There’s good news and bad news.
The bad news: I have cancer.
The good news: I have an endless supply of support. I have standing offers of “anything you need, anything at all” from church friends and relatives and my parents’ coworkers. They’re making good on those offers, too. We’re practically drowning in delicious soups. I have a growing menagerie of stuffed animals and more coloring books than I can shake a crayon at. I’ve had messages and phone calls and movie dates and visits from old friends. People make a point to tell me they know someone who had this kind or that kind of cancer and came out OK. They’re eager to hear how I’m feeling, how my family is doing, and how they can help.
Everyone is so eager to show their support, and that’s great.
But it’s also weird.
I’m about to sound like I’m complaining, but please believe me when I say I know I am more blessed than I realize.
It’s just that this enthusiastic response is making me question myself and the whole situation and the way we look at illness because—in my experience—this is not what happens when you get diagnosed with depression.
By the time I started to figure out something was not right, my depression already had me wrapped around its finger. I guess that was true about this tumor, too—by the time we found it, it was already huge and necrotic and cancerous. The struggles are so, so different—but so far, I’d rather deal with the cancer than have my depression as bad as it was in 2012.
My tumor doesn’t cripple me with a fear of failing. It doesn’t imprison me in bed all day long, contemplating my own shortcomings. It doesn’t keep me up night after night after night after night telling me how awful I am, telling me I’m completely incompetent. Incapable. Incomplete. Helpless. Hopeless. Talentless. Useless. Worthless. Undeserving. Unloved. Unlovable. Stupid. Fat. Ugly. Alone.
But my depression did.
For months, it embedded a constant stream of insults into my thoughts, beating through my own brain, from my own brain. I couldn’t ignore it. I wept and moaned and screamed into pillows, begging God and The Universe and Anyone Who Would Listen to just take it away.
I can’t stand it anymore, God, just take it away.
I am already so distorted and demented that I don’t recognize me in here anymore.
One more moment of this will shatter me into a million irreparable pieces.
I can’t do it. Make it stop. Just take it away.
I have been at that precipice where death sounded easier than facing another day trapped in my own head. That is much scarier than any part of the cancer process that I’ve been through so far.
Cancer has terror moments that come close to that precipice—waiting for results, for example. But it has been bearable because I don’t feel alone. I have this amazing support system—from my parents and siblings to distant relatives and old friends and my top-notch doctors and nurses. In fact, I kind of feel like the whole world has my back.
That is depression’s most effective weapon: convincing you that you are alone. Even as the logical part of you tries to fight back and say, no, Mom calls you every morning. Dad traveled 500 miles to help you make a poster and a plan to get all your work done. Beth came all that way to buy you fish oil and wait for you to speak through your tears. Liz sends you adorable texts every day. Grandma sent you a birthday card. Sarah asked you to stay for the weekend. Bettina wants to know if you can babysit. Dr. Lamothe is helping you break down your thesis into manageable pieces. Dr. Eppes gave you an extension on that math assignment. Dr. Warren extended your conducting final for Christ’s sake. And Mrs. Roberts hasn’t kicked you out of studio even though you’ve been late to lessons more often than you’ve been on time.
How those millions of things everyone did for me could feel like the lie, I don’t know. But if it made sense, it wouldn’t be mental illness. Depression does not give two shits for reason or logic. Depression just lies.
Every once in a while, when I’m already in a foul mood, and someone reaches out to ask how I’m doing with chemo or my latest medical test, I’ll catch myself thinking, “Where were you when I was struggling with depression?” When those thoughts creep up, I am quick to remind myself that they were in the dark. I was the one who deliberately chose to keep that struggle private. Even so, it all still strikes me as weird. My health was just as bad when I withdrew from school. My life was in just as much danger…but only a few people knew. I shut everyone out because I was so afraid of their reaction.
This fresh wave of support, though, is making me wonder—what if I hadn’t tried to shut everyone out? What if I had been more open? What if I had told everyone about my depression with the same unabashed frankness I’ve been using with my cancer diagnosis? What if I had made a habit of asking for help when I needed it? What if I had actually said what I was feeling—even just once in a while?
I don’t know. I probably would’ve freaked a lot of people out. Some people probably would’ve had the reaction I was afraid of—telling me to “focus on my blessings” or “just get over it” or whatever other well-meaning but worthless drivel people come up with because they don’t know what else to do.
But what did I miss out on? Who else is out there dealing with depression or helping someone who is? Who could’ve recommended a therapist? Who would’ve listened to me ramble about all my insecurities surrounding going back to school? I don’t know.
Mental illness is hard.
It’s hard to have it.
It’s hard to help people who have it.
It’s hard to understand just how different everyone’s experience with it is.
But that just makes it more important to talk about both of these illnesses. I want to be open and honest and live in hope, not fear or resentment or shame. Illness is illness, whether physical or mental, and I want to give people the opportunity to support me in the face of cancer and in the face of depression. My friends and family want to support me as much as I want to support them. I don’t have to miss out because I’m afraid. I am determined to act in courage, kindness, and hope.
The bad news: I am sick. I have cancer, and I am dealing with depression.
The good news: I’m not going through either one alone.