It’s not easy to speak publicly about my struggle with depression. In my work, I teach and write about the most intimate topics with ease. This is harder. After overwhelming response to a social media post I wrote on the topic, I’ve decided to share my perspective with a wider audience. I believe in the power of personal revelation to break down stigma. I hope this will be helpful to people who share this struggle, and to those who love them and want to understand.
I have experienced cyclical depression for about 22 years. It’s well-managed now with medication and coping strategies. That means that the recurring episodes are relatively mild. They last days, not weeks, and the constant drumbeat of death-would-be-better-death-would-be-better is mostly silenced. I am profoundly grateful for that.
Here’s how it is. When I’m in an episode, I feel like I have a parasite on my brain. First I just feel subdued, like most things are pointless. Soon, I find that getting up, dressing, talking, going outside, thinking clearly, feeding myself, cleaning up take so much effort that everything else feels impossible. Empathy, awareness, planning seem miles away. Nothing exists except the current moment, and the current moment is blackness.
In the throes of depression, I remember that I have friends. I know that I love and am loved. But I can’t imagine why I might want to talk to anyone, or what we might say to each other. If circumstances force me to leave the house and interact with others, I feel vulnerable, exposed, disoriented. All the while, I am completely conscious of every responsibility I’m failing to meet, every opportunity I’m missing. And I can’t believe that I will ever feel like living again.
Then it ends. I am well again. I am optimistic, contemplative, creative, resilient. I delight in life and pursue my passions and curiosity. The people around me exist in all their beauty and complexity. God’s wisdom and compassion feel close and palpable. I see how depression has been distorting my thoughts. I am relieved and hopeful.
I start attending to the unmet obligations, the work left undone, the relationships ignored and avoided. I get as much done as I can, knowing that next month, it might happen again. In every personal and professional interaction, I have to decide whether to explain my illness, to say nothing, refer vaguely to being sick, or just say, “I’m sorry. Thank you for your patience and flexibility.” I reassure my children that I’m feeling better, remind them that I have a condition called depression, that it’s no one’s fault and not remotely personal.
The loss is cumulative. Decades of this struggle are reflected in modest achievements, unmet potential. But I am proud of what I accomplish in the time I have. I’m thankful for good medication, and for all the tools that lesson the impact of the episodes. I accept that these dark periods are part of my life, and that they are not my whole life. My experience teaches me that we all contend with invisible challenges.