Maybe it’s the circles I run in. Maybe my friends and family ruin the curve. Whatever the reason, I’ve never felt particularly uneducated about depression and anxiety. I’m sure there was a time in my life when I didn’t quite get it, but I think once I hit high school, someone explained it to me somewhere along the line and it never got the chance to be scary.
Until I was diagnosed with it.
My family had always called me sensitive, dramatic even. I told myself I was just always nervous and that I took things too seriously. After Professor Vande Kopple died, though, things sort of spun out of control. I stopped being able to leave my house without help. I’d spend hours sitting on the floor doing nothing. I would tell myself I was going to apply for a job or go for a run or, hell, even take a shower, and then get too scared to do it. There were so many unknowns I couldn’t control or explain, so I just avoided them. All of them. Everything. I avoided everything.
Two things saved me from my anxiety and depression that year: my fiancé and my dog. My fiancé because he pushed me past my comfort zone and got my brain out of the habit of being scared of everything. My dog because I knew if I didn’t take her on a walk, if I didn’t go to the store to buy her food, if I didn’t get a job to pay for that food, that she would die, and I cared more about her than I did about me.
That’s an important thing people like me—people who feel like they know about depression, but don’t actually know about depression—probably don’t realize. When you’re depressed, you hate yourself. And you assume everyone else hates you, too. Not only do you have no interest in anything, not only do you have no energy, not only do you feel like your head is caught in some low-hanging cloud that keeps you from being able to focus or think or feel much of anything. On top of all that, you feel like you’re stuck in an elevator all day with your nemesis. Yourself. Sometimes you can hear yourself, like a voice in your head, mocking yourself, asking rude questions like, “Why would you say that, idiot?” Sometimes your brain becomes the calendar-reminder app from Hell, sending you a pop up every ten minutes to remind you, “Don’t forget, you’re a loser, untalented, and nobody likes you!”
It was because of the hating myself that I never got help. When the bully is your own brain, you don’t even know to tattle on it. I didn’t realize I wasn’t supposed to hate myself. I thought that I deserved it. And I believed me when I told myself that everyone hated me. So I didn’t think a therapist or medication could help.
That all finally changed when I decided to become a social worker. One day, I was reading for a class on human development, and I got to the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder and read the words, “Feelings of worthlessness; excessive or inappropriate guilt.” The little depression demon piped up and said “Ha! That’s you, idiot! See, I told you! You’re depressed. You can’t help anyone.” And I realized…I was depressed.
It still took months, a week of crisis, an evening in an emergency room, and the most supportive husband in the history of ever to finally get me into proper treatment. While I waited for the first appointment with the psychiatrist, I continued, dutifully, to go to my classes and do my homework. Things got a little weird when three of my four professors discussed crisis, trauma, and stress management in one day. Things got weirder when I was assigned to listen to podcasts describing in detail how to interact with a client who is suicidal. Things got especially weird when I sat through three consecutive lectures on the amygdala, and how, for people with anxiety, it is overactive and interprets social threats as physical threats. I had to study cognitive behavioral therapy to pass a quiz, but I also had to practice cognitive behavioral therapy to get through my day. It was surreal.
In the two months since my formal diagnosis and prescription, I’ve talked to several friends who are all going through the same thing as me, and have been just as silent and self-isolating as I have been. I have read articles in the Chimes urging the Calvin community to educate each other about mental illness and care for those among them who suffer and feel like they cannot ask for help. I have, myself, practiced telling my story, slowly, to people who love me and know me and I have simultaneously practiced feeling shame and fear because some people aren’t educated on the topic, and oh my god what will happen when I try to tell them? They will know I’ve been lying my whole life about who I am and how I feel. And they will hate me just like I hate me.
But the truth of the matter is that no one can educate you on depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic-stress disorder better than someone who is currently living the nightmare. You can read all the DSMs you want, but until you look at the diagnostic criteria and feel like you’re looking in a mirror, you will only understand a vague ghost of the illness. As much as people make the loving comparison, mental illness is not like diabetes, where someone can explain to you how insulin works and you can understand what it might be like to live without it. My illness is in my brain, the very instrument I use to measure the world, myself, and other people. Someone who doesn’t struggle the way I do, every day in every moment for every imaginable reason, can never explain to you what that is like.
But you need to know. So I’m here to tell you, to answer your questions, to help you understand. And if you already do understand, I assure you, you are not alone.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.