Mental Health

"You don't look depressed" | A Summertime Confession

depression.jpg

I wasn’t sure if she meant it as a challenge, insisting I prove to her that I was indeed suffering mentally.

Or maybe a compliment, to cheer me up that at least I didn’t LOOK as awful as I felt.

With her pronouncement I shrunk further into my isolation.

It hadn’t been difficult to tell her a couple weeks earlier that I was having a hellish summer and that my mental state was fragile, taxed, teetering. I’ve been fairly open about my mental health struggles after the suicide of my mother and have spent a great deal of time trying to #smashthestigma. She too had confided in me that she suffered from Postpartum Depression after the birth of her first child. So we had that in common.

What HAD been difficult was to invite her over, to allow myself to be vulnerable, to admit out loud that I wasn’t sure I could handle being alone with my children for one more day. That not only was depression something I had experienced in the past, but something that was currently creeping in, growing bigger and harder to manage.

I suppose when she arrived, this new friend of mine thought she would find me lying in bed, dishes piled high - the very picture of Depression. That must be where her comment came from: She didn’t see the outward signals of what we’ve all been told this looks like.

Here’s what I know about me: I know that I carry a significant genetic load for this particular illness. I know I experienced trauma as a child, teenager and young adult - and that those events influenced my brain development. I also know that in order to survive - I learned how to keep going.

How to go to school and make straight A’s when your parents were up all night screaming and throwing things. How to be choir president and Key Club VP and volunteer math tutor even though your mother had kicked you out and called you a bitch. I knew how to ace tests after news of another suicide attempt, another hospitalization, another stint in jail. When things felt like they were falling apart, I learned how to keep it all together.

I learned to overachieve in the face of dysfunction. To be obsessed with order to curb the chaos.

I learned to disconnect from the fear and sadness and anger that had no where to be expressed.

I learned to seek praise where I could get it - and to continually perform to reassure myself that I was worth something.

Until I just couldn’t anymore.

This is the tricky truth about people like me: the highly functioning depressed person. Because it is so terrifying to feel negative emotions, we push ourselves harder and harder to perform. Instead of noticing when this illness is flaring up and giving myself rest, asking for resources or help, I react instinctively to push harder, do more - prove to myself that I won’t end up like my mother. Prove to others that I’m worthy of love.

You see where this is going, right? Exhaustion. Depletion. Crisis.

But right up to that moment, it looks like a woman who has it all together. A successful business owner, dedicated volunteer, involved mother.

The photo above was taken in July - on my way to book club. Looking good, but feeling dead inside. I can write about it now because I’ve slowly climbed back out of that hole. With help from my husband, with a slow down in my schedule, with increased medication, with rest.

I’m trying to unlearn all those lessons that helped me survive my childhood but are no longer serving me.

Learning to listen to my inner voice - to what I need and even what I want.

Learning to respect my limits - not berate myself for having them.

Learning to give myself love, mercy, grace.

It’s HARD work to undo years of conditioning. It’s hard to sit with grief, with anger, with fear and to hear them out. It’s actually very hard to be kind to myself. But with practice these are skills I am developing. I hope that you are too.

Whatever you are facing, I wish you compassion and peace and courage. You deserve it, and so do I.

-Whitney

P.S. If you or someone you know is struggling to get through the day, please reach out to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Your life matters, and you are never alone.

P.P.S. Check out the work of my incredible friend, Mariangela. Faces of Fortitude is a beautiful photography project dedicated to creating a safe space to discuss mental illness, resilience, and to honor life and loss.