What do you want others to know?

I’ve known about depression for twenty years as of this writing.  I have grown in knowledge through the counsel of excellent medical professionals, and to some degree what I read and hear from experts on the subject.  Still we need to decide how much we disclose, how close we let others into our private battle with the insidious mental health issue called depression. What do we want others to know about us when we let them in?

I am reminded of the scariest time of this journey, when at age 38 my life came to a dead stop.  I could not understand what was happening to me, I knew that it was different than a physical ailment, my mood was erratic– my emotions were far out of control. I wanted to sleep or stay in bed with the covers pulled up high.  Thoughts were buzzing around in my head, like how could I explain to my clan what was happening?  What would they do or say that would make any difference in what lay ahead for me?  My significant other recommended that I check myself into a mental health facility and quit dithering.

It was fear of the unknown that was the first hurdle for me to overcome.  I had to decide who to trust about the real problem I was facing.  I needed someone to confide in (someone other than my SO) that I was scared, but I didn’t want to curl up and die, and I wasn’t going to harm myself.  I think I was experiencing depression, and I was willing to get some help.

I felt very lucky that my employer had a new Employee Assistance Program for those full time employees who had mental health problems.  The call to the EAP specialist seemed surreal.  On the other end of the line was a caring female voice who asked me questions about my employee serial number, my address, and one or two questions later “are you feeling like you might harm yourself or someone else?”

Dear lord, this lady didn’t know anything at all about me.  Why, I wouldn’t hurt someone else on purpose.  I may have had some crazy and unexplained emotional swings, but I wasn’t going to drive my car off a bridge, or into a crowd of people.  I gave my word that I wasn’t going to hurt myself or anyone else, and then asked what help I could get for this feeling of malaise that was hanging over my waking hours for the past few weeks.  I felt as though I was in a movie run in slow motion.  My perception of things was blurred, and I was only 38 years old… as though cancer, mental problems, or autism had some sort of age threshold that I’d reached too soon.

The telephone counselor said “you have a choice of several therapists in your city that can make an appointment with you to talk about your next steps.” She also asked permission to phone me in a few days to make sure I was doing OK, but secretly I knew she was making sure that I followed through on the recommendation to see someone. That was comforting, I was going to see a psychotherapist, much like the time I’d gone to a marriage counselor, and talk about why I felt safer in bed than out, and why I had no appetite, no joy, no interest in things once important in my life.  Who should I choose?  Should I just pick someone close to home from the EAP list?

Luckily for me, a close friend who had disclosed to me his own serious issues, he offered me the name of his psychotherapist, someone who had first helped him cope with the loss of a significant relationship, and later the slide into depression and anxiety.  It was like divine intervention, making it much easier to get help knowing that someone I admired had done the same thing.  Carl was an experienced therapist, very tall, very distinguished looking, and with a calming voice.

“So why are we here?” Carl asked me.

“I’m not well.  I’m feeling like I want to sleep until the warm weather returns, and only get out of bed to pee.”

We both had a laugh, but there was a serious undertone in my remarks.  Carl quickly got to some important elements of this stoppage of my functionality, and we met every week for the full ten weeks that my EAP would fund.  It was the beginning of a very long and beneficial relationship, one that I would revisit many times over the twenty years that followed.  Since that first meeting I have praised and valued Carl, like having someone really smart on my side in a sometimes cold and uncaring world.

Who do you trust?  Who do you unburden yourself to when things aren’t going your way, and how much of the picture do you show to them?  When I became comfortable sharing this depressive episode to my sister, she confided that she rarely let her hair down and shared her troubles with anyone.  “That must be awful!” was my surprised response. How little I knew about my brave and strong older sister.  How could she survive without having a sympathetic ear?  How could I have been her brother for so long and not known this about her?   It was a great day for me when years later, she also sought out Carl for a situational depressive episode.

I noticed some very big changes in the weeks that followed my first EAP sessions with Carl.  I was becoming desensitized to the fear of having a mental illness.  I was growing more comfortable in sharing the truth about my life with those who were important to me.  Most importantly, I began to recognize the signs and the effects of depression in others around me, and for a few,  I helped them to seek out help.  Some went to their church, some to their family, and still others sought out a professional psychotherapist, even taking my suggestion to visit Carl.

What about you?

If someone you care about might be depressed, would you ask them about it?  What would you want them to do if the situation were reversed and they thought you might be struggling with depression?  Are you struggling to stay afloat, but losing the fight?  What if you became one of the growing number of people who say

“I never knew my friend/sister/neighbor was in trouble– they could have come to me for help!”   

True as that may be, what would have happened if you’d offered help without having to be asked?  Do you trust your instincts?  Do you know someone who could use a friend right now or will it be easier to just mind your own business and go login to Facebook? 


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