Irish journalist John Waters said a stupid, mean, ignorant thing. This is a something for which he's apparently well-known. And while it was a stark example of the stigma faced by those with depression, there's at least some hope that this will spur a greater conversation, both in Ireland and beyond.
Earlier this month, Waters (who, to be United Way-level charitable, is not the most sympathetic figure) was giving an interview with Independent.ie when he was asked if he'd experienced any depression in the wake of a recent scandal. His response was...unhelpful:
"I don't believe in depression. There's no such thing. It's an invention. It's bullshit," he said, "it's a cop out."
He compounded it later in the week, disputing the legitimacy of statistics showing that gay Irish youths are seven times more likely to commit suicide:
"I have seen no evidence to support that or substantiate that. I have dealt with suicide – male suicide for 20 odd years – I have written about it. I have never come across that as a significant phenomenon."
The backlash was immediate and fierce. Eamon Keane, a member of the Institute of Guidance Counselors, spoke with the anger and compassion of someone that's seen their share of sad endings:
When you see a teenager unable to speak, to eat or even move because they are in deep depression, it is hard to equate that with "an invention".
When you see men and women struggle with mental torment for years, "bulls**t" is not what comes to mind...
John is a humane person and perhaps does so in more private ways. However, public concentration on one's own situation to the exclusion of others raises questions.
The savage and cruel suffering that is depression deserves better comment.
The reaction on Twitter was harsh as well.
But there's more to this. Among the (well-deserved) anger, though, there has been compassion from people that have been there and are showing concern and empathy and tenderness for a man that is unlikely to give it in return. Stefanie Preissner, an ambassador for See Change, reached out to Waters in a blog post:
It makes my job very hard, John, when you say things like you don't believe in depression. And actually John, it's not because you've said it, it's because everyone reacts so violently against you with their words that our main focus, of passing a message of hope to the still suffering person, is distracted by tweeting and writing to and about you.
I know you don't want to be hated. No one does. And i don't hate you. Since you said what you said about depression and how you feel, i understand you more than i ever ever have. And we're quite similar you and me.
So John, i am offering you my friendship and asking you for help. We can help people by telling them how we feel and letting them know that it's ok. Because it is ok John. It will be.
It's not too late to turn all this around, to reach out to me and others...
I'd like to meet you John.
As two equal people who sometimes feel overwhelmed.
Let me know.
I hope you are ok. Live and Let live.
I hope that John Waters can "see the light," as it were. I hope even more that this comment and the far too many like it can continue a dialogue about the stigma faced by people with depression. We should get angry at the John Waterses of the world; what he said was hurtful and dangerous and it should be called out for what it is. This is not a plea for clemency on Waters' behalf. But the world is full of anger; there's a huge deficit of compassion.
As always, I have linked to each contributor's full story. Clicking on each name will take you to their full story. I will be continuing to publish Depression Stories volumes until I have no more stories in my inbox; e-mail me your story with the subject line "Depression" if you would like it included in a future volume, and remember to indicate whether you would like your story to be anonymous.
Previous Depression Stories
Withdrawing Into the Darkness: Depression Stories, Vol. 5
We Just Want to Be Free: Depression Stories, Vol. 4
'I Feel Like I've Failed': Depression Stories, Vol. 3
Dullness and Fog: Depression Stories, Vol. 2
Somewhere Someone Loves Us: Depression Stories, Vol.1
*some names changed
The first time I remember thinking something wasn't quite right with me was when I was about 9 years old. I remember feeling so sad a good majority of the time and not understanding why. I would have crying spells and when my parents tried to comfort me and ask what was wrong, I couldn't tell them because I had no idea just WHY I was so sad. These crying episodes eventually led to my parents taking me to see a therapist at the tender age of 9. I remember these therapy sessions helped somewhat but the heaviness was still very prominent in my heart. The therapist told my parents that I should be put on anti-depressants. Mom was all for it but my dad, not so much.
Mom won this battle and took me to a psychiatrist where they put me on some slew of medication. After about three months on these meds, not much changed. The psychiatrist then recommended that my parents take me to get an EEG (a very harmless test but at the time seemed daunting to a child) at a hospital to see if something was wrong with my brain. Of course my parents went along with it and took me.
