Before you read this post, please know that I am talking very directly about the issues of depression, PTSD, the destruction of the World Trade Center, and suicide. If you are not prepared to deal with these topics for any reason, please do not read further.
I wrote this post in one straight shot. Even at that, it took me three hours to write. I didn’t know if it would be published or if it will remain only for me, but I needed to write it in either case. Ultimately I decided I must publish my story.
Even in today’s world, more open and forgiving of mental illness, there is a lot of stigma, and a very great deal of misunderstanding. There is a lot of information available but not everyone who needs this information even knows that they need it.
I created this blog, A Sunny Focus, because I really, truly believe that no matter what our starting point is, we can learn (or re-learn) to be happy. I still do.
I never intended to say that a person can go from the throes of major depressive order to being a chirpy little bluebird of happiness by viewing videos of vacation spots, reading inspiring and motivating sayings, or forcing a silver lining out of monsoon clouds. If you have been trying to help a clinically depressed person by sending them a brightly colored, illustrated quote about happiness being good for their health, I applaud your desire to help and I beg you: STOP.
They already know happiness is good for their health. They are not choosing depression. They are not choosing to be anxious. PTSD isn’t something people invented to exaggerate their reaction to life events. These people are not weak, or lazy, or making excuses. They are ill.
Let me tell you a story. As I write this story, I am putting my one-time thoughts about depression in bold letters. Understand, these are the actual thoughts that I, a mentally ill person, had about my own mental illness.
The year was 2002. I had two children (aged 5 and 3) who, unbeknownst to me, had ADHD. I also, unbeknownst to me, had ADHD. We were military dependents living overseas. My husband and I had moved nine times in fewer than ten years.
The attack on the twin towers the previous autumn had ended many lives. It had also destroyed many others, in addition to destroying the illusion most Americans had that we were somehow immune to foreign acts of terror. When I went to bed every night, I was afraid. I was afraid I wouldn’t sleep because my sleep had been shattered for so long, but I was also afraid I would sleep — because sleep brought vivid nightmares of watching helplessly as people were killed by airplanes, or in building collapse, or both. In my sleep, these were people I knew and loved, as well as people I didn’t know, but felt responsible to save nonetheless.
My days were spent mostly in bed, and almost always crying. My little children were spending their out of school time being babysat by the TV and eating granola bars and dry cereal they could get out of the pantry themselves.
I had lived my life as an optimist, and was raised by strong people who had made their way through difficult times through sheer force of will. I knew I could get through this. I was determined to choose happiness, my friends. Not only was it good for my health, it was good for my children’s health and if you think for one moment I didn’t care about my children because of the way they went through their afternoons, you are critically mistaken. An enormous part of my crying was over my inability to be a good mom.
Not to worry, though. I had a plan. Exercise is good for depression! I walked every day. I even had walking buddies and a great track around which we would walk, keeping track of our distance. I had fresh air, accountability, people who liked me. And as my depression continued to get worse, I found myself falling behind my friends. I would have to sit laps out. I would slow way down and try to speed up again when they caught up from behind me. I felt weak. I thought I was failure. I didn’t know that depression saps your energy.
I made a new plan. Laughing is good for depression! I checked out countless books written by comedians and comedic authors: Couplehood by Paul Reiser. Almost everything by Dave Barry. Anguished English by Richard Lederer. I read so very many extremely funny books, but despite being a voracious reader since I had learned how to string letters together, I found reading to be difficult. I thought I was lazy. I thought I was a failure. I didn’t know that depression made concentrating difficult.
I made a new plan. I turned to funny movies. Watching is a more passive activity than reading. Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, directed by Mel Brooks, are the two I specifically remember because they are movies that had served me well for years (and still do), but there were many others I don’t remember any more.
Through the books and the movies, I laughed. When I closed the book or reached the end of the movie, the tears came back. I was still depressed. I thought I was a failure. I didn’t know that depression sucks the joy out of life.
You might be wondering where my husband was throughout this process. Remember my husband? My partner in life? We met in high school and are into our 28th year of marriage, and still in love. Where was he?
