What I might say about my mental health

If I wrote my own mental health confessional, I would begin by saying I’ve struggled with depression most of my life. I would note that for many years this condition went undiagnosed, but therapy brought to light indications of the illness going back at least to when I was 9 or 10. I guess I would admit that the first time I seriously considered suicide, I was 10.

I would talk about difficult feelings I was having by the fourth and fifth grades and beyond, even up to the present. About making decisions, some more significant than others, that weren’t the best choice, even though on some level I often was aware they weren’t the best when I made them. About feelings of despair and low self-esteem. About difficulties in processing feelings and accessing relationships. About hurts that lingered.

I would include something about the unhelpful things I’ve heard from an early age. One was a bemused “Now, don’t be bitter.” Another, “You’re too sensitive.” How about “we’re not laughing at you; we’re laughing with you” — when I was not laughing? “Snap out of it,” was the commonly suggested cure for people with conditions such as mine. Similar are “get over it” and “suck it up.” One parent once lamented, “I don’t know why you have to be so different.” The other once complained that I was “always miffed about something.”

I might mention but would not describe an incident in early adolescence when I was feeling so bad about myself that I expressed it in a way that engendered anger, making me feel even worse about myself. It left a deep scar. I’ve shared details only with therapists and my spouse. Therapists have said it was an obvious red flag. The first time I shared it with anyone was with my spouse. I became emotional and had trouble getting through it. That may have made it easier to talk about later in therapy.

Adventures in therapy

I would describe the first time I tried therapy and what led to it: During my sophomore year of college, I started noticing I was tired a lot, even for a college student. I continued to feel that way during the summer, the last summer I spent in my childhood home.

A doctor determined it was nothing physical and gently suggested seeing a mental health professional. When I returned to college for fall semester, I jumped through assorted hoops at student health, eventually landing weekly appointments with a psychiatrist.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that the tiredness was a manifestation of depression, but you never heard much about depression in those days. It was not my diagnosis at that time. The doctor listened to me for 50 minutes each week for most of the school year, asking leading questions but offering few reflections on what I said. I got much more from one session with a college chaplain that summer. He was the first person who ever said to me in all my 21 years, “That must feel bad.”

As I would continue telling my story now, I would include reports of helpful therapy sessions. The first came many years later, when I finally shared with my family doctor how I often felt. I told him of the feelings listed above, as well as how I was no longer enjoying a number of things that had given me pleasure in the past.

He immediately diagnosed my condition as depression. My first thought? I was glad to know that I wasn’t crazy. That there was an identifiable reason for what was going on with me. A definable disease for which there was treatment. I knew intellectually that I “shouldn’t” have a lot of the feelings I did. This diagnosis provided an explanation.

So at this point in my imagined essay, I would talk about sessions of nearly a year each with three different psychologists spaced over several years. All were helpful, especially the first and third. I was not “cured” by any, though I gained some tools that helped me cope better. In time, I’ll go back for another tune up. Yes, I tried many prescribed anti-depressants, but I’m in the 40 percent for whom such medications are not effective.

I would want to note that someone with depression is not always down. We smile, we laugh, we enjoy. At times.

What would be the reaction?

It seems that more and more well-known people, including entertainers and athletes, are opening up about their own struggles with depression and other mental health issues. They want to help destigmatize mental illness. Some say it’s also therapeutic. As each comes forward, I ask myself if I would do well to do so, too.

Yet, I worry about how people would take it. What would they think of me? Would they treat me any differently? I wonder these things, even though I think more of people who share their struggles. And I don’t treat them any differently.

Or would they make light of it? Maybe the reactions would be similar to the unhelpful words I listed in the third paragraph above. Or similar to a reaction I often get on the rare occasion I dare to mention a physical health concern — i.e., “I have (or someone I know has) the same problem, only worse, and have (has) had it longer.” This response seems to devalue my concern.

Would I end up feeling better or worse?

Another barrier is that I haven’t completely stopped buying into the very stigma I want to counteract. That’s a little ironic, I guess, as is the fact that my depression-nurtured lack of self confidence makes it difficult to take this step.

The S word

If I did take it, I might mention suicidal thoughts. Or I might not. Or maybe just say I wish I didn’t know as much as I do about what it’s like to have them.

I could share significant difficulties I have with light deprivation. Or difficulties getting out of bed sometimes. Times of feeling bad that I feel bad. And how motivation can be a problem when feeling “what’s the use?” or struggling with low self-esteem. I could talk about a well-developed sense of “don’t belong,” which can crop up in almost any context.

That would probably lead to an acknowledgement of ever-present social anxiety. I could admit to worrying before a social event that I’ll say something stupid; worrying during that I am saying something stupid; worrying afterward that I did say something stupid. (Worrying now that this all sounds stupid.)

Then I might note how easy it is to be embarrassed by things others would just laugh off and humiliated by things others might just find a little embarrassing.

I would, if I could muster enough self-confidence, claim some ability as an actor. For the past few of my infrequent appearances in a play, when writing a brief bio for the program, I’ve thought of adding this to the list of past performances: Has portrayed a mentally-healthy person in everyday life 24/7 for many years. If I wrote my own mental health confessional.

The Golden Rule reconsidered

Being never-too-old-to-learn, I’ve recently been led to refine my understanding of The Golden Rule. I’ve always interpreted “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” as “Treat everyone exactly as I want to be treated.”

When I began to hear what I took as challenges to The Golden Rule, my first reaction was, “How could they? This is basic to all major religions. This simple rule is how we could all get along, if we followed it.” When I got out from behind my unnecessary defensiveness, I realized the challenge wasn’t to the rule but to how we often interpret it.

What if someone doesn’t want to be treated the same as I want to be treated?

Some examples that come to mind are almost frivolous, others more serious. If I am offering someone coffee the way I want it, I will not provide them sugar or cream. It’s the way I want it given to me, but I’m not being hospitable. Many people enjoy engaging in trash talk. They give it out, because they like to give and receive such banter. But for some of us, maybe a small few, this interaction is not fun at all. In these incidences, people are treating others as they themselves like to be treated, but it’s not working for the others.

On a deeper level, there are psychological, cultural and physical differences to consider. One example: Say someone is at a stage in the grief process at which he needs some alone time, whereas I, at that same point, would want someone with me. If I insist on hanging close right then, my treatment, though well-intended, isn’t golden.

I still think my old way of looking at it was pretty good, but it falls short. Maybe a better way of looking at it is: I want to be treated a certain way. Doing unto others the same suggests trying, in so far as possible, to understand how others wish to be treated and then treating them that way. We aren’t all wired exactly the same.