Reaching the Light

Note from Laura: This post was not written by me. It was written by a very close friend of mine, who is going through a hard time. In the interest of supporting her and supporting lessening the stigma surrounding talking about mental health, I’m sharing it here, with her permission, and actually at her request. She is a fellow writer and understands the power you feel in getting things like this off your chest and out into the world, whether spoken or written or drawn or whatever. I absolutely hate what she’s gone through, but I also completely get it. Depression and anxiety can be debilitating. But you don’t have to go through it alone. My friend’s hope – and mine – in sharing this with you is that if you feel this way, you are not alone. You are not broken. You are not beyond repair. You can come out the other side stronger and you have many who are willing to help you do so, usually many, many more than you know. Here’s my friend’s story.

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There’s a quote that I’ve always gravitated toward, attributed to the ancient philosopher Plato – “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This summer, this quote has been circling around in my head, and I think about it often as I interact with people daily. Because this summer, I have been living this quote.

Three months ago, I experienced a trauma that rocked me to my core and has left me scrambling to pick up the pieces ever since. There were a few minor events in the months leading up to the big one, like small tremors before the big earthquake, that weakened my body’s defenses and made me more susceptible to a chemical depressive episode, and when the big event happened, it was too much for me to handle alone. For the past three months, I have been treated for depression, anxiety, and acute stress as a result of this trauma.

Because of the nature of what happened, I was only able to share what happened with only my immediate family, a few close friends, and my work family. Most people in my daily life had no idea that I was struggling to function at the most basic level. I was fighting a hard battle that they knew nothing about. It’s estimated that one in four Americans will experience some sort of mental illness at some point in their life. Indeed, they fight a hard battle that we often know nothing about.

Depression takes many forms – sometimes contradicting forms – in different people. For me, it slowed my thinking and physical actions, making the most basic chores, like going to the grocery, clearing the dishes, or making a to-do list, overwhelming, frustrating, and exhausting. I lost a lot of weight. Sometimes people – who didn’t know about the battle I was fighting – would comment on my weight loss, making me angry and more frustrated. Although I didn’t really sleep for almost two months, it took everything I had just to get out of bed in the morning. And oftentimes when I did, I would shower and be so overwhelmed that I would just get right back in bed. I would wake up in the middle of the night with this feeling of dread that something horrible was going to happen and be unable to recover from it enough to fall back asleep. The smallest thing during my daily life might trigger a paralyzing flashback.

I found it difficult to be around people who didn’t know what had happened. I think this was because I was worried about seeming distant or quiet around them without them knowing why I was that way. I missed my college roommate’s son’s first birthday party. I didn’t feel up to attending my cousin’s wedding shower. Many times, I had to cancel plans with friends at the last minute because I was having a bad day and couldn’t get off the couch. On my birthday weekend my parents came in town to visit me, but I couldn’t even go to visit with them because I literally couldn’t pull myself off the floor.

I described my depression as feeling like I was in a black hole. It was pitch black, scary, and full of despair. I could see a light far in the distance, but it felt like that light was too far away for me to ever reach. At my absolute lowest, which thankfully only lasted a few days, I felt like I didn’t want to exist anymore. The pain was too great. I went to bed hoping that I wouldn’t wake up. I would never do anything that would put myself in harm’s way, but a part of me hoped that something happened to me that was beyond my control. I had all these people around me to lift me up and support me, but I felt completely alone.

For a long time, I thought that I must have done something to deserve what happened to me. It isn’t that I thought that I was immune to experiencing pain in my life. I volunteer with refugees, and I am reminded often that bad things happen to good people. I spend time with a family from the Congo who spent 20 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania and a Syrian family whose patriarch was blinded in an explosion in Aleppo. I look to these families as inspiration of the resilience of which the human spirit is capable.

I was lucky. I work in healthcare, so I have an above-average understanding of mental health issues. I was able to quickly connect to the resources that I needed to ensure my most speedy recovery. I have an amazing therapist who I see from time to time when I need help effectively dealing with stress in my personal and professional life, and I worked with her and my primary care physician to start an antidepressant that has helped boost my recovery and speed up the process. Weekly, I attend talk therapy sessions, and I always leave them feeling better and more empowered than when I walk in.

I also made sure that the people closest to me knew what I was going through so that they could help me in the ways that I needed, as stubborn and fiercely independent as I am. Relying on others in a time of need is a sign of strength, not weakness. It is easier to withdraw, shut people out, and hide behind depression. It’s easier to try to get better on your own and not be vulnerable. It takes you out of your comfort zone to let people in, to ask for help where you need some. But it speeds up the process tremendously and makes you stronger. I don’t remember a lot from the first month or so. Friends and family would show up with food, giving me one less thing to stress about. Friends were OK with me showing up randomly at their doorsteps crying. They would take me in, give me my favorite snacks, and hold me as I sobbed so hard that I couldn’t speak. My work family helped me lead my meetings and encouraged me to take time off as needed. I owe all of them more than I could ever repay. These few sentences don’t begin to comprehensively list the ways that my loved ones were there for me.

Again, I’m lucky. I knew exactly what I needed to do – and who I needed to turn to – when I needed help. Most people with depression don’t seek help for years, either because of the stigma attached to mental health issues or because of a lack of knowledge about how to get started. That’s why I am sharing my story, to hopefully create purpose for my pain. If someone is struggling with depression, anxiety, or stress, there is no reason to treat it any differently than if it was kidney infection, a broken arm, or diabetes. Mental health is physical health, and it is time we start treating it as such. By not sharing some of my health issues, I only contribute to that stigma.

I wish I could write this solely in the past tense. I wish that I could say that I am past the depression and everything is perfect now. I’m past the worst of it, and things continue to get better. But it’s not a linear process. Which is particularly frustrating to someone as goal-oriented as I am. It’s frustrating to feel like I’ve reached a milestone, only to slip backwards a moment later. Some days I take a step forward. Some days I take two steps back. Still others I leap 10 steps forward. Ultimately, it takes time, diligence, and trust in the process.

I still struggle to trust happiness. I now realize how quickly it can be taken away, without warning. There are moments when I’m unguardedly happy, and then I realize that I’m happy and instinctively pull back, so that I’m never again blindsided when it is taken away. And then I have to force myself to let myself experience the happiness. But I will get there. I am resilient. This battle will be won.

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