“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversations.” – Glenn Close
As I sat in on the doctors couch with a pile of tissues in my lap, the psychiatrist said without a shadow of a doubt: “Oh yeah, you have major depression.”
Like a shock to the heart I said, “What?! Major depression??” as I wiped the tears from my cheeks. “Not mild or moderate, you’re saying I’m majorly fucked?!” Fantastic, I thought. (Insert deep sigh paired with a contemplative eye close)
It was mid February last year, and it wasn’t exactly how I pictured a psychiatrist telling me of my mental illness. Rather, I pictured something more gentle and sympathetic. Perhaps a classic sugarcoat delivery. Nope! I got a cold splash to the face complete with ice cubes - so to speak.
As I took in the weight of the news, I sat on her couch with that pile of tissues, and I felt the weight of the news sink into my shoulders and chest. I wondered:
How did I get here?
Where did I go wrong?
How could I be so weak?
And that was the operative word that resonated - weak.
I proceeded after the appointment in a daze.
Down the monochrome painted hall of the doctor's office - in a daze.
Sitting in my car, in the parking structure, for God knows how long - in a daze.
Driving down the freeway - in a daze.
And the entire time I not so successfully held back tears from a crumbling facade as the news sunk in.
The following month progressed with sharing the news with my inner circle: my principal, the administration team on campus, my mother and sister, along with my best friend, her husband, and a couple other close friends. Of this inner circle, I fondly remember a conversation I had with a former coworker I affectionately called my work dad shortly after my diagnosis. I told him the news with a face full of tears in the teacher supply room.
“Miller, I just feel so defeated. I feel so weak.
“Babzy, you are anything but weak. You felt something was off for a while, and you sought out help. You didn’t ignore it. You didn’t sweep it under the rug, or bury your face in the sand. You’re dealing with it. That’s strength if I ever saw it."
After the initial shock subsided I proceeded with setting up a follow up appointment to look into antidepressants and a therapist. Aside from a medical standpoint, of facing down this depression opponent, I continued to armor myself with everything else that had kept my depression demons at bay: dance, the gym, boot camp, and friends and family gatherings. Normal life as I knew it.
Then the last thing I could have fathomed happened - a pandemic hit and the world shut down. Imagine...a month after I received my diagnosis - we go on lockdown because of COVID-19. Suddenly, everything my mental health depended on to cope was taken and stripped away from me. My armor vanished. My 5am boot camp workouts with a community of people - gone! The usuals I’d see greeting me as I’d enter my local Chuze Fitness after a long day - gone! My Wednesday night hip hop class with my favorite dance instructor and the usual faces jamming energy with - gone! Being able to see friends and family for any litany of an occasion - gone! My students’ faces and our playful banter IN THE CLASSROOM - gone! The few folks at work I confided in over my depression - gone!
I thought to myself, pour yourself a glass of wine and buckle up! It’s about to turn into the Wild West up in here!
And, as someone who doesn’t have someone to come home to at the end of a day, I faced a kind of isolation I never thought I’d face - I was truly alone. Just me and my depression. Let that sink in.
And don’t get it twisted, this isn’t some kind of pity party story. Believe me when I say, I like to think I’m a fairly strong woman, but battling this depression, coupled with the isolation from the pandemic, my demons have been having a full blown rave. They wreak havoc on me any old time of day - but their favorite time has got to be in the middle of the night when I lay awake trying to simply sleep.
I comically illustrated this to my best friend Ana as we sipped wine while watching our “This is Us” obsession. “Ana, I wake up, wide awake, at an ungodly hour and it’s like a party with me and all my demons. I’m like oh hey rejection, how ya doing? Abandonment, come on over and take a seat! Grief, it’s been a while, what’s new? Insecurity, I appreciate that reminder - I almost forgot that. Inadequacy, I appreciate that new insight. Loneliness, please tell me more. Oh, y’all are staying? You ain’t just popping in and out for a quick hello? Y’all gonna stick around a while? Oh, and ya won’t let me get some more sleep? Gee, that’s so sweet of y’all. Really fantastic. Gosh!
This year I’ve battled more breakdowns than I care to admit. Breakdowns in the midst of loneliness; breakdowns in the midst of trying my damndest for my students in the midst of a pandemic; breakdowns amid breakups, heartbreak and disappointment; breakdowns from family triggers; breakdowns as I wrestle emotions surrounding an empty classroom and all the yellow tape that’s involved in bringing students back on campus. Believe me when I say the amount of regulations, yellow tape, work, planning, stress, and constant protocols takes away every joy out of teaching.
And when I say breakdowns, I mean the kind that starts with a trigger, progresses with that deep dark spiral of thoughts, and ends in pure unadulterated rage of tears. The kind of rage that brings me to my knees as I fold to the ground overwhelmed by a gushing white water rapid of tears. Unapologetic ugly crying, and screaming, and slamming hands, and throwing; all the while as I’m emitting this chaos, I’m in a muffled vacuum - as if underwater. I barely hear any of the rage I’m spewing out in my unadulterated outbursts. Every time it’s happened this year, (like most things in this pandemic), I’ve been alone. No one there to catch me; nobody there to grab me and just hug me, tell me it’s going to be okay. In the wake of each of these breakdowns, I’m left sitting, face wet from my waterworks, and just numb, hardly able to think straight, or at all for that matter. Like being jumped, but instead of physical damage, it’s an emotional beating. It’s as if I’m in the music video for an Alanis Morissette song, and I can really connect to her lyrics: “you cry you learn, you lose you learn, you bleed you learn, you scream you learn.” And true to the song, “you wait to see when the smoke clears.” I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve had her playlist on repeat - often.
