I have suffered from migraines since adolescence, and I remember my mother telling me that she had no idea what it felt like, as she had never had a headache – migraine or otherwise. She took care of me even though she had no frame of headache reference, holding a cold washcloth to my forehead and making sure I saw a doctor to diagnose my condition. She couldn’t be empathetic, but she was sympathetic to my pain.
During a bout of major depression in the past year – a battle that I am winning – I have experienced empathy, sympathy and compassion. I have friends and family, both near and afar, who have given me shoulder after shoulder to lean on and much encouragement and unconditional love. Some have been empathetic, having suffered from mood disorders themselves. Others have been sympathetic – like my mother’s response to my headaches – wanting to know more about what major depression feels like and how my treatment is going. I once had difficulty accepting that I was lovable. Excruciating difficulty. Now I know I am lovable even in my ugliest, lowest moments and when, at times, I’ve been incapable of being a good friend or sibling or aunt or adult child in return.
One of the most profound experiences happened two weeks ago. It made me cry. I went for a walk with a friend, whom I had not seen since last year. She had no idea what had happened to me in the last 12 months. I told her my story, and when I got to the part about the mental hospital, she stopped walking, gave me hug in the middle of the walking path and said “I had no idea, you are so brave to have done that.” No one had ever told me that I was courageous for seeking help, except my counselors and psychiatrist. Later on in the week, we went rollerblading together. As we were blading down the East Bay bike path, she said “I know you don’t feel like your old, athletic self, but I still see the spark and energy and soul you had when we used to run together. It’s still there. And I promise you, one day in the future, I’m going to be telling you to slow down because I won’t be able to keep up.” Pass me a Kleenex, please.
Conversely, I have been treated like a leper by uninformed fools who think that this is my fault or just a pathetic excuse for not being social or, better yet, that I just need to “snap out of it” or “be happy” or “change my mood.” How simplistic, how fucking easy. Duh, why didn’t I think of those easy fixes before I “chose” to be depressed?
Do you think I choose to “be” this way, much like people choose to suffer from, say, diabetes or heart disease? Do you think my wildest dream was to sit in a mental hospital for six days last November because it was fun and spa-like, shelling out $1,300 of my own money – money I was saving for a trip to Ireland – to get better? No and no. I saw and heard things in the hospital that I still can’t talk about to this day. People are really, legitimately ill, and thank God we have places where we can go to get help as well as the strength to admit we need help. Hopefully the patients who sat beside me in treatment have informed, non-fools at home to support them through recovery.
When I was hospitalized, I was officially diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, which is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as:
A combination of symptoms that interfere with a person’s ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy once-pleasurable activities. Major depression is disabling and prevents a person from functioning normally. Some people may experience only a single episode within their lifetime, but more often a person may have multiple episodes.
I fall into the “multiple episodes” category, unfortunately. I have gone into very deep, dark places on and off for almost 30 year, places that I wouldn’t want my worst enemy to see, including starting to cut myself at age 11 and having suicidal ideations in my late 20s. I would look out the window of the equity research firm at which I worked and fantasize about jumping out the window, wondering if a seven-story fall would be enough to kill me. Thankfully, I sought help after having this recurring thought for a week straight.