Real, Or Not Real?

In Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, specifically in the third book, Mockingjay, Peeta’s grasp on reality is so tenuous that he has to ask “Real, or not real?” in order to discern truth from lies.  In much the same way, when I am in a depressive episode, it is incredibly important to be able to tell the difference between what is no-kidding real and what depression wants me to believe.

For example, we often talk about how depression is isolating.  I don’t want to get out of bed, I don’t want to get out of the house, and I certainly don’t want to socialize.  Part of that is the energy drain; another part is the thought pattern created by depression.  I don’t really want to be around people; depression wants me to believe that people don’t want to be around me, that I am a burden, and that others merely tolerate me anyway.

Real, or not real?

When I’m not depressed, the question seems laughable and the things that depression would like me to believe seem ridiculous.  But when I’m deep in that darkness, they seem legitimate – overwhelmingly so.  So I ask myself the question, “Real, or not real?” and I think about what I know to be true.  I think about what I’ve experienced.  I think about my friends and family, and I know that depression is a big fat liar.

So depression moves on with its insidious, accusatory game.

“You’re a whole bucket of crazy.  Do you think anyone could ever love you like this?  No one will ever be willing to deal with a person like you in their life.”

Real, or not real?

My depression is not my defining feature.  Granted, it likes to take center stage when it can, but it doesn’t get to very often.  Are there guys who will run screaming for the hills the second that my crazy shows a bit?  Yes, and I don’t want them anyway.  I know that I’m actually a pretty great person, and if depression is stopping someone from dealing with me, they can keep right on walking.

So depression tries again.

“You do realize that no one else actually feels this way, right?  You’re literally the only one who has ever dealt with this.  You’re broken, you’re alone, no one understands, and no one wants to be bothered by you trying to explain it.”

Real, or not real?

It seems silly to even type depression’s argument, but the heavy weight of it when I’m struggling cannot be overstated.  In this moment, I think about the number of organizations that exist to help people with depression and mental illness.  I think about the 22 veterans who take their lives on a daily basis.  I think about the number of celebrities who didn’t get help and the handful who did.  I am not alone.

I have close friends whom I let know when a depressive episode has kicked off.  One of them knows that I drink a particular type of tea when I’m feeling down; I’ll ask her over for some tea.  Whether it’s a real invitation or not, she knows that I’m riding the struggle bus and need some support.  Another friend is familiar with my “fight’s on” mantra, and I simply let him know that it’s one of those fighting days.  There are others whom I simply tell outright.  The conversation is no longer awkward; I’ve built trust with them and they with me.  They make it completely, utterly, wonderfully impossible to believe the lies that I am alone and that no one understands, because they walk with me in the darkness.

Depression is real.  The fight is real.  The head games are real.  The thoughts are not.  But when someone is in a depressive episode, it all feels very, very real.  So let me tell you this:

If you are so deep in the tunnel that you can no longer see the beginning or the end, and it is pitch black and all you seem to have are the thoughts screaming at you and reminding you of how desperately alone you are, I will stand with you.  I will stand with you and walk with you in that darkness until we find the light.  You are not alone.  I am not alone.  One step at a time, we’ll get through that tunnel together.  You’re worth it, and so am I.

Real.

So, You Know She Struggles With Depression, Right?

“So, you know she struggles with depression, right?”

I am deployed, and no one here has a bathroom to themselves; community bathrooms are the standard, and privacy isn’t exactly expected.  I was in the community bathroom, and I overheard this conversation. Two women were talking about a third woman, and one of them was talking about how great this third woman was.  She had nothing but really positive things to say about her; she was a great co-worker, their interactions were positive, and she apparently had this ability to make everyone she talked to feel like they were the most important person in the world right at that moment.  It was at this point that the second woman said, her voice condescending, “So, you know she struggles with depression, right?”

Cue the sound of the DJ record scratch off in the distance somewhere.  Suddenly, inexplicably, all of this woman’s awesomeness was somehow overshadowed and cancelled out by this single reality in her life.  You could feel the dynamic change.  The first woman just responded with a disappointed, “Oh.”  The conversation was clearly over, and both women left the bathroom. I wish I had said something, but I didn’t get the chance. And, honestly, I was heartbroken that the conversation had gone the direction it had; we’re still treating depression like it has this big scarlet letter attached to it.

This woman struggles with depression. That means she fights it. The fact that she’s still around means that she is engaged in battle against this thing – and she’s winning. She hasn’t given up; she hasn’t given in.  The day-to-day fight may have been defining, but the depression itself has not defined her.  She’s clearly still out to make the world around her brighter and better, but she’s being treated as the subject of bathroom gossip by those who cannot tell the difference between perceived weakness and actual strength.

In the past couple of years, I’ve been very open about my struggles with depression.  It is counterintuitive to do that, and I’ve been told that I have to be careful because it may impact my career in the long run.  But I firmly believe we can’t destigmatize getting help for mental health while at the same time telling people to keep quiet when they own the struggle and get help. I’d rather be led by those who are honest about not having it all together 100% of the time than by those who fake it to the point of being unapproachable.  I don’t think I’m alone in that.

My depression is a daily struggle, although some days are much worse than others. I can normally tell about 3-5 days before a depressive episode is about to begin. I just feel different, although if I can get some sleep, I can normally “short-circuit” a spiral…right up until I can’t. When a depressive episode hits, I wake up in the morning and I just know. It’s as though a switch flipped in my brain overnight, and I wake up with this indescribably heavy feeling of sadness.  (Many have suggested that the Dementors in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series are excellent analogies for depression; one feels as though they will never be happy again.)  In spite of a full night’s sleep, I have zero energy, and regardless of what needs to be accomplished, my motivation is non-existent. In this moment, I have learned to say to myself, “Fight’s on.” Sounds all warrior-like, huh? All gritty and determined and badass.  The reality is that fighting the depression looks a lot more like getting out of bed. Getting some semblance of a workout in. Taking a shower. Putting on clothes that aren’t my comfy pajamas.  Eating something quasi-nutritious. Listening to music that I’ve already set aside for this situation. Praying and meditating. Letting a trusted friend know that the fight is on.  Fighting depression looks an awful lot like normal life, and yet it feels like this epic struggle that is going on with the same constant, subtle undercurrent as breathing.

Why am I telling you this? Because we need to talk about it. We need to stop treating people like lepers because they are engaged in this unseen struggle. We need to be honest as leaders and followers and colleagues and friends and family and people. We post the number to the Suicide Hotline on our Facebook walls and we tell people to call if they are ever in a dark place, but we shy away from vulnerable, uncomfortable conversation…unless it is to talk about someone’s struggle as something that is to be whispered about and ashamed of.

I want this to change. For the sake of every person out there battling it out, I want this to change. And I want to be part of this change. So let’s have these conversations. And let’s keep having these conversations. Over and over and over again, until depression isn’t something that people whisper about in hushed tones – we acknowledge it, we deal with it, we walk alongside people on their rough days, and we don’t let it become the defining feature of someone’s life.

To that woman being gossiped about – you’re a badass, and you aren’t alone. Always keep fighting.