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This is a charming cartoon about depression. 

Let’s not talk about the ‘D’ word

When I was growing up, it was the ‘C’ word that was unspeakable. Thankfully, we can now call cancer by its name. Those who are afflicted with cancer don’t have to be ashamed any more of having a disease that is often life-threatening. They can openly seek comfort and support from friends and family.

This is not always the case with another serious condition – depression. Those who suffer with depression may feel the stigma of a mental disorder. We may not describe it as the ‘D’ word, but we do euphemise it: feeling low, having the blues or beings stalked by the black dog.

Recently my husband, Daniel, gave a talk about depression, in which he drew on his own experience. It was very well-received. Daniel has given me permission to reprint a piece from his blog where he writes about how important it is to be able to talk about depression.

Being public matters with this stuff!

I’ve attended workshops, the personal development kind, in the past with up to a couple of hundred people in the room.  There were times, lots of times, when the topic under discussion was what doesn’t work for you in your life.  People would talk about jobs, relationships, family, history and all the myriad issues that human beings struggle with.  There would be one notable absence in the discussion; the word depression.  We’d talk around it, under it, over it; we’d talk right past it.  We’d talk about experiences that sounded a lot like depression but they’d be given other names, names that made the experience more tangible, more manageable.  Names that made it sound as if the experience was simply a blip and when the reasons for it became clear the depression-like feeling would be magically resolved.

Depression was not Ok to talk about.  Not by me or anyone else so far as I could tell.  I could drive to the workshop with a friend who was deeply depressed.  We could talk about depression all the way to the workshop, but the word wouldn’t find itself into public utterance. I have no doubt that dozens of people in the workshop, if not most, had experienced significant depression at some point, but the word was missing from all discussion.  The stigma was, and I suspect still is, very strong.  Depression is mental illness and no one wants to be seen as mentally ill.

As it turns out I’m pretty good at talking about depression.  I’ve had some practice.  For most of my life I assumed that my first experience with depression happened when I was about 14. At that time I fell into a deep gloom and had my one and only bout with considering suicide.  I was lucky, because I thought about it for a couple of months and then my depression lifted.  When it lifted I realised that I could have made a horrible decision based on feelings that would probably go away in time.  I made a decision that has stuck with me my entire life – this will pass.  And, sooner or later, it always has.  Up to now it has also always returned.  But no matter how long an episode lasts, it has aways gone away.  When it does I’m glad I’m still alive.

I talked to a psychiatrist a number of years ago for a time.  We never really worked out what the source of my depression was, but he put me on some anti-depressants and we talked and talked and talked.  I came to the conclusion that the pattern started earlier than I had assumed, perhaps from when I was 11 or so.  Maybe it got triggered by moving cities and being an outsider.  Or not.  Maybe it was related to the fact that my father and his mother both sufferer from depression.  The fact that most of my siblings have also had issues with depression suggests that it may be familial.  But really, who knows?

What I really learned from my time with the psychiatrist was that the damage I’ve done to myself has had a lot to do with hiding the fact that I was depressed.  My experience in the workshops made it clear that I wasn’t alone in hiding, but it was still the case that pretending to be fine when I wasn’t was in some ways the source of my isolation.  It lead me to make life choices that suited being a depressive.  I’ve worked for many years as a software engineer.  That’s a job that protects me from interaction with other people when I don’t feel like interacting.  And it’s something that I’m usually able to do when I’m feeling depressed.

Out of my therapy I learned that talking about depression is extremely useful.  It’s not easy to do.  It’s hard to identify depressed feelings because they are often not feelings at all, they are more a shift in my entire mode of consciousness (whatever that means).

One of the ways I’ve talked about depression has been in front of those very workshops.  I’ve talked about my history, my struggles, my meds.  I’d say that if you want to know who I am you need to know this about me.  It wasn’t easy to do, but each time I shared about myself I feel freer, and more able to be present.  I felt better.

But what really made a difference were the other attendees at the workshops.  They’d come up to me and thank me from the bottom of their hearts for saying what they wish they’d had the courage to say.  People would come up to me in tears.  I got word from a friend that after I spoke he got a script for and an antidepressant and another for viagra and his life was transformed.

Being public matters with this stuff.  I suppose it matters with most of life in some ways.  I am writing this post with the intention of being public.  I recognise the irony of being public on an anonymous blog, but here it is.  Depression is likely to be an occasional topic here.  It’s something I’m willing to talk about.