The day of the procedure I was so scared (I already had an extreme dislike of hospitals by this point because I was in the hospital as a young child for a serious illness). I remember my mom took me to the Waffle House to cheer me up with a big breakfast before we made our way to the hospital. Let's just say it didn't work. I got through the test only because I had my beloved Casper doll with me (when I squeezed him he whispered comforting statements to me). Afterwards the doctor fit me with a blood pressure monitoring cuff that I had to wear for a week (to this day I still don't understand the point of that). The results of my EEG came back normal (phew) and my psychiatrist decided to change up my meds. My dad was still not happy about his 9 Y/O daughter taking so many medications but there was nothing he could say to change my mom's mind (the doctor had also put me on Seroquel to help me sleep).
Fast forward a few years, I'm 14 and now I have an eating disorder to add into the mix. New psychiatrist (which I hated with a passion, he tried to force religion down my throat) put me on a new set of anti-depressants. After a few years with this doctor, I was getting fed up with all this bullshit and I confronted my parents and told them I wanted to stop ALL medication. It took a little convincing but I was able to talk to my psychiatrist who then tapered me off all the meds he was prescribing for me. I was just about ready to go off to college and I wanted to be clear-headed and try to start fresh.
I go through college with so many ups and downs that I thought maybe it was a mistake to stop my meds but stuck to my guns and stayed medication-free. Then, my darkest moment came when I was 2 years into my post-college career. I worked for CPS, hearing horror stories on the daily. I became scared for myself when the most horrid stories did not strike any emotion in me. I also had been going through several TMJ surgeries (surgery on my jaw) with no luck. The pain had become unbearable (couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, migraines, etc.). After my second surgery, I got so depressed to the point where I had started planning my suicide. At the time, my long-term boyfriend (now fiancé) and I were living in a cute little duplex with our dog and cat. We had a one car garage so I had determined that I was going to go out to the garage and get in my car and start the engine and let it take its course. My heart hurt so badly just thinking about my fiancé finding my body in the garage that I just couldn't go through with it. The only thing that stopped me was thinking of my family. I've had two family members die by suicide and could not fathom putting my family through a third. I finally went and got the help I needed. I didn't tell anyone about my suicide plan until about a year later (I felt deeply ashamed). I finally told my fiancé and his reaction just completely broke me (I refused to tell him how I was planning to do it).
When I was fourteen, I went to a new school where I felt uncomfortable. It was a creative arts school, but the kids considered me "too normal." I had only three true friends, and a few other acquaintances, but most days I spent alone, listening to music. I listened on the bus ride to school, as I walked from class to class. I tuned out the world because I didn't think they cared. My stomach constantly felt nauseated and my heart constantly heavy. I developed intense panic attacks where I thought I was going to die. There was a pulling feeling of wanting to die and not wanting to die all at the same time. My body constantly ached and I wanted to make my numbness go away, so I cut myself. I cut myself and immediately felt ashamed of what I'd done. Now, I would have to walk around with imprints in my arm. I couldn't have fallen, these cuts were dug in to my skin. I had a therapist I'd seen since I was ten years old. I was embarrassed to admit what I'd done. I told her I had a friend who cut himself and it bothered me. As I told her the story, I was picking at my scabs, not realizing this was happening out of nervousness. The blood began to drip down my arm, it was too much for the bottom of my red sweater to soak up then. "Oh my god, you're bleeding," she said. She rushed me over to the sink and pulled up my sleeve, revealing the jagged cuts, all running down my arm, the blood gathering at the drain. It took months for them to heal so I wore long sleeves even in summer. I turned red at a careless moment my sleeve drifted up my arm in spring and a friend said, "if you ever want to talk I'm here." I felt even more pain and shame when my uncle asked if a cat had scratched my arm. The scars are still indented today, a white lined reminder in my skin.
My low points come and go but I've never turned to medication because I'm afraid it will take away my ability to feel. I am a writer, I need to feel. It is my job to feel.
I am 26 now and I have been in a four year relationship with a man who has never felt depressed. When I fall in to my black holes and can't get out of bed, he gets angry. When I force myself to go out and end up sitting alone because I am scared to engaged with new people, he thinks I'm being rude and stuck up. I find the same escape in music, to make everything okay. For me, everything is a hurdle, and I feel guilty about this. My life isn't bad—I have a job, a boyfriend, a loving family—yet sometimes I can't shake this sadness. The bed is my island of security, I don't want to leave in the morning and I go immediately back at night. I feel so uncomfortable in public sometimes, like the world is watching and judging me, like they're asking why I'm alone. I don't know how to make my boyfriend understand I need his help, I need his patience. I don't want to need his help and patience because I am an adult and should be able to take care of myself. I feel a consistent buzz, I need everything in order and my days to look the same. I need everything to be perfect as I'd planned it. When I am not perfect, when he is not perfect I break and I show him I need him. I break things too, my phone, a mirror, it makes me feel free. I leave the glass in my foot to feel the prick prick prick. I am sabotaging the only love I have known all because I cannot escape from myself. I cannot be "normal," I don't know what that means. I don't know how that feels.
