Question of the day: overcoming depression
You often speak and write about your history of depression. What made you decide to go public, when so many people are ashamed to admit that mental illness has touched their lives?
I remember the precise moment when I broke my silence, one December day in 1996. We were closing the March issue of Chatelaine, with its bumper crop of spring clothes and makeup colours. The cover promised "Spring's 56 brightest ideas." But I was thinking of the readers for whom spring would be tainted by depression?their own or a loved one's. For them we'd prepared a straight-talking article on depression--the most powerful I'd seen in 20 years of magazine journalism.
Our key character was a young mother who had seemed the picture of health until she jumped in front of an oncoming subway train. She lost an arm and a leg. Identified only as "Marianne K.," she was then volunteering for a psychiatric self-help group. We needed a face for our story. I still needed to write my March editorial. So I sat down at the computer and wrote, "I too have kept the secret of depression...."
People told me I was brave, perhaps even foolhardy. Would my employers trust me to run Chatelaine, their biggest money-maker, if they knew I had suffered from?gasp?a mental illness?
I didn't feel particularly brave. After all, II'd been well for 10 years, thanks to a course of psychotherapy. But I vividly remembered the impenetrable gloom of depression, when it seemed that a heavy metal lid had been lowered on my world, blocking out every glimmer of light. I remembered my certainty that no one else knew this feeling, when in fact 10 percent of us will suffer from depression at some point in our lives.
If you break your leg, you'll get it set. If you have a lump that doesn't go away, you'll call the doctor. But if you can't remember your last good day, if you sleep all the time or hardly at all, if you can't concentrate and wonder why you bother to stay alive, the odds are you'll try to tough it out. More than half of people suffering from depression do not seek help. And the number one reason is shame.
I've been there. I grew up in the U.S. and 1972 should have been my first year to vote. Richard Nixon was running against George McGovern, and I wanted to do my part to boot Tricky Dick from the White House. At the time, I was just climbing out of the emotional abyss I'd fallen into when my son was born. Tears, rage, guilt...it had been a classic case of postpartum depression, not that I knew that term or had shared my anguish with anyone.
During the election campaign, I got a strong signal that I'd been smart to keep quiet. McGovern's running mate was Senator Thomas Eagleton (at left in this photo). He had the right stuff, so it seemed. Then news broke that Eagleton had suffered from depression, and the media cast him as a wimp. His health history became a character issue. When Eagleton was dumped from the ticket, I felt personally betrayed. A good man had been publicly humiliated for admitting to a problem I had, even though he'd overcome it. I never did cast a ballot in 1972. And Americans elected the man responsible for Watergate. Talk about a character issue!
On the face of things, these are more enlightened times. Leonard Cohen, Sheryl Crow, Dorothy Hamill, Sarah Silverman...they've all owned up to struggling with depression. Blake Edwards, the comic brain behind The Pink Panther, has admitted to being down so low, he was about to cut his wrists (his dog interrupted the deed). But for ordinary people, it's still not okay to talk about depression. I've heard from quite a few of these people. They're afraid that if they tell the truth, they'll miss out on a promotion or lose their job. They're dogged by a sense of unworthiness and failure. One woman has spent time in a psychiatric ward where no one came to visit. A friend later told her, "Everyone has troubles. You just caved in."
It's all so needless, the shame and self-loathing. Depression is a treatable illness. There are many routes to health, and what worked for me might not work for you or your best friend. But no matter what kind of therapist you see, and whether you take medication, getting well is not just about the tools a professional gives you, any more than training for a triathlon is about the coach and the gear. You're the one who has to get hold of those tools and make a life worth living. The only way to do this is to live your life as it matters.
Comparing my life now to the dark old days, I can sum up the difference in a single word: commitment. Depression, in my experience, was an uncommitted state. I expected bad things to happen, so I didn't invest much energy in my own happiness. Why risk disappointment? Why care about pleasures that might be wrenched away?
I committed to a fitness plan, for fun as well as for the surging endorphins. I commited to living with people. On a folding chair in a 12-step group, I broke the isolation of depression. I watched all kinds of people help each other with everyday challenges: a boss from hell, a mouthy teenage daughter, a mouthy older brother who insisted on the last word. I saw people join that group so distressed that they couldn't look you in the eye. Within months, those people were encouraging the newest arrival. They gave me hope.
I committed to the ordinary pleasures of my life. At the end of every day, I would give thanks to whatever gods there be for something, anything that had delighted me?a deliciously nutty joke, a sandals-and-capri-pants day in late October.
Gradually it struck me that I wasn't my familiar doleful self. But if I didn't talk about the former me, the uncommitted years would all have been for nothing. In a corner of my mind, it would still be 1972 and I would be ashamed of the truth. That's why I speak and write about depression.
Recommended resources on depression:
Could you have it? Test yourself online at Check Up from the Neck Up, produced by the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario.
The definitive book on depression is Andrew Solomon's magnificent The Noonday Demon, in which the author recounts his own harrowing survival story while surveying the history and treatment of the illness. For a more literary approach, try Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression. Editor Nell Casey has gathered a provocative collection of essays by Russell Banks, Rose Styron, Anne Beattie and others.
In Moods Magazine, a Canadian quarterly that covers the gamut of mood disorders, you'll find authoritative advice and inspirational stories, including my own. Founder Rebecca DiFilippo has herself overcome depression.