First of all, hi. Hope your summer was good. I’ll be honest–mine was hard. I’ve been ruminating over how much to share here for a few months…which is basically why I’ve stopped blogging, I guess.
I’ve written about mental health stigma before, and about how much better teens and young adults are at talking openly about mental health compared to older people like me (I’m 50). I feel like I used to be able to write and talk more openly about my battles with depression/mental illness/whatever we want to call it, and it was a huge relief to not have to hide in the shadows anymore. But then somehow that bravado disappeared, and I went back to living behind the curtain of shame and silence. And you know what? It fucking sucks to live like that.
September was National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and I thought “this is a perfect opportunity to write about what I’ve been going through” and I started writing probably 20 times…but then got lost in worry about oversharing and not knowing exactly what I wanted to say, so I just let the month roll by without posting anything. And with each day that passed where I wrote and said nothing, I felt lonelier and more lost and ashamed and invisible. Then September was over and I told myself the pressure was off and I could just stop worrying about it and get back to writing about…well, nothing, really. Because every time I go to write about something else, I keep coming back to this post and realizing that saying nothing about mental health issues–including suicide– is what keeps me and millions of other people my age and older walled off from the world when they are depressed or otherwise struggling with mental health issues. It’s what perpetuates the cycle of people taking their lives and the world reacting in true shock that they had no idea the person was in pain, lamenting that “if only” they had known, they would have done something to help.
So even though I’m not quite sure what I want to say or how to say it, I’m fumbling my way through this post and not moving on with my day until I just finish it because if I don’t, then that means someone else won’t, and then then next person won’t, and so on, and we’re collectively no better off than we were to start.
So here goes: in June, I did a lot of things. I turned 50. I planned a surprise party for my husband. I got a dog. I parented. I left my job. I looked and sounded polished as I gave presentations, attended meetings and tried to figure out what to do next professionally. I listened to friends talk about their stuff, saying nothing much about me…and nobody really seemed to ask. I tried desperately to stay organized, to not drop any balls or look like I wasn’t ok. I made endless lists–party guests, errands I needed to do, stuff I needed to get for the dog, for the party.
I had also started another list: check that my retirement savings beneficiaries were set up correctly, do a will, write letters: to my kids, my parents, my sister, my husband. I couldn’t sleep; I barely ate. As I felt myself slipping into a place that felt very, very far away from ok, I put on as brave a face as possible for the world…and still said nothing.
I started at least a dozen text messages or emails to various friends and family members, trying to figure out the words to convey “I’m scared and really need help” in the least jarring way possible…then deleted every one before sending because I didn’t want to upset or scare anyone. Finally, at a breaking point, I texted my doctor, who called my husband, and I held on.
And four months later, I’m still holding on. I’m stronger and much better….but also just really sad and mad and bewildered that even as the world talks about “just reach out for help” and “I wish he/she had said something,” the reality is that nobody really seems to know how to help an adult struggling with depression. As much as we all talk about it in the aftermath of a suicide, posting social media updates urging people to “get help” or “talk to a friend,” my experience has been that anything having to do with an adult with mental illness just freaks people out. Kids and teens are another story, because somehow we’re supposed to be understanding and supportive of mental health issues when it comes to them; adults, though–that’s another story. Adults are supposed to just sort themselves and carry on.
Carrying on with adulting while living with a mental illness is hard as hell. Not to whine but seriously…it’s the truth. If you have cancer or another life-threatening illness, you can share about it on Facebook or among friends, and people send thoughts and prayers and make you meals and send flowers and eagerly await updates about your health. But if you’re struggling with a life-threatening mental illness, you tell nobody and nobody sends thoughts or prayers or offers to help you navigate the nightmare that is the mental health care system, and nobody knows or cares that you’re doing better but are now not really employed and could really, really use a break.
The thing that people don’t understand is that suicidality isn’t just about that one dramatic moment where you call a hotline, “get help,” and then feel better and move on with your life. It’s a bewildering continuum that drags on much longer than most people’s patience or goodwill can probably stomach; it’s a silent fight with ups and downs that don’t lend themselves to social media updates like other health scares or diseases. In my case, it’s been pretty much an 18 month-long saga that finds me, on any given day, both hopeful and scared shitless at various points throughout the day. Not to mention unemployed…ok, well, self-employed but really…not that employed. Because frankly, there’s no roadmap for this–for adulting while waging your own private war against a disease that’s basically unmentionable in polite company…not to mention in any kind of work setting.
I’m losing my own thread here so will wrap it up by saying that as much as I struggled with writing this, I kept coming back to the fact that as hard as living this shit is, being forced to deal it alone because of shame and stigma makes it that much harder. And the only way to start making it less hard is for people like me–old(er) people who aren’t teens or millennials or celebrities–is for us to keep sharing our experiences, as messy and meandering and uncomfortable as they may be.