Stigma and Living with Depression

Looking back on my life, I consider myself very fortunate. I married an amazing woman; and we have been married 25 years. We have raised two sons of whom we are very proud. I was raised in a loving, supportive home. Both of my parents were active in my childhood. I served honorably as Marine. Work in a job I enjoy and will be able to work the same job in to retirement. Have a nice home in a safe neighborhood. Have lots of friends and many of my family live nearby.

You hear this and may be thinking “What does he have to complain about?” And you may be right. But I also have a dark side that I don’t let many people see. A side I spent my life ignoring and many times waking hoping it doesn’t surface. It’s a side me I spent a lot of time embarrassed by it. That side of me has a name. Depression.

Those who know me usually never know I suffer depression. I have two sides. The outer self. That is the one most people see. Most of the time, I am able to show that I’m content, joyful, and entertaining; but it takes a lot of energy to maintain it.

The other is my inner self. It is stealthy and lurks in the shadows of my mind as an undercurrent that I seldom talked about, rarely show, or can really even explain.

Before I got a proper diagnosis, and really learned about depression, I misunderstood really what it was – and why I fought so hard to deny it. I misunderstood and thought depression meant being sad, mopey, withdrawn, and moody. Of course, I’ve been all of those things at various times, but I didn’t live like that so I can’t be depressed. However, I was completely off course. It is nothing like I thought it was.

Instead, I refused to face, and wouldn’t share the feelings and thoughts with anyone. I feared that no one would understand and would think I was attention seeking—or worse—lying. I felt I was the only one who was like this. That there was something wrong with me. I had no idea what it was, how to combat it, or what to do about it. So I ignored it.

I’ve had mental illness my whole life. There isn’t a time I can remember where it wasn’t present. It sits there like a fog. Sometimes it is merely a mist, tingling my thoughts. Other times it’s a pervasive thick, dark shroud. It’s the times when the thoughts are darkest that are most debilitating. These are the times that scare me.

It is my hope that my story will help others. Before I started writing this, I asked friends to help me on an experiment. I asked: 1) when they first met me, what was their impression; 2) And over time what do they think of me now.

The responses were overwhelming and positive:
“A stand-up gentleman who was true to his word. Enjoys being with people.”
“Resilient and sarcastic.”
“A man of integrity, a loyal friend to many, very thoughtful.”
“Great guy with a super sense of humor.”
“A great friend and excellent teacher.”
“Kind, honest, and considerate.”
“Principled yet funny.”
“Caring and loyal friend.”
“I learn and enjoy seeing the world through your eyes.”

Hearing these wonderful words, while cathartic and moving, only frustrates Depression and stokes the fires of self-doubt. The inner self is always chittering away at me. It wants to be surreptitious. It tells me everyone will see me as I really am: an emotional wreck; a procrastinator; a fraud who has managed to fool everyone.

So, instead I “tough it out” and “put on the brave face.” If I pretend it isn’t there, hopefully no one will notice. However, putting on this public persona is emotionally taxing and draining. Eventually it takes its toll. I progressively become numb; and eventually have to completely withdrawal. I stay in that state until it passes – whether a day, several days or sometimes a week.

Although, sometimes it won’t pass. It’s a feeling as though I can’t recharge my drained mental energy. It’s those times when that inner self takes completely over; and I’m filled with unceasing anxiety and utter despair. All I want to do is sleep or cry or hide. I try to fight the feelings, but I sink into depths where I can’t manage them any longer. They become relentless wave that batters me until I have nothing more to fight against it. A fear that I can never get back to being “normal” again.

Sadly, that has happened a few times, and twice with terrible consequences. Those two times I attempted suicide. Looking back, I can remember those nights vividly, and even remember what dark thoughts I had. That utterly scares me.

Yet, through all of this, a life changing event occurred that forced me to face this inner self. I started going to therapy and finally admitted I needed medical help. I explained to my doctor about my depression and anxiety and was referred to a psychiatrist. It took different medicines and adjustments until the right ones worked. When it did, it was life altering. I could finally see through the fog.

Today, that inner self pushes his way in less and less. I don’t think he’ll ever really go away. But when he does come back, I feel empowered to keep him weak with less influence. The journey has been long. But I remain hopeful and look forward to each day.

No matter the great things and accomplishments we have in life, none of those diminish the depression. It’s a pervasive illness that can strike anyone. Just remember we’re never alone. It’s not a weakness to ask for help. There are many out there who love you.

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