I told the Internet a secret and it went viral.
Here’s what has — and hasn’t — changed since then
Exactly one year ago, I posted an article that told my secret.
Publishing it felt like pulling my heart out of my chest and asking people to hold it like I would ask them to hang onto a purse or a jacket. I worried they’d dangle it between their thumbs and pointer fingers before turning their noses away. I worried they’d critically ask, “Jeez, what do you have in here?!” because I’d revealed too much.
I worried that people would try to rub the dark spots off my heart and get frustrated when they wouldn’t vanish — that they would hand it back to me, shrug and say “I’m sorry, this can’t be fixed. I can’t help you.”
That didn’t happen. To date, more than a million people have read about my depression, whether online, or in print, like my grandma who read about it in Cleveland’s newspaper, The Plain Dealer.
After my friend texted me that it was my “five year homecoming queen-aversary,” I wrote a journal entry trying to figure out why I ran. (If you didn’t read the article, I ran for the crown because my 17-year-old self thought winning would help cure my depression. It didn’t). The title meant so much time me at the time, but I rarely thought about it after high school.
I didn’t plan on having the reflection leave the safe pages of my journal. There’s a stigma against mental illness that tells those of us who are affected not to talk about it. We’re supposed to think happy thoughts, count our blessings and focus on the positive.
We’re not supposed to write articles about how much pain we’re in because we’re told our lives aren’t really that bad compared to other people’s, and because revealing a mental illness means people might think we’re weak, incapable or “crazy.”
Nearly 16 million adults had a major depressive episode in 2013. Some statistics say one in five people aged 13 to 18 experience a major mental disorder in a given year. Many more are undiagnosed but are at war with themselves, their emotions slicing and cutting them up because they don’t think they can speak up. I know the feeling, and thought sharing my story might help prevent others from feeling alone, as I often did.
Still, I was scared. I posted the link on my Facebook page, closed my computer, turned off my phone, and walked into the world, my heartstrings attached to the Internet. I waited to see what, if anything, would happen next.
After my article was published, some people told me I shouldn’t have done it. I didn’t have a full-time job when I wrote it, and they warned me that employers could see me as less competent. Other people liked to remind me that I wasn’t dating anyone. They told me, as if I didn’t already know, that if any potential dates Googled me, they would see my depression in longform within the top five search results, and “didn’t I want to keep that hidden for a while so I didn’t scare them away?”
These people don’t know that most people haven’t been scared away. Publishing my article didn’t stop me from getting hired for a full-time position. It didn’t stop me from dating or making new friends. In fact, it deepened most of my relationships. Now, when my friends feel aimless and scared as they try to navigate the world, they want to tell me about it. They feel I can understand. I do.
And, those who told me I shouldn’t have published my story don’t know about all the messages I received from people around the world who could relate to feelings of hopelessness.
The first message I read when I logged back onto the Internet after publishing my story was from someone who had spent the past week planning how she would die. She couldn’t see a way out of her pain. She was 16.
She wasn’t the only one who reached out. Over the course of the next week, hundreds of people, most of them teenagers, wrote to me from as far away as Singapore and Brazil. Many of them were sad and scared. They wanted to know if things would ever get better. I wanted to know, too.
I responded to all of them, even though I felt bad that I couldn’t give them a definitive answer. But, what I could give them, besides resources to contact suicide prevention groups, was the advice to tell someone how they felt.
“Telling someone who cares about you can help remind you of your worth,” I told many of them. “When it feels like the world is dark, it’s nice to have a reminder that you are capable of bringing someone joy.”
But I quickly forgot my own advice.
When the frigid temperature makes the air numb skin, people will say that they can’t feel their ears or their fingers or their toes. I think the opposite is true. It’s so cold that, unlike when the temperature is mild, people become aware of their extremities. They feel them tingling and pricking, raw and exposed.
This is what my depression is like. Sometimes, depression erases all feeling into numbness, but I often feel everything — the tingles, pricks, rawness and vulnerability — in my chest all at once. It hurts.
A tidal wave of depression knocked me over this past winter. Not only did my feelings trap and isolate me, the world did, too. I moved for a new job to a place further away from my family and where I didn’t have many friends. The mounds of snow shut down public transportation, so no one left their houses and I couldn’t meet anyone. It didn’t matter to me anyway. The pain in my chest was so unbearable I couldn’t stand up.
