There is an internet meme – one of those little phrases typed over a colorful background that people post on Facebook and other social media sites – that talks about how it is important to remember that some people have “invisible” illnesses. For example, I have a friend who suffers, or rather battles with, one of those invisible illnesses, Asperger’s Syndrome. She is very high-functioning, meaning that she can do anything anyone without Asperger’s can do, but she realizes that she has behaviors that make her stand out as odd, or sometimes obstinate. Her behaviors and idiosyncrasies are fairly symptomatic of one on “the autism spectrum”, as some would categorize Asperger’s, but to those who do not understand these syndromes, she can sometimes seem like she is trying to be difficult. It makes it difficult for her in small ways – like when people would look at her strangely when she rocks herself for comfort when in a public place, and in larger ways – like when she has difficulty getting a job because of a physical “tick” during a job interview for which she is completely qualified.
This friend is battling every day to survive and thrive in a world that generally does not understand or have sympathy for people with those mostly “invisible” illnesses. It is much easier to hold the door for a person with a cane, or a wheelchair, than it is to make certain allowances for someone who is dealing with something not quite as obvious. People with autism disorders, mental illness, PTSD, brain injury, and other emotional disorders are the invisible portion of the handicapped or “differently abled” world, and because of that invisibility, suffer in silence, or are shunned for seeming different, without the difference being defined as something not to fear.
One of the illnesses in that “invisible” sphere is depression. Winston Churchill referred to his own depressive periods as the times when “The Black Dog” was haunting him. When people who have never experienced depression see this word, they think of the mental states in which they have occasionally found themselves, in which they were sad, “blue”, unhappy, disenfranchised or grieving. All of these states, while very unpleasant and temporarily debilitating as they might be, are not in the same realm as “clinical” depression. It’s like a person with a headache saying that they are experiencing a migraine. You might use the words carelessly, as synonyms, but you cannot interchange the experiences as equal. Some of the recognized symptoms of depression are:
· Fatigue or loss of energy almost every day
· Feelings of worthlessness or guilt almost every day
· Impaired concentration, indecisiveness
· Insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleeping) almost every day
· Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities nearly every day (called anhedonia, this symptom can be indicated by reports from significant others)
· Restlessness or feeling slowed down
· Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
I’m very familiar with all of these symptoms, because for many years, I’ve been waging my own battle with depression. There have been times, less recently, when my symptoms were very severe. Thankfully, due to therapy and medication, they are less severe now, but there are still occasionally times…
For the most part, I’ve been winning the war, as evidenced by the fact that I am gainfully employed, married, am part of a comedy show that you are undoubtedly familiar with if you are reading this, and have a lot of friends who would probably say that I’m pretty cheerful most of the time. However, those who have known me long, and known me the most intimately, have seen me dealing with “The Black Dog”, and know that is not something I can avoid, and that can sometimes overwhelm me, despite my best efforts.
I do my best to cover the occasional passing bout of depression, and try to battle through the day with the various coping mechanisms I’ve developed over the years to keep people from knowing that I am struggling. It is not something that you want your employer to know you are dealing with, because when that report is due, or that meeting is in 10 minutes, they don’t want to hear that you are about to climb under your desk and stay there for the rest of the day. You have to write the report, get to the meeting, and do your best to hold it together until quitting time.
Believe me, no employer on earth is going to let you call in “mentally ill” for a day, so you end up guilty and ashamed for having to lie about a stomach virus when the reality is that you absolutely cannot get out of bed. If you ever confessed to having taken a day or two off due to depression, then when you actually do become physically ill, no one will believe you. It’s not that depression is less debilitating than a physical illness, but admitting to it is to invite suspicion, speculation and gossip, none of which is exactly therapeutic to a person with a depressive condition to begin with. I’m not talking about playing hooky from school, or being lazy, or just being weak. Depression can be immobilizing, and can actually cause body aches and pains, besides the mental anguish.
Socially, it’s almost a bigger minefield, trying to deal with depression with one’s family and friends. It’s just not acceptable to be on the verge of tears, “for no reason”, at someone’s festive occasion. Sometimes you have to cancel your plans to go, if you know that you will not be able to keep up the pretense of happiness, or if you go, you may have to claim allergies or “tears of joy”, whatever it takes to make it through. No one who has not experienced the feeling akin to a mask coming down over your face, making it physically impossible to smile, can begin to understand the strength it takes to just get through very normal activities while under depression’s spell. And the pain of being physically unable to move your face, being completely unable to feel happiness, is excruciating in the face of people crowding around you and screaming at you to “SMILE!”, “Lighten up!”, etc., like clown faces in a horror movie. It is unbearable.
I’m sharing all of this because I think that it’s a shame that people, like me, who battle with these invisible ailments, have to do so in silence, in shame, often without support. None of use knows the secret burdens of others, and most of us are probably dealing with several of them at a time! Be gentle with each other, allow some room for people who might seem strange or grumpy, when they are struggling to stay above water, because you have no idea what they might be struggling with. And if you recognize yourself in the list of symptoms or my descriptions, reach out for help. It’s available, and it’s worth the risk to let someone know.