I’ve struggled with depression for over half my life. That’s pretty impressive. Even more so because I’m still here. Many aren’t.
Like grief at the loss of a loved one, I’ve gone through similar stages; after all, I was grieving losing myself. I was grieving losing the person I might have been.
The first was a denial of my condition. The second was relief my condition was finally recognized. The third was sheer embarrassment there seemed to be a glitch in my headspace for no apparent reason.
I hate stigma. If you think it’s bad now, the late 90s was riddled with it; wherever you looked there was judgment.
I was 17, and my friends were out living it up; rebelling against society, smoking weed, doing burnt outs with their mums’ cars and drinking vodka cruisers. I was doing all of this too but only to keep up appearances and hide the shame I felt living with this secret.
Nobody knew I went home after late night parties and sat alone in a room covered wall to ceiling with clippings of sweaty rock gods. No one knew I’d sit there; tears rolling down my face as I chain-smoked Marlboros and taught myself to inhale so I could fit in.
Yep, it was tough.
Thankfully I left that stage of my depression and continued on the rocky path towards many other painful experiences my depression so kindly led me too.
Sometimes I felt “cured.” Other times I had to fight hard to kick off those ankle-grabbing hands that appeared like horror movie characters, dragging me into their sticky black hole.
There was one constant feeling through all these emotional states I experienced though, and that was shame.
I first met “shame” in the doctor’s office after my diagnosis but as I’ve already mentioned, he was pretty pally with “relief” at that time. When relief left my life and I was left alone in the world, I could always count on the endless attention of shame — my long-term friend who made me recoil and hate myself.
He wasn’t all bad — he grew as I did. He sometimes led me to positive places like a TV interview on mental illness in my 20s and here now, where I’m outing my depression and its naughty little brother “shame” by naming and, well, “shaming.”
But when I say he grew, he grew into an uncomfortable new concept for me — one that was shrouded in reality, frustration and a need for an explanation I didn’t have. What do I have to be depressed about?
I was fed and watered, had a great family, went to a good school, yet apparently, I had to take pills to be happy. Other people had it worse off than me, so what did I have to be sad about? There were kids starving, people homeless and war-torn nations, yet I felt like crap? Poor me. How pathetic and self-obsessed was I?
Shame really was a master of disguise and made an uninvited lengthy appearance when my brother was abused by a school teacher. He was still there through the court case and tears of my parents and still breathing down my neck when my brother collected friends as easily as Pokémon cards, had a great career when I was unemployed, bought a house and had the woman and child of his dreams.
I really struggled with this — that something so awful could happen to my little brother, yet he managed to smile when I physically felt my face and heart were frozen.
Of course, as I learned more about my condition and sat on a million therapists’ chairs, I started to understand more about my little friend.
I’ve lived with depression for so long now that it’s part of who I am, so that means shame is too. He’s still a strong presence in my life when I get frustrated with my feelings and see the terrible atrocities around me but it’s relative. Yes, there will always be people worse off than me. But I can’t compare a spoon to a bedside table.
This is what I’m living with. The more I let guilt overcome me for not having a tangible terrible thing happen to me in order to justify my depression, the more I let mental illness win. How can I be so anti-stigma if I perpetuate it by giving the energy to shame?
It’s pretty simple. Depression doesn’t always stem from a tragic life event. It can be biological, genetic, environmental, whatever. If you have it, you have it, and all the other negative and tricky components someone with depression deals with is enough to cope with, let alone an unwarranted construct that keeps us stuck in our fragile minds.
Shame and I still walked hand in hand but I give him permission to loosen his grip in the hope that one day he will skip off into the fields without ever glancing back.
Published on The Mighty (May 2017)