DISCLAIMER NO. 1
This blog post touches on difficult topics including major depressive disorder, psychiatric medication, anxiety attacks, suicidal ideation, and death by suicide. If you are vulnerable to, triggered by, or are otherwise not in a mental space to safely read about these topics, please click away.
Your health and safety are of the utmost importance. Please take care of yourself.
DISCLAIMER NO. 2
This blog post explores my own thoughts, emotions, and experiences living with major depressive disorder and my personal choice to become an advocate for myself and others. I am extremely passionate about mental health education and its power to fight against stigma and to help others like me live without fear of judgement. However, just because I’m comfortable speaking about my experiences does not mean that other people living with mental illness are or should be comfortable doing the same.
In addition, mine is just one story of major depressive disorder. My experiences will be very different from many others living with the same illness. This does not make any one of us more or less sick than the others. Please do not judge others against my story, and please do not judge my story against others. We are all individuals. We all have our own stories. This is simply a piece of mine.
Empowerment Through Advocacy
or, how I became a mental health advocate
It was a cold morning in February.
(At least, I think it was February. Don’t hold me to that. I keep terrible track of time.)
There was snow half-melted on the concrete walk. The light inside was already glowing warm and yellow and the mounted heater rumbled loud against the exposed brick walls of our temporary office space. The time clock crunched and gurgled when I fed it my card, then spat it back with a fresh stamp. “Did you hear the news?” my coworker asked when the noise died down.
It was seven o’clock in the morning. I had just rolled out of bed a mere twenty minutes ago, my morning a flurry of coffee and broken car air vents and maybe (read: definitely) a little bit of swearing at the cold.
No. I hadn’t read the news.
“Some girls tried to jump off the roof at the Psych Center.”
I have to interject here to explain that I live and work near a small town notorious for its abandoned, asbestos filled, probably-but-like-for-sure haunted old psychiatric center. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s very American Horror Story: Asylum - minus the aliens (I think), and the serial killer in the basement (I think). We call it the Psych Center. Around Halloween- and, honestly, year-round -kids try to break inside. There’s probably some demons crouched in some corners from botched seances by teenagers with Ouija boards from the local Toys ‘R Us. The land around it was bought by the state park system, so now parts of it are something of a (moderately spooky) hiking trail. It is also, unfortunately, a notorious spot for suicide attempts.
I won’t go into detail about the attempt my coworker was talking about because A) I don’t know all of them, B) it wouldn’t be my story to tell even if I did, and C) I really want to talk about what happened after she shared this bit of local news.
“I just don’t get it,” are the words I remember. She was in her office, puttering to and fro with paperwork in her hands. She shook her head and repeated, “I just don’t get it. Nothing’s that bad! Nothing’s so bad that you have to die over it!”
“You’re lucky you can see it that way,” I told her.
“How else can you see it?” she asked me, and she looked at me as if new heads had started budding up on my neck. She was incredulous. Flabbergasted. She found the notion preposterous. How could somebody not want to live? How could somebody feel so badly about their lives that they think they only way out is to die? She went on and on about nothing is ever that bad, no one’s life is ever that horrible, no one should ever feel that badly. She sounded so sure of herself the more she went one, and I felt my guts twisting with every word she said.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore.
“It’s not that simple,” I told her. She barely paused, but I kept going. I told her that I have depression and she stopped pacing. I told her that I’ve been suicidal and she looked at me like all the new heads on my neck from before started growing heads of their own.
“But you seem fine,” she said.
“Seem,” I pointed out, “is the operative word.”
At the time of that chilly February morning, I had been in treatment for major depressive disorder for just over two years. I had been on two different anti-depressants, two anti-anxiety medications, and one sleep aid. I’d been in the psychiatric emergency room. I’d cycled through two different therapists. I’d called my psychiatrist from the kitchen floor, crying, on more than one occasion. In the years leading up to my diagnosis, I contemplated suicide every morning. I’d missed classes because I didn’t have the energy to walk the extra few yards to the classroom and sat planted in the library instead, and felt sick from anxiety attacks after every exam I ever took that I wasn’t prepared for because I didn’t have the motivation to crack open the damn book. I’d watched my grades slip lower than they had since my brother was in the hospital when I was in the third grade.
So did I seem fine? Sure, probably. I held a steady job. I was in school. I had friends. I sometimes went out on the weekends. But seem really is the key word.
I seem fine because of all the work I did in therapy. I seem fine because I found a medication that keeps serotonin flowing to my brain. I seem fine because sometimes doing normal things like going to work distracted me from my symptoms long enough to feel like I wasn’t mentally ill.
