Winston Churchill called it The Black Dog. Abraham Lincoln and Sir Isaac Newton wrestled it throughout their lives. J.K Rowling, Rosie O'Donnell and Sheryl Crow suffer from it; now Robin Williams has reportedly lost his battle with it.
Depression. There; I have said it, spoken of the Voldemort of diagnoses, The Condition That Shall Not Be Named, but from which a large minority of the public suffers. According to the CDC, one in 10 people grapples with depression.
I am one of the 10.
Just as the gay rights movement only gained momentum when individual men and women summoned the courage to "come out," I believe it is time for those of us who have struggled with depression to stand up and be counted. To understand depression and to reduce its stigma, we need to pull back the veil to reveal its familiar face.
So I am officially coming out of the closet.
I have no memory of having lived without depression. I was a despondent child, a melancholy teenager and a young adult roiled by angst. My bookcase is overflowing with the complete works of Anne Sexton, my virtual rolodex boasts no fewer than four former therapists and my medicine cabinet is a graveyard of discarded antidepressants. Today I am battled-scarred, but proud that I fought hard for my mental health and won. Yet even now, decades past the days when The Black Dog was my constant companion, the threat of depression pursues me like a shadow, visible even on the brightest days.
I'll never forget the day when I realized that my daughter had inherited more from me than my blonde hair and love for the written word. She was in preschool, giggling with her friends in the corridor, when suddenly she froze where she was standing. I asked what was wrong? "I don't know, she said, and looked up at me, stricken, her blue eyes filling with tears. "A big sadness just fell on me."
We talked a lot about Big Feelings that year, logged in quite a few hours with The Feelings Doctor and learned how to cope with sometimes having emotions so heavy that your heart staggers under the load. We chased The Black Dog away, or at least tamed him, for many years.
However, when she was a freshman in college, depression and anxiety, its fraternal twin, re-emerged in Jenna's life like a hydra-headed monster from under her bed. It wasn't just her; she had new friends who also were torn apart by existential despair. Some self-medicated with alcohol and other drugs. A few dropped out. One in particular reamed out his own psyche night and day, thrashing for help like a drowning man, clawing at the spirits of friends who could barely maintain their own equilibrium.
I had seen this movie, and I didn't like how it ends. I lay awake at night worrying that Jenna would jump into that lake of despair trying to save a boy who was more likely to pull her down with him than to allow himself to be rescued.
But my daughter is unflinchingly honest, particularly with herself. She felt the water closing in over her head, and realized that she was not a strong enough swimmer to serve as her friend's life preserver -- and that, in fact, she needed a lifejacket herself. She sought professional help. With medication, she felt better in less than a week, and I said a special prayer for Celexa.
At one point, Jenna speculated that a stronger person wouldn't need medication. In response, her boyfriend asked if she thought that, instead of taking insulin, he should attempt to control his Type I diabetes through sheer force of will?
That is the heart of the matter. Depression is like diabetes, hypertension or cancer. Most cases can be treated or cured. It's no one's fault. Public awareness is key. And support from friends, family and society can make a major difference in the outcome.
So be brave. Do it for Robin Williams. Do it for yourself. Do it for the kids who will come after you. Show the people in your world that depression affects someone they know and love.
A version of this first appeared on jufnews.org.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.