We Don't Come With Labels
It was Mental Awareness Week last month, and I said nothing. I’ll write about body image issues, refugees, political opinions, love, kids, books… almost anything. But I can barely talk about the one thing that has dominated my life and shaped my identity more than anything else.
Since I was 20, I’ve been on and off depression medications, in an out of psychiatrist offices, in and out of a hospital treatment center… all while pretending to be perky, fun, pretty, and easy-going. These are pictures of me when I was depressed. 6 months after the first one, I tried to take my own life. 6 days after the second one, I had to be sedated on a sidewalk in the middle of downtown Boston.
I don’t talk about it because I don’t want to be handled with kid gloves. I don’t want people to treat me differently. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. But the discussion after the recent celebrity suicides makes me want to speak up.
I see a lot of posts about suicide prevention, to call this number, to check on our friends. All very well-intentioned and better than nothing, but they don’t get at the root of the problem. People with depression don’t come with labels. We don’t walk around with a sign around our neck saying “Depressed. Please be nice.” We don’t all cry in the corner. Depression manifests itself very differently in different people. It is easy to say we should have compassion for people with depression. But, in reality, we get written off as bad friends, flaky co-workers, and selfish partners.
In some ways, I get it. I don’t have many friends left who I met in my early twenties. I was a nightmare to be around. There are only so many times you can try to count on someone who cannot be counted on. There are only so many times you can try to help someone so self-absorbed because they are drowning in imagined but real pain. As my depression became more manageable in my later twenties, I made friends who are still around. But do you see what message this sends? I am only worthy of friendship when I’m not depressed. I am too much to handle when I am.
I have been in that place when the pain is literally too much to bear. When you’ve pushed everyone away so you have no one to call. When you are convinced your loved ones and the world would be a better place without you. At that moment, you don’t want to pick up the phone and call a hotline. You want someone you love to pick you up, scoop you into their arms, and say, “I’ll take care of you.” And then to actually take care of you.
And when no one does, when no one can, the only option you can see is to leave. To finally end the pain.
I’ve learned to manage my depression these days. I’ve learned I need stability, security, meds, routine, and at least some solitude each day. I live a quiet life. I don’t drink, I eat healthily, and I can’t handle large group parties and tons of coffee dates. But every few weeks, I feel the dumbbell come back and start to press down on my heart, and no amount of gratitude meditations or downward dogs can get me out of the fetal position. So when I don’t respond to a text, when I don’t RSVP for the class coffee morning, sometimes I just can’t. I can’t because the dumbbell is still there and I don’t know when it will be lifted off again. But it will be lifted off at some point. That I now know. And that hope is enough to keep on waiting, going, and living.
We don’t come with labels. But if we did, maybe they should read, “Please be nice to me. Please be nice to everyone. You don’t know why someone is the way they are, so maybe take a deep breath before you start to judge. The world is harsh sometimes. Some people feel it more harshly than others. I am complicated. But as much as I have great capacity for pain and darkness, I have infinite capacity for love and compassion. So please stop judging me. Stop judging anyone ever again. Please, please, please just be nice. To Everyone. Seriously. Thanks.” But that would be too long. So, instead, I will smile and wave politely, hoping to find the eye of one person who sees me and accepts me.