He was serving in the Air Force. He was grounded in the United States when the towers came down. During those first days following the attack, the days when the airfield behind our apartment was eerily silent, when the television and internet was non-stop coverage, I was the voice of calm for my children while chaos and panic raged in my own mind. I don’t know how good a job I did buffering my children, but mine was the only game in town, so to speak. In the months following, just as in the months preceding this horrendous event, his job was such that he was out of the country as often as he was in the country.
When he was home, he was doing everything. He did laundry, he did the grocery shopping, he did the cooking and the dishes. He took care of the children when they needed attention, or help with homework, or when they woke in the night.
He took care of me. He woke up with me when I sat up bolt upright from nightmares. He dried my tears. He held me so tight I felt like maybe the pieces of me might actually stick together. I didn’t deserve him, I told myself and him. He deserved better than me, I told myself and him. I felt like a failure. I didn’t know depression walked hand in hand with guilt and worthlessness.
I can’t tell you how many times, how gently, how seriously, how desperately he encouraged me to get help. I would not. I didn’t need help. I wasn’t weak. I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t lazy. I would snap out of it. Give me time, I asked him. I was determined to fix it.
I put every bit of myself that could function into fixing it, but I could not fix it. I was a failure. My husband deserved better. My children deserved better. I was a waste of space, and a waste of air. I was a burden. And I was in the way. My husband would never leave me. I could never leave him. How, then, could he get the wife he deserved? How could my children get a mother they deserved?
I made a new plan.
I would no longer stand in the way of my husband and my children having a GOOD person in their lives. I got online and did what I do so well. I started researching. I didn’t want any messy accidents, and this time I was not going to be a failure. I didn’t want my babies or my beloved to be the ones to find me. I looked until I found what I wanted.
My friends, I had what I thought would be my final plan. Be assured, it would have worked. I wasn’t afraid. I was calm. And then, a thought came into my head that ruined my calm.
This would kill my mother.
And then another thought. This would not bring peace to my husband.
And another: even though they were young, this would permanently damage my children.
[It is important to me to emphasize that not everyone is able to see the truth in the words that leaving this world is not going to make life better for their loved ones. That doesn’t mean they are bad people! Do not make my story a reason to condemn those who have suicided, or attempted suicide. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have survived depression. It warps your view of reality. Depression can, and does, kill.]
Did I get help? Yes, I did; but it wasn’t then. I wasn’t weak. I didn’t know how but I would find a way to stop wallowing in my misery. I carried on with life, either filled with tormented sadness and wretched guilt, or empty of anything at all. Not much changed. I was still crying when I wasn’t totally numb, and my kids were still raising themselves whenever my husband couldn’t be there. The reason I got help and the journey toward recovery and my resistance to medication — all that is a story for another day.
Today’s story is all to tell you this. People do not choose depression. I cannot emphasize this enough. People do not choose depression. In the same way sadness is not the same as depression, people choosing to dwell on the coffee that spilled in the first half hour of their day is not the same as people who can’t break free from the loop of pain/self-blame/guilt/begin again. The first is a penchant toward negativity, and the second is mental illness.
I fought against depression tooth and nail. I resisted getting help because I didn’t understand depression. I strongly believe that most people don’t.
I believe in my work. I believe in my cause. I believe there are things you can do in life to decrease needless stress, to notice the joy that is all around us, to increase the quality of our lives and enjoy them while we have them. As I wrote on my About page:
My mission in life is now, and has been as far back as I remember, to help people be happy in their life. My own life’s journey so far has taught me that while it’s not possible to live in a state of euphoria, happiness is never gone forever. It’s out there waiting for us to discover it again.
Joy is always out there. It is waiting for anyone and everyone to discover it. If I can help with that, I want to help. That’s why I write. I don’t write to teach people how to “positive think” their way out of mental illness.
There are stories of people who have had success overcoming depression without medical intervention. I believe these people are in the minority. If you are or know someone who did this, I really am happy for you. I am not one of those people. And that does not make me a failure.
It never did.
If you you recognized yourself in this post, you are not a failure. Please get help. See the links after my signature.
Brightest blessing to you; to those who suffer depression; to those who love someone who suffers depresssion; to those who have lost the battle with depression; and to those who have had to try to pick up the pieces left behind.
For more information on the description and symptoms of depression, see this page on MayoClinic.org.
If you are suicidal and need immediate help, go to: suicidepreventionlifeline.org
or call them at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the crisistextline.org