“First I could not use my ankles, and then I could not control my knees, and then my waist began to break under the strain, and then my shoulders turned in, and in the end I was compacted and fetal, depleted by this thing that was crushing me without holding me…”
Andrew Solomon’s words filled the UCLA classroom at the start of “Out of the Shadows,” a PBS documentary on depression. My eyes started to water because for me, it was not an introduction to depression. His words were a reminder of a battle that I continuously deal with.
I’m not sure when my depression started. For me, it began softly, slowly. It eroded everything that I loved in my life to the point where I couldn’t enjoy myself anymore. Smiles and laughter came rarely. Instead, I’d feel dull, anxious, or despondent. I’d flash from feeling absolutely nothing to feeling the most pain that I’d ever experienced in my life.
The documentary was hard to watch. Yet, it was harder for me to listen to the responses of the other students after we had finished the video. One student raised his hand and commented that the woman in the video, who had collapsed to the floor screaming, seemed more neurotic and attention seeking than depressed. Many students nodded their heads in agreement.
It troubled me that even the well-educated students here at UCLA seem to not understand major depression, an illness that affects almost 1 in 10 individuals in a 1 year time period. It made me realize that there are more people unable to name what is happening to them or their loved ones because of a poor societal understanding of depression. Even when a person is aware of their illness, the stigma attached to depression can cause people not to seek treatment. A lot of the misconceptions about depression are regrettable but understandable, as doctors are unable at this time to physically test for depression (although depression does have a chemical basis), so it remains an “invisible illness.” Doctors can screen for depression by asking simple questions but often do not, leaving many people with depression untreated.
I wanted to make clear that people experience and act out their depression in a variety of ways. Gender, environment, age, culture, and personality can all affect the way depression materializes. For example, I cried a lot but some, especially men, cry very little. I was irritable, but some don’t have the energy to even get angry. I slept more, but some aren’t able to sleep at all. Some people function at a high level when depressed, while others can barely move.
Symptoms of depression include:
- Feelings of sadness, despair, or emptiness
- Feelings of guilt, helplessness, or worthlessness
- Increased irritability
- Anger or hostility, sometimes even acts of aggression
- Sluggishness in physical or mental activities
- Appetite loss or sudden cravings
- Loss of pleasure in activities that are normally enjoyable
- Dramatic changes in sleep patterns (like sleeping too much or not at all)
- Thoughts of suicide and death; suicide attempts
- Anxiety and restlessness
- Increased reliance on drugs to self-medicate
- Unexplainable body aches
While depression hurts every community, the LGBTQ community is especially vulnerable. The suicide of Leelah Alcorn makes it even more necessary to talk about how an environment of rejection increases depression rates within the LGBTQ community. Lack of acceptance in the immediate environment (for example, family and friends) and in the larger culture increases risk of depression. Young adults in the LGBTQ community who experienced high levels of parental rejection (as compared to LGBTQ young adults that experienced little or no parental rejection) also were almost 6 times as likely to be severely depressed, more than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs, more than 8 times as likely to attempt suicide, and more than 3 times as likely to engage in unprotected sex. Clearly, there are negative effects of unwelcoming environments.
As an individual who has experienced depression, I know how much community and support matter. My family and close friends have been so helpful in my recovery. I know that depression affects not only the person who has it but also those that surround that individual. Admittedly, it’s not always easy to support those in pain. The worst part of my depression, for sure, was feeling it cut me off from who I used to be, how it turned me into someone who was pessimistic and hopeless and irritable. For a while, my depression stagnated when my self-imposed isolation chipped away at my support groups. But at the end of the day, I have so many people that stayed, that helped me get help, and those who left no longer matter.
And so I plead, to those that know someone who is depressed, please try to support them. If it’s too much, if you need to take care of yourself, then direct them to other resources (which they will need anyways). Perhaps you can’t always lend your own moral, physical, or financial support, but you can direct them to other online or community resources that can provide that for them. The most important thing is to try to be understanding of the pain that your loved one is experiencing.
To those that have depression, it really does get better. But first, you need to reach out to those that can help you, both professionals and supporting individuals. When those around you don’t understand what you need, I think it’s important to remember that we should try to forgive them and ourselves. It is extremely hard to understand what major depression is like without having gone through it yourself. We need to remember that we are not at fault for our depression, nor are we helpless to it. There are known and readily available treatments, though it might take some time to find the right kinds and right balance of therapy and medication.
That’s not to say that there won’t be days where life feels equally as hard as it did during those weeks, months, maybe even years without treatment. Even to this day I sometimes feel the weight of my depression and anxiety swing back. But those days will become less and less frequent. You will be able to enjoy life again. Your hope and your future will return. And you will be able to show everyone what an amazing individual you are.