As part of Mental Health Month, local non-profit Where Is the Sunshine? produced “This Is My Brave,” an event dedicated to ending mental illness stigma through storytelling.
Anyone who knows me knows I struggle with depression (among other things) and am not ashamed to talk—or blog—about it.
If you missed my speech, here it is in its entirety: minus the TWO times I knocked my papers off of the podium and the ugly crying.
I know I’m a little overdressed for this event, but I wanted to make sure I stood out.
[Editor’s note: That’s funny, see, because I have pink and purple hair. I always stand out.]
Two months ago when Jeanine [Hoff] asked me to participate in “This Is My Brave” I said “yes.” Without hesitation. I have always been open about my mental illnesses … never once have felt ashamed … in fact, it’s feels strange when anyone refers to me as “brave.”
Maybe that’s because I don’t ever remember feeling depressed. As a kid, I was very active doing the typical “kid” things. I played freeze tag and kickball. I took piano lessons. I twirled the baton. I was a Brownie and a Girl Scout. I played basketball.
But I spent a lot of time alone too: mostly reading and making my own magazines. I also sat in my closet with my tape recorder (some of you may need to Google what a tape recorder is) and did talk shows with celebrity “guests” like John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn.
My parents explained away my spending so much time alone by saying, “Kerry entertains herself.”
I also used to sleep a lot. A lot, a lot. To the point where I would go to bed in the clothes I was wearing to school the next day because I didn’t want to waste the two minutes of sleep it would have taken me to get dressed.
And I was a chronic worrier. When my family planned a trip to New York City, I was petrified we were going to get shot by the Son of Sam, who was terrorizing the city at that time. We had an addition built on the second floor of our house I hardly went in because I was convinced it was going to collapse at any moment. If my parents drove one mile over the speed limit, I thought we were all going to die.
At the time, I thought these behaviors were normal. It didn’t cross my mind none of my friends slept until noon every Saturday (I would have on Sunday, too, but I was forced to go to church). And nobody else I knew spent time sitting in their closets alone.
Before I get into my eventual diagnosis, I need to give some back story. Mental illness runs in my family. Depression, anxiety, alcoholism … Of course, this is my own opinion since nobody ever was ever diagnosed or saw a therapist. God forbid anyone in my family talked about their feelings. I call it the Denial Club.
The first rule of Denial Club is: You do not talk about Denial Club. The second rule of Denial Club is: You do not talk about Denial Club.
All of this became patently clear when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1977. I was 10 years old. When we would visit her in the hospital, my dad would tell me not to cry. “Be strong for Mom,” he would say. During her four years of being sick, I only remember crying once or twice. She died in 1981 … and I went to school the next day.
Sixth grade is when I believe my depression issues got real. I know this because I have essays I wrote back then.
[Click images below to read some of my actual essays. I forgive you, Mr. Chemenas, for not calling my parents and telling them something wasn’t right. They wouldn’t have understood anyway.]
The funny thing is I’ve had these essays for decades, but it wasn’t until last year I realized I was depressed even then.
Years passed. I graduated from high school and college. I got a “real” job. But it wasn’t until the early ’90s when I was getting my master’s degree in mental health counseling that I was diagnosed with depression (as part of the program, we were required to see a therapist). I’d seen a therapist back in college but not because I thought I needed it. Apparently, friends told me I was too negative and bitter to be around. Whatever.
During my first session, the therapist asked if I had ever been diagnosed with depression. I looked at her like she had pink and purple hair. Then she handed me a list of symptoms and asked if I ever experienced any.
• Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
• Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
• Irritability, restlessness
• Excessive sleeping
• Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
• Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
• Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
I read the list and handed it back to her and said, “Yeah, I have pretty much all of these. What’s your point?”
I assumed everybody felt like that.
She gave me an initial diagnosis of clinical depression and referred me to a psychiatrist. I was totally confused. I mean, why in the hell did I need to see a psychiatrist? Only CRAZY people go to psychiatrists.
After a lengthy discussion and review of my therapist’s notes, my doctor prescribed an anti-depressant. I can’t remember which one because it was so long ago. That and I’ve been on at least 10 different ones since my diagnosis. We tweaked my medications, changing dosages and combinations every few months. Up until five years ago, we were still tweaking them.
Eventually, I was also diagnosed with anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive personality disorder and seasonal affective disorder. At the moment, I take Prozac, Lamcital and Klonopin every day … and will for the rest of the my life.
My life has changed dramatically since my first diagnosis. I no longer feel worthless or helpless. I’m not irritable. I don’t feel hopeless or sad —at least not on a regular basis. The excessive sleeping, however, still persists.
That is not to say I don’t continue to have issues.
This week, in fact, was a bad one for me. I didn’t leave the house for three days. I cried—we’re talking the ugly cry—every day.
Those of you who don’t know me well or at all would probably never guess I have issues with depression. I mean, look at me!
And that is one of the main things I want to convey to you tonight. Depression doesn’t have a “LOOK.” And it doesn’t discriminate by age, gender, nationality, religion, race, height, IQ, socio-economic status or hair color.
Case in point, Chris Cornell who died from suicide early this week. Cornell and his band Soundgarden won a Grammy and sold 22 million records. He was rich, famous and worshipped. And yet he hanged himself.
The other thing I want you to realize is you are not alone. If you have been diagnosed with mental illness or think you might have one, there are millions of other people in America who are living with it too. The key—and the one thing I want you to take home with you tonight is this—there is no logical reason for you to be ashamed.
Mental illness is a DISEASE. I didn’t choose this life for myself any more than my mom chose to have cancer.
Finally on a personal note, I want to thank the people who have supported and loved me and continue to do so today. It’s not always easy being my friend: I have mood swings. I’m unreliable. I procrastinate. I sleep a lot. I don’t show up for things or I sneak out without telling anyone.
These lyrics from Alanis Morissette’s song “Everything” sum it up as well as I ever could.
You see everything, you see every part
You see all my light and you love my dark
You dig everything of which I’m ashamed
There’s not anything to which you can’t relate
And you’re still here…