When I was first diagnosed with depression in 1998, it came as quite a shock to me. I'd had post-partum depression with both children, and that took me by surprise as well. I felt like, as a nurse, I should have known and been prepared for it. In truth, however, it's really not something you can ever prepare yourself for. I had a rough few weeks after both pregnancies, but it passed.
When my daughter was about eight months old, I started getting severe headaches that led to crying, that eventually landed me in bed until I was able to "sleep it off". I guess I expected it to pass just like it had before. I mean, here I was with a wonderful husband, two beautiful babies, the big house with a white picket fence, the country club membership. I had EVERYTHING I had ever dreamed of, and I couldn't stop crying. I finally called my doctor, and he said that this was not uncommon in women my age at the height of their child-bearing years. So he put me on a low dose of an anti-depressant. I've been on them ever since. It is an illness I have learned to live with, knowing that I will go through rough patches, but I am fortunate enough to have a large and solid support system.
I think it's great that over the years we have been able to witness the de-stigmatization of mental illness. It's still a work in progress, but it IS progress. I would even venture to say that we have gone a little too far in the other direction. Case in point: I turn on my tv, and there is a commercial for an anti-depressant (which will remain unnamed). You probably know which one I'm referring to, because if your television is on for more than 3 minutes you've probably seen it. Lovely young mother sits on the edge of her bed staring at a basket of clean laundry waiting to be folded (because apparently NOBODY else in the house has the skills), music in the background that sounds like a children's song just in a minor key, and the voice-over starts with something along the lines of "Depression got you down?" "Having trouble concentrating at work?", as the slim, attractive veterinary assistant swivels back and forth in her desk chair, scrubs perfectly pressed and not a hair out of place. Well damn, I WISH my depression looked like that! Let me just pop on over to my phone and give my doctor a shout. Suddenly, lovely young mother is having happy family breakfast time with her toddler, then standing in front of her washer and dryer and piles of laundry, smiling and shaking her head like Cindy Brady has just said something adorable. Slim, attractive scrub girl is walking arm in arm with her man-friend, sipping a half-caf soy milk latte while the background music has suddenly morphed into that major-key upbeat jingle that lets us know that all is right with the world. I CALL BULLSHIT. This is Hollywood depression, not real depression.
Yes, there are lovely young mothers and slim, attractive veterinary assistants who deal with depression. Mental illness has many faces. But let me tell you what MY depression looks like. Me, sitting in front of the tv with the remote in my hand, tears streaming down my face for reasons that I can't even attempt to verbalize. Brody is jumping at my feet, begging to play fetch or to go for a walk, unable to understand that Mommy has been wearing the same pajamas for twelve days, and hasn't showered in four. The fact that I have even made it out of bed is only because the dog has to be walked and fed. The thought of leaving the house to go to work can lead to a mild panic attack. I think about death every day, even on good days. Depression is like that hidden burning ember after a house fire. No one notices it until somebody comes in and kicks some shit around with their feet. It's all fun and games until you come across an old photo of your wedding, or you catch a random whiff of a dead loved one's perfume. Once that happens, there isn't a pill on the planet that will suddenly make you want to take in the neighbors' laundry or pass out free lattes to coworkers. It's more like crawling your way out of the hole you've fallen into while all of your personal triggers are trying to grab your feet and pull you back down.
I do take my medicine like I'm supposed to, and after years of therapy I'm learning better coping skills. If you know me well (or you've read my second blog), I'm dealing with a lot right now physically, which inevitably affects me mentally. I have to say I'm really proud of myself that I haven't ended up back in the behavioral health hospital. I'm realistic, though. I know that just one little thing could send me right over the edge, and it'll be another round of electro-convulsive therapy for yours truly. Show THAT on one of your commercials, Big Pharma!
Thank you, Hollywood, for helping to start a dialogue about mental illness. Just don't go so far in the other direction that you appear to minimize depression. We can't just snap out of it. I don't know about you, but I would like to see commercials show a bit more realistic view of what it's like to be in the throes of a depressive episode.
And just to show how deceiving looks can be, the picture above is not after one of my many breakdowns, it's after a show in which I had to cry towards the end. Because when it's real, you're not really in the mood for taking selfies.