When I tell someone from my inner circle about a recent breakdown they always ask: OMG, Barb I’m so sorry. Are you okay? Why didn’t you call me?
My answer is always the same: “Sometimes it comes outta nowhere and it’s all consuming, and other times when I see it creeping in, it’s difficult to articulate myself when I’m just trying to keep it together before falling apart. That lump in my throat is hovering, & I know if I open my mouth it’ll be a mess, like a major spill on aisle 5 - so to speak.
I recall one very controlled breakdown around this time last year as I sat in my principal's office speaking to him and the vice principal at the time. And when I say very controlled, it took everything I had to remain somewhat composed in an effort of professional tact. I came in to drop off some paperwork and he stopped me to ask about a kid who burned his hand on a hot glue gun from making their model missions, and the interrogation of questions that followed was enough to push me over the edge. And to be clear, I had a great working relationship with our principal at the time, but he was young and new in the position, and likely felt some heat from the parent, and so in turn he felt he needed to question me about it. This then turned into a conversation about a moment a week prior in which I asked a support staff to walk my class to Mass because I needed a minute before losing it, due to a repeated behavioral issue that happened between two boys in the hallway. Again, to be clear, I didn’t allow my students to see me like that, and I made sure they had a staff member with them. But, when my principal asked me about it, it was more in an interrogative manner, as a pose to a tone of care and concern for my well-being.
As I looked at him dead in the face with the most stone cold tone, “are you implying that I’m incompetent?”
“No, no, no, I just want to make sure we have a point person who can take your class so they don’t see you like that.”
“They didn’t see me like that. I made sure there was a faculty member with them. And I followed up with disciplinary measures after. I did my due diligence.”
(Insert nervous backpedaling statement about supervision and a not so sensitive statement about my mental health)
With a deep sigh and pressed lips before saying, “You know Josh, this “incident” happened almost a week ago, I handled it with professionalism. I removed myself, but still made sure they had an adult with them, AND I took disciplinary actions with the boys in question. But since then, you didn’t follow up with me once about it; you didn’t ask me how I was doing; if I was okay; or how I was feeling since my “moment.” But now, NOW, you want to bring it up; and NOT from a sympathetic standpoint, but from a logistical standpoint. You know Josh, you were one of the first people who supported me in getting assessed, and one of the first people I told about my depression diagnosis, and you received it with care and encouragement. So you of all people, to speak to me in this way...it feels as if you could really care less about me as a person and one of your teachers. As long as the logistics are covered, fuck my feelings right?”
I rendered the man speechless and dare I say a tear welling up on his bloodshot face. I had never seen that look on his face before. We ended the conversation with a sincere apology from him, and him acknowledging his misstep; I expressed my gratitude for his apology, before we ended in a hug of reconciliation.
A year under my belt of this official diagnosis I can confidently say I’m definitely not out of the woods, but the shame I initially felt a year ago has since passed, and I’d even go as far to say I have a bit of a sense of humor about my mental health (hopefully that was evident in this entry). In my experience of my battle with depression, I can relate to the words of Elizabeth Wurtzel, “The thing about depression is that a human being can survive almost anything, as long as they see the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end. The fog is like a cage without a key.” Or like the song lyrics of Natalie Imbruglia “it’s as if running out of faith, feeling cold and ashamed.”
Speaking honestly and candidly, I’ve been on my knees in tearful prayer, weeping to a God I wonder: is He even listening? Like his Son on the cross screaming why He’s abandoned Him. And after I say some explicit, choice, angry words to God I get some reprieve in some way or another. Make no mistake - it’s crumbs of reprieve. It’s as if I know what the Israelites felt when they’d get just enough mana in the dessert after they escaped Pharaoh. But as I was recently teaching my students about the Theological virtues, I was reminded how hope gives my pain meaning. That hope in some ways has been restored. I may not be able to go to hip hop classes comfortably yet, but I sure can try out roller skating. You certainly won’t find me in a gym yet, but you sure as hell will find me running or hiking. I might not be able to go to social gatherings with friends and family yet, but ask me how my new found interest in cooking is going. And in my pain and brokenness, I’ve become ever more grateful for empathy, patience, kindness and humor of those around me - as it really does lighten this load. The adage is true: be kind always, because you never know what inner battle someone is fighting.
At the risk of quoting a cheesy chick flick, Prince Eddie from The Prince and Me said it well: “and while our sorrow may be profound, the clouds will clear and the sun will shine on us again.” I can assure you, I will savor the warmth of that sunlight when it shines on me again. Because these clouds have and will continue to foster more empathy and sympathy for others in my life; it makes me appreciative of goodness and generosity; it teaches me to love harder and not take love for granted. Because the truth is, once you’ve been in the dark, you learn to appreciate everything that shines, and life’s nectar is just a little sweeter.
“It’s so difficult to describe depression to someone who’s never been there, because it’s not sadness. I know sadness. Sadness is to cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling—that really hollowed-out feeling.” —J.K. Rowling