I am depressed … and I want to talk about it.
I want to talk about depression because it’s wrong for people to dismiss mental health issues as not real diseases. I want to talk about my experiences to help those who haven’t suffered better understand how to support the ones they love. I want to talk about it because I know there are others suffering and fighting this disease as I try to do every day and it helps to know that you are not alone. And I want to talk about it because there are services and supports available and no one should feel ashamed to seek them out.
I felt depressed for many years before acknowledging it. I would try to talk about it, but was repeatedly told that it was not a real thing. Time and again friends and family have dismissed my attempts to reach out with misplaced advice. You’re just stressed, many would say. Eat better, sleep more, and exercise. Watch tv and don’t think about it.
I knew this advice was always given supportively, but it often just served to make me feel like it was all my fault. After all – there had to be something wrong with me if I could feel so sad and hopeless while going to one of the top law schools and surrounded by such great friends and family.
But shortcuts and denial did not make my depression go away; instead it made it worse.
I fall into dark places sometimes. I hurt myself and feel hopeless. In those moments, it can feel like the world has sent a wave my way and it’s crashing over me and if I’m not quick enough to put up barriers I feel like I’m momentarily drowning.
I want to take this time to emphasize a fact – depression, like other mental health afflictions – is a disease. No one chooses to have a disease, and it is no one’s fault. Luckily, I believe that depression is one of those diseases that can be cured or at least significantly weakened with recognition, training, and support.
And so, with incredible support, I decided to reach out for help and try to learn more about what was happening to me: why it happened, what I could do to try to prevent it, and how I could respond to everything in healthier and more controlled ways. But fighting depression can be hard, especially in an environment that often feels stressful and demoralizing to everyone.
I’m writing this article to start a conversation. To reach out to others who may feel similarly and want to learn from each other, want support, or just want to know that there are others suffering in similar ways. I’m writing to de-stigmatize depression and mental health because often the first step to getting better is just acknowledging that a problem exists, that its not our own faults, and that we can, and will, get better. And I’m writing to lend support to a new group on campus (HLS’ Mental Health Advocates) hoping to address all these issues.
My mother’s sister stopped attending family reunions when I was fairly young.
“She doesn’t like big crowds,” my mother told me.
But we would always give my aunt a call to include her in the energy of what the rest of the family was doing. She would ask about school, and whether I still practiced the piano, which was something she had enjoyed as well.
I learned that my aunt was smart but shy, and hated to travel but loved to catch up with her nieces and nephews, before I learned what schizophrenia was. I learned about physics from my aunt’s brilliant, patient husband, and went to visit them in their small, tidy Midwestern house, before I learned that many people living with schizophrenia never get married, spending their lives in a hospital or, more often, on the streets.
Maybe that’s why it’s always been so easy for me to believe mental illness is just a disease, not a life sentence.
Of course, I’m lucky. It wasn’t easy for my grandparents, or for my mother and her other siblings. As she approached her late teens, my aunt began displaying classic paranoid symptoms, believing people on the streets were following her, and that the Bible was telling her terrible things. But since she had not threatened to take her own life or anyone else’s, my grandparents couldn’t check her into a hospital against her will—in fact, they couldn’t today. They had to wait until she brandished a kitchen knife in front of her brother before they could start on the long and—at that time— totally uncharted path toward medication, therapy, guardianship, and rocky recovery that keeps her mostly stable and often healthy today. The first psychiatrists my grandparents talked to actually blamed my grandmother for my aunt’s symptoms. Now, she has a wonderful and trusting relationship with an excellent doctor who has supported her for many years. My mother and my aunt’s husband are now my aunt’s legal guardians, which means they have to nag her to take her meds, or second-guess her when she’s symptomatic—basically telling my aunt they know she’s lying. Their courage in playing this vital role takes my breath away.
A few years ago, Mom and I picnicked with my aunt beside a creek bordering her residential complex and talked about my research on cross-cultural psychiatry. Just a few months ago, on another visit, my aunt taught me old recipes from her husband’s family and told me stories about the halfway houses that have kept her safe from time to time over the years. She described how hard her mental illness makes it to motivate herself for simple tasks—showering, getting up in the morning.
This is huge. My aunt’s willingness to voluntarily discuss her mental illness is a very recent phenomenon.
But, again, I’m lucky, because I see these simply as regular conversations I’ll always be able to have with her. My grandparents, my mother, and her siblings have helped to create a reality for me where mental illness exists without stigma and without hopelessness. Now, the hard part is to show everyone else it can be that way for us all.
My first AIM screenname was a typical, unfortunate combination of alternating lower- and uppercase letters: naturalkLuTz13. Of course, I thought the name was extremely clever, because the letters, like myself, were clumsy. (I’m often unexpectedly bounding forward on Mass Ave, ending my fall with an accusatory glare at the allegedly smooth concrete.) Maybe that’s why I didn’t notice when I stumbled into the quicksand that I’ve been navigating since early college.
It all could have easily started earlier; I’m not sure. I didn’t know enough about depression before college to know if I had it. When I was in 8th grade and my aunt overdosed on pills, my cousins and I were told she had a heart attack. Perhaps the adults were worried we wouldn’t know how to grieve if we knew she had taken her life.
Depression was not a word my family used. I guess that’s why when, sprawled out a tiny dorm bed, I told my friend that I thought I was depressed, I wasn’t offended when she said, “You aren’t.” I believed her, because, what did I know? She had watched her mom struggle to get out of bed for three years. I was a nineteen-year-old who liked Gossip Girl and the suburbs.
Luckily, six months later, I confided in another friend, and she went with me to our university’s counseling services. Since then, I have met many people who have saved my life. It’s not just been therapists. It’s been people who have intentionally or even unknowingly helped me see that continuing to exist is not a bad choice.
I am not bitter at the friend who denied the possibility that I have depression. It wasn’t her responsibility to know. I just wish she and I—and many others like us—had known that you don’t need to act a certain way in order to be considered depressed. People have often been surprised when I’ve revealed my illness; they become fixated on the fact that I am outgoing, energetic, and am at HLS. But you can never tell just by looking at someone.
The thing about quicksand is that if you fight back, you end up suffocating faster.
If you don’t want to disappear, you have to stand still. But that’s not an option. So for years I have been seeing therapists and trying out new medications and I think I’m still sinking. I am not sure if I will ever get out, but I am so thankful for everyone who has helped me at least take a break from the sinking. I don’t know how they do it, but I know I am lucky to have people in my life who have just helped me fight. I don’t always like hearing that it will get better, because it may not, and sometimes, the promise of a flicker of hope several years from now does not make the current fight worth it. It’s the people who make life a little bit less of a fight that make it worth it. It’s thanks to those people that I am not in quicksand every day.
I wanted so badly to write about my struggle with depression on my law school application. I am proud of myself for continuing to care about and fight for things, even if I don’t always have the desire to get out of bed. But all my advisors told me I shouldn’t mention my illness in any way. The first couple of months of law school weren’t awful—I really enjoyed Cambridge, my section, and knew I could call my friends from home and boyfriend whenever things got hard. But I really needed to just tell someone at school that I was depressed, just in case. So someone knew why I sometimes acted the way I did. But I was scared to tell anyone because I didn’t want to look damaged.
I eventually told my first and closest friend at HLS, and it turns out, for the past few years, she had been battling depression, too. You are never truly alone.
Please, if you need anything—if you need help caring for yourselves, your loved ones, our community—check out the new student mental health advocates on campus.