Spongebob Squarepants hid my scars.
I only did it once —I took my dad's triple blade Gillette and lightly rubbed the razor across my wrist until the skin broke. I didn't want to feel any pain, not even a little. I was a fraud.
I wasn't trying to kill myself. I wasn't even trying to feel pain. It wasn't to get attention, or to have something to write about later in life. It was about…trying. Trying to cope. An effort to define my demons. It's like when I was seven years old and started biting my nails, solely because my older sister always complained about how she couldn't stop biting her nails. I wanted a habit to complain about too. Biting my nails would make me mature. Cutting my wrists would make me profound.
Teenagers love attention. Really, people of all ages love attention, but teenagers make it their biggest priority. I knew a girl named Wanda in the grade below us who came to school one morning with cuts all over her wrists, and she made a point to hold them out for all her friends and teachers to see. She talked about it openly, to anyone who would listen. I remember rolling my eyes at her. The real cutters, I thought, like the real anorexics and the real addicts, always try and hide what they do. They would never risk losing their outlet.
As an adult I realize that Wanda's cry for help was the sign of a problem just as serious as cutting. And just as serious as the severe depression I had then. But as a teenager I carried with me perverse jealousy of those "real" cutters, wherever they were. The ones I read about in young adult novels or watched on primetime soap operas. However detrimental, cutters at least tried something to deal with their pain. They had a group of other fucked up people to identify with. As a depressed person, just a sad little girl, I could do nothing but wallow.
I have struggled with bipolar depression all my life; wallowing in interminable periods of darkness and "skipped over" by most of the flighty, exhilarating hypo-manias that many with my disease get to experience between depressions. Therapy and medication have finally begun to work together to get me to a point that I would call stability. I have been in treatment for over 14 years.
Some of my earliest memories are of feelings washing over me that were too big and confusing to handle. I was intensely sensitive, imaginative, and creative. I was also painfully shy. Constantly self-critical, I managed to pick apart my every word and action before I made them happen. It felt like there was a shell around me that I couldn't break out of. On the rare occasion that I felt exuberant or confident, I would cringe because I worried it was embarrassing myself and alienating the few people who might actually like me. I felt like I was almost always too little of a person, or rarely, too much of one. It came to a head one night when my family decided to go out to eat at golden corral. Not only are buffets depressing, but it was early and the place was filled with super old people gumming their food. I felt a painful empathy for these people and the inevitability of loss, loneliness, decay, and eventual death for every living person. I was filled with such an overwhelming sadness that I climbed in to bed with my parents after we got home and sobbed. I knew I didn't want to be alive anymore.
Before college, I had a lot of anxiety, but not much depression. It's definitely a piece of my personality but my family life made it much worse. Everyone fought all the time and most of my family are (and my parents were) real assholes. I wasn't very happy – I didn't fit in at school, and home life wasn't great either – but I don't remember it as depression the way I know depression now.
I first felt real depression in college, but even then, it was only occasional. It lasted longer in law school, probably because I really didn't like law school much. But it really took hold in my late twenties, and hasn't let up since. I'm fifty now. Soon I will have been depressed for most of my life.
My feelings are a tangle of anxiety and depression. They are inseparable and act as a catalyst to each other. I remember how nervous I was when I first started therapy. I felt like it was admitting that there was something deeply wrong with me. Well, that was true. There is. I understand that it's not my fault, but I accept there is something wrong with me. When after a couple of years of therapy, I was still in pain, we addressed whether I should try medication, and again I felt like it was admitting some kind of defect or failure. But I couldn't keep on the way things were.
I had struggled with weight since I was a little girl, but now I was huge. I felt like a hideous freak. I felt like there was no hope of ever surmounting the problem, so I was too paralyzed to take a first step. How could I imagine years of dieting when food was often the only pleasure in my day? Who would want to live that way? Wasn't my life shitty enough? I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't get my work done. I hated myself. I didn't want to leave the house or socialize. I hated my career, too. But there was nowhere to escape.
