I’m Not Sad; I’m Just Depressed

Today is, apparently, Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk” day – a day devoted to starting conversations about mental illness and its effect on people in our country. From their site:

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome for anyone facing mental illness is the stigma associated with it. It is the leading reason two-thirds of all of those living with a mental illness do not seek help.

Maybe it’s because it’s an issue I care deeply about, and we tend to notice that to which we are attuned, but I’ve noticed an upswing in discussion about mental health, specifically depression, over the past month. Friends of mine are working on a startup business aimed at tracking social data with the intent of early diagnosis. A.Y. wrote a post “On Depression” detailing her own story. Allie Brosh (Hyperbole and a Half) broke her months-long silence with the post “Adventures in Depression“. Olympian Clara Hughes is speaking out, as are Stéphane Richer and Darryl Strawberry, in a documentary that airs at 7 tonight on CTV.

For me, that’s been the worst part of the depression. There is an overwhelming sense of shame that comes with not having the ability to just make yourself better. – A.Y. Daring

sad35alt 300x180 Im Not Sad; Im Just Depressed

Source: Hyperbole and a Half - click for link

Then I met a friend for coffee and discovered she too was experiencing depression. It’s so pervasive – numbers vary, but about 1 in 4 or 5 Canadians will experience major depression during their lives. On a given day, something like 500,000 people are off work due to depression.

One argument goes something like this:

“In the day and age we live in now, if someone comes up to you and says, “I think you might be clinically depressed,” the proper response is, “Thank you, thank you very much. That means I’m awake. Is there any indication we shouldn’t be depressed— are you living on the same planet that I am?”

Did you ever think that depression is the reasonable human response to the crap we’re going through as a species, meant to propel us into the next evolutionary step, or at least into taking some different course of action so we might survive? Did you ever think that maybe it’s the happy people that are really screwed up in the head? Where’s that spin on the situation?” - Marc Maron

Of course that’s an oversimplification, but I think there is definitely some truth to it.

What can we do?

For me, it’s also about sharing. Helping erase the stigma. I am fortunate enough to be at a place in my life where I can deal with my own depression, and I’m far enough away from the worst of it that I no longer feel shame. But someone who is stuck deep in its mire may not be able to see an exit path, despite the best efforts of family and friends. I’ve been meaning to write something about this for a while; today feels à propos.

This is my story.

I decided to study electrical engineering at the University of Waterloo. It made sense – while I was equally gifted at music and art as math and science, there were more stable jobs in the sciences (or so I thought). I could always pursue music as a hobby. It wasn’t an easy five years – it’s a difficult program even if you are passionate about the subject, and by year 3 I started to realize that I wasn’t. Stubbornly, I pushed through and graduated with second class honours.

I meant to take time to reflect and renew after I finished, but a job fell into my lap. I cut short my visit to Europe in order to take it and jumped into the working world. I was young and naive and had a lot to learn. The job was challenging and, again, not where my heart lay. I began feeling trapped and unhappy. By July, I found myself sitting at my cubicle, facing away from my co-workers, tears streaming down my face and thoughts of cutting my wrists open in the bathroom at the top of my mind. By October I was on short-term disability and had moved home with my mother. It was an extremely dark time in which I distanced myself from former colleagues and many friends, due to the shame I felt. In December I resigned from my position, feeling that to go on long-term disability was taking advantage of the company: how could I allow them to pay me if I wasn’t working?

The next four years were lost, in a sense, as I tried to cope with the depression, and find a spot in a world that didn’t seem to want me anymore. When I attempted to return to work in 2001, the tech bubble had burst. I started dealing with the additional shame of “Why can’t you find a job? Don’t you have a degree in engineering?” I drifted from low-paying job to low-paying job and travelled out west to try to start over. It didn’t work. I came back and found jobs bartending. I went back to school, and studied audio recording, for my love of music. But again, there were no jobs, unless you wanted to work for free for a year in a Toronto studio.

I’ve since managed to “pull myself up” to a place that is respected by society again. I started working in the tech sector in Kitchener-Waterloo. I’m married and we own our home. From this place, it feels (almost) safe to speak of where I’ve been. But the reality is that no one can ever truly know someone else’s story. I still have days where I can’t climb out of bed. That’s really hard to admit. But I’m dealing with it, in a way that works most of the time. I have a strong support network of family and friends I can call upon.

