“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
At the beginning of June, I attended the Region IV-E WISA Drive-In Conference at Lake Forest College. It was an amazing time of connection, learning, and processing. During my five hour drive home, I spent four hours of it in silence, thinking about the concept of storytelling and the powerful nature of each of our personal stories. This is the aspect of the conference that stuck with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, which was why I needed those four hours of silence to process. I understand the power of stories. I have always been impressed and jealous of those who felt free to tell their story.
Why did I keep my story inside of me for so long? Because I was ashamed of it and feared judgment. The shame and fear have kept me isolated. I was punishing myself for something that wasn’t my fault (but felt like was my fault). I had (figuratively) locked myself away, alone in a dark room and it has prevented me from fully connecting to my family, friends, and colleagues.
I am terrified but it needs to be told.
The first time I seriously considered killing myself occurred when I was 17 years old. I was attending high school in the small rural town I had grown up in. I felt so low, so helpless, that I could not feel anything other than the emotional pain I was experiencing. I could not fathom how it could get better. I didn’t fully understand what was going on with me. Nothing traumatic had occurred in my life. I had supportive family and friends. I just knew that the suicidal thoughts weren’t “normal.” I was scared to tell anyone and felt safer to remain silent. I wrote my anguish in a journal that I kept hidden and I buried every feeling so that I would not be found out. During that time, I never made a suicide attempt and saw college as my freedom from the pain. I assumed once I was in college everything would be all right and that the pain wouldn’t follow me.
This was not the case. I was able to get through college without too many issues. I actually thrived in college, but while in my first professional job things fell apart. I began experiencing so much anxiety that I couldn’t sleep or concentrate. I found myself crying frequently and uncontrollably. I felt no joy or hope and spent a lot of time alone. Soon, nothing felt worthwhile and I felt like I was drowning in a sea of darkness with no way to escape. At the time, I did not realize how bad things had gotten until the person I was dating told me that he had hit his limit with his ability to help me. He encouraged me to see a counselor. Reluctantly, I agreed to it. I viewed seeking this kind of help as a sign of weakness. I was the person that helped others, not the one who needed professional help! I made an appointment with a counselor where she, after having me answer a number of questions, diagnosed with me having Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. I had a diagnosis and now I was ready for a cure.
I didn’t realize this was just the beginning.
Adamant about not taking medication, I started by doing counseling only. The counseling was somewhat helpful but I was still experiencing a lot of sleepless nights, crying fits, and suicidal thoughts. It wasn’t until one day I found myself in my car on the side of the road crying so hard that I couldn’t breathe that I realized I had zero control over this. I went on medication soon after. With antidepressants it takes about a month for them to be fully effective but their side effects can be felt immediately. I experienced shakiness and literariness, nausea, and headaches. Physically, I felt horrible but pushed through in order to feel some emotional relief. The side effects did eventually vanish. The combination of counseling and medication did help me become functional again but only functional, not cured.
It’s been 9 years since that initial diagnosis and I have seen many different doctors and counselors, been on and off medication, tried various combinations of medication, and been given various diagnoses. One doctor thought I had bipolar disorder, another thought I had obsessive compulsive disorder but they all agreed that I had depression and an anxiety disorder. I’ve been on antidepressants that didn’t work and mood stabilizers that I didn’t need. When the right antidepressant and anxiety medication was found, they helped me feel a little bit better. I wasn’t crying uncontrollably, my anxiety was under control, I was sleeping at night, and things didn’t feel as hopeless.
But I was still experiencing suicidal thoughts and came closer to making a suicide attempt than I would like to admit.
Three years ago, my worst moment was a moment of intense crisis. I had spent the day at home crying, feeling worthless and hopeless. I walked into my kitchen opened up a drawer and just stared at the knives sitting in it. Earlier, I had been thinking of ways I could kill myself. I knew I was out of control. My life felt meaningless and I assumed my death would also be meaningless. I stared at those knives and then panicked. What the hell was I doing?! I slammed the drawer shut and just collapsed to the ground in tears. I knew I was in trouble but didn’t know what to do. I don’t’ know how long I laid on my kitchen floor before I made myself get up but I did get up. Each time I have had a moment of suicidal crisis (I’ve had 4) I have always able to stop myself from taking action and pick myself up. I’ve been fortunate to somehow find the resolve to keep pushing through and remind myself that things are not as bad as my brain believes it is.
It took 8 years before the right medication combination was found for me. It also took 8 ½ years before I was on the dosage I needed. I spent years just getting by, thinking that was how life was supposed to feel. The counselor I currently see did not agree. She connected me to a psychiatrist who was much better at managing my medication than a general practitioner. The difference of having the right medication at the right dosage was amazing. Small problems weren’t devastating. I could feel hopeful again. I could experience joy. I didn’t feel like I was drowning in my emotions. And I didn’t feel suicidal.
This journey has taught me a lot about myself and my ability to persevere. It’s a journey that does not and probably will not have an end. For me, depression is not a situational thing. It’s something that will always be part of me. This means that I will be on medication for the rest of my life. It took me a long time to come to terms with that. The truth is that I’m still coming to terms with it. There is no “cure” for me. I have had to learn to manage it. I punished myself for this by keeping my distance from people and not talking about it. I felt like a burden and I didn’t think it was fair to place that burden on anyone else. It was mine to carry. The only people that are aware of it are my parents, a couple friends, and a couple select supervisors. Even then, I felt incredibly guilty and held back on how bad it really was.
Today, I feel great. I’m diligent with my medication and I have several strategies for coping with stressors. I also have developed ways of monitoring myself so that I’m able to catch when things are going downhill for me. Journaling has become my best way of processing all my thoughts. I also see a counselor regularly and follow up with my doctor consistently. I learned that even though I will deal with depression for the rest of my life, there are ways to manage it, experience joy, and live a full life.
I tell this story in the hopes that others who live with depression do not feel alone. I know that there is still a stigma attached to mental illness and in order to break that stigma we need to stop being silent. The silence is what has kept me isolated because I have always felt like I was hiding a part of myself. This story is only one aspect of me but it’s an important story for others to hear. Connection and understanding take place when we are able to stop fearing judgment and tell our stories.
I will continue to tell my story. Now, I want to know your story.