My silence only perpetuated the stigma.
In 2001, my life from the outside looked pretty great. I was 21, my marriage seemed happy, my husband was in graduate school, and though money was tight, we had a nice apartment and two healthy kids, a 3-year-old son and baby daughter. But it took everything I had to get out of bed.
I slogged my way through each day. Not that there wasn’t joy, but it was muffled, weighted down. Tasks like laundry or cooking, once inconsequential, had become monumental. I told myself I had nothing to complain about. I went on like that for months, because even though on some level I knew something was wrong, I couldn’t bear the thought of being labeled mentally ill.
I’ve never been comfortable talking about my depression. I’ve largely kept it hidden until recently when a government panel called for depression screenings of mothers. This made me wonder if these screenings could really help moms when mental illness still carries such a profound stigma.
Mental illness in mothers seems to add an extra layer of fear, and is often portrayed in the news in its most extreme form: suicides or murder, tragedies that paint mental illness as a death sentence and foment the fears that keep mothers from getting the help they need. Many of us who struggle with depression have a more non-headline worthy version. This type takes a quieter, more subversive toll on us and our families, often going undiagnosed.
I’ve struggled with depression on and off over the past two decades, but it’s only been in the last few years that I have been able to talk about it more openly. For years, I was afraid to say the words “mental illness.” It’s hard to shake that initial reaction that many of us have to it—wondering if we can trust someone, if something is off in their head. I didn’t want someone to think that about me.
But my silence only perpetuated the stigma.
Back in 2001, I didn’t have a name for the darkness that had settled over me. All I knew of mental illness, aside from my parents’ short stints with anti-depressants during their divorce, were the atrocities on the news and my mother-in-law’s mental illness. My husband’s mother had been hospitalized several times during his childhood. Sometimes she would see Michael Jackson in her living room. Other times she would call us, lost on some country road, frantically screaming for us to come pick her up, but unable to explain where she was.
When the dark clouds of depression enveloped me, I still didn’t understand what it was. I felt as if I couldn’t handle my own life and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just buck up. I feared becoming my mother-in-law. At that point, my trouble was finding the wherewithal to get through the day, but I wondered if, in a few years, I’d be roaming a country lane waiting for a worried family member to find me.
I felt like I should be able to solve “this thing,” whatever it was, on my own. At bedtime the darkness would morph into anxiety. I’d lay awake puzzling out the paradox of loving my children with a love deeper than I ever thought imaginable, yet wanting to run away to live alone in a cave. I worried incessantly about all the normal mom things, and then some. I’d check on my babies’ breathing while they slept. I’d sit in the living room late at night and try to write out my feelings. I told no one, but God and the page.
After nearly a year, I reached a point of utter exhaustion and called my mom. She told me there was nothing wrong with getting help and encouraged me to be honest with myself and call a doctor.
When I got help, it was in the form of a perfunctory doctor visit at a community clinic. I waited for hours in a dingy waiting room. I filled in a questionnaire. I answered questions and told this doctor I’d never seen before the secrets I hadn’t even told my friends. As I tallied the stress in my life and lined up the symptoms, I saw what I had never quantified before: weight gain, trouble sleeping, loss of interest in things I once enjoyed, feeling hopeless and sad, and difficulty focusing. Diagnosis: mild to moderate depression.
I wasn’t stark raving mad, but I was having a shit time. The doctor wrote me a prescription for Zoloft and told me it might take a couple of weeks to kick in. I cried, wondering how I would survive another two weeks. He recommended I find a therapist. I nodded and ignored him, knowing I couldn’t face what would come up in therapy yet.
I was lucky. Within a couple weeks on Zoloft, I felt like I was coming alive again, like I was me again. I began to see my mother-in-law with new eyes. It took another couple years before I went to therapy to face reality and find the strength to leave my unhealthy marriage.
There’s no doubt that diagnosis, medication, and therapy helped save my life and my children’s, but not in a vacuum. Who knows how bad things could have gotten if I had not had someone in my life to encourage me to go to the doctor, and more importantly, be honest with him.
Mental illness is scary. We think of it as the worst thing that could happen—our minds being damaged or compromised. But when we break a bone, or get an infection, we get help. Just because we can’t see mental illness doesn’t mean it is not a real, physical condition. It is more common than I realized; 1 in 5 Americans suffer from it. Having a mental illness does not mean you are weak, damaged, or worthless, which was exactly how I felt for a long time. We are stronger than we know, even when we feel at our weakest, but even the strong need help sometimes.
I will no longer stay silent. I struggle with depression. I have a mental illness, but it does not have me. I am still a vibrant, positive person, but there are times in my life, amidst extreme stress, where I need to take my medication or go to therapy to feel normal.
Depression doesn’t always look like a tornado of psychosis. For many of us it looks like storm clouds settling in, slowly blackening the sky, until it is so dim that the margins between us and the tempest are blurred.
I found the sun again, and I offer my hand. Life can be better—we do not have to go it alone.
Andrea Guevara is a mother of two, an entrepreneur, and UCLA X Writers Program scholar and graduate. Her work has appeared in SeeingBeauty.com, ESME.com, and Winter Tangerine Summer Workshop Anthology. She also serves as Brand Director for BinderCon and a judge of flash fiction for MashStories.com. Connect with her online: www.andreaguevara.com, Facebook, and Twitter.