Let’s break down some barriers. In honor of Carrie.
Soooooo many of us have dealt with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, addiction, PTSD, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses. Many of my family members and many of my friends, hell…out of all my Facebook friends, I KNOW of at least 100 of you who have suffered or had a family member who suffered. That’s just who I KNOW about.
But we generally don’t talk about it publicly. There’s so much shame. When I have chosen to talk about this subject publicly, I’ve later been approached countless times privately. Many of you have confided in me your personal experience — whether it’s yours or a family member’s…and I’ve been asked many times to talk to others who are suffering. Privately.
Several years ago, I suffered a severe and debilitating depressive episode. I couldn’t function. I received months of expensive intensive treatment. I received electroconvulsive therapy (ECT or “shock treatment”), and tried many different medications.
There were no awareness walks where people gathered around, wore pink and posted on social media, no GoFundMe page, and almost no public acknowledgement of my illness. Not because people didn’t care, but because there is no template, no etiquette, no social contract around how to respond to mental illness.
I lost my job in an ugly way that I thought only happened in the movies. I also lost some friends. I missed a close friend’s wedding because I was recovering from ECT. She ended the friendship, because she thought that I didn’t care enough to attend…not able to grasp that I was having electric currents passed through my brain. The procedure affects short-term memory and makes driving and staying awake impossible. Severe depression is not about not wanting to do something or not caring about people.
During these experiences, I was encouraged directly and indirectly to stop talking about my illness. So, I did. I knew that I didn’t want to lose another job or lose friends who were uncomfortable, confused, or scared. So I stopped talking about it, for the most part, for 6 or so years. I decided to leave it behind. I put on a different face and smiled.
I don’t know that that was the wrong choice. As someone told me at the time, “Never underestimate the importance of your game face.” And I think that’s right. And yet — when you put on a different face to make others more comfortable with your pain, you also lose contact with the part of you that experiences joy.
And then people don’t really know you.
I will always have a very special place in my heart for my cousin’s husband who first broke the silence and walked up to me at a Christmas party and said — loud enough for anyone to hear — “Let’s cut the bullshit. How are you?” And with those 7 words, I was no longer alone.
There is a certain level of closeness I have now with the people who were willing to sit with me in it — even if just for 5 minutes. To accept, not deny, not fix, just exist within it with me. Even more so with the folks who took the next step, before or after me, to say ME TOO.
I am a survivor. I’ve survived sexual abuse, an eating disorder, depression, and anxiety. Why should I be ashamed? I didn’t choose those experiences, and I fought like hell to survive.
I am proud of my struggle. And I’m incredibly proud of all of you who have done the same.
Today, I’m having adventures. I’m living a life that, at one dark point, didn’t seem possible. I am living out some of my childhood dreams. Most of the time, I am depression-free. When I do get a bit depressed, I recognize it immediately for what it is, while it is still mild, and I take steps to fight it. I take medication, I see a therapist, and I don’t keep it a secret anymore. I have my family who have been through it all with me, a good support system, and amazing friends.
Every once in awhile, friends still get spooked. I’ve had friends ask nervously, “Are you talking to someone about this?” And I usually say, “Yes. I’m talking to you. It’s ok.” Because, at least when it’s mild, that’s enough for me personally. Connecting with another person does more for me — even if we’re talking about something silly —than any other treatment. And that can’t happen if I am secretive. Sometimes the best thing is to talk about it directly. Sometimes the best thing is to talk about something superficial. To laugh about something super dumb. Most of the time, I choose dumb. I love dumb. But having the option to talk about the uncomfortable stuff makes all that dumb possible.
I go to work and I smile. I have a pretty amazing job! It took a while for that smile to become genuine again. When you fake smiling long enough, you get disconnected from your face. You have to relearn to connect your face with your emotions.
One of the greatest gifts for me from my experience is that I finally have a greater capacity for joy. I appreciate the good times like nobody else. I have more empathy for others. And I don’t tend to judge others when it comes to the little things in life. When you’ve gone through something where you were the disaster, other people’s mini disasters don’t seem like a thing.
As much stigma as still remains, Carrie Fisher came out publicly during a time that was far less open than our society has become. She was incredibly brave. And she helped us laugh about it.
Because it’s ok to laugh about, too. I mean, c’mon guys. Mental illness is ridiculous.
But first we have to move through the pain and discomfort. We have to say it out loud. Because repressing and denying pain represses and denies joy.
And that’s not funny.