A paraphrased conversation I had with a friend a few months after –
losing someone special to me in a drunk driving accident,
then losing my belongings in a house fire two weeks later:
(It sucked. A lot)
Friend: “How are you?”
Me: “Not so good. I’ve been really depressed and sad about what happened.”
Friend: “Still?!? That was four months ago!”
(…Now feeling really shitty about feeling shitty.)
This dynamic sums up my emotional experience as a child.
There are reasons why I and people who’ve had similar experiences are:
“depressed all the time”
Experiencing trauma, abuse, neglect as a child —when your brain and sense of self are still developing—fucks with your head, people. It feels like your brain is shattered.
You don’t need to study psychology, neurology or any kind of -ology to understand that some of us have had really stressful, lonely, intense, fractured childhoods.
So, as adults, we’re going to be/feel really stressed, lonely, intense and fractured sometimes.
The impact of trauma is permanent. Memories, thoughts, and emotions of the trauma regularly circle in your head. Forever more.
This happens every day. This is what we carry and what we fight through, regardless of how we appear on the outside — Every. Day. !!
It doesn’t mean we can’t also be happy and funny and easy going. We go through life’s regular stresses like everyone else; at the same time, we’re expending as much energy on regulating our internal worlds.
Yeah. Exhausting AF.
We’re trying to keep the bad memories, thoughts and emotions from distracting us from the lives we’re trying to live. Sometimes they break us down.
The next time you see someone who looks, sounds or acts “crazy,” I ask that you consider what they might have experienced in childhood. Try to tap into the compassion and empathy you feel toward people you love and send them to this “crazy” person.
What happens in childhood doesn’t stay in the past. For as many fond and fun memories you may have, there are some of us who can match your stories with shitty ones that we spend so much time and energy trying to forget. The mere topic of childhood in conversation can elicit PTSD.
So, when you think someone gets “soo upset” when you say or do something seemingly innocuous or mundane, there’s a reason for it.
All you have to do is put your judgement down, ask and listen.
How the culture of silence around suicide and mental health is killing us
I don’t recall where I came across a portrait of Kate Spade yesterday morning. There was no headline or descriptor but I had a feeling that she had killed herself.
There’s something about the photos selected for news articles about famous people who end their lives. They’re usually a portrait. A portrait of just them, by themselves. Alone.*
(Why not use a family photo or one in which we can see Kate Spade in a joyous time of her life? Just a thought.)
Mental Illness is Not Like Other Health Conditions – Not.
I’ve known of Kate Spade but don’t know much about her.
When I saw the photo of her, I thought,
She’s a celebrity and in front-page news…suicide, I bet.
People are born fighting to live, to thrive. Our will-to-live is in our DNA.
So, why would someone choose to end their life?!
That’s a big question and one that can’t be fully explained nor understood with words.
I’ve been fighting to manage depression and anxiety for over 25 years; in that time, I experienced a series of traumatic events, so I can tell you what it’s like to live with a mind illness (AKA mental health illness). I prefer to use the word “mind” vs. “mental” but I use them both.**
Having a ‘mind illness,’ no mater the diagnosis, makes you feel CRAZY.
Think about it, when you feel heart palpitations, you notice it, acknowledge it, you tell someone — they worry and make you go to a doctor, hopefully.
You break a bone. Everyone — whether or not they’ve broken a bone — can see that you have a broken bone and that breaking a bone fucking hurts.
Or, you acquire a cough that lasts for weeks. It’s your body telling you that something is up and you should probably tell someone and check it out (please!)
…your actions and words, e.g. sleeping a lot, eating a lot or very little, canceling plans all the time, yelling random things in public etc.
These are the parts of your mind illness experience that are detectable, tangible. These are what we call “symptoms.” These are the ones we can see.
But these kinds of symptoms don’t tend to elicit empathy or compassion from others.
People walk away.
They stop sending you invitations.
They are angry and annoyed with you for always being late and/or grumpy.
