Last week I started telling you the story of my battle with anxiety and depression. If you want to read that story, you can click the link to read it here. As mentioned in last week's post, at age 16 I was given a prescription of prayer and church camp by a particularly ill-equipped Christian counselor in an attempt to cure me of my depression. Eager to obey "doctor's orders" I registered for two church camps back to back. Last week was the story of Church Camp One. This week's story begins at Church Camp Two.
I had never before attended Church Camp Two, and didn't have any idea what to expect. On the first night there was an introductory assembly to explain the rules, meet the staff, and so on. At the end the camp director raised his booming voice and asked everyone, “NOW... WHAT'S OUR MOST IMPORTANT RULE HERE AT CAMP?”. Hundreds of cheerful teenage voices yelled back at him in unison, “BE HAPPY!”.
Welp, THAT'S not good.
I immediately and unintentionally made the most disgusted expression my face can make. I looked around as if I'd woken up from a nap to find out I had accidentally been inducted into a happiness cult that I wanted no part of. Before it occurred to me to keep my mouth shut, I blurted out with MUCH distain, "I can't DO that."
The girl next to me started laughing, thinking I was making some kind of snarky joke. To be fair, about half of what I say does fall into that category. This time I wasn’t kidding at all. I had unwittingly walked into a trap where I was incapable of being what they expected me to be. I didn't know WHY I was so incapable of being happy, only that I was.
Looking back, I think this story is hilarious. I see it in my mind in cartoon form. I picture all of those campers with wide, crazy eyes shouting, "BE HAPPY!" with one girl in the middle not participating. She's dressed all in black with hair hanging over one eye, wearing a Grumpy Cat expression with a thought bubble above her head that reads, "I hate everyone." It's funny now. In that moment I felt trapped, helpless, and desperately isolated - and I was stuck there for a week.
I'll admit, I didn't try very hard to glean much from Church Camp Two. Church Camp One certainly didn't cure me, and this place was even less likely to. I survived it, I went home, and I started seeing a different therapist.
I left the first session with my new therapist with a prescription for Lexipro, and a diagnosis: Depression.
I had known that I was depressed, but I had never understood that I had depression.
When my latest season of extreme depression hit me in November it came on stronger than ever before, and it brought with it an abundance of anxiety. This season of extreme depression (November - May) will heretofore be referred to as my Great Depression.
I had experienced anxiety before my Great Depression, and had even experienced several anxiety attacks. However, those attacks had always been a reaction to some kind of legitimate real-life stressor. I had them after my boyfriend of 2 years broke up with me. I had them when I was one week out from graduating college and didn't have a place to live. I had them when I was about to get married.
This time the depression and anxiety came out of NOWHERE. I felt like I was going insane. I knew there was no legitimate reason to be hyperventilating in a corner, but I couldn't stop hyperventilating in the corner. I would often feel like two separate people. One version of me was scream-crying in my bedroom with a razor blade held to my leg, while the other version of me beat against soundproof glass yelling, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING? THERE IS NOTHING WRONG! WHY ARE YOU ACTING THIS WAY? STOP!". In those moments I honestly felt possessed by something other than myself. I knew there was a tiny, tiny part of me that was healthy and rational. She tried to subdue the other half, but she kept getting pushed out of the way. She kept getting beaten up. She kept losing. I became angry with her for not being able to make the other half of me cooperate by sheer force of will.
Then my current therapist (who is awesome) told me that I have Major Depressive Disorder and a severe version of Generalized Anxiety Disorder - and I've never felt so relieved.
Suddenly I understood that there was a real reason why I felt this way. I wasn't depressed. I have Depression. I wasn't anxious. I have Anxiety. That distinction matters. During my Great Depression when asked why I wanted to end my life the only answer I had was, "I don't know. I just do." I didn't have a "reason" for feeling so bad, but I also couldn't make it stop.
If you've been diagnosed and are struggling with the realization that you officially have a bonafide mental illness - I get it, it's difficult to hear that you're one of those people. You're mentally ill. Ugh, it sounds so icky. It comes with visions of straight jackets and people chattering to themselves facing the wall.
My personal opinion, which I'll assume you're interested in since you are reading my blog, is that this is GREAT news! Now you have a name for what is happening to you! Now you can narrow down your search for solutions and make a battle plan. Now you can call this thing what it is and try to regain control. Congratulations! You're mentally ill!
Knowing something's name gives you power over it. We see this in scripture when Jesus, in order to cast out a demon, asks for it's name. We see this in literature like The Kingkiller Chronicles, in which someone can command the wind if they know it's name. We see this when parents are upset with their children and they summon the child using their FULL name.
Now I have a name for what is happening to me. Calling these things by their names has helped me immensely in gaining control over them. Now, when I feel like two separate versions of myself, I don't feel crazy. I feel comforted.
I know who I am. I'm Stephanie. The monkey on my back trying to convince me to cut myself again is Depression, and I have no problem beating Depression back with medication. I'll throw punches at Depression all day. The voice in my head that insists that everyone I love will leave me is Anxiety, and I have no qualms about getting in Anxiety's face and telling it to back off me. I interrupt it. I tell it to shut up. I don't owe Depression and Anxiety my attention. We are not friends.
Most days (now that I have the help of medicine on my side) I look at Depression and Anxiety and say, "I see you over there. I know who you are and what you're trying to do, and I'm ignoring you." On harder days I can't tell the difference between Stephanie and the others, so I enlist the help of my friends to determine what's real. They'll tell me, sometimes over and over again, that's not you, that's Anxiety, you don't have to listen to it. Then there are days when I really need back up. On a particularly bad day just last week I called out to God, "They're here and they won't leave me alone! Command them to leave!". Now, when Depression and Anxiety come creeping up behind me I recognize what is happening, I call it by it's name, and I fight it as best I can using the tools at my disposal. Sometimes I'm a champion in that fight, other times the two overpower me. That's going to happen, and I try not to be upset with myself about it. We can't win every fight.
If your diagnosis scares you, that makes perfect sense. Try, however, to reframe it. Remember that understanding your enemy makes you better suited to destroy it, and that knowing how strong your enemy is can help you spot where it is weak. Remember that knowing your enemy's name gives you the power to try and command it. Don't be afraid to use those ugly words to describe what's happening to you. You have Major Depressive Disorder? Call it what it is. Summon it like a petulant child and tell it to sit in the corner. Don't use a euphemism because your enemy's name is scary and found in psychology text books.
Many people hesitate to see a therapist because they are afraid to be told that they do in fact have a mental illness. For about six months too long I refused to take medication, insisting that my Great Depression wasn't a disorder, but just an uncommonly long string of very bad days. When we are afraid or ashamed of what is happening to us, we are less likely to seek proper help.
Don't be afraid of the name. Recognize it for what it is - something other than you - something to be fought, tamed, defeated, and silenced. To quote Albus Dumbledore, "Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
And you don't deserve to be afraid.