Recognizing when you need help and getting it.
By Emily Willingham, DXS editor-in-chief
[Trigger warnings: language about depression.]
Unless you know me well, you might not be able to tell. I smile, I laugh, I get my work done and parent and teach my children and get dinner made (almost) each evening. Yet for about three months, I’ve been struggling every day, with every thought, against what Winston Churchill called the “black dog” of depression, a family legacy that until now has visited me only on a rare day of the blahs here and there. But this dog seems to have come to stay, and the effect is pervasive and persistent, washing all of my experiences, little and large, of their life colors.
I’m not sure what triggered this episode, or if there even was a single trigger. There’s no doubt that my life has been chaotic recently, with a long, complex move and a few weeks of uncertainty about everything from where my family would live to what my husband might be doing for a living. But this particular dog came to visit before all of that chaos and uncertainty set in. I could also blame various factors about my personal life and career–or lack of–which have left me with a sense of anhedonia so heavy that even the simplest, loveliest episodes in my recent experience have left me remarking, like a stoned college student experiencing a nihilist epiphany, “So what? None of it matters anyway.” The horrific tragedy in Connecticut and shameful, nauseating turns the subsequent conversation has sometimes taken might be a factor. Or it could be my health, my age, being peri-menopausal, my encroaching midriff that makes me think of the Michelin man when I sit down, my sense that somehow, I’ve just left my prime behind me, and what comes next?
The thing is, because of the pervasiveness and persistence of this particular visit from the black dog, I’ve decided to abdicate to a professional much of the responsibility of figuring out the whys. For the first time in my life. It’s the right thing to do for me, and it’s the right thing to do for the people who love me and whom I love. My self-talk has become downright abusive, I think so little of who and where I am right now. I’m naturally impatient, but my impatience and irritability have me snappy and irascible with my spouse and children beyond my own norm. I’m always, always exhausted and can’t remember the last time I woke up from a night of rest feeling like I’d had one. I’m not a morning person, but I keep waking up two hours earlier than usual, unable to fall asleep again.
All of these things–irritability, poor sleep, a persistent feeling of fatigue, early waking–are signs of depression. Did you know that? This information and these essays that we’re planning to publish in the coming weeks are intended to serve two purposes: We hope to educate people about what having a mental illness means and how to recognize when you might have one and seek help.
Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, wrote recently in a USA Today commentary about our nation’s progress in mental health research. She noted that “people will only take advantage of this progress if they are not afraid to seek help. Now is the time to work together to banish those fears and bring mental health out of the shadows once and for all.”
I agree. I don’t know that I have a mental illness. What I do know is that if I had been experiencing any other derailment of my capacities for this period of time, most clinicians would consider that an indication to seek professional help. Have a cough that lasts more than a week? See a doctor. A physical pain that persists beyond a few days and doesn’t respond to over-the-counter relievers? See a doctor. Shouldn’t we have the same straightforward advice–and support and coverage–for people whose mental pain persists past a certain period of time or reaches a certain intensity?
So I’m taking Sebelius’s advice, which has proved timely for me, and am seeking to shake off the shadow of that dog. I have recognized that I might be struggling with something that my usual coping tactics can’t manage, and I am turning to help. If anything I’ve written here twangs something in your psyche, please consider doing the same.
[Editor's note: We began our "I Am Mental Illness" series with this post by Carrie Arnold about her battle with anorexia, which meant also battling a lot of other unexpected foes. Friday, we post the next installment in our series, addressing bipolar disorder.]