you’re moving. While you have a small child. Imagine trying to be a loving and supportive partner, imagine trying to go out and see your friends. Imagine feeling like you can’t tell them why you haven’t been around or ask for help, because depression is stigmatized and shameful and supposed to be kept a secret.
I’m done with keeping secrets.
Because you know what? Depression is very nearly as common as food poisoning. And it’s no more shameful. Someone suffering from acute depression is no more at fault than someone who ate a bad hot dog.
Illness happens. It happens in our brains as well as our bodies, and we need to be able to talk about it.
So yeah, hi. My name is Bridie, and I have chronic depression that’s currently in an acute stage. I get the mental equivalent of severe food poisoning about once a week, and in between I try to live my life as best I can.
I haven’t told my parents yet. I don’t want them to worry.
I don’t want anybody to worry about me, or treat me like I’m made of glass, or look at me like a ticking time bomb. I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses, or looking for attention, the way our cultural narrative says people with depression always do. I’m scared of the stigma of mental illness, and I’m ashamed of myself for having a mental illness, and me writing this doesn’t mean I’m not scared and ashamed. It just means I know I don’t need to be.
Stigmatizing mental illness is bullshit and it needs to be stopped. Our brains get sick, just like our bodies. I have a chronic illness called depression, and it’s in an acute flare-up right now, and I’m scared and ashamed. But I’m also proud of myself because I have been working damn hard to keep going through this mess, and I’m incredibly grateful for the love and support I’ve received that have kept me afloat. And I don’t need to keep that a secret anymore.