Breast cancer is a socially acceptable disease. Mental health not so much. And that’s exactly why I’m talking about it.
When active treatment ends, things don’t just go back to normal (whatever that word even means).
In my case, it was a full year before I felt my mental clarity, short term memory, and overall sharpness return. Not being able to engage in your usual witty banter or recall simple words that are part of your everyday vocabulary really sucks.
I debated about whether or not to even post on a topic like this. There is absolutely a stigma attached to mental health. There are also people on different paths in their life journey, and they may judge me or look at me differently for what I’m about to share.
But then this morning, while waiting for the beach attendant to set up our chairs, I found myself in a casual turned serious conversation that could not be taken for anything other than divine intervention.
He casually asked me “How are you doing today?”
I answered as a person fully immersed in a relaxing vacation would, adding that when we were here two years ago I was beginning the biggest health battle of my life.
“So after that, man, every day is a good day.”
I then asked him the same.
The rote “I can’t complain” came next, but I sensed there was more he wanted to say. So I took the earbuds off and really took the time to look at him and be fully present.
“I’ve struggled most of my life with depression,” he began. “Mostly mild, you know, but then it got worse.”
I held his gaze.
“I mean, I understand it and I deal with it, but people have really serious things, like you and cancer. I don’t have anything to complain about!”
Horse poop, I thought, listening to hear what he would say next.
“But I mean, for like 10 years there every day I would wake up and think about killing myself. I mean, I’d come here and help the kids set up the chairs first because I don’t want to leave them hanging. And then I would think about going home and doing it afterward.”
I kept listening, blinking back the tears welling in my eyes.
“You know I have a lot to be thankful for. I love God. I get to work in the most beautiful place in the world. Remember Kurt Cobain? I watched this show about him and they said that most people who kill themselves don’t wanna die. They just want the pain to stop.”
He waited for me to respond, and there in the sunrise hour at my favorite beach on earth, with only a heron and a few seagulls to hear us, this is what I said.
“I have depression too. I take medicine for it. I understand everything you have just said. You matter. Nothing is worth dying for.”
“Never compare your struggles to others and think yours aren’t as bad. That is bullshit. Pain is pain. I used to think I was somehow deficient, like my depression was this dark and shameful thing. I didn’t want to take medicine because I thought it was a sign of weakness.
Then one day someone said it to me like this:
It’s a chemical imbalance. You didn’t *do* anything to cause it. And you taking medicine is no different than a diabetic who needs insulin.
I could see him brighten, so I kept going.
“The best thing you can do is be your own advocate. Get yourself some therapy. One of the best things I’ve ever done for myself was to find and attend a 10-day outpatient clinic focused on helping people with depression.
We met each weekday from 10 am to 4 pm and got raw and real on all sorts of topics, from brain chemistry to the importance of maintaining boundaries from toxic people.
We learned about the physical and physiological changes that happen when anxiety and panic set in, and how to stop it.
We explored the very real and very damaging affects of stress on the body and the mind.
We practiced coping skills to use when depressive thoughts start to creep in, and put in the unglamorous work to retrain the go-to, unhelpful talk tracks in our heads.
You matter. Thank you for talking with me.”
He nodded quietly, wished me a good day, and returned to his work.
People are suffering and need to know they are not alone and that they don’t have to just live with the gremlins in their head.
I’ve mentioned before a little nugget of wisdom shared by a personal hero I was able to meet back in June – Robin Roberts of Good Morning America. She is known for saying “Make your mess your message.”
Dear readers, cancer is but a fraction of my mess. As I have the energy and bravery to share more of my mess/age, I will.
In the meantime, love those in your midst well, and be a light to those who are placed in your path.
We need each other.