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‘A fine line between honesty and shock value’

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This week’s post is by contributor Jenn Garing, who “came out” on this site earlier this year:

The other day I was thinking about a friend of mine who lost her mother to suicide on the day she returned home from college at the end of her freshman year. And it got me thinking about the way so many of us hide our “worst selves” from those who love and care about us the most.

I have spent years, decades perhaps, hiding my suffering from friends and family. I fear they don’t want to hear about it. They wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t love me if they knew how dark and twisted I was deep down inside. The depression mars my vision. I imagine that every conversation behind closed doors is not only about me, but about how horrible I am and what a bad person I have become. I can’t give them more ammunition.

And when I’m inhabiting the bottom of a very deep, dark hole, the lightness of others can be blinding and exhausting. How they make conversation with such ease. How they can laugh and smile and be animated about anything. Single-word answers take effort for me, and just being with someone else can be work. Small talk wilts with my lack of knowledge about the world around me. Having been shut in, I barely know about the weather, the latest celebrity gossip or, God forbid, the world news. Or perhaps I’ve been feeding myself a steady diet of reality television to keep the bad thoughts at bay. If only I could remember what I had seen. If only I had absorbed anything in my pared-down, ghostlike state.

I can’t tell people what’s really going through my mind. I can’t say that I have a deep need to break something, to see something come apart. The pieces, I need to see the pieces break apart. I need to feel them shatter. Or that the urge to slice my arm is overwhelming. I need to see myself bleed. I need to know that I’m still real. I can’t say these things to someone on the outside. They would be crazy if they didn’t think I was crazy.

But most of all, I need to protect them. I need to shield them from the reality of how dark and ugly the world can be. I need to keep them from knowing that life can get so bad that you actually want to die. I need them to keep living their happy lives, free of such fear. I need them to be safe.

In my solitary state, I believe myself to be alone in my dark corner. I look out at the shiny, happy people and can’t imagine them ever occupying my space. Comparatively speaking,
their lives seem so balanced, so serene. If they, too, lived with the darkness, there would be no need to explain to them what I was experiencing. They would already know. They would recognize my hesitation at conversation. They would see through my mask to my inner pain.

They would recognize me as one of their own.

In college, I found a fellow student I felt an instant connection to, and he to me. It took us years to figure out what had bonded us together so easily. It was only after he had taken a semester off to recover from an especially bad depressive episode that it all became obvious to me. We were kindred spirits in our suffering. Although we didn’t recognize the obvious at first, we felt the connection none the less.

I was visiting my sister almost a decade ago, when my older nephew was just six months old. She had gone back to work after maternity leave as a morning news producer and was coming home from work at 8 a.m. She found me in her living room playing with my nephew. “This is my favorite time of day,” she said, as he let out a sound of glee at her appearance.

Then she confided in me that it was also her least favorite time of day, because she had to fight the urge every morning to drive her car off the highway overpass on her way home.

That was when I realized I had failed my sister. I wasn’t aware her postpartum depression was so bad. She had been spared the depression that ran in our family until this point. But she was inhabiting my world now. I could have given her a road map, and I never did. I couldn’t imagine how terrifying it must have been for her, having these feelings for the first time. I had been living with them for 20 years. They were old friends to me. But to her they were new, unwelcome invaders. The thoughts crept into her mind and brought the subtle imaginings that this was what insanity must be like.

It had been so long since I first had those thoughts that I couldn’t remember what they felt like when they were new. I had never shared with my sister what suicidal thoughts were like. I had never told her how it felt to have them. I had cut her out of an important orientation, and I hated myself for it.

So on that morning, I sat stunned. I was only able to offer empathy: “I know exactly how you feel.” I’m not even sure I thought to affirm for her that she wasn’t going crazy. She knew, of course, that suicidal thoughts were part and parcel of my illness, although I had never said so much. I never had to. There had been other people to explain that.

She got through the depression, of course, with counseling, without medication. She is
stronger than she realizes. But even with this shared experience, I still don’t let her into the
darkness. When my nephew was 2, I had the worst episode of my life and came very close to making another attempt to kill myself, but I didn’t share this with anyone.

As for my sister, I went into full epidemiologist mode and researched ways to prevent postpartum depression. I set her up with phototherapy after my second nephew was born,
and she had no problems. I’m not saying the phototherapy worked. There is evidence that it works on some women, and it may have worked on my sister, I don’t know. But somewhere in the scheme of things, my sister was spared a second bout.

I have been trying to be more open these last few years for my own sake, and because my
family has been interested in staying on top of my illness. But there is a fine line between
honesty and shock value when it comes to depressive and suicidal thoughts. I truly don’t want to scare people. I choose my audience carefully: my husband, my mother, my friends who have experienced depression and/or suicide attempts. For the most part, I talk about things after the fact. Most of the time, it’s too painful to talk about what I’m feeling as it’s happening. And it’s easier to follow up a scary admission with “but I’m feeling much better now…” It’s easier for both me and the listener.

And somewhere in this is the stigma, the true underlying reason that we can’t talk openly
about the pain of a mental illness like we would talk about the pain of a sports injury. Somewhere there is shame and guilt and self-doubt that what we are experiencing is of our own making, or our own design, or weakness. I know better than this, but I will still tell more people, in more detail, about my migraines than I will about my manic depression. I don’t trust them to understand. I don’t trust them to “get it.” So I hide my disease.