We couldn't keep up financially. The medication was some help, but I medicated myself further by eating and buying things. Some of the stuff we needed, a lot of it we didn't need at all. We racked up a lot of debt. Not that much of it was because of my spending, really. Most of it was because we weren't making enough money to support our business. And I was never going to be able to get an outside job for more money looking the way I did. My husband had always been self employed and was never going to fit in as someone else's employee. I felt trapped. Trapped and miserable.
My psychiatrist kept changing my medications. However, he kept giving me things that made me sleepy and I had trouble keeping from falling asleep on the desk. At night, I had trouble sleeping. My husband accused me of not pulling my share of the work. I tried to explain, but he didn't seem to get it. I tried stopping the medication that made me the sleepiest. I had thought about suicide at times in the past, but now I started thinking about it a lot more. Finally I broke down and called my shrink. He told me to start taking the medication again immediately. It helped a little, but I was still like a hamster in a cage. There was no way out of the maze.
My husband had been so vicious when he lashed out at me about work that it had shocked me. It was unlike him. I asked him to do some couples counseling with me. I got a referral and we went. I learned a terrible lesson about doing counseling with someone with a drive to win at all costs. It was like he was handling a case. He lied through his teeth to the counselor about what had been happening in our lives, all the while putting on this syrupy-sweet demeanor but still making me look like a psychotic, slacking, selfish bitch. I mostly sat there with my jaw hanging open in shock. The counselor ate it up and when I told her he was making all this up, she didn't believe me at all. I had not told a single lie. I thought my life was ending. You can imagine this didn't help my depression OR my anxiety. I dragged myself through this for a couple of months, and it felt like I was losing my mind and my marriage. Finally, after another infuriating, horrible session, exhausted, drained and despairing, I got in the car and said, "I don't want to do this anymore. Do you want to do this anymore?" He said "No." So we stopped. It was gaslighting at its finest, and it worked.
I was diagnosed with depression officially at 17, but had been struggling with it for a years at that point. Truthfully, I had been depressed since I was young - probably about 9 years old. Depression has always run through my mother's side of the family tree like a poison. My cousin and my great aunt could not take the darkness anymore, and both of them ended up committing suicide. On the day that my cousin died, I cried because I knew it was in me, too. I had always known that, but then, I was sure of it.
Beginning when I was younger, I would go to sleep every night with the horrible thought that one of my parents was going to die or be taken away from me too early. The thought terrified me. I spent most nights crying myself to sleep with that thought weighing on me. But then it happened. Three weeks before my 17th birthday, my father died… and once that horrible 'thought' in the back of my head had become reality, I fell into a rabbit hole of depression that I could not get back out of. I remember days of just laying in my pajamas, staring at a wall for hours. Even though I cried on and off, I rarely knew why I was crying, and mostly, I just felt nothing inside. Numb to everything and everyone. Even when I ventured outside of the house, I felt like the walking dead. I did not ever make any attempts to end my life, though I often daydreamed about what life would be like for others if I were not living in the world anymore. Honestly, I already felt dead inside so it didn't seem to matter much either way.
"How do you plan to do it?"
At first I thought the starkness of the question had done it. But it was the readiness of my answer that shook me.
I had a plan to kill myself.
This plan was the result of an almost-ruined marriage and isolation from everyone I had considered important in my life. It was the result of spending a year on the couch, literally on the couch, doing little but making promises and not having the energy to even cry about anything. It was the result of my uncle's death, which had left me with thousands of dollars, which felt like me winning a prize for him succumbing to brain cancer. It was the result of years of repression. This plan was the result of being depressed.
My therapist sat as I calmly outlined my plan to drive off one day on my motorcycle, unannounced and without a particular destination. I'd head toward a desolate road, one of the highways in Arizona or Nevada. I would get the speedometer up to the triple digits, and yank back one of the handlebars. Or I'd rear-end a semi. Or I'd wait until dusk and cross over the double-yellow line.
I am in my 40's and have been dealing with depression since my 20's. I don't have a big sob story to share - my parents divorced when I was little, both parents remarried to horrible people who treated me badly. I moved out of my house at 17 and have been on my own ever since. I had to grow up real fast being out in the real world at 17.
I am not a drinker nor do I use drugs, (prescription or otherwise) I don't get myself involved with bad relationships or hurt myself - these are behaviors that many people have obviously.
