Let’s Talk About Depression and Mental Illness, Shall We?
This is the kind of thing I’m hesitant to publish for fear that a future dream-job-employer will Google my name, read this, and decide not to hire me. :-) Oh well - I’m getting too old to worry about that, so here goes.
Last week someone I follow on Twitter linked to a blog entry written by Wil Wheaton titled, “depression lies.” He timed the entry to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10, 2012. In it he describes a decades long battle with depression and anxiety, and as I read it I kept thinking that he could have been writing about me.
I have a family history of mental illness. Consequently, I’ve always been on alert for any personal behavior that resembled the symptoms I witnessed in others close to me. The problem was that I was often observing the mania of bipolar disorder. As someone who was always shy and introverted I never experienced those highs, so I just reconciled my dark moods as a personality quirk. Over time people came to see me as cynical, sarcastic, and slightly surly perhaps. “Oh, that’s just Todd.” It wasn’t, really, but despite my best efforts I couldn’t shake the funk.
The most frustrating aspect for me, in retrospect, was that I always blamed my circumstances (job, relationship etc.) for my unhappiness. “If only I change this aspect of my life I will suddenly feel happy.” Right. Now, it wasn’t all doom and gloom (it’s more like a constant low-level gloom, which I’ll explain). However, there were two events that started to make me think there was something going on that perhaps I couldn’t control.
I distinctly remember a conversation I had with my wife when she simply asked, “well, are you happy?” My knee-jerk reaction was to say yes, of course; I have a wonderful family, a job I love, I’m healthy… I kept thinking about it and realized I couldn’t honestly answer yes, but there wasn’t anything external that I could point to as a cause. Where else can you look? Around the same time my dad, sister and nephew came to visit us. We had planned to have our daughter’s baptism and 2nd birthday party on the same day. It was a crazy, stressful weekend and at one point my sister asked if she could help, and feeling overwhelmed I just said, “I’m done. I can’t deal with this.” I was only referring to some logistical aspect of the parties, but she recognized something more. My family went back to Seattle and a few days later I got an (extremely long) email from her that changed my life.
In it she explained how she had struggled with anxiety, but had been taking medication for a long period of time and had successfully controlled the issue. She also said she thought I had a chemical imbalance as well. Boom. In a pattern that has been repeated many times, I was furious about the way in which she bluntly chose to deliver this message, but I couldn’t deny the truth in her words. We traded bitchy emails back and forth for a few days, but at the same time I was calling my doctor to make an appointment to talk about this. That’s a tough phone call.
Dysthymia, sometimes referred to as mild, chronic depression, is less severe than major depression. With dysthymia, the depression symptoms can linger for a long period of time, often two years or longer. Those who suffer from dysthymia can also experience periods of major depression.
That’s what I was diagnosed with about 3 1/2 years ago. I started medication immediately, and while the first prescription didn’t work well, I switched to one that did. I feel extremely lucky that I was able to find something that works for me because I know it’s not that simple for many other people dealing with mental illness. It’s hard to describe the enormous change in my outlook, which has positively impacted every aspect of my life since then. I still have shitty moments and days, but they don’t linger and they don’t rule my life.
I don’t really have a problem talking to people about this if the subject comes up, but it’s not a discussion I initiate. I thought it might be helpful, slightly liberating, and insightful for some old friends who haven’t seen me in a while. ;) Reading someone else’s blog entry finally prompted me to write it all down. Ask me today if I’m happy and I can truthfully respond, “abso-frickin-lutely.”
One clarification I wanted to make was that I still take medication daily, and based on conversations I’ve had with my doctor, I anticipate I will be indefinitely. I’m OK with that.
Also, my decision to seek help coincides almost perfectly with my realization that I actually liked living in Champaign-Urbana. I have a theory that I could have been living in [insert name of awful town here] and I would have started loving it there too. ;) If I had continued on the path I was on I suspect my wife and I would have moved back to Seattle, which was kind of our loose plan when we moved here. I could have blamed my discontent on an ill-conceived move to Central IL, then wondered why the change in locale didn’t magically change things?
Finally, I wrote this mostly for myself, but it has sparked a few interesting conversations and I’d be more than happy to chat with anyone about the issue (tmsweet at gmail dot com).