Even now, when I’m in the midst of a depressive episode, I will drag myself out of bed and into work and find a way to be productive, because that’s what we do. It doesn’t matter how much it takes out of us. We will act like we’re fine until we are so far gone that the act is impossible to keep up. I’ll spend more energy convincing others I’m just fine than I will actually taking care of myself, even as I fail. It’s a vicious cycle but one I don’t know how to break free of.

Maybe one day, when there is no more stigma and we don’t have to pretend, I’ll be free.

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11 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. I’d like to say more..but all I can muster up right now is that I can absolutely understand what you are saying…thank you for your insight and articulation.

    Reply

    • Thank you for your comments, Jessica. It’s good to hear I’m not alone.

      Reply

  2. First, I am one of us.
    When you spoke about your sister’s postpartum episode you said you felt that you let her down because you could have given her ‘a map ‘ to help guide her through it. I can’t imagine being given guidance to navigate to someplace I’ve never been or plan to go. You didn’t let anyone down. You did all that you could, when you could. You weren’t weak. You did everything to prepare for another bout, and when it came, you were ready. You deserve to be pleased. Although I do remember how long it took me.

    Reply

    • Thank you so much for your encouraging words, Joel. I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling guilty about not having somehow prepared my sister for her experience, but you’re right that I did do my part to prepare for another bout. I think it’s harder to see a loved one go through this than it is to go through it ourselves, sometimes.

      Reply

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. It describes the pain of this force of depression. I know this pain. I know the feeling of wanting to break things, of wanting to bleed and living in darkness. I also can know the pain of wanting to drive over an overpass.
    And knowing that I have to keep silent about my thoughts to friends, to family, to a society that does not remotely understand.

    Reply

    • I’m so sorry, Anne. I hope you have someone you can confide in. I’ve found it very freeing and cathartic to be able to share my experiences both here and with family and friends. I’ve even been able to find humor in some of the situations, such as my inability to find something I disliked enough to actually smash it on the floor. Which brought me to the question of why I got rid of every gift I hated when I last moved; I obviously wasn’t thinking ahead! But all kidding aside, I do believe that some day, in our lifetime, we will be able to talk about this like any other pain or disease. The stigma will be broken.

      Reply

    • Thank you, Craig. I plan to continue writing posts for this blog as new ideas inspire me.

      Reply

  4. Depression sucks…but the stigma is killer. You described it very well. I, too, have “come out” this year. Little by little. I told those closest to me first and then branched out to people who didn’t necessarily have to like me anyway. It was tough but writing about it has helped me imeasurably. It IS freeing. I have noticed when I talk about it, I describe it like it is in the past, with a smile on my face as if it is all behind me. Because I do want people to feel safe around me. I want them to feel like I am safe. Really, I just don’t want anyone to feel any more uncomfortable with me than they already might. I have become a great actor.

    I am in an industry where entertaining and making people happy is the day to day norm. So one word replies and not getting out of bed aren’t options. So everyone (who knew) was very shocked by my attempt last November.

    You mention how badly you felt for not knowing your sister was going through a depressive episode and I can only imagine the terror and guilt you felt. My absolute worst fear is that I won’t recognize it in my own children. They are both girls and nearing the age that I was when I believe I first began to experience depression. Or at least, when I began to wish I could just dissappear forever. It is the scariest kind of pain, isn’t it?

    Thank you for writing your story for us. I hope to read more from you again soon!

    ((hugs))

    – Christine O.

    Reply

    • I love how you put that, “to people who didn’t necessarily have to like me anyway.” It’s so true how we categorize the people around us and the level of trust we feel in letting them know about our struggles with suicide and mental illness knowing that it could affect how they feel about us personally. It’s stigma rearing its ugly head again. I agree with you completely. I too have become a great actor. I have been lucky enough to go without a serious episode for over five years, so I don’t feel like I’m lying exactly when I talk about it as if it’s behind me. The details that I talk about are. But I know, all too well, that it WILL be back. I’m not naive.

      I had a friend in grad school who dealt with postpartum depression. She was feeling overwhelmed one day with all the tasks she needed to do – laundry, dishes, pick up the house, bathe the baby – and her mind suggested a short cut. Toss the baby in the washer with the clothes! Two down in one step! She said she knew she was in trouble then and called her doctor immediately. I knew my sister was in trouble, just not how much. And it never occurred to me to try to coach her through it like doctors and support groups had done for me. In all honesty, she would say it wasn’t my job, that she had a therapist. But I still feel like having been the “trail blazer” I owe it to her to have left some directions behind.

      Looking back at my earliest memories of wanting to be dead or gone or just anywhere else, you are right, it is the scariest kind of pain. But I truly believe that you will recognize the warning signs in your own daughters. You’ve been open about your own struggles and they know they can trust you with their experiences too. As a young teen I never told anyone about my feelings because I thought they were normal. But your girls know that they are not and have seen help seeking behavior modeled for them. They’re going to be just fine, even if they follow in our life path of depression because they will have you to help them and because you’re paying attention.

      Thank you for your kind words. Keep on moving forward like you are.

      ((hugs))

      Jenn

      Reply

  5. Thank your for sharing this very personal experience. As I have done, I encourage folks to enter this number in your cell phone so it’s handy when a crisis is in progress, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255.

    Reply

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