When I was 18, I moved out of my mother’s house and into my own apartment. It wasn’t much: a small, one bedroom off-campus type place, the type of place where rent is cheap and the fixtures are cheaper. I decorated my new pad with things from the “dorm aisle” in Target. I had a set of three nesting tables, two beanbag chairs, a blue card table with four folding chairs, a futon, and one flimsy but oh-so-essential white bookcase. (What can I say, I was a bookworm. Hell, I still am.)
Sure, it was sparse, but it was mine. This place—this entire space—was mine, and mine alone.
I had started college two weeks before and had been holed up in a Hampton Inn four miles from the campus since that time, so moving in was the most exciting day, and the most exciting moment, of my short adolescent life. But it was also the most terrifying, because in those two weeks I was already spiraling out of control. In just 14 short days prior, I had gone from being an overachiever to a “failure.” I was skipping class—opting to stay in bed in a dark, and unclean, hotel room. I was eating less and sleeping more.
By the time the keys to C16 were in my hand, I was already deep in the throes my first ever depressive episode (my first depressive episode on my own, that is).
When you are young and teetering on the edge of adulthood, when you are young and getting ready to face the world alone, everyone warns you about drinking and drugs. They warn you about school violence, the risks of unprotected sex, and what will happen if you don’t keep your grades up, but no one warns you about the isolation. No one warns you about the panic, the anxiety, the loneliness, and the desperation. No one warns you that this event—this major, life-changing moment—is also a huge stressor. No one talks about the fact that this transition can trigger depression, especially if you have previously been diagnosed with the condition.
And it didn’t take me long to fall into a crippling episode. It didn’t take me long to give up. I withdrew from college in my second semester, through I kept it a secret until the end of my freshman year. I started going out less and drinking more. I hid in my boyfriend’s dorm room most of the week. I would stay in his bed with the covers pulled over my eyes and a pillow lying across my face while he went to class and did what 18-year-olds were supposed to do. While he did what everyone assumed I—a straight-A student—would do. But I couldn’t do it, or anything, for that matter.
I would cry when my boyfriend brought up school and asked me what I planned to do. I would cry when he pointed out my lack of employment and his suggestion that I should go home.
Everyone thought my life was out of control, and the truth is, it was. But it wasn’t the result of partying or drug abuse or plain ol’ laziness. It was the direct result of my mental illness. Instead of talking about my depression and asking for help, I shut down out of shame, fear, guilt and remorse.
I tried self-medicating, cutting, pills, and overpriced, watered-down booze. I tried anything to make the shit stop and to get back to some semblance of my former self, but nothing worked. It wasn’t until I went to therapy that things got better. They weren’t great—hell, there were barely OK—but they were better.
Why? I felt better because I broke the silence, because I took one small but oh-so-significant baby step forward.
It’s taken me 16 years to get comfortable saying I have a mental illness, because let’s be real: Even though I know, and knew then, I should not be ashamed of my illness, I still was. I let shame consume me and taunt me. I let the idea of shame haunt me.
I stayed silent because I was scared. I was terrified I was crazy and ever more afraid I wasn’t. I was petrified that perhaps I was a failure who just wasn’t cut out to cope with adult things and my new “adult” life.
I stayed silent because I was sure no one would understand. How could I possibly explain the sadness, the depth and the breadth of my pain? And, conversely, how I could explain the lack thereof—the sheer loss of love and emotion in my life?
And I stayed silent because I thought nobody cared. Admittedly, there are times when I still believe this. Days and weeks and months when I believe this.
But I was wrong.
You see, it can be embarrassing to talk about a mental illness and the invisible monster lurking under your bed or inside your head. It can be difficult to explain the numbness, the emptiness, and the feelings of worthlessness. It can be difficult to explain how you feel alone—completely and utterly alone—in a crowd full of people, in a room full of your closest friends and family.
But it is just as difficult not to, because staying silent means staying ashamed. Staying ashamed means staying isolated. Staying isolated means staying silent. And staying silent means staying sick. Period.
So I’m not ashamed of my mental illness—not anymore. Sure, I’m still scared. I still hurt, and I still cry, but I’m done staying silent. I’m done feeling embarrassed and guilty and allowing my disease to demean me. I’m no longer letting my disease define me.
Why? Because I deserve better, and so do you. (Yes, you!)
So to the friend who puts on a “good show” but cries behind closed doors, to the colleague who seems to take one too many sick days or who stays silent and keeps to themselves, to the family member always sitting in the corner during Thanksgiving dinner, and to the 15-year-old child who feels like she is going crazy but wants to believe she is OK, I say this: Living with depression or any mental illness is tough. There are days you feel like you can’t make it, but you will.
Because you are tougher. You are stronger. You are resilient. And you are not your disease. Sure, you have a diagnosis, but you are more than a series of symptoms. You are more than DSM-IV-defined illness. You are a person and a fighter, and you should never, ever be ashamed of the fight. Scared? Yes! But ashamed? No.
You deserve better, because you are better. You are worth it.