Now what?

For several years now, I’ve had a niggling feeling that I wanted to do something about it. One of the issues I’ve noticed is the lack of centralized information. I’ve watched a friend visit the emergency room many times because there was nowhere else to go. I’ve watched the safety net hold her for a few days, and then disappear. It can be extremely hard to find continuity of care, particularly for those marginalized in our society and who don’t have access to an extended health care plan, who can’t afford weekly counselling sessions at $100 each. Doctors don’t have time to follow up properly. I feel things are changing, but we’re not there yet.

One of the projects I’d like to do is develop a local online community to support mental health initiatives. I haven’t done it due to lack of time and funding. It will still get done at some point, but I’m not sure how. I’d love to hear your ideas.

UPDATE (sort of): I wrote this earlier today, and ironically enough, the stigma about which I’m writing has caused me to think and re-think whether or not to post it. I think it’s important we treat the subject with love and compassion though, and ultimately, that’s my reason for sharing. Please, if this has meant anything at all to you, let me know. It helps to know we’re not alone.

Finally, if YOU are suffering from depression, visit a doctor. Go today. If you can’t do that, call a friend and get them to take you. Find a hotline near you and call. If you’re in Canada, look here for numbers. Leave me a note in the comments, or contact me. I will reply to any messages I receive as soon as possible.

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18 Responses to “I’m Not Sad; I’m Just Depressed”

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  1. Von says:

    Hi Stephanie.

    I’m so glad you’ve written this. I have a number of friends with depression, and over the years I’ve seen the happiest of people go off the map, and retreat into isolated spaces because of what they were going through. For many years I didn’t understand the difference between being “sad” about something and what happens when someone is going through a depressive episode (not even sure about that wording choice). The best I’ve really managed is quiet support.

    I know your words are going to touch people, and very likely help some. Thank-you for sharing. I’d love for the conversation to continue.

    • Stephanie says:

      Thanks Von. It’s exactly people like you I’m thinking of when I mention my supportive network. :)

      Quiet support and love is sometimes all you can give. Sadly, an external force is usually not enough to pull someone out of a depression, nor is a stiff upper lip. For me it was a process over time of self-discovery, learning to monitor my thought processes (yoga helped), recognizing the warning signs and making myself (or asking someone else to make me) do things that help, like exercise, and yes, judiciously applied medication. Sometimes you need it.

      If I have helped one person with this, that’s enough.

      I’m happy to discuss this further with you, or anyone else who wants to keep the conversation going!

  2. Matthew longland says:

    Thank you for sharing Steph. Having helped friends and family with depression, I know that getting them to open that mental door for the first time can be the hardest part.

    Always know that friends and family will always accept you. Some might even bake you raspberry pie.

    • Stephanie says:

      Thanks Matt. It’s funny; in less than an hour I’ve already experienced such an outpouring of support. I wish I could send it back in time to my younger self. My current self says thank you though. And yes, any time you want to bake me pie I’d be happy to eat it! We’ll have to catch up sometime. :)

  3. Natalie Jarvis says:

    Hi Stephanie,

    I’m glad to see that someone is writing about this. I’ve been searching hashtags on Twitter to see how many people are discussing mental health week, and it seems like there should be WAY more.

    As someone who’s struggled with anxiety and ocd and who couldn’t put a name to it for years… I definitely understand. There’s a lack of education surrounding these issues and it needs to change. I think you’re on to something, building an online community. good luck!

    Natalie

    • Stephanie says:

      Thanks so much Natalie. It’s funny because I only became officially aware of it today, and it’s something I totally care about. If they’re not reaching the more highly engaged folks… then… ?

      What’s your Twitter handle? Will look you up. Thanks for the comments.

