We Need to Talk About Mental Illness

Depressed woman in front of a benchLet me tell you a story.

I wasn’t a happy child. I was awkward and overweight, and was teased mercilessly all through elementary and middle school. I had trouble making friends and had very few, all the way through high school. As a teen, I engaged in self-destructive behaviors like extreme dieting and drinking and smoking. The crowd I was drawn to was anti-social and dark. While they tolerated my presence, they didn’t treat me with respect or as a friend, in fact they were quite mean, and made jokes at my expense. I thought I deserved it. My old journals are filled with self-flagellation, loneliness and morbid thoughts.

I think these things were chalked up to ‘normal’ teen angst. At church, I was told to pray harder, because Jesus was the Way and the Truth and the Light, and he would fill the emptiness I felt, which was clearly the absence of God. So I did pray harder, and wondered what was wrong with me when God didn’t answer and make me feel better, as the youth leaders told me He would.

As a young adult I began having vague physical symptoms like fatigue, various gastrointestinal issues, frequent headaches, and insomnia. My mom gave me a book of natural health and alternative medicine, it was quite large and covered a multitude of ailments, giving creative and often very expensive treatment recommendations. I self-diagnosed myself with systemic candida and began treating myself with all sorts of interesting folk remedies.

Because putting a clove of raw garlic in your vagina will totally cure your headaches. The book made it seem very rational and reasonable. To my muddled thinking, at least.

A lot of my meager wages went to natural cures, supplements, and exotic foods that supposedly had curative powers.

Somehow, my ‘systemic candida’ didn’t go away, and my symptoms persisted.

I resisted going to the doctor though, because the book (this was before the internet, so I got my information primarily from the book) made it clear that doctors would treat my symptoms by forcing pills on me and dismissing my concerns, not caring to look for the underlying cause. Which of course I had determined, through my ‘research’, to be systemic candida. It was no accident that the book had a supplement catalog at the end and a telephone number through which I could order the author’s own brand of supplements.

Sometime in my 26th or 27th year, I did go to the doctor. I explained my symptoms. My doctor suggested I may have depression and referred me to a psychiatrist for an evaluation.

Depression? No way, I thought. No way, said the church. No way, said friends and family members, who cautioned that a psychiatrist would just ‘throw pills at me’, that “Psychiatrists say EVERYONE is depressed and needs to be medicated, but the medications are horrible things that will just make you a zombie”, they said. “Pills are the coward’s way out. Pills are for the weak.”

In what was probably the bravest decision I’d made in my young life, I decided to go against the Church and my friends and family, and follow my doctor’s advice, and go to the Psychiatrist and be evaluated.

And, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder.

“SEE?” said everyone. “Now they’ll just want to put you on medication. Don’t listen! Meds mean giving up! Meds mean you are weak! Don’t listen to the doctors!”

But, I took the pills anyway.

And I slowly started to feel better. Less hopeless. Less empty. Less lonely.

And the symptoms I’d self-diagnosed as systemic candida? Those started to go away too. I slept better. I had fewer headaches. The rumblings and pain in my belly receded.

And the pills? Were EXPONENTIALLY less expensive than all the natural ‘cures’ I’d been treating myself with. The dozens of supplement pills I’d been taking daily made way for one medicine pill a day. Who is the pill pusher, again?

But I certainly wasn’t about to go around TELLING people about this. Because I’d internalized the message that taking pills (medicine pills at least, apparently supplement pills are ok) was weak. I was ashamed. I’ve given up, sold out, taken the easy path. I kept the fact that I was taking anti-depressants a secret lest I hear from my friends and family how weak medicine is, and how fake depression is, and how shameful mental illness is.

Family and church members who would have leapt to get me medicine for physical illness had made it clear that taking medicine for mental illness is something to be ashamed of. And as a result, I had suffered for YEARS. How different might my life have been if I’d been diagnosed and treated when I first started showing symptoms (late childhood, I believe)? My symptoms were significant, and destructive. And they were not my own fault.

I’ve talked about my struggles with anxiety and depression frequently here on my blog, because I know that talking about it is the only way to remove the stigma. Over the years, my depression has taken different forms – PPD after my babies were born, panic attacks at some points, physical pain at others. Sometimes it is manageable with exercise, other times it isn’t, and I need meds.I haven’t always recognized it until it reached crisis point (because it has rarely manifested as ‘feeling sad’), but I’ve gotten better at it. I’ve gotten good with it. I’m not ashamed any more. I’m angry that people who claimed to love me would let me suffer so profoundly, for so long, and would still, to this day, shame me for being weak and taking meds.

And I’m angry that it is happening to people all around me.

My story isn’t unique. I hear it from other people every day. Every day.

You know it’s true, and you know it’s common. You may even have said and thought some of the things that were said to me. You may have said them to yourself. You may have said them to others. You may not have said them or thought them, but you know you’ve heard them.

Because these attitudes pervade our society. Depression and other mental illnesses are whispered about, and joked about, and spoken of in shameful terms. When diet gurus say that mental illness can be treated by the ‘right’ diet, they are doing exactly what the church did to me – victim blaming. The church told me I was unhappy because I wasn’t praying hard enough. Diet gurus tell you you’re unhappy, or experiencing vague physical symptoms, because you’re not eating clean enough or paleoing hard enough or eating too much sugar. You weakling! It’s all your own fault!

People self-diagnose themselves with thyroid disorder, or adrenal fatigue, or leaky gut, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or GMO allergies, or (like me) systemic candida (all conditions, most of which don’t actually exist, that have the same symptoms as depression), or any number of other conditions to avoid having to confront the possibility that there might be something wrong with their head. ANYTHING is preferable to mental illness, right? Even a fake disease made up by scam artists to sell you magical supplements and diets.

Any illness, real or fake, is on the table, except mental illness. I can understand. I had it done to me for a long time, and I did it to myself for a long time after that. My early conditioning primed me to accept magical thinking and distrust science and doctors. It took me a long time to break free, and I had to make the same mistakes over and over before I really learned. But if and when I see signs of depression in my daughters (because depression has a large genetic component) I won’t hesitate to get them the treatment that their doctors recommend, though I don’t doubt I will hear echoes of that shame in my head if that treatment involves medication. I will not let my daughters hear it, though.

Roughly 7% of US adults will experience one or more episodes of depression this year. That is millions and millions of people. More women than men are affected. Symptoms can be vague and diverse, and frequently mistaken for other conditions. The danger in self-diagnosing with something you’ve read about on the internet is that you may have a very serious illness that will go unrecognized and untreated. Getting professional diagnosis and proper treatment is so important.

And TALKING about it is important. There are SO many of us dealing with depression and other mental illnesses. Most of us struggle in silence, because of shame. The way to change that is to talk about it. The more of us who talk about it, the more people will get the help they need. And the less shame there will be.

Talking about it in the fitness industry is especially important, because a lot of people fall into the trap of believing that losing weight will solve their problems. But if the problem is depression, losing weight (or trying to lose weight) won’t help, and could even make it worse.

If you’re experiencing the symptoms below, you may have depression. You could also have any of several different illnesses and conditions with similar symptoms, so getting evaluated by the proper professional (starting with your medical doctor) is vital.

Symptoms of depression (source: WebMD)

  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Overeating or appetite loss
  • Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts

The first person to talk to is your doctor, the sooner the better. Your doctor will know if and who to refer you to.

You can search for depression resources by city here on medicine.net.

PBS.org also has provided a list of depression resources.

NAMI also has a straight-to-the-point page on how to find help.

If you or someone you know is suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 immediately.

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