Depression isn’t a four letter word. We shouldn’t flinch when we hear it or avert our eyes and try to pretend no one said it. It’s a real thing—as real as asthma or IBS or peanut allergies. People suffer quietly from it. People die from it. So let’s talk about it, all right?
From puberty forward I have suffered from two problems: chronic headaches and depression. I was never shy about discussing my headaches. In my late teens and twenties, they were migraines (or cluster headaches, depending on which doctor I went to). Eventually, they just became chronic headaches. Almost every single day, I have a headache. A dull pain in my head that never really goes away. Some days I wake up with a bad one and suck down aspirin and coffee to get rid of it even though I know it’ll only rebound worse later. I’ve never been ashamed of bailing on plans because I had a headache. They’re just a fact of my life.
But I’ve rarely been as candid about my depression. Sure, I’ve talked about it. Most of my friends know about it. I haven’t had a major depressive episode in about ten years, which is good. But I still go through phases where the depression flares up and incapacitates me. On those days, I often tell people I have a headache rather than tell them the truth.
Explaining to someone what depression feels like is difficult. Most people just assume it means I’m sad. That it means I’m a little pouty. But that’s not even the tip of it. For me, depression is my shadow. It follows me everywhere. It never disappears. It’s easier to see it when I’m in the light, but when the light is gone, the shadow is everywhere. And then one the days when depression strikes, my shadow crawls inside of me. It takes all my anxieties, all my fears, all my worst, most self-destructive impulses, and magnifies them by a million. It’s an emotional virus against which I have no defenses. And it whispers to me. That I’m not good enough, that I’m fat, that I’m a failure, that I’m unworthy of love, of happiness, of life.
I tried to battle it with anti-depressants, but the side effects for me were worse than any benefit I derived from them. So I sought out coping mechanisms to fight the depression on my own. When the shadow slinks into my skin, I do my best to starve it out. I watch mindless hours of television, I don’t make major decisions, I avoid social interaction and drama. I ride it out and hope for the best. And that works for me, though it may not work for others.
But even though I have my depression under control, it will never go away. Like my headaches, I will suffer from it for the rest of my life. So why don’t I talk about it more? Because people treat mental illness like it’s made up. Like it’s all in our heads. Which, I suppose it is. It’s in our brains. It’s a chemical imbalance in our brains. It’s a disease, and we need to treat it as such. We need to talk about it without the stigma that’s attached to it. Depression (and all mental illnesses) take many forms. My depression doesn’t manifest the same way another person’s does. Medication doesn’t work for me but may be a life-saver for someone else. Someone can be depressed and you might never know it. Maybe you ask them what’s wrong and they tell you they just have a headache. Maybe someone tells you they’re depressed and you suggest they just need to try being happier, and they never mention it again.
That’s why we need to talk about it. Why we need to write about it. Why we need to stop feeling ashamed about it. I’ve read reviews about The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley suggesting that Drew suffers from a mental illness. I won’t agree or disagree, but when I wrote the book, Rusty was the character I wrote with a mental illness. Of all the characters in that book, Rusty is the one I identify most with. In We Are the Ants, I never explicitly come out and give any of the characters diagnoses, but depression and other mental illnesses clearly play a role. Admitting they need help is one of the most difficult things they do (and this is in a story where the world might end).
Writing those kinds of stories is difficult. They’re difficult to write and difficult to read. But we need to talk about depression, even when we’d rather not.
We need to stop pretending depression and mental illnesses don’t exist. We need to stop pretending they’re not serious illnesses that affect millions of people. We need to stop saying we have headaches when the shadow slips into our skins and refuses to leave. Because if we can’t talk about depression, how can we save people from it?
So this is me, talking about depression. I’m not going to be ashamed of it anymore. I’m Shaun Hutchinson, and I have depression. Let’s talk about it.