      ~Steph

  4. Nancy says:

    Hey Stephanie,
    Thanks for your article. I watched the CTV special last night & thought it was very well done, especially because these were well-known people who seem to be highly functioning & at the tops of their respective fields, but underneath all of that, they were seriously struggling. It is not always visible on the surface. I have struggled with depression & while it has abated (although lately I worry that it’s coming back, which is hopefully just the winter blues), anxiety is filling its spot in my psyche. I am on long term disability.
    It’s funny, because I thought I was very comfortable talking about it, but when I wanted to make a comment on a fb post about Bell’s “Let’s Talk” day, it took me SO long to figure out what to say! How do I word it? What will people think? Will it seem lame? Will they think I’m just lazy? Even this post is very difficult: Am I saying too much? Should I tell them about this? about that? Have I gotten to the point yet? Will I ever??? : P

    When I was first diagnosed, my health insurance at the time covered about 2-3 psychiatric visits & I couldn’t afford to continue on my own. So my doctor also put me on a waiting list for free care (I’m not sure I’m saying that right). I was in Nova Scotia at the time. Once I was assigned a psychiatrist, they could recommend me for other programs that were offered & there were quite a few in the Halifax area: classes on Stress management, Assertiveness, Anger Management, Self Esteem, Relaxation, Acupuncture, etc, as well as weekly social groups: a “friends” group & a ‘crafts” group where people would meet for tea & coffee & play games or work on their own craft projects or just chat with people in a similar situation to our own.

    I ended up having to move back to New Brunswick (thank goodness for family) & had to start that process all over again, being on a waiting list for care & the doctor situation in NB is worse than NS. I think it was close to a year before I was assigned another psychiatrist (for medications) & a psychologist (for therapy). They also had some similar classes available (which I took advantage of), but those programs have stopped because of a “mandate change”, I think aiming their programs more at addiction services… ?

    ANYWAY ~ I think there is help available – even for those without insurance or extra cash – but you need to get yourself into the “system” before you can even find out what those services are. If you know someone else in your situation, they may be able to point you in the right direction. Sometimes, a local YWCA may offer some programs & there may be helpful community groups that meet weekly that you can find in your local paper.
    It took me so long to write this! I hope I ended up saying something helpful! Take care, all!

    Nancy

    • Stephanie says:

      Hi Nancy,

      I definitely think what you wrote was helpful! I think every little bit helps. I truly hope you continue to be able to deal with your own depression – I know what you mean about winter being more difficult. :)

      The problem with wait times for free care was something I struggled with too. Often by the time someone comes to the top of the line, it’s too late, or they’ve moved on and tried something else (that may or may not have worked). Unfortunately it seems to be so difficult to address the problem immediately when needed. I’m really grateful for initiatives like what Bell’s doing, and donating money. (Although it’s disappointing to see that they’ve pulled all their “Let’s Talk” content from the front page of bell.ca now that the day is over. This issue needs long term awareness, not just quick recognition and a media frenzy that disappears after the body’s gone. :p)

      *hugs*
      Stephanie

  5. Sarah says:

    It’s very brave of you to discuss your depression. A few years ago I had a devestating bout, brought on by a lot of stress and a strained family relationship. I felt like I couldn’t raise my head, but with three children to support and my husband, I had to keep going. That meant turning to an addiction, and luckily, because I’m so paranoid about doing anything too “wrong,” it was food. Food kept me going – it gave me enough of a high to get to the next meal, and to the next meal, and not stop to think too much about how I felt or want to stop altogether.

    A couple of years and fifty pounds later, I’m finally getting back on my feet. Looking back, I remember feeling like I didn’t know where to turn– not just because of the stigma, but because of the lack of resources. Feeling like giving up entirely, I called a help line one Sunday afternoon. I got no answer, but luckily, the sense of irony made me laugh and I keep trying. At least I hadn’t lost my sense of humour. I finally got through to someone, and to make matters worse, they were cold and really didn’t offer me anything to work with. There was no urgency, no care. My husband didn’t know how to handle the situation at all, and chose to let me work it alone. It was a very lonely, difficult time that few friends even knew about, and even fewer understood.

    I’ve switched jobs recently, and in this high-stress time I know I have to be careful about how I process my emotions and the amount of acceptance I give myself for feeling certain ways, making sure I’m not overburdoned. I’ve done better at setting boundaries for myself and finding productive ways to spend my time that make me feel a sense of belonging in the world, which for me is a way to curb the lonliness and feel like I’m making a valid contribution, not just “taking up space.” For instance, when presented with the opportunity, I volunteered as a writer for Hats On For Awareness, a not-for-profit out of Whitby that raises money at a fundraiser each year for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

    I think it’s so important to raise the level of awareness about mental health and addiction and to share these stories candidly. Thank you for doing that. After all, our stories and experiences define us; they make us real.

