Monday, March 28, 2016

Sick Not Weak: My Walk With Depression

I glanced up at the gray morning sky from my usual spot on the porch. Rain echoed off our metal overhang. A robin bounced across my front lawn, alternately glaring at me and digging her beak into the wet grass. I normally enjoyed the rain – I usually considered it ideal writing weather – but today I could have used some sun. It had been a long weekend. A hard weekend. Perhaps the toughest one I’d ever gone through, and I was still worn out.

            The past year and a half had been something of a nightmare for me. My depression had flared up in a way I could have never imagined. It had cost me my job, and from there, things had become progressively worse. I broke out in hives for months. I couldn’t get my hands to stop shaking when I was in public. I pulled away from everyone, including those I loved the most. Some days I could not get out of bed. It was like my world had become suddenly bleached with gray, as if the sun and life and hope had been sucked out of my existence. Though I’d dealt with depression for two decades, it had never been this bad. A friend of mine, who also dealt with mental health issues, told me that I needed to get a handle on it or I would lose everything. I did not know how to do that.

            And through it all, I stayed quiet. On my (many) Facebook posts and blogs and tweets, I rarely, if ever, mentioned it. I didn’t want to bring others down, and frankly, I wasn’t proud of my situation. I’d felt the stigma of depression for most of my life, heard the whispers that mental health sufferers weren’t working hard enough. That they just needed to let it go. That they weren’t religious enough or weren’t praying hard enough. I had tried, but I couldn’t get there. Despite tears and soul crushing effort, I couldn’t reach the sun. Every day it seemed to rain, even when there were no clouds. And without a job, medication was out of the question. So was counseling. I did not know what to do.

            I could feel people slipping away from me, people I loved, friends and family. I wanted to tell them that I was trying. That I still loved them. That I wasn’t ignoring them and that I could feel their presence at all times. I just couldn’t touch them.  

            And still I remained silent. 

            Perhaps it was my pride. Or perhaps it was this notion that I would wake up one morning and everything would be okay again. Or that I would step out onto the porch and the sun would be shining again.

            It didn’t happen.

            This past weekend was the most difficult weekend of my life because I was finally confronted with the consequences of not doing anything. Of not talking about my pain. Of not taking actions to manage my depression in a more healthy manner. And while it was painful, it was also a relief. I had been guilty of the worst course of action for a mental health sufferer. I’d buried my head in the sand and tried to fix things on my own. I’d refused to look in the mirror and admit the truth. So I did. And this is what I saw:

            Your name is Stephen Burns. You are 43 years old. You suffer from depression. You have hurt people close to you because you refuse to face, to truly face, the issues you wrestle with every day. If you don’t do something, you’ll lose everything. You are sick, not weak.

            As you can imagine, it was not an easy image to process. My habit for dealing with my inner torment had always been to bury it. Close down. Disengage. (And occasionally lash out in anger on Facebook) I had often heard thoughts telling me that my depression wasn’t real, that it wasn’t a real sickness, and that if I was a stronger person I could handle it.

            Some days I was able to reject those lies. Too often I believed them.

            Faced with the prospect of my world collapsing, I confronted my sickness. And (in what I don’t think was a coincidence) I found a website, a community, at SickNotWeak. Started by TSN personality Michael Landsberg, himself a depression sufferer, the site was a wonderment to me. I found stories there, written by other sufferers. I found a place to go when the sun dipped behind the clouds. I found a community of people willing to do something, for themselves and others, to help bring light back into their life.

            This past year I’d published my first novel, The Last Angel. Though I’d waited a lifetime to achieve that, and though the reviews were positive, it didn’t help the way I’d thought it would. My personal achievement seemed to have no impact on my mental health. Despite the plethora of kind words and encouraging reviews, most days I would wake up and hear different voices. Ones telling me that I still hadn’t sold many books. That I was still a failure. That I’d always be a failure. I cringed at the internal criticism and sank into myself. Sank into my pain and torment. I thought I had lost control of my life. I had begun to think it would never change.

            That too, was a lie.

            This past Saturday I devised some new strategies (which I will delve into later this week), some of which I’d gleamed from SickNotWeak, to help me deal with my depression. And yesterday, for the first day in a long time, I felt like I was in control of my life again.

Writing this essay was one of those strategies, but again, I hesitated. It had only been a few days. What difference did a few days make? I hadn’t accomplished anything. This time, however, I was able to ignore the lie.

This essay was never meant to be a testimony of accomplishment, but a challenge to be open about who I was and what I suffered from. And perhaps let others know that I felt their pain. That I suffered with them. That they weren’t alone.

I was tired of running. Tired of hiding. It was time to do something.

The robin fluttered off into the large maple on our lawn, and I watched her settle there, her orange chest thrust forward bobbing confidently on the tiny branch. I shook my head. Mental health issues were more prevalent in our society than people imagined. And so many of us who suffered from it on a daily basis were afraid to talk about it. Afraid because we worried what people would think or that we’d bring others down or that we were only using it as an excuse.

I’d learned my lesson the hard way. I couldn’t do it alone. I couldn’t conquer it without help. And while honesty was important, it wasn’t enough. I needed to act.

I stood, resting my laptop on my chair. It continued to rain, the wind gusting against the branches, the grass brown and mottled. Spring hadn’t arrived. Not yet. But as I glanced up at the gray skies, I spotted a ray of sunlight hidden behind the clouds. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.


AUTHOR'S NOTE: If you suffer from mental health issues, there are numerous places where you can get help. I highly recommend SickNotWeak. And if you want to contact me, just go to my contact page and you can find me. I'll be happy to get back to you.