I’m an avid viewer and fan of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. While watching an episode of RHOA this season, Kenya Moore was accused of having a mental illness. The way the issue was handled reminded me of my own lifelong struggles with clinical depression and the stigma carried by having a diagnosis.
People who have never experienced clinical depression have a difficult time accepting that it is a real illness. Many delay treatment because of stigma. But, clinical depression is not the result of a character flaw. One can have “character” as strong and sturdy as a mighty oak tree, but clinical depression will cut you down and make you feel weak. Clinical depression is not the same as the depression to which people refer to in everyday language to denote a state of temporary sadness. It means so much more.
My childhood was marked by turmoil. My mother struggled with addiction and my biological father with mental illness. I overcame extraordinary barriers to early achievement. I believed in myself. I achieved. I went to college and got a prestigious degree on scholarships. I felt unstoppable.
Then, I took the Law School Admissions Test and performed very well, but I wanted to pursue my dream of working in the entertainment business. I decided to delay going to law school in hopes of “making it” in New York City.
I worked intermittently as administrative assistant, but the big break I was hoping would help me to establish an entertainment career never came. Though New York City is big, the industry seemed too small to offer me the opportunity I wanted. For a while, each rejection simply felt like a new challenge to overcome. But after the rejections piled up, my hope for a career began to dwindle. I began to feel my zest and positive outlook on life fade away. The despair I felt about my failure to reach my goal began to transition into nihilistic apathy. I felt numb. I wasn’t my usual ambitious self. I had fallen into what into what seemed like an abyss, a bottomless pit of despair, out of which I could not climb. Willpower deserted me. It was like trying to stand up right on slippery surface.
Ruminating about past mistakes would keep me awake at night and make me listless during the day. I only had energy to watch daytime television, because it required little effort. Instead of living life, I was watching others live theirs. I had to force myself to get up get out of bed to have breakfast. I isolated myself from the few friends I had and kept encounters brief, because it took much more energy than usual to form coherent thoughts and sentences. My goal had shifted from trying to start a career to simply taking a shower and putting on clean clothes.
Migraine headaches were also a symptom of my depression. I sought treatment and was prescribed an anti-depressant for pain. Being unfamiliar with this type of drug, I was surprised that not only did headaches cease, but my mood began to improve. A few weeks into treatment, I noticed a resurgence of energy and motivation. I could accomplish daily tasks, like select clothes to wear, perform daily chores, and socialize with friends. I even got my appetite back. I started caring about my outward appearance, as well, and most importantly, I began to enjoy living. I renewed my efforts to find a job.
Unfortunately, the mood benefits of the drug began to fade after awhile and I stopped it taking it after I was diagnosed with an early stage breast cancer. The stress of dealing with the situation and my grandmother’s pleas caused me to go back home.
My New York City experience was not my only bout with clinical depression. Unfortunately, my condition persisted. I have tried different medications, therapy, and even been hospitalized. Lost days turned into years lost to persistent illness. I’ve lost jobs and relationships because of the symptoms and the stigma associated with having a mental health condition. It has taken me time to accept that this is simply a chronic illness whose symptoms come and go, just like asthma, or diabetes. Recovery, relapse, and resilience are integral parts of experiencing a mental health condition.
Though I had consistently tried different combinations of drugs and talk therapy, I had not been able to experience a sustained recovery until I applied for and was hired for a position at a community mental health agency in my home town. My position allows me to turn my pain into power. Playing a responsible role in the recovery journey of others has increased my own self-esteem and expanded my circle of support. Having access to and learning how to utilize social support is crucial to recovery.
I’ve educated my family and friends about the illness. In turn, they have even helped me to accept responsibility for getting and staying healthy with their support. I know that stress can cause my symptom to reappear and I know when I need extra help in terms of support, medication, and therapy. I have a new lease on life. Teaching people how to reclaim their lives has helped me to reclaim mine. I educate them about their illnesses, subsequent self-esteem issues, and steps to take to recovery. I know that it can happen.
I am the evidence.