When I was in college, I handed a boy I had just started dating a paper to tell him about my depression. We were sitting on a bench under a tree in the twilight, and it seemed to me the best way to debrief him on my “condition.” I had written the paper myself. It was a double-spaced personal experience paper for a writing class. My teacher had told me it was very good and I should try to get it published, but as a new transfer student, I was more worried about just making it through the semester with my grades and relationships intact.
“What is this?” he asked me. He was two years younger than me—a freshman—but I was fleeing a painful breakup and trying new things.
“Just read it,” I said.
So he did read it, patiently, and then turned to me and said, “My mom has depression, so I get it.” He continued with a nice, non-judgmental spiel that I had heard a dozen times before. I nodded politely and tried to acknowledge what he was saying, but the gratitude stuck in my throat like a piece of wax. Isn’t that what I wanted—for him to understand? For him to say, “I get it”? Somehow it fell short of the mark. I felt what I always felt after telling someone about my depression… broken, tarnished, like someone just set me up on a shelf with some other damaged objects, like that’s where I belong. I wanted to take the paper back and pretend like it never happened. So we sat there in silence next to each other and looked at the paint peeling up in little green curlicues from the edge of the bench.
Talking about my depression usually ends up not going the way I want it to. It’s not that I’m ashamed. In my mind, it’s a familiar, even stereotypical label that makes people nod their heads and think they understand when they really don’t. Diving further into the definition seems to bring people close while simultaneously pushing them away. Everyone can recite the symptoms of depression from the TV commercials—sadness, cloudy thinking, negative thoughts, lethargy—but a list of symptoms doesn’t cover it. A diagnosis may bring momentary clarity, but it doesn’t tell you how often my smile feels forced and every laugh is faked for the sake of others, or how today I’m counting the minutes until I can crawl under the covers and be invisible. It doesn’t mention feelings of fear and sadness that are irrationally strong, like monsters that grip me in their claws.
I’ve found it much easier to cover up my depression because it confuses people and make them think I am some kind of Debbie Downer. That is the worst, to be perceived as dark, unstable, needy. It’s also horrifying to tell people how to treat you, as if you’re a rare breed of animal.
My depression is both a placid lake and an ocean. It is quiet on the surface, except in my head where it roars. My depression waits for me around corners and inside doorways. It finds me in bed at night. It takes the form of a very persistent salesman. But I cope with it. I go to counseling. I take medication. However, it’s still hard for me to talk to my husband, family and friends about it. And the challenges I face dealing with my depression as a wife and mother are very different from when I was in college or my early 20s when I lived on my own. I could decide to either reveal or not reveal, choose what I let people see of me. My family sees everything. Living with depression is a process of continuing education, for myself and for them. It’s a road to acceptance that this is a part of my life.
Sometimes as Christians, at a very young age, we learn to hate and fear parts of ourselves. The black and white of “sin” and “righteousness” forms harsh lines to separate the good and bad in our own hearts, partitioning us. I have always seen depression as the bad part of me, to be driven away and feared. But I’m not a dichotomized being. I’m a whole. That’s really the tough part, to make peace with my depression and not make excuses for it or hide it because it’s ugly.
So when I tell people about my depression for the first time or talk about it because I’m struggling and I need them to know, I want to stop looking for a response that will make me feel OK. I don’t want to look to them to assure me that I’m not damaged. I want to see it as part of my continuing work to accept that depression has been with me for 15 years and will probably continue to be with me for the rest of my life. I refuse to hate it because it’s hard or dark. I give up trying to make only the bright, pretty parts of myself visible. I believe there is enough grace available for me to be true to who I am, even if that person is sometimes depressed.