A little while ago, a beautiful, courageous woman posted a set of photos that went viral. One was of her ready to have a fun night out, the next of her just after a panic attack moments after the first photo was taken. See below:
This was correctly billed as incredibly courageous because it is unpopular to be depressed or to have extreme anxiety (despite the fact that more than 40 million Americans deal with it on a daily basis, according to the National Institute of Mental Health), and so why would this beautiful woman want to show the world how upset she was for reasons many would not understand?
This is not a blog post about how what we post to the world needs to be more telling of our real life. I actually don't believe that, which I wrote about this morning. What I do believe is that this woman had courage because it seems that when the word 'depression' comes up, others think that person must be an Eeyore, a person who just walks around with her head down, moping and complaining because nothing in her world is right. Never, or at most rarely, smiling, and always needing to be cheered up.
But what I just described is not only a cartoon character, but categorically untrue. Sometimes a person experiencing depression is an Eeyore. But oftentimes, it's a multi-dimensional Pooh Bear. Our favorite honey-loving bear is kind of a worried little guy, but he's also cheerful and can see the bright side of things. He sometimes needs cheering up when things don't always go his way, but he's an all-around likeable fellow. And he might still be that way, even if he was going through a depression. Because his depression does not make his joy disingenuous.
Depression shows itself in off-kilter eating habits, loss of interest in activities, and a stronger-than-average desire to be alone, among other symptoms, all of which are pretty easily hidden as normal behavior. "I'm not feeling well" and "I'm tired" are reasonable excuses for changes in a person's eating habits or wanting to stay home from a social event. And with all the noise our culture offers, it's even easier to hide behind such reasonable excuses.
But your friends and family need you to pay attention. Especially through the holiday season when loneliness abounds. We need to cut through the noise and listen to and attempt to see one another so we can see when "I'm tired" is a façade for "I'm sad" and "I'm not feeling well" is a cover-up for "I'm having trouble seeing the purpose in my life right now". We need to make eye contact while we converse and not look at our phones or at the bustle around us. We need to connect.
We need each other. Mental illness is creeping in like a thief in the night, but we can do better. We have to do better. If we want better for our generation and the generation we're raising, we need to do better. While I advocate for counseling and medication when necessary, it's like wanting to lose and keep off those twenty extra pounds - you have to make a full lifestyle change that includes healthy eating, a healthy mindset, and at least moderate exercise. In respect to mental illness, counseling/a mentor relationship is the healthy mindset, medication (when necessary) is the healthy eating, and healthy relationships are the exercise.
When the human brain makes a positive connection with another human, it lights up in the areas of JOY, HOPE, HAPPINESS, FAITH, all the good things that make our life worth living. I remind you of that to make two points: one, connections are essential to our well-being, and the onus is not always on the other person to make the connection; and two, depression and anxiety aren't always noticeable right off the bat because if there's a positive interaction going on, the depressed individual might be feeling a spike of those positive emotions. But when he/she is alone later, the depressed individual might have a harder time holding on to those positive emotions that spiked just a little bit ago.
What's my point here? Pay attention. Ask each other how you're doing. And do so without judgment. Your life experience is not your friend's, so what hits her trigger points will be different than what hits yours. And when we ask, "How are you?" to our friends and family, listen for the answer. Don't ask it on the way to check the mail or your phone or to get a cup of after-work coffee. Stop, put your phone in your pocket, ask "How are you?" and wait patiently for the answer.
I truly, with my whole heart, believe that if we could all do this for each other, the $40+ billion spent annually on anxiety disorders in the United States could plummet. If we could show each other, Hey, you matter and then back it up with our actions, what a wonderful world this could be.