Back in August my friend Joyce and I were sitting on a stone ledge at The Forks. We had set up for the vigil for Lisa Gibson and were waiting for people to arrive. From looking at the microphone and amp, and from the news vans and reporters hovering nearby, it was clear to people that there was going to be an event taking place.
Within a few minutes a group of three thirtysomethings sauntered over and asked what was going to be happening. We asked if they had heard about Lisa Gibson's tragic story and told them about the vigil. We told them that we were holding the vigil to honor Lisa's role as a wife and mother and woman, to remember her beautiful children, and to raise awareness and reduce stigma about post-partum depression and mental illness in general.
They looked surprised. "How could she have done that?" one of them asked.
I don't remember exactly what happened or what was said next, but within seconds, Joyce and I were both engaged in conversations about mental illness, depression, and medication. The mis-information and naivite' was shocking for me to hear. These were thirty year old Canadians. They were under the impression that people who were diagnosed with a mental illness were completely and obviously crazy, and that the people around them would be able to see it. "Medication for mental illness make you a zombie, right? If you take medication for mental illness you turn into a different person - like a numb person who doesn't feel anything. You'd be totally out of it." Those were their words and their perceptions. All of them said they didn't know anyone who had a mental illness.
After conversing with them for a few more minutes, they were shocked and filled with disbelief when both Joyce and I identified as people with mental health struggles who take daily medication to manage our illnesses. The conversation was beautiful, actually. They were completely open to knowing more and being proven wrong. They wanted to know how it felt to be medicated and how it made a difference for us. They couldn't believe that anyone being medicated for a mental illness could be a coherent, articulate, seemingly "normal" contributing member of society. We continued to talk for a few minutes, exchanging stories and experiences. When they left they thanked us for telling our stories. "I've never known anyone who talked about this. I can't believe that you just said it. I "get it" now."
It's been just over a month since that exchange and I still think about it often. I think about the stereotypes they had been fed and then believed. I think of the stigma that continues to exist which serves to keep people with mental illness ashamed, hiding, and silently suffering. I think about the difference one conversation may have made to change their perceptions about the mentally ill and medication.
A friend sent me an email this week asking questions about medication for mental illness. She hasn't been coping well and her doctor thinks an anti-depressant and an anti-anxiety med may alleviate some of her suffering. She voiced doubt about whether that course of action was right for her.... "I don't think I'm depressed", she said. But the other words in her email told another story.
Depression often isn't what you think it is. It isn't always overwhelming sadness, lack of interest and energy, low moods, and lifelessness. I think that's one of the greatest misconceptions in society. To be depressed, you have to look like someone lying in the fetal position on a bed, not wanting to get up. Sometimes that is what it looks like - it's true. But that's only the thinnest slice of what many people experience.
In responding to me friend, I related the story of how I managed life before I finally sought help. In a word, I was angry. Most days I was filled with rage, irritability, edginess, and enormous anger. Imagine parenting a one, three, and five year old and feeling like nearly everything they did would engulf you in rage. I'd yell, scream and have no patience. My actions and emotions didn't match the circumstances around me or the way I genuinely felt about my daughters. After a day filled with impatient and angry responses and reactions I'd lie in bed nearly every night and sob myself to sleep, overcome with tremendous sorrow, shame, and guilt. I'd look at their peaceful and innocent beautiful faces lying asleep in their beds and I'd wonder how I could be such a monster. I'd plead with myself to do better the next day - to not let anger get the best of me. But the next day never got better.
It took my friend Dianna to broach the subject of depression, anxiety, and mental illness for me to get up the courage to go and see my family doctor and ask for help. I sat in her tiny office and cried my eyes out as I related how I felt about life, myself, and my ability to cope. She was quick to reassure and responded with no judgement. She told me I wouldn't believe how many moms come into her office and tell her a slightly different version of the same story. After being medicated, they all came in and asked the same question.... why did I wait so long to get help?
I've been on Effexor for seven years now. I may always be on it, and I'm more than ok with that. As far as I can tell, I'm not a walking zombie or a heartless and un-feeling person with a void stare. I am, however, better able to cope with my life and whatever that entails. I can weather storms that before would have forced me into a rage and then shame-filled regret. I still have bad seasons and know that there is still lots of work to do. But I can parent and navigate life without a pack of dark dogs nipping at my heels. I may have night sweats and headaches when I miss a pill. I may hate feeling like a slave to that little bottle on my counter. I may still hate checking off the little box and filling in the word, "Effexor" on every form that asks if I take any medication. But I can go to sleep at night with a sigh of relief instead of gut-wrenching sobs of sorrow. If that means I take Effexor until I'm 100, it's a small price to pay.
That's what my crazy looks like. It's mostly contained, treated, and in the light. But it's there. I want my story of crazy to change the way society tells hers. Tell the story, erase the shame. There is hope for the crazy on the most ordinary of days.
** The title of this post is borrowed from the novel of the same name, written by Pearl Cleage.
It just so happens to be an excellent read!