You know me pretty well.
But not as well as you think.
I have a mental illness. You never would guess that to be the truth about my life. That’s because — fearful of what others might say, shamed and embarrassed by my disease — I hide it. And because I don’t look like what you would expect in someone with major depression or bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or severe anxiety. You would be surprised to hear the thoughts that haunt me. You never would guess that I have been hospitalized several times because I don’t feel safe.
You know me pretty well. Yet you never would suspect that I have tried to take my own life.
It’s time you know, time everyone knows.
Some data show that one in six adults suffers from some form of a diagnosable mental illness, including major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, post-partum depression and anxiety. Other estimates run as high as 60 million Americans suffering from such illnesses in any given year — many of them kids and teenagers. All of those diseases have the common denominator of being disorders of the brain, some that can be traced genetically and others that are the result of biological, environmental, social and cultural influences.
There is situational depression and chronic depression. There are severe forms of each disease and milder forms, some treatable by medication alone while others require talk therapy as well. And in some cases medication and therapy only help achieve partial success toward complete healing, meaning as many as 30 percent of afflicted patients will have to accept living with the disease’s complications as part of each day’s existence.
You know me. You talk to me every day around the office coffee pot. You wave to me driving through the neighborhood. You send me a Christmas card each year. And yet, you have no idea what my life is like.
When you finally do learn about my illness, don’t be astonished to know I have quietly suffered battling with the disease without you knowing. Please don’t shun me or awkwardly try to avoid me or the subject of my disease. I have learned my disease is no one’s fault — especially my own. I hope you will understand that as well.
More specifically about clinical depression, research by the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression shows that 18.1 million Americans will suffer in any given year from some sort of depressive disorder — which is any illness that affects the body, mood and thoughts.
That data came before the major economic downturn in our country several years ago. Newer survey data, compiled by Mental Health America and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, indicate that unemployed Americans are four times as likely to report symptoms consistent with severe mental illness as people who have jobs.
On average, about 30,000 Americans take their own lives each year. The newest survey found that 13 percent of people without jobs have thought of harming themselves — four times more than people with full-time work. Financial stress can lead to the onset of mental illness. Lack of a job can enhance the possibility of abuse of alcohol or drugs, one possible symptom of depression.
Yet less than half of the people with mental illness seek treatment, with some of that attributed to the stigma carried by the diseases. Almost 50 percent of those going untreated aren’t able to seek help because they don’t have the money or insurance to pay for it.
You talk with me on the phone somewhat regularly. You asked me to go to the ballgame with you last summer. Your kids and my kids are in school together, and we have shared a laugh or two at their soccer games.
And yet …
You don’t know that I sob uncontrollably in the shower, in the car, in my bedroom. You don’t know that I am paralyzed by anxiety to the point of not being able to leave my house even to fetch the mail from the mailbox, that I wasn’t at our kids’ school play because of a severe panic attack at the thought of being around people. You don’t know that sometimes I go five or six consecutive nights unable to sleep more than two hours in a row, that I wake up and stare at the dark ceiling with my head filled by frightening thoughts, tears streaming down my face.
Other times, I sleep so much more than is usual. I can’t get out of bed in the morning, and if I do, then I can’t get off the couch. I have gone days without the strength to shower and put on a change of clothes.
You don’t know how much strength it takes to do the simplest tasks, enough that I am physically, emotionally, mentally and even spiritually drained after pushing through to get to work in the morning.
I am afraid … for the ability to keep my job, keep my marriage together, pay my bills, be a good parent and friend, a good daughter to my parents, a worthy man of God. Speaking of God, you don’t know that my prayer life is so challenging because I can’t imagine why God would love someone like me. I have an irrational self-loathing that permeates everything.
You know me so well … and yet … You don’t know that I have undergone electro-convulsive therapy — shock treatments — that has cost me considerable memory. You don’t know how desperate is my worry about the safety of my kids, my parents, my spouse when I don’t know exactly where they are and how they are at every moment.
You see me reading the news on TV … acting on the movie screen … playing a sport professionally. You helped elect me into office. You come to my restaurant now and then. You ask me to fix your car. You bought your car insurance from me. You sing “happy birthday” to me every year.
You know me. Don’t you?