woman lying on a bed covering her eyes

Tonight feels like depression is winning. Tonight feels like anxiety is winning. Tonight feels like mental illness will always win and I will always lose.

I can’t get up out of this chair. I haven’t gotten up in hours. I can’t watch Netflix to distract myself. I can’t eat the ice cream in the freezer. I can’t even respond to a text. Writing this is taking every ounce of energy I can muster.

I can’t get up, because I am too depressed. I think about the smallest of tasks I have forgotten to do, and my anxiety rises so much I feel like I am going to be sick. I forgot to put the soda in the fridge. “Oh my God, I’m a failure,” is what goes through my head.

It’s nights like these when I simply want to scream at the top of my lungs. I want to hide beneath the covers of my bed and not come out until this is all over. I have a million questions I want to ask. Why can’t I feel better? Why isn’t the medication working? Why isn’t anything working? Why can I not feel an ounce of joy anymore? Why have I not felt joy in several years?

Depression is the darkest cloud I have ever seen. It is the strongest thunderstorm I’ve ever witnessed. It is the slowest moving car on the highway. It is the angriest ocean.

But the ocean will calm. It will not stay angry. The clouds will pass, and the sun will rise again. Sometimes, it may feel like depression has everything on you, and like you will never be strong enough to overcome its wrath.

But depression is not all of you. You are strong enough. You are capable. You will see the sun again.

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I am 47 years old. I have fibromyalgia and some other spinal issues. I deal with it every day. Constant pain. I take meds to quell that pain so I can physically function as somewhat “normal” person. I have come to terms with the physical pain. I am OK with it.

What I am not OK with is the clinical depression. I have struggled most of my life with bouts of depression, grief and anxiety. This time it’s worse. This time it’s more than I can bear. It’s controlling me and I feel like I am losing the battle against it. I have been diagnosed with severe clinical depression and/or major depressive disorder. I am not convinced they are the same thing. It’s spiraling out of control to the point I am now what’s called passive suicidal. I don’t want to kill myself. Let me make that very clear. What I do want is to just not live. If you have depression and are reading this, you already know all about the enormous hurt inside you. I don’t need to revisit that.

I am doing what I should do. I am getting help. I go to doctors, therapists and have meds. I’m trying. I’m fighting not because I want to but because it’s what I am supposed to do. I am struggling to do this, to make myself want to get better, to find hope again. To find joy again. I am not there yet.   

I feel so incredibly broken inside. I am not OK. I want to be OK. I think maybe someday I will be OK. But right now, I’m not OK and I wish people would stop telling me I am. Telling me to “hang in there a little longer” has become an insult to my idea of hope. Telling me I will “get through this” feels dismissive to my pain. Telling me “things are going to change” is meaningless when I feel dark and like everything in life is just failure. When I tell a loved one I feel broken and the response is, “no you aren’t” it only adds to the hopelessness I feel when the person I love the most doesn’t understand. I keep trying to explain this to those I love the most. It feels like an exercise in futility. I do it anyway thinking one day my words will get through to them. One day they will understand. Then I regret the pain they feel for me. It a never ending circle. I try to explain, they hurt, I feel worse about myself, I try to explain, they hurt… and so it starts over again.

If you have someone in your life who is going through this darkness, acknowledge them and their pain. Depression is a real demon people fight with. Help them by doing some research to learn to how help them. Learn what to say and do and mostly what not to say or do. Please don’t argue with them and assume just because you say “honey, you’re OK” the person will believe it. Ask if you can talk to your loved one’s doctor. Maybe the doctor can explain it better. Search the internet, there’s a lot of information out there. If you’re living in a bad place, help the person move. Most likely they don’t have the strength or confidence to do it alone. Do something more than form words that are no more than sounds. If those words help you in your state or phase of depression, that’s awesome!  I am honestly and sincerely very happy for you. I wish I was at that point now.  

I wrote this for those of us who haven’t gotten to that point yet and for those who love us anyway.

Try. Really try. Many times words are not enough. Stop telling me I am OK and help me to become OK.  

Please. Do something.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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My brain feels sick. It doesn’t feel like it’s supposed to, and it feels like it isn’t working right. My brain feels like it needs to cuddle up under a warm flannel blanket, eat a hot bowl of chicken noodle soup, and sleep time away on the couch until it recovers.

I know my brain, and what I know of my brain right now is that it’s not working right. The way it’s functioning right now is not how it’s supposed to be. I may tend to be a pessimistic person, but living continuously in a state of hopelessness is not my normal. I may be the biggest realist of all my friends, but flirting with nihilism is not my normal. I may feel down when I think about the world and its problems, but getting stuck in a place of depression is not my normal. And I may be prone to always ask questions that get to the heart of matters, but admitting that I’m questioning my own existence is not my normal.

My brain feels sick.

I want to ask God why He’s letting me go through this. I want Him to show me the good that may one day come of this. But right now, I can’t see the potential good; I can’t imagine the what-may-come-of-this stories. I am trying to keep my head above water as I’m floating in the middle of a vast, endless ocean. My ankle is still tied to my anchor, but the rope preventing me from completely floating away is getting longer and stretching thinner. God, don’t cut me loose and let me float away.