Rather than call my friends or family, I spent an entire weekend lying on the floor tracing the patterns in the wood panels, hoping that if I focused on something other than how much my heart hurt, the pain would leak through the cracks. The stigma that almost prevented me from publishing my article had caught up to me.
During that time, a 17-year-old girl sent me a Facebook message to let me know how she had told her parents she needed help after reading my article.
“I just felt comfortable sharing my story with you after reading yours and thought I would take a shot in contacting you and letting you know how much your story touched my heart,” she wrote. “Thank you. Also I know I said story, but I also know it’s YOUR life and you’re in it. So I hope you’re doing okay.”
I responded and told her that I was struggling. She encouraged me to tell someone, whether it be a friend or a family member. She helped me remember what I had known for a long time but had forgotten, that depression isn’t a journey that should be taken alone.
Last week, I messaged the girl who had planned a suicide attempt, and many others who’d written to me, to see how they were doing a year later. I wanted to know what — if anything — helped them heal. I wanted to know if they were doing better.
Many of them are. The girl said that looking at the person she was a year ago is like glancing at a moving stream. She can see an outline of her figure and know that it exists, but can’t see any detail with clarity. The time in her life is a blur. She said she’s doing so much better now.
Others are too. They’re in therapy, are on medication, and are doing things that make them happy, whether that means painting, running or driving around town screaming the lyrics to Broadway musicals.
But, some of them are not. Some are going through periods so dark they say they can’t plan for more than one day at a time. More than a few have tried to kill themselves.
That’s what worries me. I can’t save them. I want to, and I want them to know they are loved and that people care about them, but I can’t take their pain away. I can, however, help them know they don’t have to carry it alone.
We underestimate the lengths people will go to help one another. When we think about humanity, we often think of all the times it’s gone wrong, the mass murders, the tragic accidents, even the stranger who cut us off or the person who gave us a mean glance for no reason.
We’ve been hurt. We’re mistrustful. We’re easily bruised.
But it’s a courageous act to be vulnerable in a world that might crush you. It’s even braver to refuse to get hardened to all that will try to shatter you. I want these people to know that, yes, the world will try to break them again, but that being broken is easier when someone is there to help put you back together.
Another wave of depression knocked me over just before Labor Day weekend. I felt, as I often do when I get depressed, like I was standing inside a wall calendar. The thick black bars that square off the days boxed me in. “Good luck making it to the next day in the next square,” the bars said.
As I stood inside the box and saw an endless stretch of squares in front of me, life seemed really long. I wondered how anyone could possibly make it through when it takes so much effort to climb over the black bar and cross from one day to the next.
The wave happened for no apparent reason. Many of the people who wrote to me described feeling the same way.
“The thing that is very interesting to me about it is that it isn’t sadness and it doesn’t come from any sort of situation,” one person who messaged me said about his depression. “Rather than sadness, which I don’t necessarily mind because it is me processing a feeling, it is a hollow place where you feel like you have a huge pit in your stomach.”
But unlike during the winter, when I was silent and embarrassed, I told people how I felt. I put my heart back out and asked people to carry it for me. Most people held it nervously, but steadily with both hands. “I can feel how much this hurts,” they seemed to say as they shifted from one leg to another to adjust their weight under its heft. The recognition was enough for me. I got scared that telling them was too much, that I’d gone too far.
“I’ll take that back now,” I said after telling people how I felt. I tried to change the subject to anything, the weather, Cleveland sports or my favorite boy band, One Direction.
But most people didn’t let it go easily. They didn’t give it back right away. “I can carry this for a while,” they told me. “Don’t worry about it. I’m happy to do it.”
Since I’ve started speaking up, I have times when, instead of feeling trapped, I feel like there aren’t enough days in the endless calendar. In the past year, I’ve had moments where my happiness has allowed me to not only cross over the black bars, but limbo under them and leap over them. I’ve found comfort in knowing that happy squares will coexist with the bad.
A few weeks ago, I got a letter from a 15-year-old boy who, like many others, asked if I believed things can get better, or if I sometimes thought it’d be easier to take all the pain away.
“Depression is still something I struggle with daily, too,” I told him. “It’s not unusual to exist in this world and want to leave it. But that doesn’t mean you should. I’m glad you told me, but you should tell someone close to you who can help you, even though I know it seems impossible. I know every day can be a challenge, but if publishing this article has shown me anything, it’s that we aren’t alone.”
He told his mom, and he’s starting therapy next week.
“I feel like things are already getting better,” he said.
I do, too.