This marks the beginning of a new mini-feature on the blog: Throwback Thursdays. See below for more!
When I was nineteen (and probably manic), I submitted a column proposal to my hometown’s newspaper. Shockingly, they decided to pick it up. It wasn’t a huge reader base—my hometown’s population is somewhre in the 60,000 range—but I was surprised and elated to have the opportunity to share my experiences and put a face to mental illness, which was a big deal in a small city in Iowa.
I had to abandon the project seven months later, when taking a full course load and working two part-time jobs plus an internship became too much; however, I was approached the following summer by two women in my hometown to write a series of articles regarding the transition from high school or college to the “real world.” The series caught the attention of Mental Health America (the Iowa branch) and I was honored with an award and some cash (which, as a poor twenty-year-old college student, was greatly appreciated).
I’ve kept all of the articles and letters in a box for years. I still pull them out sometimes when I start to feel like a hack or minimize the impact of the things I’ve done. Ultimately, it’s not about recognition or awards (although I must admit that my writerly ego really enjoys being stroked from time to time). It’s about having tangible proof that I was here, that I was able to accomplish something despite having been dealt what most would agree is a fairly difficult hand in life.
As an existential nihilist, it’s difficult for me to see any inherent meaning in the universe, which I view as absurd and often confusing. But it’s actually a very hopeful philosophy/worldview to have, because it means that each of us has the opportunity to create meaning for ourselves and share it with others. I am slowly beginning to learn that “hope” is a four-letter word, but it’s not necessarily a bad one.
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share my articles, some memorable stories about my time as a columnist, and perhaps a few of the more poignant letters and emails I received in response to my columns. I’m somewhat mortified by how young my voice is, but I’m reminding myself that it’s an interesting and valuable snapshot of who I was at 19: a girl who wasn’t afraid to put herself out there, who believed she could make a difference in her own small way and was maybe a bit idealistic.
In some ways, I think I am still that girl.
“Depression, cancer of the mind” was originally published on October 15, 2008. My editor had titled the first article, which I’m assuming was because I was too disorganized/cycling too hard to do it myself. I can’t remember who came up with the titles after that; it was probably a mixture. The column appeared every other Wednesday.
Note 1: The features editor decided to give my series a title—Depression: Cancer of the Mind—and a little banner at the bottom, which I thought was the coolest thing ever.
Note 2: At this point in time, I was still diagnosed with and being treated for mild-to-moderate PTSD and general depression. It wasn’t until September 2012 that I was re-evaluated and diagnosed with major depressive disorder, and it was an even longer wait (July 2013) until my correct diagnosis—rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, type I, and C-PTSD with dissociative features—was confirmed and I was able to begin treatment.
Depression, cancer of the mind Published October 15, 2008
Sometimes people ask me, “How did you do it? How did you make it through 11 years of severe depression without ever once asking for help?”
I guess I can understand their disbelief: I have been through the mental equivalent of hell and come out the other side. I have climbed over Satan’s frozen back, much like Dante traveling through Hell in The Inferno. The only difference is that in this case, “Satan” is the despair trapped inside my mind, causing it to decay slowly from the inside out.
Some say that schizophrenia is the cancer of mental illness, but to an extent, I disagree. It’s true that schizophrenia does kill the mind and allow the sufferer to descend into madness. But just as there are many types of cancer, there are infinite varieties of mental illness that could be considered cancerous.
Depression is one of them.
When you are depressed, most people assume that you will “snap out of it,” even though the stereotypical person living with depression does not leave his or her bed for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. It is every bit as destructive as cancer or diabetes, though even now few people realize it.
I suppose this is because people traditionally fear the unknown, and mental illness, aside from death, is one of the biggest unknowns of all. It can strike anyone at any time. Even those of us living with depression who have found ways to cope and make it through the ending and exhausting days look just like everyone else. Unless you are having a particularly bad bout of depression and feel the urge to run from the room crying (which society views as unacceptable), depression usually goes unnoticed.
It is my hope that by sharing my struggles against the silent suffering associated with depression, others will know that they will be OK, that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, and will share this knowledge with others. The more that people know about mental illness, the better; educating the public is the first and most effective step in fighting to tear down the stereotypes.
Something that I would like anyone who has lost hope to know is that you are not crazy, only extremely sensitive to the world around you. You are very brave, but you do not need to suffer alone. There is always help available, and accepting it is not admitting defeat.