For far too long of my adolescent to adult life, I worked hard to portray a falsified image of myself. I hid something that I thought was a shameful secret, a secret that if I let out, would destroy relationships with everyone I cared about. I’d make up stories of why I stayed home from school and I’d lie about what all the pills I were taking were really for. What I was so ashamed to tell everyone that I was fighting a mental illness.
My late tween to teenage years weren’t overly different from others’ — of course I had family troubles, as many do, and life for young people isn’t always the easiest. But I began to find myself to be in a horrible mood for no apparent reason. I thought to myself, “I’m just overly sensitive. I’m a teenager, after all.” But as my teenage years progressed I found myself becoming less and less happy with everything in my life. I kept wondering what the hell was wrong with me to get this upset about things so easily? Even when nothing triggered my unhappiness, I didn’t understand why I was so sad. I didn’t understand why I cried alone in my room for no apparent reason. Even when I would spend a truly fantastic weekend with my friends, I’d go to bed at night and feel completely alone.
It wasn’t until I hit the lowest point of my life that I finally realized I needed help. What I was going through was not just a phase. I sought out treatment and was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Anxiety. This diagnosis was like a stab in the heart. “It’s official,” I thought. “I’m officially a crazy person.”
That line of thinking that I once held makes me so ashamed of my former self. What I didn’t realize at the time, and what so many people still don’t realize now, is that there is no way to “cure” depression, but through treatment and an open discussion, we can manage. The reason I was so afraid to admit to myself, and to others, that I had a mental disorder, was that I blamed myself for it. I thought, “Why can’t I shake this feeling? Why am I so upset about everything? This is so embarrassing.” You cannot just “shake off” depression. Depression is not a decision. Depression is not something that is “all in your head”. Depression is not the fault or cause of anyone. Depression is not feeling sorry for yourself. Depression is not something to be ashamed of.
When you get right down to it, depression is an illness. It is literally a chemical imbalance in the brain that cannot be controlled by a person. People are so hesitant to call it a disease because you often cannot see what it’s destroying. The common misconception is that it’s just a “bad mood” that can easily be changed. This is simply not true. Think about it: would you tell someone with third degree burns that if they “just think positive”, they will feel better? Would it make sense to tell someone recovering from a heart attack that, “I know you just had a heart attack but, have you even made an effort to get better?” No. This absurdity is exactly what myself and others experience when someone says something like “Why don’t you just go out and do something to distract yourself?” or, “There’s nothing wrong in your life, you have no reason to be depressed.”
At around five years of age, I was diagnosed with Bronchiolitis Obliterans, a chronic lung disease. Do you think I ever once blame myself for this disease or think that I could in some way change the outcome of it without treatment? Of course not. Mental illnesses like depression are as real and destructive as any other illness. It is a disease of the mind. It can destroy you from the inside out. It seeps into you and pulsates through your whole body that sometimes you don’t know what’s controlling you. And what’s even more painful is that as much as you try to hide what this disease is turning you into…you can’t help but think that everyone is noticing. They don’t see you and see your illness, and ask how it’s been going lately. They label you. Crazy. Weird. Unstable. They don’t see it for what it really is: a terrible destructive force. A tumultuous tidal wave that pulls you under, constantly dragging you up for oxygen and then pulling you back down again just as you get the chance to choke for air. Just when you think you’ve finally come up for good, an unsuspecting wave will come to tear you apart again. There is no life preserver. There is only darkness.
And I in no way intend for people to feel sorry for me. I only hope to expand the minds of those who don’t quite understand what it’s like to live with a mental illness. Though my battle with depression seems to be over, neither I, nor anyone else currently fighting depression, desires the sympathy that often comes with finding out about someone’s illness. I still see the strained looks and grimaces when I truthfully tell someone that yes, these medications I’m taking are for my chemical imbalance. I sense the awkward tension when I openly discuss my illness. But you know what? I don’t care anymore. Why should I feel ashamed for something that I had no control in happening to me? I’m not afraid to tell my friends that I receive treatment for a lung disease, and my mental illness is no different.
I know through experience that mental illness does not always end in tragedy. But I also know that conquering mental illness cannot be done alone. It requires time, energy, treatment, and a strong support system. By seeking the help I needed, I have been able to take control of my own life and not let my illness be a leading factor. I find joy in life and have come to appreciate what a gift it is. I am confident in saying that I am truly happy with my life and that my chemical imbalance has become a very tiny part of myself, a part that rarely affects me anymore. I believe that one day soon it will be a distant memory. I am a happy person.
I hope that through sharing my story, it will encourage those with similar experiences to discuss theirs. I also hope that through discussion, mental illness will no longer hold a negative stigma, and people can openly talk about what mental illnesses are and how to receive treatment. We all deserve to live a full and healthy life. The key to that is happiness.