Monday, December 6, 2010

Coming Out Of The Depression Closet

The 50 or 60-something character Saul from the ABC drama Brothers & Sisters is sitting in his nephews car, dejected and still a little inebriated. A few minutes before he had called Kevin to come bail him out of jail after driving under the influence and ramming his car into a tree. And then he said something to his nephew that he had admitted to almost no one, including himself. "I'm a gay man Kevin, and I don't know what to do, I've wasted my life," (presumably hiding his sexuality.) Fast forward awhile into the episode and he comes out to the whole Walker family. It is like a wave of fresh air has spilled through the room and even into my living room as I watch. At the end of the episode, Kevin - who has been out for many years - is tying the knot with the love of his life Scotty.

And now it is my turn to come out of a closet, in the hopes of helping someone or a number of people. I am not gay, but instead have suffered often in silence for many years with the silent tormenter - depression.

There are benefits and runs being held all over the continent each year for various causes. There's a run for breast cancer, there are telethons for multiple sclerosis. Most recently, the "Movember" movement spread like wildfire which offered that it was in existence to raise awareness of prostate cancer. These are all worthwhile causes and I applaud their efforts.

But there is another epidemic sweeping through our world that often goes unspoken. It is just as debilitating as a cancer diagnosis or a degenerative disease. It is mental illness, specifically depression. I write this article in the hopes that someone suffering from this disease will realize they are not alone. Another popular movement in the last several months there has been another popular movement, most noticeably on YouTube, called The Trevor Project. Scores of celebrities as well as other members of society have recorded short videos in support of young gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual youth who have been bullied by their peers for their sexuality. The message sent to these youth: "It Gets Better." It is this same message I believe scores of people suffering from depression need to hear as well.

I liken depression to a cancer of the mind, only there is no clear-cut course of treatment such as radiation, chemotherapy or surgery. I will discuss some of the treatment options in a couple of minutes. But first, a little of my story.

I have knowingly suffered from depression since I was about 15 or 16 years old (that is for 15 years or so.) Anxiety is often a kissing cousin of depression and I remember going into a panic while sitting through a Christmas Eve church service when I was 15 or 16, and I thought I was losing my mind - literally. That is when I was first prescribed medication.

I realize now that there are various causes of depression. Some are physiological, chemical, or genetic, and others are environmental and social causes, such as trauma. For myself I believe it a combination of a few of these.

Let me share just a few of the ways that this disease called depression has adversely affected my life:

- lack of energy to pursue the things one is passionate about

- lack of energy to get out of bed until late in the day, therefore missing out on most of the day

- a racing mind

- anxiety about almost everything

- lack of concentration

- lack of memory

- it has affected very important relationships to me, to the point where they've fallen apart

- isolation ("I have this big secret that no one knows about and if they did they wouldn't accept me anymore")

Now let me discuss some of the frustration of dealing with the mental health system here in Ontario. I have seen scores of therapists and psychiatrists (though getting an appointment with the latter often takes months, not weeks, then when you finally do they talk with you for 15 minutes and simply send you off with a new concoction of medications.) I have been on many many anti-depressants/anti-anxiety drugs, many with side-effects. And with these particular medications, there is no telling whether they will be effective or not, so it's a crapshoot, you just have to keep going back to your shrink and adjusting doses or completely changing them up. And then you're back to square one. I have been part of group therapy that has been a positive experience. I have in the past tried to self-medicate with alcohol, which on the other hand has not been a positive experience.

Christmas is often a very hard time for people who battle depression, perhaps because of the gloomy weather, but also because everyone expects you to be happy around this time of year, so you stand out like a sore thumb when you're not. (Thankfully for me, I don't find this to be a problem, as I love Christmas and find joy in it.)

I am writing this article now for a couple of reasons: The more people I share my illness with, the more responses I get such as "I've struggled with it to," or "I have a loved one who battles depression." Secondly I want to encourage those suffering from depression or other mental illness that there is help and there is hope.

I can not stress enough how debilitating this disease can be. Again I compare it to a cancer that will not let you go. Perhaps the worst part of it is the isolation that you feel from those around you or society in general.

You don't have to go through it alone. I implore you to reach out to professionals in your community. Doctors, psychiatrists, therapists (for instance in Kitchener-Waterloo there are agencies that provide counselling services on a sliding fee scale). Medication may very well be a necessity for the time being or perhaps long term. Group therapy can be reassuring, just knowing that there are so so many others who have this disease.

Let me speak about what is helping me the most right now. Firstly, being around friends and family who love me and accept me exactly as I am, people I can share my struggles with who will not judge or would never reject me.

Secondly, developing my spirituality has been huge. God, or the Divine,  has always been part of my life, but as my beliefs have evolved, I have went from an evangelical Christianity to a more liberal,  inclusive spirituality. I am happy to be part of a spiritual community that is inspiring and loving. I think getting in touch with the Divine, which is pretty much getting in touch with yourself, can be very helpful.

I would encourage you who are reading this right now to think if you have a family member or friend who might be wrestling with this awful disease in silence or on their own. Read again the point-form list of how depression has affected my life. Kindly and softly reach out to them, letting them know that while you may not have any easy answers, you will never leave them and are there for them.

If it would help, I'd encourage you to either share this article on your Facebook page, or e-mail the link to anyone it might help.

You don't have to go through it alone anymore. Even though you can't see it now, you can have a bright and fulfilling future. There are professionals, there are friends who will not shun you. Also, it is important to continue to pursue things you are passionate about as you battle this, as hard as it is. This can be a light in the darkness. For me, it's singing, writing, and hanging out with friends.

Bless you wherever you are on your journey,

Mark Andrew