Day 8 – Write a letter to your health
When I think of health, I automatically think of illness: a rather unfortunate side effect of having lost my health at the age of 24. To me, addressing a letter to my depression means personifying it. I’ve read a lot of personal experiences of depression over the years, and many of those people addressed depression as a beast to be slain.
Thinking about it now, I believe a kinder view is required. I was 22 when the first suicidal thought visited me. I didn’t think of depression as an enemy then. I didn’t, in fact, know or recognize it for what it was. I was an innocent, by all accounts, and wasn’t courting depression. It just happened. What happened afterwards, including alcoholism, suicide attempts, self-harm… these too were unfortunate symptoms of depression until I learned to manage my depression.
However, after all I’ve learned about it, depression is not the enemy either. Like me, depression was also something of an innocent. It just was. It wasn’t a dark beast lying in wait to slaughter me. It wasn’t stalking me, as much as that makes it easier to justify my feelings of being unfairly persecuted. I wasn’t its victim. I’m not its victim.
Depression is an illness. Whether you believe it’s a product of genetics, environment or otherwise, the onset of depression is one of those things you can’t truly predict, much like the weather – and I can say that advisedly as a trained meteorologist. You can study and state with confidence the probability that someone will develop it, and yet, when you think about it, it’s a force of nature waiting for the right conditions to develop, sometimes coalescing into the perfect storm.
Ignorance is the enemy. So too, is denial and minimization. These are the beasts I fell victim to, not depression. These are the tools of people who don’t understand. Yet I don’t feel I can demonize these people either. Indeed, in my life, I have loved many people who relied on these tools. Some were family and some were dear friends. They didn’t understand, but that doesn’t mean I should call them the enemy either.
As I wrote in my post about taking the high road, I have a tougher time with those who should have understood: members of the medical community who should have healed rather than hurt me. However, holding on to that hurt isn’t helping me. I know that. I’m just saying it’s not as easy to let go of, but I do recognize it as something that’s not serving me.
Returning to the topic of this post, I can’t revile depression for what it did to my mind and my health. It wasn’t a spiteful or conscious being. The most difficult thing about it was it came and never went away.
This is my letter to depression.
You took me by surprise in 1988. I’d never known an illness could take a hold of one’s mind as easily as it does one’s body. I let doctors attempt to medicate you, not really understanding what you were. I don’t think they did either.
I was frightened, and fear makes it difficult to rationally consider one’s dilemma. It was difficult too that the illness affected my mind, the cradle of rational thought. Was it any surprise that I didn’t have the resources to deal with you? I was surprised.
Witnessing those first hasty actions on my part to counteract you, some people thought I wasn’t wise in my approach to you. So many people thought I could just snap out of you, and return to what I was before the onset of illness.
Most people wouldn’t talk to you like that if you were cancer, although there are some who think that positive thinking can make you snap out of anything. You and I knew better. You were a disease, but a very tricky one because you made it difficult to believe I was worth saving. Again, that was your nature and I couldn’t blame you for what was to you, the same as breathing.
For a long time, I treated you just like any illness I’d ever had. I thought the doctors had all the answers, and that if I just followed their advice and took the medication, I would be healed.
What I didn’t understand was that some medication can heal and some can hurt. I didn’t know medication could make me feel worse and precipitate my first overdose. I didn’t know medication could make me experience psychosis. I didn’t know medication could stop working. Indeed, I didn’t know that medication wasn’t the whole solution to managing you.
I didn’t understand the importance of talk therapy because for two years, despite dozens of lengthy sessions, my first psychiatrist prescribed and never really talked to me. The second psychiatrist wasn’t any better.
I didn’t understand that like any illness there were active steps one could take to feel better. These steps, like medication, weren’t panaceas either, but over the years I tried so many of them. With your feedback, I found what helped and what didn’t.
It wasn’t easy that I had an autoimmune disease too because that complicated what I could do to manage you. Although I heard what doctors and every other person I met said about exercise, and although I worked at it for so many years: circuit training, bike riding, swimming and walking, I sometimes experienced a crushing fatigue that made it difficult to go to work full-time, much less do all those extra things that could help. I often slept for hours after a circuit class as you know, regardless of the time. I couldn’t help it – my body just shut down. Sometimes the exercise made me so weak that I sank further into depression. It truly was a double-edged sword, pursuing those bloody endorphins and finding that sometimes they just weren’t there.
You were with me when I read all those books about changing my life and my thoughts. You were there when I travelled hours every week by public transport to doctor’s appointments (remember when I got lost on that first appointment with the cognitive therapist?). You experienced all of the alternative therapies. You stepped back long enough at times to let me hold on to hope for the future. You were there for each step forward and each painful backslide.
You were there through all those hours with the cognitive therapist when I learned how to recognize you: how to stop the thoughts that plagued me and replace them with kinder self-talk, even though it didn’t come naturally. You’re here as I’m still doing it 24 years later. I sense that even now you’re not treating me with condemnation, but rather, compassion because you know how many thousands of hours I’ve put into getting well.
You know how hard you made the journey, but you couldn’t help it, it was just who you were. Like the inflammation that wracks my body with pain and suffering, you are also an illness of my body: just more maligned because you affect the part above my shoulders.
Just as it isn’t my fault I got an illness named depression, it isn’t your fault you are depression. The proof is our alliance as we try to explain you to people who have never experienced you. Together, we illustrate how hard I’ve worked and how far I’ve come, even on the days when I still mess up.
I’m human and you’re an illness, depression. Those who experience you aren’t defined by you. They are challenged by you and their life is often threatened by you, but you aren’t a beast of malice.
The greatest challenge we face is helping non-sufferers to understand you. We need to make them stop and think before they make off-hand remarks about snapping out of it, or about the sufferer’s laziness or spiritual decrepitude. We need to promote the importance of compassion, which is not the same as enabling. We need people to understand that you are a disease of the brain, and equally worthy of research and understanding. We need people to understand that those who struggle to overcome you are heroes as surely as all those others we hold high in their challenging lives.
I hope I can help people to understand you. To learn that, like any illness, you can be faced, managed and overcome with knowledge and compassion. I hope to make people understand that sufferers of depression are not your victims. Just as we wouldn’t turn our backs on a dangerous storm, we wouldn’t live without attempting to understand you, to manage and minimize the damage you can cause.
I’m hoping that if people understand you better, that if we weather you together, we can save many lives.