I was with a friend and we were talking about a young woman who was hospitalized for depression. When he found out about her, his response was, “But…she seems so together, so with it.”
My first thought was, “Do you know how much courage, strength and energy it takes to ‘seem with it?’”
The stigmas are real in regards to mental illness and they are extremely harmful to those that are struggling. Some of the strongest people I know have depression and anxiety. They have to be strong in order to keep going. My therapist recently gave me this analogy and it made perfect sense:
There are two people running the same marathon at the same pace. One has his normal running clothes on: shoes, shorts, shirt, and bib number. The other has those same items but is also carrying a large backpack full of rocks. Who is the strongest?
The person with depression and anxiety is obviously the runner with the backpack full of rocks, running the same race, and carries that burden with them step after step. In a real scenario, this person with depression and anxiety would also be smiling. Why? Because he would be worried about showing how he truly feels, the struggles, or sharing what is actually going on with him because of the fear of stigmas and mental illness. This is especially true with men.
a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person
a mark of shame or discredit
a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something
The definition alone makes me cringe because I know so many adults and young people that encounter stigmas daily as they try to navigate their mental health. It’s exhausting! The stigmas could be as easy as a teacher talking about a student that falls asleep in class or is late. “She is just lazy,” or “She is being irresponsible.” The fact is, she may be riding on the wings of a third day of insomnia and has gotten about three hours of sleep each night. She is exhausted but shows up at school because she actually cares. Most likely, she wants you to reach out to her and simply ask how she is doing or if you can help. This simple conversation may give her hope or even save her life.
Stigmas can also show up among friends and coworkers. When someone is depressed they often withdraw from everyone. It’s just too difficult to be around people, and a person with depression and/or anxiety often does not feel worthy of anyone’s company. The stigma may sound like this, “He sure did turn into a jerk,” or “Why does he seem so sad all the time? Can’t he just be happy?” Another harmful stigma is, “He just wants attention.” Instead, how about gently reaching out to that friend and coworker and simply ask, “Are you okay? If you need me, I am here for you when you are ready.” The gesture can mean enough to allow that person to work through their darkness, knowing that you have not given up on him, and will be there when he comes out of it.
Stigmas from society are difficult enough, but people with depression and anxiety often create their own internal dialogue that causes their stigmas and judgement to cope with, and those intrusive thoughts can be torture.
A conversation between the depressive and her depression may go something like this:
Depression: “You are smiling. I’m not sure why. You are worthless and most people hate you.”
Depressive: “I have to smile because that’s what people are used to seeing me do. I need to fake it. I’m exhausted and feel like giving up.”
Depression: “You should give up. You are a burden to everyone that you come into contact with.”
Depressive: “I can’t give up. I have to force myself to keep going because too many people care about me. Still, I’m exhausted!”
Depression: “You will never reach your full potential. You are just not good enough.”
Depressive: “You’re right, my life is falling apart. I’m trying”
Depression: “Don’t think for a moment that your successes mean anything. Who cares how many people say they care about you? Who cares about your awards and accolades? It means nothing. You are still worthless.”
Depressive: “You’re right, but someday I will prove my worth.”
Depression: “Just stay in bed and call into work. Everyone hates you anyway.”
Depressive: “This feeling is unbearable, but I have to get up. I need to force myself to shower and walk out the door. I can’t lose my job.”
Depression: “You’re fake. How you act on the outside is not who you are. Quit trying to look so calm and happy, like you have it all figured out. You have nothing figured out.”
Depressive: “It’s just easier to hide my depression, but I’m exhausted.”
Depression: “I’m going to take you on a ride. You ready?”
Depressive: “I’m used to the ride. What else can you throw at me?”
Depression: “Well, this time I’m bringing it all at once. Here comes: physical pain, numbness to the world, shame, no appetite, inability to get pleasure from anything, lack of focus, fatigue, insomnia, judging your own emotions, flashbacks from past trauma, guilt, fear, indecision, telling yourself you are a burden, overthinking, and isolating yourself. How do you like me now?”
Depressive: “That seems like a lot.”
Depression: “Quit whining!”
Depressive: “Okay, bring it mother fucker. I can take it! I can take anything you throw at me because you have made me strong. You have made me resilient. Stronger than you could possibly have ever imagined and I will survive. In fact, I will thrive and live a life that is meaningful because I know what it’s like to face the darkness, so on the good days I will make the most of them. I will live a life of compassion and empathy, and do amazing things because I know deep down I am worthy. I accept that you will try to get in my head and ruin me. By accepting it, I control it. I will walk through the darkness and become a warrior. You cannot kill me. I’m too strong from the battle scars that you have already given me.”
Depression: “Good luck! I’ll take you up on that challenge.”
Depressive: “And so you will. I know you will force me to bring every weapon out of my arsenal to fight you, but you will lose because this is my journey.”
Your dialogue with depression and anxiety may be different. However, you will have an unhealthy dialogue either way because after all, it’s your mind that you are battling.
The dialogue around anxiety may be this:
Anxiety: “You can’t breath! You are dying! You are going crazy! I’m going to steal everything from you, and keep the whirlwind in your mind going forever. Fear is your new normal. Get ready asshole. Fuck you!!!!”
The Anxious: “You are a bastard and a mindfuck. After I learn to breathe and build up my skills, I will let you come and then let you go because I know you cannot harm me. So go fuck yourself!”
For those of you that still want to throw stones, or throw out stigmas, keep in mind that the previous conversations with depression and anxiety could happen at two in the morning. It could happen while the depressive is simply trying to get out the door to go to work. It might even happen when they are sitting across from the person that they love most in the world because depression and anxiety are ruthless. Also keep in mind that you are not immune to getting depression and/or anxiety. I’ve seen teens develop it and I’ve seen adults develop it later in life. It could result from a life event, stress, or from past traumas that creep up. My point is, don’t be so quick to stigmatize mental illness because you may end up on the receiving end one day, facing your own darkness. If you do, you will have an army of people who battle with you every day. Perhaps by showing compassion and understanding for them now, you will receive it back, and most likely tenfold since most depressives are empaths and truly feel the world.