If Depression Were Cancer, I’d Be Getting A Lot More Attention

I have suffered from depression since I was roughly seven years old and yet depression is still not treated as what it is, an often curable but sometimes fatal progressive illness, just like diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and even cancer. If only at seven they had known what it was, I would have gotten so many more McHappy Meals.

As an adult, I know I’m depressed when I don’t even want to masturbate, when I don’t have the heart to turn on the new season of House of Cards, and when I look out at my view of the ocean in Malibu and think “Meh, what are those fucking dolphins so happy about?”

If I had cancer, concerned citizens would come out of the woodwork to bring over potluck meals, pop over to check how I’m doing or offer to drive me to a shrink’s appointment, when I can barely walk from my bed to the toilet. If it were cancer instead of depression, people probably wouldn’t judge me because sometimes I can’t do laundry. If the nausea from chemo were making it impossible to get out of bed, someone would be over here like a shot, playing basketball with my youngest, and reading stories to my oldest, as opposed to advising me to take a walk. “You’re sick from chemo? AGAIN? You just need to exercise!”

If depression were cancer, people would understand that when I say “I need help with my kids tonight, I’m too sick and I don’t want them to see me like this,” even though my hair isn’t falling out, it’s real. Remember when you said you’d “be there for me,” well here I am in jail, and I’m calling you for bail money. I’m using my coupon, cashing in that chip, and you are my “Get out of jail free” card, and if you’re busy and just want to send me “love and light” or “pray for me” that’s sweet, but I was looking for something a tad more practical, like taking out the trash?

Sure the fatality rates for cancer are higher than depression, but it all depends what kind and at what stage. There is a one in ten chance I will commit suicide in this lifetime, which is greater than the chance for rain in Los Angeles. I have a terminal disease too, it just doesn’t come with a cute rubber bracelet, a black-tie dinner or a funky ribbon.

I’ve done more therapy than Woody Allen (and look how that turned out) and tried every medication and natural cure on the market. Yet people still feel they have to suggest meditation, vitamin therapy or yoga. I do yoga—though that didn’t stop me a while back from throwing my yoga strap over the closet rod, and testing to see how much it would hurt to hang myself. Zen, right?

Yet once a week someone says something inane like, “You know, I read that depression is anger turned inwards.” Really? You’re kidding? I can’t imagine if I came up to someone with a Stage 4 brain tumor and told them, “If you processed your anger, your tumor would disappear.” Even after turning it inwards, that person would have plenty of anger left over for me, and justifiably so.

Meditation certainly helps, but some days that involves sitting quietly for twenty minutes and observing your misery. “Don’t look now, but here’s that suffering again, cool!” Tell a person with Pancreatic Cancer to spend twenty minutes trying not to think about their disease and that all they have to do is “detach.” Buddhism can be a real cunt.

Someone with a cancer diagnosis is not shamed, and yet I find that often enough when I tell people I’m depressed, they look at me funny, like I should keep that icky stuff to myself. No one congratulates me on managing to take a shower, after three days of not, or stacking the dishwasher when all I want to do is self-harm. (Fortunately I am learning to congratulate myself and surround myself with people who do.)

Nobody would tell a Breast Cancer sufferer that it’s her (or his) fault for using aluminum deodorant. The first response to a diagnosis of Stomach Cancer isn’t “Oh well, you should have eaten organic, because those pesticides are just full of carcinogens.” And yet people still think that self-harming (a common by-product of depression and many mood disorders) is just a way to get attention. The reality is that self-harm is a flawed coping mechanism, and it takes a lot of courage to share it with someone. Trust me when I tell you, I’m not having “I self-harmed today” stitched on a pillow.

Sometimes just coming to sit with someone who is sick is a huge act of service, yet when it comes to depression, people often don’t see the urgency. About a month ago, I called about twenty different people in dire need of company, before one said she’d be right over, and I felt lucky to find her. I understand that people have kids and lives, but it may be a few times a year that I really need that kind of supervision, and if it were cancer related no one would think twice.

Some of the people I called, treated me the next day as if I were “crazy” and needed 90 days of rehab, or a week in the psyche ward because I admitted I’d self-harmed, instead of seeing how far I’d come. I just need help sometimes, and that may be “needy,” but when someone’s white blood cell count gets too low (or too high) people don’t refer to them as “needy” if they want support. “There she goes again, with that attention-seeking immune system…”

The stigma of mental illness is less than it used to be, but still way too high. Depressed ex-NFL players generally shoot themselves in the chest, so that scientists can study their brains and figure out how they are different. I wish I could do a cross section of my brain to show that I physically feel things more than “normies.” That would be a great after dinner party trick.

