As part of May Is Mental Health Awareness Month, many of us here at PsychCentral are participating in a Mental Health Blog Party hosted by the American Psychological Association. Today, May 18, we are all blogging about mental health awareness. Here’s my contribution.
Why do I blog about mental health?
I want to explain to people that depression and other mood disorders aren’t yuppie diseases for folks with the time and resources to ruminate and obsess, that they can be life-threatening illnesses.
That’s right. Depression kills.
It killed my godmother — my mom’s younger sister — at the tender age of 43. It kills approximately 800,000 people across the globe every year. Suicide takes more lives than traffic accidents, lung disease, and AIDs, and it is the second leading cause of death in females aged 15 to 40. By 2020, depression is expected to be the second most debilitating disease worldwide.
But if you don’t care about those stats, let me tell you this: Depression nearly killed me. For two years after the birth of my youngest child, I was a suicidal mess. The worst part about it? Unlike a cancer victim, I had to keep it all to myself. I was ashamed to explain my symptoms to the outside world.
In 2005—when I was stuck deep in the Black Hole—I bailed on delivering the keynote address to a large convention. My hands were trembling so badly with anxiety that I was having difficulty getting a spoonful of Cheerios to my mouth. Holding a microphone would have been problematic, not to mention uninspiring for the masses.
“I’m sorry,” I explained in an e-mail to the events coordinator a few months before the conference, “I’m having some health problems.”
I stayed vague because I was afraid that the woman wouldn’t understand.
Like so many other people in my life.
Well-intentioned folks said I wasn’t eating organically, that I wasn’t doing the right yoga, that I should be praying harder, and that my meditation attempts were lame. They told me to get over my childhood crap and move on, to buck up like the rest of the population. So I continued to fall into my cereal bowl every morning, to carry with me a paper bag for imminent panic attacks, to lock myself and my kids into the restroom of a Starbucks until my meltdown subsided, and to pull over onto the side of the road whenever I started to shake.
Many months later the topic of depression made front-page news in Annapolis with the suicide of Phil Merrill, a renowned publisher, entrepreneur and diplomat in the Washington area. Eleven days later Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan withdrew his candidacy for governor of Maryland because of his struggle with depression.
Articles cited all the people who had “come out,” past and present: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Kay Redfield Jamison, Archbishop Raymond Roussin, Mike Wallace, William Styron, Art Buchwald, Robin Williams, Patty Duke, Kitty Dukakis, and Brooke Shields. Their reputations were still intact, so, I began to think, maybe writing about my inner demons wouldn’t be the end of mine.
These folks went public to help others. Lincoln wanted people to know that his melancholy was a “misfortune, not a fault,” and that his humor, his jokes, were the “vents of [his] moods and gloom.” Churchill referred to his deep melancholy as his “black dog” (I prefer “mutt”). It was the teacher of perseverance. “Every day you may make progress,” he wrote. “Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”
The enlightened voices of Art and Abe became my guides as I felt my way, blindfolded, through the woods of depression and anxiety to the campfire, where a crowd of fellow depressives welcomed me. The words of Kay Redfield Jamison and Brooke Shields comforted me on those scary afternoons when I felt as though I’d never be freed from my sadness. Today they still reassure me that if I ever get sucked into that Black Hole again, it won’t be forever. Moreover, without their perspective, I’d think I really was going crazy, that I was the fruitcake my twin sister called me in the fourth grade.
I decided that I owe it to these missionaries of truth to continue the chain of support: to write and speak on behalf of those impaired by bad brain chemistry–and disruption in the structure and function of neural circuits, as neurobiologists are learning–trying my best to strip mental illness of its unfair stigma, to give people permission to talk about their symptoms, and to hopefully provide a small piece of hope in what feels like darkness.