According to the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality in 2015, an estimated 16.1 million adults reported that they had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. I was one of them. Those 16.1 million people are just the ones who reached out and got help. Many people don’t, because they fear the outcome.
I’ve gone back and forth about publishing this piece, mostly because I fear the reaction. The stigma surrounding the words "mental illness" makes me anxious, even though I’m generally an open person. I shouldn’t be afraid to say I have major depressive disorder and that I’ve fought it for years. It is what it is — being afraid to talk about it is only adding to the stigma.
I shouldn’t be ashamed to say that I don’t leave the house much except to go to work. Some days, I don’t get dressed. Others, I’m only up long enough to let the dogs out. I haven’t gotten groceries in at least a month — my husband goes for me. I didn’t shop locally for Christmas presents; they were all delivered to my doorstep. I haven’t been going to the gym and obviously haven’t done much blogging. I can’t tell you the last time I cleaned or cooked a dinner that required any kind of effort.
This is what winter does to me.
I could feel it wrapping its cold fingers around my soul about October. I knew it was coming. I tried to brace for it. I met with my psychiatrist; I consulted with my wellness coach; I told my boss that winters aren’t good for me. It didn’t matter; I still felt its grip. As the days grew shorter, my motivation, my patience and my happiness began to fade. Just as they do every winter. Although depression can rear its ugly head at me any time of the year, winter is always the worst.
Even the simplest things feel like monumental tasks, and I never know where to start. Sometimes, just getting dressed is overwhelming, which is how I end up sitting on my couch listening to podcasts and not wearing actual pants. When my cellphone rings, I send it to voice mail, especially if I don’t recognize the number. The thought of having to say "hello" and carry a conversation makes me anxious.
Most of the time, I can push forward. I can keep moving, and even though I may seem tired or a little down, I can function enough to ward off the questions. I think a lot of people do that. I think there’s a whole bunch of us going through the motions and hoping no one notices. I also think there’s a whole bunch of people going through the motions and praying that someone notices. None of us really knows what to do with either category.
People like me, people with mental illness, can be hard to love because we’re hard to understand. Some people assume everyone with depression is suicidal — but that’s not the case. Some people think it’s a phase; some people think it’s just laziness, just a bad day, something we can control with some kind of switch inside our head. They tell us to buy a sunlight lamp (I’ve got one), or to try an essential oil (I’ve slathered myself in it), to work out (I wish I could find the motivation).
Remember, there’s not a cure all for this, just like there isn’t one for high cholesterol or diabetes. One medication may work for one person and not for another. One homeopathic remedy could be the key to your happiness. If it’s not — that’s OK. People may tell you just to think positive — resist the urge to scream at them. They don’t get it. I don’t blame them for not understanding. I hope they never know firsthand what this feels like.
I know it’s frustrating when you ask me what’s wrong and I can’t tell you, or you ask me how I am and I look you in the eye and lie to you:
"I’m fine, just tired."
I suppose it’s not completely a lie. I am tired. It’s unbelievable that I could sleep all day, sleep all night and still be tired, but I am. I can hear it now, the echos of some of you saying, "Well, you’re just sleeping too much." I promise, that’s not the case. I want to be awake, I want the energy to do the things I love. I mean, I want the energy to do the things I hate, like grocery shopping. It’s just not there.
The worst part is knowing that I’m hurting the people around me, that my irritability, my sadness, my negativity don’t just affect me. I am lucky enough to have an incredible support system of family, friends and co-workers. They all see bits and pieces of the cold that winter brings, but my husband, Aaron, bears the brunt of it.
Once, during a depressive episode a few years ago, I cried over a cheeseburger. I wish I was joking. I was having a bad day and my husband brought me lunch. I eat my cheeseburgers with just ketchup and this one had everything on it. I remember looking at him, trying not to cry, and saying, "Everything is going wrong and I really needed my cheeseburger to be right."
It wasn’t his fault, I wasn’t angry at him. All the same, the poor guy had to watch me sit there and sob, devastated over diced onions and mustard.
In those moments, his heart breaks because he wants to help me but he doesn’t know how. I can see in his eyes that he’s trying to figure out what he could have done differently to fix a situation completely out of his control. I’m grateful to have a pillar like him in my life, holding me up when I feel like I can’t stand. Someone to hug me when I’m suffering a breakdown over a cheeseburger.
I’ve offered to let him leave, because I don’t feel like I deserve him and he certainly doesn’t deserve to have to put up with me. He insists on staying by my side, on accompanying me through every winter no matter how cold.
Some days are a lot harder than others. Some days I’m angry at absolutely nothing, and others I’m numb. Some days I’m happy, and I worry about when that feeling will go away and what will replace it.
I’m not asking for pity. I don’t need a hug or a "cheer up." Really, I’m all right.
The days are getting longer. My bad days hopefully will become fewer, my laugh will come back, and my energy will wander in right beside it. My resolution is to enjoy it and not worry about the moment the days get short again. For those of who following my weight loss, know that the gym and an update are the first thing on my to-do list when I’ve bounced back.
I’m sharing because I know some of you will get it and maybe you’ll find comfort in knowing you’re not alone. You never are. We’re all wandering around trying to figure how to pull ourselves out of this bottomless pit. When it gets too dark, reach out. There’s a hand up there who wants to pull you up. If the first person tells you just to think positive and go for a walk, ask a second or a third or a fourth. There are people who love you more than you could possibly imagine even when you feel completely alone.
Eventually, you’ll make it out, and when you do, the sunlight will be so blinding and beautiful. Remember to bask in it, not to worry about the emptiness you may feel when it goes down again. Sometimes there isn’t enough time between the sun coming up and the sun setting. I know it’s cheesy, but humor me: If there are any constants in this world, they are that the sun always rises and that winter eventually ends.
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