Editor’s note: Until recently, mental health and illness were taboo subjects in the black community. But thanks to the efforts of those brave enough to speak on it, that’s changing. In that vein, The Root team is taking this week during Mental Health Awareness Month to write about how mental health has touched our lives. Read previous posts in the series here and here.
“It’s not normal to be like this. You should really see someone.”
I hate it when A does this. He’s one of my best friends, but he’s also a gotdamn “fixer,” rarely content unless he can slip on his know-it-all helmet and superhero cape. He usually comes to the rescue with advice, lavish pick-me-ups like vacations and seven-course dinners, and the occasional much-needed cash infusion (and, once, a replacement iPhone).
Yes, these are also all reasons he’s one of my best friends, but at this particular moment, I’m also pretty sure it’s why he feels entitled enough to tell me I need fixing. And I absolutely hate it when he does this.
Besides, it’s my birthday; I don’t want to be told I’m broken (again) on my gotdamned birthday. It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to ... which, of course, I then silently start to, right there in a booth in the middle of the Four Seasons dining room, smack dab in the middle of Manhattan.
That was April 16. A month ago today. I’m not always like that—well, not always like that. I’m told I’m also witty, attractive and charming, well-read, creative, intuitive and frequently hilariously funny. I’m supposedly quite the draw when I’ve got it all together (but who the hell ever has it all together?). But if I’m honest, I’m always six degrees of separation away from this—actually, far worse than this.
I was 12 the first time I felt anything akin to what I’d heard described as “depression.” I instinctively knew that I had it—almost as if I’d been destined to, and had simply been waiting on it, like my first period. I’d always been known as an emotional child—“high-strung” or “dramatic” was generally how I was described (I was also a drama geek, which didn’t help). So it wasn’t a huge surprise when my first therapist confirmed my self-diagnosis 15 years later. Not only did I have depression, but my particular brand of depression had a name: persistent depressive disorder, also known as dysthymia (dis-THIE-me-uh).
Dysthymia is described by the Mayo Clinic as “a continuous long-term (chronic) form of depression. You may lose interest in normal daily activities, feel hopeless, lack productivity, and have low self-esteem and an overall feeling of inadequacy. These feelings last for years and may significantly interfere with your relationships, school, work and daily activities.”
Umm ... ya think?
It’s not a sexy name. At the point of my official diagnosis, “depression” sounded much sexier—much more appealing to my beautifully messy, dramatically inclined, tortured-artist sensibilities. Depression sounded like a blues woman who kept switchblades in her garters, flasks in her brassiere and whiskey on her tongue (or gin, depending on the day). It sounded like the Billie Holiday songs I’d so meticulously memorized in high school, followed by the Cassandra Wilson I’d sunk into in college and the Meshell Ndegeocello I was meditating to at the time (“Bitter” was a word, y’all). It sounded like Sula and Shug and all the women on Brewster Place. I could be that.
“Dysthymia” sounded like the wrong note played on a sousaphone—think “womp-womp”—which, coincidentally, is how it often felt, but that was my business. Dysthymia sounds like the disease it is, like its own brokenness. I could be depressed, but I would not be that.
And I wasn’t always that. Unlike typical sufferers of dysthymia, I couldn’t consistently be described as having a “gloomy personality, constantly complaining or incapable of having fun.” I had my moments, but in general I was lots of fun—hell, I was known for it. In fact, I went through such long stretches of happiness that I began to doubt my diagnosis.
Still, it seemed that I was never more than a trigger or two away from a spiral (which is probably why I hate the word “triggered”). Any kind of perceived loss could send me spiraling: a breakup, a fight with a friend, a fail when I desperately needed a win, harsh criticism, sudden change ...
But that’s normal, right? If I was a depressive, I was one of the highest-functioning depressives around. I became fond of saying that my depression was circumstantial. Matter of fact, maybe I wasn’t really depressed at all; I just needed to work on my coping mechanisms, and everything would be fine.
And yet, when circumstances weren’t aligned in my favor (because life), I didn’t just get “the blues.” I bottomed, sometimes for years at a time (see: the nearly 18 months I slept on my sofa after a particularly devastating breakup because my bed felt like an abyss). Turns out there’s a name for that, too: I have a subset of dysthymia called atypical depression, a form of depression that our friends at Mayo say is “caused as a reaction to external events or circumstances.”
Great. I’m basically not equipped to handle adulthood.
The best description of living with my particular type of depression can be found in the lyrics of the Fleetwood Mac song “Landslide”:
Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Like Stevie Nicks, much of the time, I don’t know. So how I do I cope with that?
Well, there’s the aforementioned therapy, which I’ve been in, off and on, for over a decade. Exercise generally helps, although depression is often a barrier to being motivated to do so. And during my last major bout in 2011 (the couch-sleeping phase), I discovered Pinterest, which was a daily reminder of what inspires me and got me motivated to seek out beauty in the world again (fun fact: I now have nearly 4 million followers).
And of course, medication is also an option, though one I’ve yet to explore. I’m thinking about it—I have for years—but the truth is, I still have that tortured-artist (OK, masochistic) streak that has become perversely accustomed to riding the waves of my moods. At this point, the phases are predictable, familiar and even strangely comforting.
For instance, right now I’m in what I fondly call a “chrysalis phase.” This is the part where I retreat into myself for an indeterminate amount of time—while simultaneously distracting myself with a singular focus on something other than me (see: my job). Symptoms generally include a lack of enthusiasm for social life; sluggish and self-sabotaging tendencies leading to sudden and dramatic weight gain; as well as general reclusiveness and constant fatigue.
In short, this is when my cracks are visible, and friends, family and well-meaning acquaintances start to worry—despite the fact that aside from overindulging, self-harm has never been my thing. Strangely, I’m probably the only one not in panic mode, since I’m confident that at some point soon, I’ll enter a “butterfly phase”—after all, I always have.
Still, my friend A is right: This is not normal. It may be my normal, but as much as I fucking hate being “fixed,” I could likely use a little mending. At the moment, I’m looking for a new therapist, a measure I likely should have put in place over a year ago, before uprooting my life and moving halfway across the country. Or, at the very least, after the breakup of the relationship that catalyzed said move. Because as my last therapist taught me, there are rules to depression: Know your triggers. Treat your wounds. Honor your feelings. Own your shit. Ask for help when necessary.
But most of all: Don’t be ashamed.