Sunday, April 8, 2018

Depression is a Legitimate and Serious Illness

I'm not airing her dirty laundry; she already wrote about all of this in great detail, twenty years ago now.

This is one of my earliest memories. Not because it was such a big deal, but because it wasn't. And yet, it was so unusual: My mother was smoking a cigarette on the living room couch in our apartment. She wasn't a smoker anymore; she'd quit before I was born. So I'd never seen her smoking. 

But there she was, smoking a cigarette; her bare feet in the caramel-colored shag carpet, staring off into space, aimlessly tapping ashes into an ashtray. 

I remember the ashtray, in particular, because it was so distinctly 70's. Big and tacky orange ceramic, hexagonal in shape, it carried the heft and foreboding of a jilted lover's improvised murder weapon. Like you could easily see a Joan Crawford-type in a silk bathrobe chucking this thing against a wall in a fit of rage, just narrowly missing someone's head. 

I didn't know it then, because she was stoic and tried to hide it, but my mom was very sick. Like can't eat, can't sleep, can't work, can't get out bed, can't think, can't function sick. 

She wasn't “in a bad mood.” My mother was clinically depressed. 

She had good reason to be--which is itself a ridiculous thing to say, because of course no one needs a "reason" to be depressed, just like no one needs a "reason" to get the flu. But just like with the flu, things can happen that reduce or increase your vulnerability to illness, and my mom had been overexposed to those things.

Orphaned at 11, living in a rough South Bronx neighborhood and then in foster care in the suburbs, abandoned by her biological relatives, existing in perpetual fight-or-flight mode, putting herself through medical school, marrying and having a child. She was 35 and could finally exhale; but when she did, she blew out a puff of cigarette smoke and darkness rushed in to fill the void. Her trauma, her bereavement, her PTSD, her anxiety--it was finally safe for her to feel and experience these things.

And she did. She was a psychiatrist. She knew what this was.

I was in preschool then, and until ninth grade, my mom continued to struggle with her mental health. She emerged from that episode of acute depression very suddenly one morning nine months later. But she was still anxious and traumatized, and it wasn't until she began taking Prozac in 1991 that she really started to get relief from her symptoms.

She kept going to therapy, of course. But just like someone who is immunocompromised in some way, people prone to mental illnesses like clinical depression just need treatment. I've struggled with depression and anxiety on and off for as long as I can remember; a lot of it is hereditary. And fortunately mine is under good control right now. 

But it's important to talk about depression so that people understand what it is, and, more pointedly, what it isn’t.

Depression is not a bad mood, or something you can snap out of. It's not an attitude you can adjust, any more than you can adjust your way out of cancer. It makes you physically sick, unable to sleep or sleep too much; unable to eat, or eat too much. You don't want to leave your house, you don't want to see or talk to anyone, you don't want to do anything, nothing makes you happy, you can't derive pleasure from anything. And when you're in it, you feel like it will never, EVER end.

I’ve seen my mother and many friends experience this illness. I’ve had mild episodes of it myself. The good news is that for most people, most of the time, depression does end, or is at least episodic. The problem is, it doesn't end as easily or as quickly if we don't acknowledge that it's real in the first place. 

It's way past time to fix that.


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