One year ago today I went in the hospital for an eight-day stay in a locked-down psychiatric ward. It was the worst experience of my life (losing one's freedom is a soul-crushing experience) but probably saved me from doom. I was experiencing a major depressive episode accompanied by psychosis, delusions, debilitating anxiety, and suicidal ideation. I missed 8 weeks of work and then only returned to part-time status, teaching one class for the last several weeks of the spring semester. Thanks to the support of loved ones and friends, meds, and therapy, I recovered and had a much different Valentine's Day this year (although I did have minor surgery on my toe this morning - all is well). Mentally, I am much better but far from where I was or wish I were. This may be the new normal. My memory isn't what it was, and a lot of the time it feels like my thinking is disorganized or happening in slow motion. Like someone said, you don't "beat" depression: you manage it. It's always looming, you sense its presence, and occasionally it wanders too close for comfort. That's when the skills you learn in therapy help.
One important lesson I learned from the experience - among many - was realizing firsthand what mental illness really means. It means you can't just "suck it up and get on with it." Even if you could give a shit about doing so - which you most assuredly don't when depressed - you don't have the capacity. Your executive functioning is affected, and irrational thoughts and delusions make your decision-making abilities suspect. Ending the pain once and for all makes total sense, and the suffering is so significant that no thought of others - if you even have one - ameliorates the thoughts of suicide. And the anxiety just makes it all worse.
I am reminded of the vitriole cast Philip Seymour Hoffman's way regarding his recent heroin overdose. How he was just "selfish." That hurt. That means I was being selfish when I contemplated suicide, and that is not accurate. I was sick. Period. I wasn't responsible - my brain wasn't working properly. I didn't ask to be depressed, psychotic, delusional, anxious, and suicidal, but that's what I was and that's why I was in a spiral of unhealthy behaviors. You might say Hoffman "chose" to use heroin and the rest was all therefore his fault. If that's so, then I chose to be depressed because - in hindsight - there were many red flags along the way and choices along the way I could have made that possibly would have skirted the whole affair. No one wants to be in the place I ended up, or in Hoffman's, but it happens, and when it does, I think some compassion is in order.
You are not immune from experiencing what I went through. That's a fact. I hope you never do. In the meantime, though, I hope my sharing these thoughts will give you pause next time someone overdoses or attempts suicide or acts in some bizarrely inappropriate way. When your brain is sick you think and do things that don't make sense from the outside looking in. From the inside, they seem logical, even unassailably right. At that point, people need help, not judgment.
Fortunately, help is available. Let's thank the people and organizations that work with people with mental health issues and support public policies that ensure mental health services are maintained and strengthened. Let's do what we can to end the stigma surrounding mental health, starting with telling our own stories and pushing this dark phenonmenon out into the light of day where we can deal with it openly, honestly, and with care.
Jack Kerouac was in the pschiatric hospital during his stint in the U.S. Navy. Diagnosed with "demential praecox" (schizophrenia), he was no stranger to this topic. Neither was Allen Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, and other beat characters. Depression et al. are equal opportunity conditions affecting people without regard to social status, ethnicity, political persuasion, gender, religion, or any other diversity factor. It's one of the last frontiers of discrimination in this country, and I say let's make it the civil rights issue of our time.
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