I'm the "artsy" one in my family. The black sheep. Translated, that means I'm the moody one. Or at least I always thought that was the reason for my dark moods growing up.
To some extent that's true. That sensitivity thing -- whatever it is, that makes us turn inside ourselves and feel things more deeply than most people, to experience emotions from a more raw perspective. That's the very thing that motivates so many creative people to write, perform, seek out love and approval, or make music.
The thing is, I can't remember a time when I didn't feel that way. Of course there were moments of sheer joy and happiness, but when the darkness set in, it took up residency -- valuable real estate in my head -- and it didn't pay rent. Over and over again, I was the one who paid the price. It manifested itself in the form of anger, impatience, and deep sadness. The pattern repeated itself so many times costing me relationships and causing a whole lot of drama.
I sought treatment, but psychiatrists just shrugged and told me what I was going through was nothing the average person doesn't experience. But I knew deep down that feeling so badly for such extended periods of time just wasn't okay.
Finally after some 30 years of life, emotional struggles, bouts of rage, a near divorce, the birth of my first child, and the kind of anger and impatience that doesn't lend itself to healthy parenting, I was diagnosed with dysthymia -- a low-grade chronic form of depression. I also learned I had been suffering from anxiety and a mild case of OCD. At last everything made sense. I had my answer.
Dysthymia is tricky because it's tough to diagnose and so many people go through their entire childhoods without realizing they have it. They simply think, like I did, that they're moody. But what is "moody?" Nobody wants to walk through life brooding. Not really. Everyone wants to be happy.
Or at least I thought.
To be honest, the transition from being the brooding artist who clung to my emotions and used them to feed my art, to a healthy functioning happy person after a lifetime of seeing that as the norm, was a little daunting. It was as if even though so much of my life had also been about using humor as a coping mechanism, now I wasn't sure who or what I'd be without this "thing" to define me. Once I got on the right meds and started to feel more balanced; the anxiety having washed away, the dark periods only resurfacing now and then, it took some adjustment to settle into the "new" me.
One of the first things I wanted to do was to tell the people around me -- particularly my extended family -- my husband's and mine. I wanted them to understand that there was a reason why we'd fallen out at times over the years, why I had behaved the way I did at times. It was important to me to explain that there was an actual chemical imbalance at play, and not immaturity or an unseemly disposition. And I felt relatively confident that as family, they would be just as relieved as I was and rally around me in a show of support.
But that couldn't have been farther from the truth. Despite the support of my husband, which was, of course, the most important thing anyway, neither of our families understood. Instead of seeing my diagnosis as a positive step toward living a happier and more emotionally balanced life, they saw it as a reason why I had been "crazy" after all these years. No matter who sang it, Patsy Cline, Paul Simon, crazy was crazy was crazy to them. And they distanced themselves, or at best, treated me differently and with kid gloves. My mother took to saying things to me on the phone like "You sound good today," aka: less crazy.
You know what's funny about all this? Not funny "strange," but funny "haha?" As I got better, as the destructive part of my depression fell away and was replaced by constructive creativity, I started to write. And as I got to know more writers, I found out that many of them were going through the same things I was. And what drew me toward writing is what also led them to it. And here's the thing: we're all regular people. We have mental illness, but it's just like meeting a group of people at a book club who all have diabetes. You wouldn't stigmatize that group for suffering from a chemical chronic condition. And neither should anyone look at people with mental illness that way.
Because what we are living with fuels us as people, both good and bad, but it's part of what makes us who we are, and we keep it in check with medication and with talk therapy, with the love and support we find from understanding family members and close friends. And if you look around, you'll find that so many people you never thought could be living with depression, are not only living with it, but thriving with it. People you admire and respect. Historic figures from Abraham Lincoln, Franz Kafka and Winston Churchill, to artists: Georgia O'Keefe, Vincent Van Gogh, writers: Charles Schultz, T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens, musicians: Sheryl Crow, Leonard Cohen, and actors: Zach Braff, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow.
My point is this: depression is not a conscious decision people come to despite "having it all." Or a behavior moody people adopt to start EMO movements. It's not an affliction inhabited only by crazy, shiftless people.
Depression is a real chemical imbalance in the brain. It's a condition shared by a large number of the population. It's treatable. The people living with depression are some of your favorite people. They are your friends and loved ones, and people you look up to and admire. They need and deserve compassion and understanding.
You know what's crazy? Stigma.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.