“Sit down. Let’s talk.”
Often, perhaps too often, I’ve been told I talk too much. Then, when I sit quietly, listening, giving others the space to talk, I’m asked, “What’s wrong? You’re not engaging. How come you’re so quiet?” I interpret either of those comments with a hint of judgment, pending on my energy level or who makes the statement; they’re probably intended as well-meaning concern. The complexity, the art of talking, listening, asking, sharing, opining, requires a dance of finesse and nuance for many of us expressive, extroverted types — similarly so for fellow introverted or timid individuals. I can only imagine the difficulty of communication when diagnosed with depression or anxiety.
My ancestral roots genetically carry a predisposition to depression, addiction and anxiety. I am not a Dr. or a scientist. I do not speak from academia expertise. What I speak from is the heart…the heartache associated with watching a loved one confront mental health challenges. We have words to describe depression, situational or clinical, we have meds that are supposed to help, we are told we have countless resources at our disposal. Then we are told there is nothing else available, it is being treated as effectively as possible, the side effects are minimal compared to other options, learn to live with and manage it. Damnit, Damnit. Damnit. What canoe dropped me off on this lonely, stranded island called Depression. And, I’m not even the one diagnosed with it.
My first job out of college, I worked with a brilliant woman around my same age. She was hysterically funny, kind, almost intimidating with her wickedly smartness. Out of the blue, from nowhere, she would go off, throw a screaming tantrum, stomp out of the building or slam something over the most minute incident — a typo, forgotten appointment or a colleague’s sarcastic comment. I was left holding all of her flaming raw emotion, not knowing where to stuff or release it. When she resurfaced, she was charming, pleasant and her oh, so smart self again. I referred to a bad day with her as a Holly Yo-Yo day. (By the way that’s not her real name, not my place to out her behaviors.) Over the course of several months, I taught myself how to become comfortable with her yo-yo spins, dropping down, coming in, spinning out. Years later a mutual colleague shared she had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.
My next job landed me in a cubicle across from a woman who would daily nod off, fall asleep at her desk every morning shortly after arriving and several times during the afternoon; she was in a constant state of yawning or sleeping. I referred to her as Yanni Yawner (Yanni was big during that era). I will also admit I judged her. I secretly thought she wasn’t pulling her own weight on the team or working hard enough, using the workplace to catch up on her sleep. I asked her once if she partied a lot, trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, believing partying was more acceptable than sheer laziness. Imagine my surprise when she said she was a homebody who spent most of her evenings reading or baking. I think about her today and realize she probably dealt with depression. I now have greater empathy, language and a framework for making sense out of what seemed senseless at the time. No one talked about mental health issues then, certainly not in the workplace.
I have buried family members and dear friends who have taken their lives by suicide, overdose, gunshot, asphyxiation and hanging. There is no conversation nor enough words in one’s vocabulary to aptly convey the depth of emotion experienced when receiving one of those phone calls. With each person comes different verbal reactions, ranging from “he’s found peace at last, if only we’d known, but she seemed so happy, I didn’t know what else to do, I am overwhelmed with guilt to feel so relieved it’s finally over”. The conversation and talking may differ from person to person; the heart’s response is always the same — as sick at heart as the person felt whose life no longer exists. Depression commands one’s entire being and impacts an entire support system.
Experience has taught me the only thing I have to offer from my own health and well-being is compassion, unconditional support and an ability to listen with discernment vs. judgment. The world has taught me to pay attention to my language, to say died by suicide vs. committed suicide. To stop using the word crazy when I’m speaking of someone’s mental health. To recognize that an illness, pain or disability is not always visible to the human eye. That addiction is not a ‘pull yourself up by the bootstrap’ choice we each get to make or not make. And often the meds taken to make one better can make a person feel sicker than shit, when illness feels far better than what it requires to get or stay well. Mostly, I have learned to live in the space of grace and create that for others.
I have supported those whose depression has kept them in bed for weeks, others whose personal war with addiction, anxiety and depression have landed them in rehab, relapse or sustained sobriety, written letters to loved ones in prison and checked in on others who have too easy access to firearms. My brother and I have had several conversations about supporting people who live with depression. I’ll never forget the shock when he said, “If I were to make a list of all the people whose wakes or funerals I’ve attended or people I know who have died by suicide, the list would probably top fifty names.” That statement warrants far more action than conversation.
Our family genes are no different than many families; they are not choosy about how addiction manifests. Food, alcohol, workaholism, perfectionism, gambling, meth or other assorted drugs pack a pretty good overnight bag at our get togethers. Like an infinity circle, eventually depression and addiction genetically mesh together. Does the addiction lead to the depression or does the depression lead to the addiction? Does depression lead to anxiety or anxiety lead to depression? Can I buy them separately or do they come as a packaged deal? There comes a point where you don’t care about the how or the why, you only care about now. In this very moment, right now, who can I be or what I can do for you?
Our headlines and sound bites blast the shock of a Hollywood or famous person’s death by suicide or overdose noting the consequence of a depression diagnosis. When it’s national news, it’s perfectly acceptable talking about an individual’s intimate, private life, the sticky substance that lends itself to voyeuristic tabloid juice at a cocktail party. But try moving that conversation into a more meaningful topic about the need to change our mental health laws, insurance programs, society stigmas, etc. Watch how fast people excuse themselves to beeline for the bar or appetizer table, leaving you standing there singing to your own little buzz-kill choir.
Time to convert that buzz-kill choir into a consequential discussion. Let’s talk. A lot. No judgment on what’s too much, too little, too loud or too quiet. But first, let’s set the ground rules for a fair and healthy conversation. Those of us who don’t deal with depression or any mental health challenge…we have no frickin’ clue what you’re going through. Not really. We’re along for the ride, but you’re driving the bus. So, it’s only fair you get the mike first. And — the mike drop.
For what it’s worth, I’m in the first seat behind you and I’ll be the last one getting off your bus. Now, what was that you were saying?