You get written up at work for ‘problem behavior and performance’ (true story for another time.)
You’re called any combination of “lazy,” “crazy,” “nuts”, “insane,” “immature,” “weird,” “overly dramatic,” “attention-seeking,” “unfocused,” “hopeless.”
These are the things people with mental illness tend to experience on the outside.
On the inside, inside our minds. That’s where the pain lies. Invisible to everyone else but yourself.
And your culture tells you to keep your invisible pain a secret.
Yeah. Carry it with you fully on your own shoulders. Don’t be a burden on others.
Ssssh. Keep a still tongue and hide your pain. No one is going to understand you, anyway.
Pretend to be OK and exhaust yourself more fully trying to act and appear “normal.”
While you’re at it, feel shameful and guilty about having a mental health condition.
Seriously, What is Wrong With Us?!
In an article in The Kansas City Star, Kate Spade’s sister shares some insight into Spade’s history of internal turmoil:
“Kate Spade’s older sister [Reta Saffo] told The Star on Tuesday that her famous designer sister suffered debilitating mental illness for the last three or four years and was self-medicating with alcohol.”
She shares how her sister was fixated on the news of Robin William’s suicide and speculates that her sister began planning to kill herself at that time.
Yet, in the next breathe, she says about Kate Spade’s suicide, “[it] was not unexpected by me.”
This seemingly conflicting response is a symptom of our inability to talk about mental health issues, including sharing our personal experiences with mind illness.
We’ve come a long way since ‘lunatic asylums,’ but we still ostracize and oppress “insane people.” We stigmatize mind illness through assumption, judgement and silence, and it’s reflected in our disappointingly inept mental healthcare system.
Is the Image of Being OK More Important to Us Than Our Own Lives?
From the same article, ““Spade seemed concerned how hospitalization might harm the image of the “happy-go-lucky” Kate Spade brand, [her sister] said.”
I’m here to tell you that emotions and moods aren’t black and white. You can be “happy-go-lucky” and live with depression; they’re not mutually exclusive.
I’m saddened — and pissed off, frankly — that people choose to end their lives because they’re worried about how the public will view them, how their friends and family will view them.
Our cultural stigma around mental health is so disgustingly powerful. Do we really value holding up the image of feeling OK over taking care of ourselves?
No. I don’t think so either. So, let’s do what we can to change the culture around mind wellness. Brain health. Mental health. Whatever you want to call it.
Sometimes it’s not enough to have a support system and resources. Kate Spade had a loving family who were attentive and caring of her mental illness. She also had the means to afford top-notch treatment.
“…in the end, the ‘image’ of her brand (happy-go-lucky Kate Spade) was more important for her to keep up. She was definitely worried about what people would say if they found out.” — Kate Spade’s sister, Reta Saffo
Saffo went on to say, “Sometimes you simply cannot SAVE people from themselves!”
I disagree. I think we can. But it’s going to entail saving people from our culture of judgment and prejudice against mental illness.
Enough of losing lives to the concern over public opinion. No more treating heart issues with worry and understanding, and treating mind illnesses with fear and alientation.
We can absolutely change the culture around mind wellness through compassion, curiosity and openness.
I have hope that we can support and save people like Kate Spade, who have been victims of an antiquated and out-of-touch societal and systemic stigma.
Kate Spade, thank you for bringing fun fashion, vibrant color and glittery sparkle to this world.
And thank you to the many individuals, groups and coalitions out there who are promoting or providing advocacy and support of mind wellness. And thank you to those who make yourselves vulnerable by sharing your mental illness stories. You are saving lives.
Are you experiencing thoughts of suicide?
Having suicidal feelings or thoughts is normal but they’re a frightening and a sign that you need care and support — and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!
Do you suspect someone may be suicidal?
Often, people make vague worrisome statements or gestures alluding to ending things.
Connect with them.
Ask if they want to kill themselves.
One question could save their life.
Suicide Prevention Resources
Find a list of suicide hotlines around the world here.