I consider myself a functioning depressed person. I go to work, I pay my bills and keep the lights on - but I have not been in a serious (or otherwise) relationship in over 10 years and this is mainly due to my depression.
I have what I call the "dark days." I can function from Monday to Friday, getting up to go to work and be responsible, but when I'm not at work, I'm at home, in a dark house shut off from everything. I have no interest in leaving the house, or making friends or doing anything. I wish I could just shut it off, but it's not that easy.
The friends I've confided in tell me to simply snap out of it - take the dogs for a walk, get out of the house. They don't understand how powerful depression can be. I can't just snap out of it that easily. When everything shuts down, that's it. Shit gets dark and that's all there is.
…after a while, friends give up and stop calling.
I struggled with depression off and on from the time I was 11 years old. But for some reason, when I was 26, the excrement hit the air conditioning, as Mr. Vonnegut would say. The only words I knew to tell people for what I was feeling was depressed and anxious. I would spend weeks in bed crying. I felt like I was at the bottom of the deepest, darkest pit, and no one could reach me there, or understand how it felt. (I was eventually diagnosed as bipolar, and in a mixed state.)
I want to talk some about what my amazing friends did, because I know it can be hard to reach out to friends with depression:
One friend brought me a gift basket: paper plates, plastic silverware, TV dinners, all manner of things that made everyday functioning easier. It was topped off regularly. There was the drinking buddy who knew alcohol made things worse, and so would show up with fruit juice to play cards or just talk. My baby sister called one day to take me to lunch—she told me to come in my PJ's if I wanted—and began a weekly ritual of checking in with me.
The most amazing friends were the ones who kept trying, who kept showing up, even if I didn't want company. It was not an imposition. If you know someone who's depressed, please make a point to touch base with them regularly. I know I was not always nice to the friends who were checking in, but I will never forget their kindness during that difficult time.
And at my worst, there was the friend who got me to the hospital just seconds before I quit breathing on my own, because I'd finally decided that was the end for me. In my mind, it was euthanasia, and anyone who loved me would understand I just didn't want to live with such a horrible, painful disease anymore.
It took me a long time to accept that I would never feel like "me" again. That there was a new normal of routines and medicines and tracking moods and learning to self-soothe. And coming out on top of depression felt like slaying a giant fire breathing dragon with nothing but my fingernails. I know the beast will return, but for now, when I feel the need to spend all day in bed crying, I'm able to just have a good cry and then move on with my day.
The irony to me of all of this is that two years after my suicide attempt I was diagnosed with cancer. Stage I, but recurrent, and aggressive. It's going to kill me one day, I just don't know if that day is tomorrow or in 40 years. I made a list recently of reasons I'd rather have cancer than mental illness. I won't share it all, because I don't want to negate the pain of all those fighting cancer, but I will tell you this: number one on the list is "I've never been ashamed to tell someone I have cancer."
I was diagnosed with clinical depression when I was 16 after a suicide attempt. 10 years later, it is still something I battle every day. Things are better now, more manageable I guess but I wouldn't say easier. I don't self-harm anymore but it takes such an extraordinary amount of will not to sometimes that I end up exhausted and sleep-disordered for weeks. But then there are days that are fine and I feel like a normal girl. Those days never last. It's not being pessimistic, it's the truth. I've been on this rollercoaster long enough that I know what happens next. And I know that the longer I'm ok, the harder the crash will be. And this is how I am on the best med combination I've had. I hate to think what I'd be like without. Pristiq and Abilify are literally the glue holding me together.I feel my depression physically. Not as an ache or a pain but as a hollowness. I feel like I am a shell of a person with nothing inside me but an all-consuming emptiness that is slowly turning in on itself, like a black hole. I check to make sure my chest isn't caving in. And once the emptiness has consumed itself my shell will flatten like a paper doll and roll in on itself so tightly until there is nothing left of me at all. I took physiology and know that the feeling I just described is impossible but the scary thing is it feels real. So real. It feels real when I think about cutting too. I guess I have an overactive imagination because when I think about it, I can feel it. I can feel the pain and then the release and it feels good and I want it. Fear is the only thing that stops me. Fear of being found out and forced to go back into an inpatient facility. I did that once. Never again. And so even when I want to with ever ounce of my being, fear stops me. So I do nothing and just keep existing.
Joshua David can be found on Twitter at @joshuaadavidd.
Image via Bianca Moraes.