“Do you WANT to get better?” a family member asked me a few weeks after I graduated from the psych ward in 2005.
I was furious and hurt.
Because it was just one of many insensitive comments that seem to imply that I was causing my illness.
So when a woman in the online depression support group that I moderate recently said that her therapist asked her that same question, I immediately consoled her and told her that I thought that was wrong, wrong, wrong for a mental health professional to ask that.
But my opinion wasn’t unanimous in the group.
Some thought the question was reasonable to ask, as it prods a person to the appropriate steps of action.
One woman cited a blog post called “It’s Easier to Stay Depressed?” which argued that it takes an incredible amount of drive and energy to do all the things a person has to do to get well, and sometimes it’s easier to stay depressed. Another person confessed to hiding behind her illness at times and thought we all do to a certain extent.
All good points.
I fully admit to some lazy streaks tucked away in my DNA.
My messy house is proof of that. And when I was in public relations, I almost sent in a picture of my boss with half of his head cut off for some award I wanted him to win. I was too lazy to find one with his whole head.
But I am not lazy with my health.
Maybe I need to allow you a peek inside my brain in order to understand why I am so repelled by that question: Do you want to get better?
Everything I eat, drink, think, say, and do is under extreme scrutiny by the depression police, aka my conscious. My diet, conversations, physical activities, and mental exercises are under a microscope because I know if I get just a tiny bit lax in any area, I will bring on death thoughts.
Yes, “I” will bring them on. Because “I” didn’t do whatever was required to have good mental health.
Let’s take this weekend.
On Friday I ate salads, drank kale smoothies, and took all my vitamins and fish oil and my probiotic; I meditated, exercised, worked, laughed, helped people, and did everything else I do on any given day to beat depression. But at lunch, I was handing out barbeque potato chips to my daughter’s friends, and they looked really good.
I did the unthinkable.
I put a handful of them on a napkin and ate them.
I immediately heard: “Do you want to get better?”
“Processed food causes depression. For you, death thoughts. How could you be so careless?”
On Saturday morning, I hopped on our stationary bike for 55 minutes, clearly not enough for the depression police.
“Do you want to get better? You know that the best therapeutic effects come with 90 minutes of cardiovascular activity. Why would you stop at under an hour?”
When I put a little cream in my decaf: “Do you want to get better? You are supposed to be off dairy. What are you thinking?!?”
On Sunday I was walking with my daughter, when the death thoughts came. I was trying so hard to live in the present moment, to practice mindfulness, and appreciate the sweetness of our being together, but the painful thoughts were loud and pervasive.
I started to tear up.
“Well, this isn’t a surprise, given your horrible diet, lack of motivation, and inability to practice mindfulness the last 24 hours,” I told myself. “You caused them, you’re going to have to get rid of them. Run eight miles or however long it takes.”
I ran and ran and ran. I ran until the sharp edges of the thoughts finally softened. Around mile eight.
The thoughts returned Monday morning. I know what caused them. We celebrated the first week of school with a dinner out. I splurged on some hot pumpernickel bread and a few bites of my daughter’s cheesecake.
“Do you want to get better?? Really, do you?”
I swam 200 laps and then tried to meditate at a nearby park. Unsuccessfully.
“Do you want to get better?”
I cried on my way home.
I realized that on some cellular level — somewhere hidden in my neurons — I don’t believe that depression is an illness. Sure I can spout off the latest studies in genetics: that new “candidate genes” have been connected to bipolar disorder, specifically gene “ADCY2” on chromosome five and the “MIR2113-POU3F2” region on chromosome six. But I have lived in a community that mocks any kind of mental anguish for so long that those judgments are now a part of me. I have absorbed them.
Depression, to me, is an imaginary stone.
A few days ago my husband and I were walking around the Naval Academy when I felt a stone in my shoe. For the next mile, I tried all kinds of mindfulness techniques to think the pain away because I was sure that I was exaggerating the discomfort caused by it.
“Concentrate on the beautiful water, not your foot,” I told myself.
Finally I asked Eric to wait for a minute, while I shook the thing out of my shoe.
He laughed out loud when the meteor flew out because it was the size of my big toe.
“You’ve been walking around with that thing in your shoe all this time?” He asked. “Let me guess, you were trying to think it away.”
“As a matter of fact, I was,” I replied.
I am so used to second-guessing any kind of discomfort in my life — and trying mindful techniques to minimize its impact — that I no longer trust my experience of pain.
When my appendix burst, I didn’t tell anyone. I thought it was a mild cramp that would go away in time, that the pain was all in my head. I tried to think it away because that’s what I do when something hurts. Finally Eric made me call the doctor, and she told me to get to the emergency room right away. If I had waited another day, I’d be dead. But even on the operating table, I felt some disappointment in myself for letting it get that far.
The question, “Do you want to get better?” hurts because on some level, I do think I have brought on all my symptoms. By not having the discipline to eliminate dairy, gluten, all processed foods, and sweets from my diet without exception. By my pitiful attempts to be mindful and meditate. By not exercising for 90 minutes every day.
I suppose that question reminds me of a very deep shame I feel in being depressed.
A friend introduced a Hindi word to me the other day. “Genshai” means “charity,” or more precisely, “Never treat anyone in a manner that would make them feel small, and that includes you!”
“Once we start to embrace the concept of Genshai and treat ourselves as we would treat others, we stop feeling guilty about some things,” she said.
This morning I did everything right. I drank a spinach smoothie and ate fruit with my vitamins and supplements for breakfast. I ran eight miles. And I meditated for 20 minutes. Still the death thoughts came and didn’t go away.
So in the spirit of Genshai, I did two more things.
I wrote on a piece of paper: “Do you want to get better?”
Then I scribbled: “Yes. And please don’t ask me again.”
I ripped up the paper and threw it in the trash.
I also read my blog post “What I Wish People Knew About Depression” aloud to myself in the spirit of compassion, not only for me but for anyone who is fighting the imaginary stone.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.