(I volunteered with the Crisis Text Line and can vouch for their thorough counselors training and compassionate approach. These are people giving up their time to support strangers in need. Use them. They want you to!)
Losing people due to having a “mental illness”* is difficult to swallow but it happens. I’ve lost people in my life because of my “mood disorder.”
Sometimes it’s only in hindsight that you realize your behavior was XYZ, but it is NEVER your fault and there is NOTHING wrong with you.
What IS wrong is the tendency for people to distance themselves from or make snap judgments about a person who seems “crazy” or “weird” or awkward.
People who care for you will take care of your relationship with them. People who care for you will ask if you’re OK and if you need support. People who care for you don’t say things or ask you questions that make you feel “other.”
You are not an other and you are not alone. 💖
Have you experienced loss due to your mind illness? How did people in your life respond to your mood disorder? What’s your experience?
Image courtesy of A Rich Mind (@mentalwhealth) via Instagram.
*in quotes because I think most of the clinical terminology we use is stigmatizing in the brain health world.
I’ve realized that I absolutely need to be creating if I want to maintain my sanity. I’m sure you know what I mean.
As a teen, I wrote to deal with my moods. I didn’t know I was dealing with depression and anxiety at the time but I had a natural inclination to spill ink on pages. Poems, journal entries, short stories, random lines of stories never fleshed out.
My ‘creative coping’ practice moved on to music –playing guitar, singing, covering songs, writing songs– then photography, digital art…
I think humans need to create to survive.
For some of us, survival means surviving mental illness. Not a fun or easy thing to do.
What do you do when depression haunts you? What helps you when anxiety rears its ugly head?
Senescence: A sci-fi about teen depression
One of my current projects, a sci-fi mental health story, Senescence, is a passion project that incorporates multi-media.
It started out as snapshots of the story. Now, I post longer story segments with original music.
Looking for a job while experiencing depression illuminates how thick a slice of self-confidence gets hacked off. Just like that. I’m not talking about the run-of-the-mill insecurity, the “normal” kind that reminds us we’re human. The kind that well-meaning friends, family, lovers point to in an effort to bring you some calm, to help you feel not so alone because, “Everyone feels insecure at some point. You’re not the only one who feels this way.” But you feel so desperately alone.
Items on bullet-pointed lists of job postings that interest you sum up requirements that seem improbable for you to fulfill.
Colleagues you imagine you would work with already dislike you and wonder why you were offered the position.
You’ve fallen behind on your task list for a project that you’ve not yet been hired to manage.
Your resume is a sheet of neatly organized words spelling out accomplishments and trainings you somehow completed.
Depression is a creative jerk. It creates colorful cognitive dioramas, falsely foreboding failures and fissures. It’s fucked up fantasy. Paralyzing bullshit serum. It’s a snake with three heads. A tiger with tentacled talons. A shade of black too dark for the human eye to see.
Besides feeling that way sometimes — fearful, hesitant, twittered, jittery — I also do the things I enjoy (like record silly raps for potential employers and Vanilla Ice covers) and have meaningful interactions with people. I’m not always depressed or anxious but sometimes I am. Sometimes my mind feels like a cognitive stew with a side salad. Sometimes my mood rides out pretty smooth an entire day; sometimes my body and mind course through multiple moods by noon.
Do you have days when you wake up feeling irritated? Does your mind go blank and your limbs buzz with adrenaline when you hear a loud noise? Do you remember how your stomach felt in the moments just before your first kiss when your lips met hers/theirs/his lips?
We all are affected by our environment. Some peoples’ responses are standard, expected, predictable. Behaviors are conditioned, but for people with mood disorders (e.g. Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder/rapid cycling, Schizophrenia), their internal and external experiences can be 10x as intense as yours (persons who don’t experience a mood disorder first-hand.) Can you imagine that? I know some people are more “sensitive” or empathic than I am, and their experiences can be 50x as intense. I can only imagine.