    • Stephanie says:

      Hi Sarah,

      Thank you for sharing as well – a lot of what you wrote resonated with me as well. Particularly how difficult it was to get help. It’s so easy for people just to dismiss the problem. I visited one counsellor who basically told me “I don’t think I can help you” and didn’t offer any suggestions. I remember how it felt when a trusted friend, not intending to hurt me, told me she didn’t know how to help me anymore. It seemed like there was nowhere to turn and the bottom dropped out. Sometimes all people need to know is that they are loved, listened to and supported. Ultimately the change comes from within, but it’s small things that make a difference.

      Stephanie :)

      • Nancy says:

        Stephanie – re. your remark regarding a trusted friend:
        The lack of information & open conversation on mental health issues also strongly effects the friends, family & co-workers of people suffering from a mental illness. If we’re in the middle of it & we don’t know what to do with ourselves to feel better, imagine how it is to be on the sidelines, watching a loved one who is in despair & you have no earthly idea of what to do to help. And we wouldn’t know what to tell them if they did ask. Mental Health professionals in Nova Scotia put together a booklet for the families of patients in their programs, which I thought was a good idea.
        I guess what I’m saying is that mental health issues effect everyone, & being able to talk about it openly can also help everyone.
        Nancy

  6. Nancy says:

    “Living With Mental Illness: A Guide for Family and Friends” (issued in 2008)
    The do not have a webpage for it, but there is an e-mail address for additional copies. I will note that some of the information in the book is province specific. [.ca]

    They list two of their resources:

    “How You Can Help: A Toolkit for Families”,
    produced by BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information, 2004,
    http://www.heretohelp.bc.ca

    “Working Together Towards Recovery: Consumers, families, caregivers and providers”,
    produced by Canadian Collaborative Mental Health Initiative, 2006 (Mississauga, Ont.?),
    http://www.ccmhi.ca

  7. Rhonda says:

    I can appreciate the courage it took to talk openly and publiclly about something so personal. We do tend to hide or mask circumstances and situations that we don’t think will be viewed favourably by others. I know I have. We all wonder “what’s wrong with us” and “why can’t we be like everyone else”. Strangely enough, what so many people go through is very much “just like everyone else”. Its just that we don’t say anything because its considered private. And there is that “shame” because we’ve bought into these societal or media messages of what it means to be “beautiful”, “happy”, “successful”, etc. and that’s incongruent with what we are feeling.

    We don’t want to be judged, but we know that is a risk. And the other side of it is “what can anyone really do?”, since it is a very personal experience that is hard to pinpoint as having a direct cause (like eating too much sugar or drinking too much coffee).

    Personally,I think its a normal reaction to the disconnection we are feeling at an inner level and we (as a society) need ways to balance ourselves to be more congruent and harmonious with that deepest part of ourselves.

    They say meditation (and drugs, as well) helps still the mind, so there is less of the internal critic going on. I think there is something to that, especially if we grew up in a highly judgemental family or society where “who we are” is always being compared to “someone else” and you get the sense you’re not good enough, and a bit of a disappointment because of the expectations of “who we SHOULD be” . We just need to be more accepting of ourselves and less judging of others. I think we are evolving towards this, and you represent the groundswell of people needed to experience, share, connect and move us all forward. This is extremely valuable to us developing as a society. So glad for the step you’ve laid for the rest of us to raise ourselves up on.

  8. Tom says:

    Stephanie: People like yourself, sharing your story, helps everyone understand and learn. You are helping raise awareness and lower the stigma. Thank you for that.

  9. A.Y. says:

    I like this. I like this a lot. Usually, I read my friend’s blog posts because they’re my friends, but this time I sat and read it through because this was actually well written, and honest and filled to the brim with integrity. I’m glad you decided to post it. That’s what etching away stigma is all about. The personal is so very deeply political. Kudos.

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