Riding the Depression Wave

Given all of the attention placed on Major Depressive Disorder and suicide this week, my son said to me last night, “So, are you going to write a blog about that?” pointing to an article about Robin Williams. And my first thought was, no. Not going there.

I’ve written extensively over the last five years about death, dying and grief, but never specifically addressed depression in any of my writing. Was I depressed dealing with the loss of my brother and mother? Absolutely. I was dealing with not only what they call “ambiguous grief”, which is often experienced by children of a parent who has died, as well as siblings who lose a brother or sister (i.e. you aren’t a widow or a widower, so society tends to minimize the impact), but also “complicated grief”, which is what they call it when you lose more than one key person in a short period of time. But, I never focused specifically on being depressed. I focused on the lessons of loss. Until the last few days, I never really wondered why.

The bravery that people have shown over the past few days in outing themselves in their struggles with depression is a true turning point in the discussion of what constitutes mental illness. The bottom line is there are only a handful (and I mean, one handful) of people I know who have not experienced a bout of what is considered to be a clinical depressive episode. Major Depressive Disorder only requires you to experience a consistent 2 week period of time in which you experience depressed mood, insomnia/hypersomnia, changes in appetite, feelings of worthlessness, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, difficulty in concentration and perhaps, thoughts of death and suicide. While bereavement and grief in itself does not constitute a MDD episode (because it’s a normal response to an abnormal situation), there are very few people who only grieve for 2 weeks. So, more likely than not, an episode of grief evolves into a depression.

Depression is the dirty little secret most of us carry around, holding it close to the chest; masking it with alcohol, burying it in work, hiding behind our great sense of humor. But, it’s there. It creeps through when we least expect it, often hitting us from behind. And then it’s there. And we sit in it. Until we can get back up and fight it off. IF…we can fight it off.

I have always considered myself blessed and cursed. I’ve experienced an incredible amount of loss in my life, starting with the death of my father when I was 11. Death and loss was part of my landscape of life early on. It colored everything I did and probably always will. With that, came bouts of depression. Yes, I said it…..I find it incredibly interesting that I have been able to own my grief like a badge of honor but have never really owned the depression in a public way.

But, the beauty in all of that loss has been an incredible resiliency. While my losses may define me, I have grown in that loss. Those bouts of depression, while ugly as hell (which I assure you, and my closest friends will testify to) always (and I mean always) resulted in growth for me. That is a gift not afforded to all that suffer with this disease. For some, it results in death.

I lost a close friend 18 years ago to a suicide. It was probably more devastating than losing my father because I felt like Jimmy had a choice. I wanted him to want to live. I was angry and couldn’t bring myself to even talk about it for many years. At some point over the years, it occurred to me that it wasn’t that Jimmy didn’t want to live. He just didn’t want to hurt anymore. He didn’t see an end. And I had never experienced that until my brother died. I had a brief moment in which I said out loud “If I’m going to feel this way forever, I cannot go on. I can’t do it.” I happened to say it to a counselor I was referred to by work. It was a turning point for me. I had to start living again because I was, in essence, dying. That’s what real depression is…it’s a slow death. And it scared the shit out of me.

Depression is real. It’s scary and it’s horrible. It’s a disease. It’s not a choice or a weakness. Many things play into a person’s ability to manage it. For me, it’s been many things. Most importantly, it’s been a willingness to work with it. Recognizing the slippery slope and proactively taking steps to minimize its impact. I’ve seen too many angry, depressed people passing judgment on others while they insist they are fine. It’s okay to not be fine. I mean, how many of us are really fine?

Don’t ask me how I am if the only thing you want to hear is fine. You might be surprised with my response. Depending on the day, of course…..