On a sunny afternoon last summer, I met Sundance award-winning documentarian Ondi Timoner at the VICE offices on Brooklyn’s waterfront.
She pinned a microphone to my blue dress and positioned me beside a ledge in their rooftop garden that overlooked Manhattan. Cars careened down Kent Avenue behind me and my hair flapped around in the breeze. I pushed it away, trying not to get it in my mouth. After a brief sound check, Ondi began our interview.
“How long have you dealt with depression?” she asked, her eyes lasering into mine, her voice both serious and sympathetic.
I thought for a minute. “Pretty much my entire life.”
“Even in Panama?”
No, I told her. Panama was the exception. Until it wasn’t.
Eight months earlier, I’d moved to Kalu Yala, an eco-village in the middle of the Panamanian jungle, to launch a media lab as part of their research institute.
I was euphoric. Kalu Yala seemed like it had everything I could possibly want. The ideal adventure for a quit-her-job-to-travel-but-still-wants-a-career woman like me to stumble upon.
During the day, we swam in a turquoise river and tended to a permaculture farm and busied our brains with the writings of sustainability experts like Paul Hawken and Bill Mollison. At night, we sipped boxed wine out of oversized mugs and contemplated the universe. Social media was an afterthought ― in fact, so was the entire internet.
I vowed to use these tropical building blocks to create the media school of the future, one where students from all over the world could come and tell cutting-edge stories about sustainability and win awards. From beneath my palm leaf thatched roof, I would become a media mogul who would completely disrupt both the journalism and education fields.
After nearly two months of manic dreaming, notebooks brimming with spastic ideas, I threw my antidepressants in the trash. I’d never felt so good for such a long a period of time. I thought Panama had cured me.
Needless to say, as I discussed in a recent essay, I ended up facing some pretty serious consequences. It turns out, you can’t cure depression. And especially not by getting rid of a medicine that had been successfully addressing it. I clamored through an emotionally crippling summer, completely debilitated and barely functioning, until I began to have thoughts of suicide. I decided to go home to the U.S. to get well. I wasn’t sure if I would return.
A few weeks later, I got a call from Ondi, who had visited Kalu Yala with a camera crew while I was there. During her trip I’d managed to mask my depression long enough to fake it through an interview as my former sparkly, peppy self. I gritted my teeth and pushed the bad feelings away as her cameras rolled during my storytelling workshop and throughout our afternoon swim in the river.
On the phone, Ondi told me she had spent the prior evening talking to Spike Jonze ― yes, the Spike Jonze, the Oscar winner, could I believe it? He’s the president of the TV network VICELAND, and over the course of their conversation, Ondi convinced him to greenlight a 10-episode documentary TV series about Kalu Yala. “Of course you have to be a part of it,” she told me.
At that point, my depression had started to wane. I was working with a good doctor to test out a new medication regimen, and I’d begun to establish some solid routines. I felt like a tolerable version of myself again.
The prospect of having my media lab project documented on national television was tempting. So was the chance to talk candidly about my struggles with mental illness. If I spoke to Ondi about depression honestly and firmly and confidently, maybe people with similar struggles would feel a little less alone. Maybe I could play a small part in erasing the stigma that still plagues the mental health space.
So I convinced myself I was better and decided to return to Panama in time to be filmed for the show. Before I left, Ondi flew to New York to film me talking about my tumultuous summer and my feelings about going back to Kalu Yala. From my vantage point in VICE’s garden, I told her all about what happens during a depressive episode and how I deal with suicidal thoughts. She filmed me opening my three month supply of antidepressants, a pill bottle as big as a mason jar. She even interviewed my father about our family history of depression.
A few days later, I flew back down to Kalu Yala.
Within a week, I was back in the United States.
It turns out, it takes more than a few weeks of therapy and meds to regulate something as serious as major depression. Which is why almost immediately upon returning to Panama, without the proper tools to continue caring for myself, my symptoms came back with a vengeance. Barely able to function, it became obvious that I needed to be at home for more than a handful of weeks. It was time to stop treating my illness like a side hobby and start taking it seriously.
My struggle with depression and abrupt departure from Kalu Yala was chronicled in Episode 1 of Ondi’s show, “Jungletown,” which airs Tuesdays on VICELAND (watch it here!). Since the episode debuted, I’ve heard from a number of well-intentioned friends who told me it was “brave” of me to come forward publicly as someone living with depression.
I know these people meant to be supportive. Yet I can’t help but hear the word “brave” and think it’s inappropriate.
Calling me brave for speaking openly about living with a disease that affects 350 million people worldwide implies that there is something wrong with me for having said disease. That depression is something to be ashamed of, something to hide.
Calling me brave reinforces the negative stereotypes surrounding mental illness. It shouldn’t be considered brave to talk about something that so many people, on every corner of this planet, deal with every day. We have a long way to go, and words, no matter how nuanced, have a profound effect on shifting the narrative.
So don’t call me “brave” for telling my story. Call me “interesting.” Call me “a good role model.” Call me “normal.”
Better yet, don’t call me any of those things. Just call me Carly.