When I was diagnosed with breast cancer a little over four years ago, I was very open with everyone. I shared my situation openly because I wanted people to know my symptoms so they could educate themselves. As I often say, early detection and treatment is key. But I also have another disease that I've kept quiet for a number of years. I haven't shared it because I worried what others would think of me. I didn't want it to impact my job or the way people treated me—so I quietly dealt with it with the help of family and a few close friends. But I think this year—possibly more than others in the past—it might be useful to share my story just in the off chance it helps someone else.
About five years ago, I was diagnosed with depression. Like full-blown, I-was-in-a-really-bad-place, depression. I had always suspected I had SAD (seasonal affective disorder) but did what I could on my own to address it (happy lights and such). But about five years ago, I hit a perfect storm of events that led to a much bigger issue than I had ever experienced before.
I knew something wasn't right for months leading up to it. I was feeling paranoid, sad, couldn't sleep, constantly worrying, etc. But I told myself I could handle it—I always had in the past. After months of feeling like this, I finally mustered up the courage to make an appointment with my doctor to discuss it. But being the person I am, I put a smile on my face and downplayed my symptoms. I couldn't admit that there was something wrong—after all, I thrive on always being in control. I couldn't admit that I was "failing" at this. So, I left his office promising to exercise and maybe take some vitamin D (all good things, but not nearly enough for the place I was in).
Although there are a lot more details that I am leaving out, over the course of the next few days, I ended up in a position where I had to admit I couldn't handle it. My body broke down and yielded the white flag of surrender that I couldn't raise myself. I remember crying in that same doctor’s office only a few days after my first appointment asking what was wrong with me and why I couldn't handle it like everyone else. His response: "What makes you think everyone else is handling it?" He then went on to mention all the people (including doctors, lawyers, moms, dads, etc.) that he treats for addiction, depression, anxiety, health issues caused by stress and anxiety, and other such ailments—things we often don't talk about so we have this ill-conceived notion that everyone else is doing a better job at "handling it" than we are.
That really resonated with me, and in the past few years I've realized I'm not alone. And I’ve watched as many more people have come forward in all professions letting others know that they suffer from depression and other related diseases. But yet, I still kept quiet, worried about the consequences of sharing it—worried that people would think less of me as a result or would question my ability to do my job.
What I've learned, though, is that depression is a disease—like any other chronic disease. You can treat it with good health habits, meditation (i.e., exercise for your brain), counseling, and even medication. And with a good combo of all of those things, life improves. Unfortunately, it's not a "just put on a smile and a happy disposition will make it all better" kind of thing. Depression doesn't just go away—it's a constant battle—but with help, those terrible feelings disappear to the background.
But because of societal expectations, people do put on that smile for others. They worry about seeking help and the stigma associated with it. (Like I said—I was open with breast cancer, but not about this—although I guarantee I handled breast cancer 100 percent better than I would have if I hadn't gotten treatment for depression before it.)
So why am I sharing this now after all of these years of silence? We're heading into a time of year when people struggle in normal years (winter and the darkness that comes with the time change). But this year will likely be worse for those who already suffer from seasonal depression as many people have additional obstacles they are facing—financial instability, illness, the isolation that will come as a result of COVID-19, canceled family and holiday events, etc. And there will be many others who have never had an issue in the past but may experience symptoms for the first time this year—and like me, may not immediately recognize the signs that something is off.
So, what can you do? Check on your family, friends, and neighbors. Watch your kids. Watch for signs in them and in yourself. Don't ignore anything that seems off. And by all means, do not be afraid to seek help. You are not weak for doing so—you are actually quite strong. You likely wouldn't hesitate to see your doctor for high blood pressure—depression and other mental health issues are no different. They are a disease so don't treat them differently.
Today, I still do weekly counseling, take medication, and meditate regularly. Many times, I don't feel I need some of those things, but I stick with them as a preventative tool. I don't ever want to end up back where I was so many years ago but it's a constant battle and I do what I can to stay on the winning side. I want you to know that all levels of help are out there. Don't be afraid to seek it out. And I'm happy to share more of my story with you—or put you in the right direction if you need it. But what I can confidently tell you is that by seeking and receiving treatment, I not only feel better, but I’m better equipped to handle all aspects of life.
It's going to be a long winter and we’re all going to face a lot of obstacles. So please, look out for yourself and others.
Emily Kirk is an associate with McCune Wright Arevalo, LLP in Edwardsville, Illinois.
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