Rewind to seven years ago– something I do often, just to keep myself in check. I’m sitting at the kitchen counter in my childhood home, 26 years old, in the midst of an acute, debilitating depressive episode, watching my parents have a conversation. It’s about nothing– a simple, benign exchange about their day. But I am entranced.
“Yo,” my brother Jeremy says, tapping my arm. He sees I am lost in what has been a months-long, perpetual state of bewilderment, anxiety, and terror. “You alright?”
“How do they know?” I asked.
“How do they know what?”
“Mom and Dad– having a conversation. How do they know whose turn it is to speak? How do they know who is supposed to talk next, and when, and for how long? How does anyone know this stuff?”
He stares at me long and hard. “Dude,” he whispers, in the most loving, gentle way possible. “You’ve gone batshit.”
It isn’t the most eloquent way to describe what’s happening, but it’s probably the most apt.
When I was depressed, here is what people didn’t get. Yes, I was sad– bone-crushingly, soul-achingly sad– but I wasn’t just sad. The experience was so much more than sadness. I was constantly subsumed by unrelenting confusion, anxiety, and panic. I was in an altered state of being. I was trapped in my body while a stranger took over my thoughts and actions, and did an incredible job of convincing me that I knew nothing about the world, and never had.
The simplest things made no sense. The act of breathing became a perplexing phenomenon that begged the question, “How did I ever do this automatically– how did I know when the time was right to take the air in, then let it out again?” Words on a page became curious squiggles and dots that contained no meaning. Conversations became puzzles I couldn’t quite solve. Sitcoms were aired in a foreign language I had never learned. One of the scariest days of my depression was when I discovered that I could no longer follow an episode of “Friends.” It was just too confusing.
Society, and how to actively participate in it, became a concept that I was no longer able to wrap my head around. I wondered, constantly, how I had ever done it so easily. How I had interacted, how I had known what to feel and when to feel it. Forget joy being sucked out of life– everything was sucked out of life. The ability to care, the ability to connect. The ability to believe that it would ever change. Every thought, every action, every second was labored. Time was meaningless, except in the sense that it dragged on endlessly, torturing me at every turn with its emptiness.
I want to make it clear that I was never what the professionals would deem “suicidal,” in the sense that I never made a plan and never truly considered ending my life as a viable option. But my god did I wish I was dead. I can say, bluntly and without shame, that I wholeheartedly understand why people kill themselves. I have seen the world through a depressed lens, and I can tell you that when I was in that place, the only thing standing between wishing I was dead and making myself dead was the unending, dogged, relentless system of support and understanding that surrounded me.
Support and understanding– you absolutely need both. The support part I never lacked. Not for a second. I have an incredible family who did everything they possibly could to get me well. They listened to my choking sobs, self-defeating rumination and irrational fears, even though I knew it tore them apart to do so. My friends were in touch every day, reminding me of my place in the world, and how much they were relying on me to stay in it. I had the resources. I was fortunate in that my family could afford to get me the best help possible, no matter what the cost, no matter how much time it took. The support was immeasurable and I will never take for granted how lucky I was to have had it, and how blessed I am to continue to have it today.
But support alone, tragically, is sometimes not enough. Because in my case, even the most impassioned support was, at times, no match for the demon I was facing. What I needed most– what I desperately craved– was understanding. True, genuine, I’ve-been-there-and-you’re-not-alone understanding. Everyone around me sympathized; very few could relate. But I will never forget, and will always appreciate, how unbelievably hard my friends and family tried. They wanted so desperately to understand what I was feeling, to make it go away, to absorb some of it into themselves so that I could feel it less. But through no fault of their own, they couldn’t. And the more I felt as though no one understood, the more isolated and hopeless I became.
By the grace of god, in the midst of my depression, I discovered mental health organization Active Minds. And that’s when things began to change. Active Minds provided for me that community of understanding that my friends and family, try as they might, simply couldn’t. Had I not connected with Active Minds, and through it, gained access to a world that embraced and understood mental illness, I’m not sure how my story would have ended.
Active Minds gave me a place to go when I felt as though I belonged nowhere. I was vulnerable, terrified, and scared as hell. But I reached out to them and they embraced me. They gave me a purpose. In a time when I was struggling to find meaning in anything, they gave me a reason to believe in myself and believe that I could, and would, get better. That I had value in this world. Because many of them had been there themselves, they absolutely understood what I was going through, and they knew I’d come out of it. And when you’re depressed, believe me– that kind of understanding is everything.
With the support of Active Minds, my incredible family and friends, and good medical care, I came out of that debilitating depressive episode, fragile at first but then stronger than before. Am I cured? No. Depression, for most, is a lifelong battle, and to claim otherwise would be to delegitimize it. But I learned how to fight. I learned (and continue to learn), through therapy, openness, and connection with others who’ve been there, how to take care of myself— how to recognize my own thoughts versus the depression, how to utilize my resources, how to be true to myself and accept who I am, flaws, illness and all.
Four years after that debilitating depressive episode, I was living and thriving in New York City when Ari Johnson, a dear friend of mine, took his own life. On the day I learned of his death, I had had no idea that he was struggling. I still don’t know the extent of it. It haunts me, knowing I could have reached out and provided him with that understanding, had I only known. It pains me that Active Minds, and its message of hope, compassion, and stigma-fighting, did not have the chance to touch his life, to possibly save him in the way it saved me. So now, I can only hope his death will save the lives of others– that our telling of these stories, of my story, and of Active Minds’ story, will inspire those who suffer to reach out. Otherwise, what was it all for?
Active Minds is, every day, changing the conversation about mental health, and in doing so, changing lives. It is creating a world where we can feel just as comfortable seeking help for mental illness as we would seeking help for a broken limb. A world where there is no shame, no stigma, no reason to feel so desperately alone. No reason to lose hope.
We’re not there yet. But we can get there.
And I promise– things can be funny again.