Here’s what I’ve learned since I started telling people about my mental illness: People can surprise you in new and beautiful and terrible ways. You will lay your heart in their hands and sometimes they’ll drop it.
From an ex-boyfriend, I heard this refrain: “You wouldn’t be depressed if you were stronger.” From a friend: “Depression is only in your head.”
But sometimes – and these are the times you’ll treasure – people can hold your heart even as their fingers shake.
Here’s what else I’ve learned since I started telling people about my mental illness: They can surprise you.
When I finally told my mother I was depressed (across a transatlantic Skype call), the first words out of her mouth were, “It’s OK.” I cried (and cried), and she waited patiently, watching me through the screen of her laptop. “We can handle this,” she said. “We will handle this.”
Next, I told my sister. She, like my mother, promised we would handle it, that I wasn’t alone. When I called her a few days later to tell her I didn’t think I could handle it, she boarded the next flight to my city and stayed with me for three days. She reminded me to do the simple things that I could no longer bring myself to do: brush my hair, call insurance companies, contact possible therapists, and go to class.
My parents and sisters and brother rallied around me. They called each other daily, asking who had talked to me and how I’d seemed. They caught flights to be by my side. They called, and if I didn’t answer, they called again. Together, we navigated a messy terrain that we didn’t ever think we’d find ourselves in. Once, my brother told me that he wasn’t sure how to ask me about my mental state. He told me that the words that most readily came to him were, “How’s your head?” He wanted to know if this was an OK way to ask, and it was. It became his simple way to ask a complex question with millions of different meanings – among them: “Are you OK? Are you alive? Are you feeling alive? Is there anything I can do to make you feel more alive? Are you OK? Have you eaten today? Did you go to your appointment? Are you OK?”
I am fortunate in a myriad of ways but having my family and my best friend is at the top of this shining list. I’ve known my best friend, Kelly, since seventh grade. The year that my depression closed in around me, Kelly was not only my personal rock, but she was also my family’s touchstone. If I wasn’t answering the phone, they called her to make sure that I was safe in our apartment. They talked to her about things I wasn’t ready to talk about yet. She told my mother about the trauma I had been hiding from my family, and I am so thankful she did. I couldn’t find the words yet but my best friend could, and with the words came the help I so desperately needed.
I don’t know what I had expected from my family. They have always been a well of support that I am continuously drawing from. We are close and loud with our love for each other. Still, the stigma around mental illness threw a shroud around these facts. I was terrified they would think I was just sensitive or that I wasn’t strong enough to handle what life had tossed my way. I was so scared that for years I chose to suit up and walk into war alone rather than risk holding my hand out for theirs.
My family and my best friend surprised me, in the best possible way, and that helped me gather the courage necessary to give others a chance to surprise me, too. When I had only been dating my boyfriend for three weeks, I took a trip to New York to see my family and spend time with my favorite cousin. One night, I called him from midtown. He answered the phone in Arizona, and I said, “There are things you need to know before we decide to really do this.” I took a deep breath, and he listened as I talked for ten minutes straight about depression and anxiety and how they would always be a part of my life and some days were worse than others but some were better. I told him that I was in treatment and probably would be for the rest of my life and that I was OK with that but anyone I dated needed to know about this part of me. I told him I would understand if this made him change his mind and that I wanted him to take his time and come to a deliberate decision. In my mind, it was no small thing to decide to love someone with depression. In his mind, it seemed simple. He said he was all in.
A year and a half later, I can tell you that he meant that. There have been entire months where depression hasn’t touched our relationship, but there have been days where I drive to his house and say, “I don’t feel good.” On those days, he asks whether I want to cry, talk about it, or watch a movie. Sometimes we do all three. But either way, we cope.
Through the two years that have elapsed since I finally spoke my truth, I’ve come to the realization that no one else can decide how I fight my battles. I have to choose for myself the best ways to stay alive and happy. People can surprise you. They’ll stand next to you and steady you when you stumble. And as for the ones who don’t, you’ll come to see they aren’t necessarily the ones you need.
People can surprise you. Give them the chance.