There have been countless articles written about the stigma of mental health problems, about the “veil of shame surrounding mental illness.” I’ve also seen quite a few people on Facebook post variations on this: “Could at least three of my Facebook friends please copy and re-post (not share)? I’m trying to demonstrate that someone is always listening. #SuicideAwareness,” followed by the contact information for the National Suicide Prevention hotline, and also often followed by the hashtag “#someoneislistening” because what anyone needs to realize something is SERIOUS and you REALLY MEAN IT is a hashtag.
If you’re “normal,” aka someone who is blessed with fantastic mental health, you might read those articles and then see those Facebook posts as valiant efforts to combat the aforementioned stigma. You might even feel compelled to copy and re-post (not share) the suicide hotline information yourself as your own personal stance against that stigma. You’ve done something, you think proudly, and go on about your day.
I’m sorry to be such a pessimist, but you haven’t. I don’t intend to throw my mental struggles in your face, I know that these days we’ve all got loads of stuff with which to contend (it’s unclear if we will survive the next four years), but every time I see those Facebook posts, I get a little more furious.
Here’s the thing: reposting contact information for the suicide hotline doesn’t actually DO anything. Claiming that “someone is listening” doesn’t mean that anyone actually is. What does help? Paying attention. Making time. Having compassion.
I’m just now coming out the other end of the hardest six or seven months of my life. I’ve battled depression and anxiety before, but both have always been intermittent, and therefore more manageable. I’ve been able to take Xanax as needed for anxiety — and Lexapro, which I started taking regularly once grad school made the anxiety more frequent, definitely helped lessen the load. The depression, when it hit, would be short-lived — a day or two, maybe — and I could just wait it out.
But then, in September, I unexpectedly lost my beloved dog, Miles. The thing no one warns you about is that, when you lose your emotional support animal, you really need to have a back-up one ready to go, or you are fucked. Miles was supposed to live another six or seven more years, so I didn’t have a back-up plan, at all. One day, he was totally fine. Two days later, he was dead, a victim of an auto-immune disease that flared up out of nowhere.
To say I was depressed is an understatement. To say I had lost the will to live may be a cliche but is also more accurate. The light in my life had gone out. Nothing had purpose. Nothing had joy. There seemed to be no point in moving forward if forward did not include Miles. Making it through each day was a struggle. To say death felt like a tempting alternative is an understatement. Why exist without my beloved Miles? What was the point in anything without my beloved Miles?
The results of the November election only made things worse. I felt as if the nation had taken a giant slap in the face and kick in the gut. What was the point of anything anymore?
During those months, I made frequent use of a crisis hotline. I did not hide my problems from people — partly because what would be the point and partly because I couldn’t even pretend like everything was okay. It was hard enough staying alive. I shared my struggles, and I reached out to people as if they were a lifeline because they, quite literally, were.
To my surprise, people I hadn’t spoken too in ages, or even people whom I had spoken to rarely, were angels. They called me, they messaged me, they made themselves available when I needed them. I would have moments of hysteria when the only thing that got me through was conversation. Talking to someone, one sentence at a time, was the only thing that moved me forward. My usual method, when I started feeling hysterical and/or suicidal, was to take a Xanax and then reach out to someone (either via the crisis line or the phone or social media). I would talk with them for approximately 20-30 minutes, as the Xanax kicked in, leaving me mellow enough that I no longer had the energy or motivation to kill myself. And then I would go about my day, putting one foot in front of the other until bedtime.
However, I was also surprised by how many people did not make themselves available. There were people to whom I reached out (people I actually thought were good friends), people I basically begged to make plans with me, to come see me, to let me come see them, and they glossed right over me and my requests. “I’m busy this week,” they would say, or “I’ll come by next week,” or “Let me call you later” — only they wouldn’t. All I could think was that these were the same people who, after I had killed myself, would say with horror and sadness, if I had only known!
I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that I felt like I was being as clear as I could be. I wasn’t going to say, “I will kill myself if you don’t come over,” but I did emphasize the dark place in which I was trapped, my sadness and despair, my need for every kind of lifeline I could reach. I tried to make my situation clear, as best as I could. Some people picked up on the signals, but an awful lot of people did not.
When I first went on anti-depressants because I literally could not imagine surviving without them, I was cursed with the fact that the first three I tried did not work for me so the months of agonizing frustration dragged on while I cycled on and off different medications, dealing with the side effects of each. During this time period, I had people tell me that everything I was feeling was normal, and that I would be fine. “You don’t really need those drugs,” they would say, “you’re not really depressed.”
I know grief is horrible. I know my situation was not inherently unique. But I do know that many days were a struggle to survive, that putting on my shoes and keeping myself composed in public often felt like heroic tasks, so please do not tell me that I was not really depressed. Once Prozac (antidepressant #4) kicked in, and the clouds started to part, I felt so grateful that I, at least, had had the strength to reach out to my therapist to ask for medical help, that I had not been too proud to admit that I could not survive this on my own.
And this is why I am writing this post. Even though it can feel — especially in places like New York and LA — as though more people are seeing therapists than not, there is still a stigma to admitting “weakness.” Many people told me that I could handle my problems with a steely gaze and a clenched fist (and maybe a marijuana card), but unfortunately, some problems are not so easily solved. Sometimes pharmaceutical intervention can be the difference between life and death, between the abyss of despair and feeling “normal.”
For those of you blessed enough not to know these kinds of struggles, please keep your eyes and ears open for those around you who might be suffering. Copying a Facebook post may feel like a thoughtful gesture, but for those who feel as if they are making their needs clear and are still being ignored, it will feel empty and callous. If someone begs you to make time for them, it is because they need it. Spending an hour with them may accomplish more good than any Facebook post. Do not decide, for yourself, whether or not they are “really” depressed, and please do not judge them if they tell you they are. Just ask what you can do to help.
For those of you struggling to get through your days without a prescription, either because you are too proud or too afraid to admit you might need one, just know that the right medication can change everything, and that while finding the right dosage may take time, it could be worth it in the end.