Sometimes I think that’s why depressed people feel the need to make suicidal gestures—it’s the only way to let people know that we’re not fucking around and really need help managing our lives. Otherwise a call for help is just treated like a fire drill “Don’t worry about that piercing sound, she does this every week. Just file outside as if nothing is happening, it should switch off soon enough.”

For the record, I’m not depressed right now (just the standard, low-level malaise) and if I were I wouldn’t be able to write this. I do not feel sorry for myself for having a mental illness (for having children, maybe) and like a cancer patient, I don’t want to be pitied. Let’s all just have compassion for each other’s suffering, no matter what it looks like. And take a depressed person literally, next time they say, “Please help me, I’m dying here…”

This is not a drill
This is not a drill

20 comments

  1. You have no idea how much I can relate to this, and how perfectly this is worded. I recently got over my years of depression, but no matter how hard I tried to explain it to people nobody ever understood the piercing pain I was in every second of the day that made me feel like I was being left to die every time someone didn’t take me seriously. Thank you for sharing this. I hope all is well.

  2. This is an excellent piece. Wow! You have nailed depression – what it is and how it feels. I must be getting older and wiser because when I tell people I have it/am on medication I don’t feel ashamed anymore. I reckon my attitude change is due in part to people like you speaking out. Thank you.

  3. When you express yourself, you not only provide a path for easing your own mind but also you share a path to ease the minds of others…
    Carry on…

  4. Thanks for sharing, I love your honesty and love reading your stuff. I’m in melbourne but if I was in Malibu and your mate I’d be with you in a shot. X

  5. Hello! I read aan article you wrote about antidepressants, and was wondering if you are still off of them. I am 70 days off and trying desperately to stay that way. I wasn’t living my life while on them, but this is agony! To be numb or wishing to be numb, which is better? :p

    • Jay thanks for reaching out! I do not take antidepressants anymore as of March 2014. The detox was hellish, I had withdrawal symptoms up to 6 months after stopping. Some days are really hard- but for me I cannot go back as anti-depressants are not a valid solution. The road is very, very hard, and depression is so dangerous. If you are bipolar or schizophrenic then I think the situation is different, and meds are indicated. However for depression, being off meds forces me to make changes in my life and in myself because the suffering is too great not to. Not taking meds is not enough- a complete spiritual and psychic change is needed. Three things I would try are- a meditation teacher in Washington at “Alive and Shine Center” called Savitri. A non-profit called “Point of Return” helped me stay on the path when withdrawal was most murderous (http://www.pointofreturn.com.) And if your state has CBD, cannibinoids (medical marijuana without the THC) it can be extremely helpful if you get into a bad slump. Call the suicide hotline as many times as you need to, it beats the shit out of the alternative. If you can be a good friend when you are well, you might be surprised by how much you can lean on friends and family when you don’t feel well. Also on a higher power, find it inside you, and think of it as a long range program. 70 days is still very very new, but if you can possibly hang on through therapy, meditation, yoga, vitamin supplements (which weren’t as effective for me long term but I had to try every single one of them- they might work for you) 12 Step programs, one day at a time, you may find that your life becomes more of what you want it to be and things are not as intolerable. I understand the darkness my friend, hang in there, stay safe, and believe that one day your suffering will be worthwhile, when you can give it back to the Universe because you no longer need it as an agent of change. Also, for a laugh, you might enjoy this…http://malibumom.com/2014/12/08/how-bad-is-your-holiday-depression-a-questionnaire/

      • Thank you so much! I also am making a lifestyle change. I cannot be the person I was on meds, I’ll lose my mind! It super important for me to stay busy or I just slump. I do not think meds are the answer for me either, I was stagnant for my whole adult life. I’m 41 now, and I’m ready to live, not just be numbed, with zero drive for anything. It’s SUPER helpful to know there are others put there living med free! Yay! Have you read The Happiness Trap? I am loving it! I’ll research some alternative therapies here in my area. I do weekly therapy and that helps a lot. I’m thinking about acupuncture, too. Have you tried it? Thanks again 🙂

      • Acupunture has been good for many things for me- not great for depression- but I am still going. I have heard about that book- the one I am almost finished is “Broken Open” by Elizabeth Lesser. She doesnt have clinical depression but the stories of people triumphing over adversity are incredible. Hang in there- I swear it gets better.

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