As I explained all of this to my coworker, I watched her face contort- not in an ugly way, but in the sort of way that meant she was working things out. She was trying to marry this image of the person she knew- mostly happy, with the sweet customer service voice, who could be assertive and always on time and got their all of their tasks done every day -with someone who, at least at one point, wanted to die.
This was the first time I’d ever had this kind of conversation with someone.
Truth be told, the words came out of my mouth faster than I could comprehend them. I was sharing my story without being sure if I really wanted to, and maybe that’s not the best way to do it. I felt my heart in my throat as I watched my coworker watch me. Had I said too much? Was she judging me? Would this change the way she looked at me?
I can hardly explain the relief I felt when she simply said, “Thank you.”
Her voice got softer than I’d ever heard it and she thanked me for my honesty, for trusting her enough to share, and for teaching her something she didn’t know she needed to be taught. It was humbling to be thanked so sincerely.
That conversation changed everything. It gave me the confidence that I could speak up for myself, and that I could make a difference. Maybe the change would be small, but challenging one person’s stigma can go a long way. Who knows who else my coworker might meet in her life, and what challenges they may be facing? Maybe I did something to help make those potential future interactions a little bit better. And if I can do that once, I can do it over and over again.
Here’s the thing: I will never fault someone for choosing to keep their story private. We don’t all have to be open books. We don’t have to take responsibility for educating other people. Some people find more comfort and solace in keeping their stories close to their chests and moving on with their lives. That’s fine. Those people are strong and I admire their strength.
My choice to open up is my own, and I’ve found that doing so gives makes me feel really, really good. This often-debilitating mental illness is a part of me now, whether I like it or not, but I use it. I can own it. I can shed some light on it and help other people understand it better, and maybe that will scrub out some stigma around me, and maybe the people I teach can scrub out some stigma around them, and we can keep going on and on and on. We can work together and clear some branches off the trail, and maybe nudging those branches to the side will help make someone else’s journey a little less rough.
One thing that people will mental illnesses, and with depression in particular, are really good at it hiding. We hide our symptoms. We hide how we’re feeling. We hide our suicidal ideation and our darkest thoughts because we don’t want to be a burden, or to be looked at like we’re crazy, or to be told we’re dramatic or that we “don’t have it that bad”.
I’m sick of hiding, and I sure as hell don’t want other people to feel like they have to keep their masks on.
This is one of the scariest decisions I’ve ever made.
I share a lot of Facebook posts about mental illness, and I write on my experiences often, and every time I do it is with a twinge of anxiety. Are people going to look at me differently? Is this going to change how people think of me? So far, the answer has been no, but the questions remain buzzing in my head and I’m not really sure if I’ll ever get them to stop.
I know how to quiet them, though.
I just think about that February morning, and of the Psych Center news, and of the way my coworkers voice changed when she thanked me. I remember what it felt like to teach someone something, to challenge someone’s ignorance, and to be so kindly received.
I feel empowered by my advocacy, and the longer I speak up and out about mental illnesses, and the more I learn about stigma and mental health care and help-seeking, the more I want to do to help others who are in that same dark place I was.
The #MakeYourLight Project is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but couldn’t quite figure out how. I’ve dabbled with the hashtag on Instagram once or twice, but never quite in a way that would make it take off or become something bigger than a simple Mental Health Month post.
I know that others may not be comfortable going into detail about their stories. I know that some people like to keep their experiences close to the vest. But I also know that there are things we can do to support, uplift, and empower one another in the mental health/mental illness community. There are things we can do to feel less alone, to pull ourselves and others out of the shadows.
This week, I want you to do something for me: log in to your favorite social media account and I want you to tell your followers a little bit about how you make a tiny bit of light in your life. Is it by painting? By singing? By volunteering at an animal shelter? Maybe you like to write, or you draw stick figure cartoons, or you make YouTube videos. Maybe you make light for yourself by playing your favorite song as loud as you can, or treating yourself to a Lush bath bomb, or taking your dog for a walk. Whatever it is, I want to hear about it! Use the hashtag #MakeYourLight and be sure to tag me (IG: @lexivranick, Twitter: @lexivranick, Facebook: Lexi Vranick) so that I can see and share your light.
You can learn more about the #MakeYourLight Project here.
Mental health and mental illness are serious matters. Our greatest tool against stigma is education. Some great educational resources can be found through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Mental Health America*.
If you or someone you know is struggling, please seek help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the United States can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. A list of international suicide hotlines can be found here*.
DISCLAIMER NO. 3
*I am not personally or professionally associated with any mental health organizations at this time. I merely offer these links in an attempt to spread information and education about mental health and mental illness.