What do you think when you read the word?
Here are some of the guesses I have of what could have crossed your mind: sad, over used, weak, hard, real, pathetic, alone, get over it, all in your head, black hole hopeless, etc. ; or possibly it was a person that came to your thoughts: yourself, your mother, your brother, your friend, your sister, your spouse, your child, your neighbor, your cousin … and on and on could go the list.
There are many different things that such a word can conjure up; each of those different things brought on by our own personal experiences and combined with what we hear out in the world: in the media, at school, at work, from friends and family. I would venture to guess that unless you have been there, and actually possibly if you have been there, what comes to mind are described with more negative adjectives than positive ones. Why is that?
I believe it is because of stigma. If you don’t believe that to be the case, let me tell you what sentence is written under the Google definition of the word “stigma.” Stigma is defined as, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person”; with the example for how to use it in a sentence being: the stigma of mental disorder. To me, the use of that sentence reinforces just how much disgrace is wrapped around how individuals handle the emotional or mental challenges of life. We live in a culture that seeks to hide difficulties, that seeks to only accentuate the positive, at an individual level as well as expanding outward to various smaller communities and as society in general. Take a look at your Facebook feed, your Instagram and Twitter accounts, the conversations you have with coworkers, relatives, friends – do they tell the whole story?
Now, I’m not suggesting that we have to be telling our whole story to all of these groups, but if one’s reasoning for holding back is based on a fear of being disgraced by others for the weaknesses one has or the difficulties one faces, then I believe we have a problem. The problem can come in various forms and can be diverse in its impact for people based on their experiences but more often than not the result is silence – silence about the realities that are faced, silence about individual weakness and pain. Silence might not seem so bad at first, in fact, one might believe the silence is actually helping: If no one knows, I’m fine – Not thinking about it means it doesn’t hurt – If I avoid it, it will just go away. What we often realize too late, however, is that silence has its own dark side.
Silence creates disconnect; It leaves us feeling isolated in our experience and alone in our weakness. Silence has a way of working out a story in the background of our mind about who we are based on our pain, struggle, weakness, or secrets and then slowly letting that story make its way into how we think and feel about ourselves. Before we know it, we are acting on a belief about ourselves that didn’t have a chance to be questioned, to be looked at, to be said aloud and not be met with rejection.
The road to healing is always quicker when we allow for another person to see us, to accept us notwithstanding our weakness, when we let ourselves connect; but that is a hard thing to do when silence has been our companion for weeks, months, or years. In actuality, we have reason to fear because not everyone will be able to connect with us in our struggle. Though, the part that we forget to tell ourselves is that it’s okay if someone is unable to connect with us. In most cases, I believe an individual’s inability to connect or understand our pain or struggle isn’t a result of them not wanting to, but possibly more about not understanding exactly what to do to connect and show understanding. Can I blame them? No. There have been times in the midst of my own struggle that what I think I need or how I want people to connect with me changes from minute to minute. I have also come to believe that many times how others react to me on any given subject has more to do with where they are at in their own journey than a statement about who I am. I didn’t always believe that and sometimes I revert to old patterns and feel instant shame and a desire to hide when I reach out in vulnerability and I’m met with another’s inability to share in my struggle or to understand what I need. But the lie that silence likes to tell is that no one will relate, no one will connect or understand and that is just not true. Someone will get it, someone will understand; and as they do, the power that silence has to keep us disconnected and in pain will fade.
When I have gone through depression in my life it has always been tied to and manifested as a symptom of my PTSD. What that means is that I wasn’t just depressed, I was also full of anxiety, hyper vigilant to my surroundings, sensitive to loud noise, avoidance of thoughts or anything that could trigger a reminder of my trauma, dis-regulated in my other emotions, plagued with nightmares, and having a constant intrusion of thought, a not being able to stop thinking about the abuse. Depression never traveled alone and would usually end up taking a back seat to the more vocal of symptoms, but it was still felt and would grab my heart and cloud my world with a hopelessness that seemed never ending.
While it’s different for all people, I feel there is a commonality that is clear to all who have felt its pressing weight: an awareness that life seems to be going on without them, that others around them don’t seem to be drenched in a weight; knowledge that there is a different way to feel and that they’re missing how to get connected with that different way. A few weeks ago I had an experience that helped me figure out how to explain to others what this commonality felt like, what depression has, at times, looked like for me.
I went for a walk.
I know, you’re understanding how I view depression better already, right?
Thought so. But just in case you want some more explanation, I’ll continue.
I went for a walk near a place I hadn’t been before. It was tucked against the mountains near my home. It was a peaceful, quiet, area with a pond and nice trails lined by trees. It was a Saturday morning and I basically had the place to myself. Now, after I got over my initial fears of being eaten alive by a Siberian Tiger or attacked by a serial killer – those fears brought on by watching WAY too many crime shows and the plain truth that animals are terrifying and will strike at any time when in nature – I was having a slightly decent walk.
I know. I need to tone down my excitement.
Anyway, I was on my walk and the closer I got to the edge of the pond, the easier it was for me to hear what was going on at the amusement park near my home. There were cheers, laughter, music, things were going on over there and you could feel the energy. I sat down on a bench, under a tree, near the trail. I was alone, not another soul in the world. Every couple of minutes or so I would hear a new set of cries from the park as the same coaster whirled around it’s track and had people screaming in delight or fear at each drop or turn.
It came to me then that this was what it felt like to be depressed. This is what it felt like to be aware that life was going on and one was so close to it, but not able to be a part of it. I could see it, I could feel it and hear it but I wasn’t in it and I didn’t know how to get to it. The activity that was happening wasn’t all laughter and ease, there was fear in some of the screams, but it was energy, it was real, it was life! Now, in that moment as I sat on my bench I wasn’t depressed. I liked where I was and was content to just sit and be. I knew that if I wanted to, I could stand up and get myself over to the park and buy a ticket. What depression always feels like to me is a lack of that knowledge and an overwhelming exhaustion at the thought of all the steps it would take to get into the park; a hopelessness that the park even exists for me and an anger at myself that I can’t already just be there.
Life is the park, my friends, and everyone deserves to be there. Everyone.
What we have to remember is that often what we see or hear on the outside of someone’s life isn’t all there is and doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, I heard laughter and screams of delight coming from the park but that’s not all there was there. If I got the whole picture there probably was a dad fighting with his kids about what rides to go on, a frustrated mom trying to catch up to an energetic 4 year old who was running away from her at every chance because everything looked too fun and amazing, a couple had probably just broken up on the Ferris Wheel and then awkwardly sat in silence as the stupid wheel went around three more times, and of course there had to have been at least one hundred people sick from riding the tea cups, and on and on …
Life is hard, folks. We all know that but often we forget because we are too busy comparing our up and down’s to another person’s ups – remember, we only see what people choose to let us see.
What’s helped me over the last few weeks as I’ve navigated my own up’s and down’s won’t necessarily be something that will help you, but maybe it will inspire you to believe you are worth it, to believe you deserve to make your way into the park and that you are not trying to get there on your own. There are millions of people on the outside, you just don’t know it cause we are silent. Let’s start talking.
For me, the one tool that was able to get me out of a recent funk was laughter. I realized I hadn’t laughed, really laughed in weeks. No, it didn’t solve my problems and I often fell back into figuring out the struggles of my own life fairly soon, but for 16 minutes at a time I was distracted from it all. I watched a few episodes of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars getting coffee and remembered how much I love to laugh, how much I appreciate humor, and how much I wish I was Jerry Seinfeld’s best friend.
Can someone hook me up with that?