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.