Last week I was having a bad day — nothing tragic, just adult life's vicissitudes — when I got an email from a complete stranger that knocked me on my ass.
I'll call this guy John. John recently survived a brush with suicidal depression and anxiety. John's story is both terrifying and inspiring because he faced that depression without a job, without medical insurance, and (until he reached out for help) without a support network, and came out on the other end. John took a leap of hope, sought help from a loved one, got treatment, and got through the crisis. Is he happy all the time? I doubt it. Who is? But he's managing the illness successfully and living his life.
John thanked me for writing openly about my experiences with severe depression and anxiety and how they have changed my life. He expressed a sentiment that I also experienced as a powerful deterrent to getting help: the fear that medication, or hospitalization, and therapy somehow mark you as other and lead to the end of your plans and ambitions forever. It's not true. It helps, John said, to see other people who have fought mental illness, taken the plunge into serious treatment, and come out the other side continuing to pursue their careers and families and lives. John thanked me for writing, and said I made a difference for him and helped him imagine recovery as a possibility. I'm going to remember that on my worst days, when I'm down on myself.
People who have fought mental illness — people who are still struggling with it, every day — can change people's lives by offering hope.
Depression and anxiety are doubly pernicious. They don't just rob you of your ability to process life's challenges. They rob you of the ability to imagine things getting better — they rob you of hope. When well-meaning people try to help, they often address the wrong problem. "Your relationship will work out if you just talk," or "I'm sure your boss doesn't actually hate you," or "things will look up and you'll find another job" may all be true, and may all be good advice. But they don't address the heart of mental illness. A depressed or anxious person isn't just burdened with life's routine problems. They're burdened with being unable to think about them without sheer misery, and being unable to conceive of an end to that misery continuing, endlessly, in response to one problem after another. Solving the problems, one by one, doesn't solve the misery.
The hope you can offer to someone who is depressed or anxious isn't your problems will all go away. They won't. That's ridiculous (though certainly it's much easier to solve or avoid problems when you're not debilitated). The hope you can offer is this: you will be able to face life's challenges without fear and misery. The hope isn't that your life will be perfect. The hope is that after a day facing problems you'll still be able to experience happiness and contentment. The hope is that you'll feel "normal" again.
You can make a difference. You can be open about how you've fought depression and anxiety. You can talk about how you felt hopelessness. You can talk about how you reached the point where you got help. You can describe how you had doubts about the point of getting help, too. You can talk about how getting help has changed your life — even if the process hasn't been smooth. You can convey to people out there that they aren't alone, that other people have felt the way they feel, that there is life and love and fun and success and normality following treatment for serious mental illness, and that it's achievable. You can spit in the face of the social stigma against mental illness and its treatment. You can defy the trolls and assholes who will mock you and use your openness against you — because what's their opinion worth, anyway? You can show that it's possible to get better even if you're broken, flawed, afraid. You can show that a setback isn't the end of the road to getting better. You can help them understand there's no magic instant cure, that recovery can be a lifelong process.
Your — you personally, not the collective you — can make a difference. It might be your story that connects with someone, that helps them imagine getting better. It might be someone in your social circle who is suffering and doesn't know anyone else talking about these issues. It could be your take on this process that tips the balance towards treatment for someone you've never met or heard of. Your story counts. Tell it.
Here are just a few who have made a difference — to others, and to me — through their openness about depression and anxiety, with links to what they've said. You're not famous like them, you say? Good. That means you're more relatable and your story may resonate more with folks. It will be embarrassing (though it shouldn't be) and awkward (at first, at least) and some loser will probably take a cheap shot at you, but it's worth it. Try it. And please join me in thanking and admiring these people for their openness: