This past weekend, I celebrated a unique anniversary.
Two years ago last Sunday, I acknowledged that the way I was living my life was not working anymore.
I was unmotivated, doing only the bare minimum to get by in my classes and at my job. I was fearful of everything: that I would never graduate, that I would be a failure, that my friends didn’t like me, that the people I loved would leave me. Despite the presence of all of the people in my life, I felt alone and slept my days away to avoid this feeling of emptiness. I was either agitated or anxious most of the time. The changes in my mood came on suddenly and were often unpredictable. I got worked up over the most miniscule things. Sometimes a perfectly good day would be ruined because someone looked at me the wrong way.
Somewhere, deep down, I knew this was no way to live my life.
Two years ago last Sunday, I stood face to face in a local bookstore with the man who would later become my husband. We were in the middle of an argument and were about to walk away from the whole thing when he asked me, “Do you think you’re depressed?” I tearfully replied, “Yes. Things that seem easy for other people just aren’t easy for me.”
And so began the journey. We even nicknamed 2009 the “Year of Health.”
Two years ago last Sunday, I named my depression for what it was. There would be no turning back, no more denying. I took the first step toward getting my life back.
Do I still struggle with depression? Yes, of course. But now I have the tools and the resources to separate the disease from the real me, hence the title of this blog: “I Am Not This Disease.” The art of self-awareness has been an invaluable tool for me in this journey. This might be the most important thing I took away from my time spent in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I had to re-learn how to think: how to logically process my thoughts, how to use situational evidence to uncover rational information, how to recognize when I am falling back into the old, destructive thought-patterns of my past.
And medication? Once I found a combination of drugs that worked for me, I can honestly say in amazement that my brain chemistry has changed. To think that I used to feel guilty and ashamed for taking anti-depressants is astounding. Now, I look at that little pill in my hand and feel nothing but thankfulness. I’m thankful for developments in science and medicine. I’m thankful for my doctors. I’m thankful that I’m insured and can therefore afford my medications. We all know that this simply isn’t the case for all people living in this country, and I eagerly await the day when universal health care will be able to touch the lives of people who so desperately need mental health care.
The greatest gift this journey toward mental health has given me was quite unexpected. I have emerged from this experience with a greater appreciation for the people in my life. I now find myself reaching out to others in ways I would not have during my illness. Lately, I notice I have within me a new-found desire to help others. Recalling how so many people sat and waited quietly with me through some of my darkest hours, I now want to be that kind of support for others. I want to give back because I spent so much time on the receiving end.
I also think my depression has made me a better listener and therefore a better partner and a better friend, or so I hope. Now that my life is not consumed with my anxiety and depression, I have the capacity within me to consider the needs of others in ways I have not been able to before. Finally, I am present. Really present. To myself and to others.
I am currently reading a wonderful book written by Methodist minister Susan Gregg-Schroeder called “In The Shadow of God’s Wings: Grace in the Midst of Depression.” I came across a chapter entitled The Gift of Living with Paradox. I had never thought about my depression in this way. She explains that our culture thrives on instant gratification, so living within a paradox, or a mystery as some might call it, does not come easily to us. But this is exactly what living with depression is like. We constantly find ourselves between two polarities: sickness and health, rationality and irrationality, darkness and light, until we can learn how to achieve a balance in our lives. This doesn’t always come easy for a depressive because so often we think in black or white terms, or what some therapists might call “all or nothing thinking.” But this isn’t a life at all, is it? All of us, depressed or not, must learn to accept what Susan calls the “intermingling of the darkness and the light and learning to appreciate the areas of gray.”
Anyone who has gone to battle with a major illness knows that the journey toward health is never fully upward. We take a few steps forward, and a few steps back. Wash – rinse – repeat. And yet this is how we learn. We must come to appreciate all the steps of the journey. Perhaps Susan sums this up best when she goes on to say that:
“The paradox lies in the fact that the parts of ourselves that we have buried in the shadow of subconscious are essential to our becoming integrated, whole persons. When brought into the light, these qualities we have rejected are transformed by God’s grace. They, in turn, strengthen our whole personality.”
So, here’s to living with paradox.
Here’s to two years of journeying toward sound mental health.
And here’s to you and your journey, wherever you might find yourself at this very moment.
May 2012 be another “Year of Health” for us all.
To our health,