I want to be the person I used to be — someone who was more confident and sure of herself, possessed a sense of purpose, had hope, was less fixated on her own problems, and felt strong in her faith.

Now I don’t want to listen to Christians songs on the radio anymore. What has always been my unwavering daily discipline of bible and devotional reading has become spotty. My index cards of people to pray for have lain untouched on my desk for weeks. My prayers to be selfless toward my family and friends have become selfish prayers of despair and pleas for help. My ambition to glorify God in all I do has been reduced to a fight to just hang on to my tattered faith. I used to feel zeal upon waking in the morning to continue where I left off the day prior; now, I just feel sadness as I’m sucked out of the world of my dreams back into facing my reality. A reality I never asked to become trapped in. An illness I never thought would overtake me like this.

My brain feels sick.

Today is step one — I’m taking my brain to the counselor’s office and will explain to him the symptoms I’m experiencing, as only I know and only I can tell.

Maybe tomorrow my brain will feel a little bit better. Maybe it will, for even just a moment, decide to open the curtain a bit and let me feel the sunlight. Maybe I’ll feel a glimpse of the person I used to be and know that, someday, I will get better.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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Thinkstock photo by Alexander Cherepanov

I run an online support group for people with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. A while ago someone messaged me asking for help. They wanted to help someone they loved understand them and their anxiety better. For someone without anxiety or depression, or indeed any mental illness or condition, explaining what it’s like seems impossible. So I’ve been going over this idea in my mind, and I will attempt to try and explain what we go through as best I can. What follows is an open letter. If you feel it explains how you feel, and think it will help, I would love it if you would comment and share. I truly hope this helps someone.

Dear friend,

Loving us can be frustrating. It can be hard, and sometimes it can even feel impossible. People with anxiety and depression (the two often go hand in hand), have a tendency to be self-involved. This can even come across as selfishness, which is never a desirable trait. We know this. The guilt we feel for this far surpasses any frustration you may feel, but this does not mean your feelings are not valid. Sometimes, when we are swept up in that whirlwind of suffocating darkness, it is impossible to see or hear anything else. It is like white noise. There is no focus, no point, no desire. We feel everything and yet nothing. Numbness and indifference reign. From the outside we appear cold, unloving and not very much fun to be around. We know this. But we cannot escape it. It becomes all-consuming. We are watching ourselves from the outside, disassociated, and are often aware of how our actions and behavior are affecting those around us, but we can can do nothing to change it. All we want to be able to do is shout, scream, whisper, cry that one word that eludes us: “Help…”

It is hard to watch someone you love go through this. It is hard for us too, but we have no choice but to deal with it. Anxiety is a slightly different beast with its own fun and exciting battles. Where you see nothing, we see unattainable mountains. The tiniest thing can be fixated on. Something you may not even think about. Something like making a phone call or leaving the house. To you they are everyday tasks that don’t even register as needing thought. To a person with anxiety you might as well have asked us to climb Mount Everest without shoes. There is no rhyme or reason to it. Our brain tells us that we cannot do the thing… no matter what. The thing is too scary. Doing the thing will result in the end of the universe. Logic has no bearing here. We are flaky. We cancel plans. We may seem like we don’t care or don’t want to spend time with you but, the truth is, we are afraid. It can strike at any time and without warning.

Telling us it will all be OK or other well-meaning things, usually has no affect on us. The nagging voice inside just tells us, “they’re only telling you what you want to hear. They’re only saying that to shut you up. No one wants to deal with your stupid problems. Stop talking. Hide inside your head again. It’s safe in here. Safer than out there. That’s it, withdraw, hide, berate, hate. That’s all you’re worth…” So we hide and we clam up. You think you’ve done something wrong. You think we don’t love you. You think we are distant so we must be invested elsewhere. We know this. Again we feel the guilt and pain over what we are doing to our loved ones. We don’t want you to feel sorry for us. Pity is a cheap emotion. We just want you to be there… and be patient.

After reading all this I’m sure you’re amazed we have any redeeming qualities at all. It’s hard to love us. But it’s worth it.

While there may be times when you feel endlessly frustrated and like you will never get through to us… just know that we see you. We love you for being around. We love you just for holding our hand and waiting. Mental illness is a constant battle, but there are silver linings to all those clouds. Our capacity for love and empathy is endless when we thrive. It’s a roller coaster for sure, but there is no stronger love than that which someone who struggles has for those who support them and try to understand. You may never fully understand. We just ask that you try. We are often creative, intelligent, generous and caring people. The dark side of the human psyche is often balanced by light. When we are cared for and allowed to flourish, magical things can happen. Nothing worth loving is ever easy. It may seem to some that we are making excuses for destructive or even borderline abusive behavior. So for this reason I will not blame someone for not being able to cope with it. We often can’t cope with it, and if we could walk away from it… we would. But if you truly love someone and know they are trying to get better, then there is hope.

So just know, if you are there, if you wait, if you hold us and let us know we are loved… thank you.

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Thinkstock photo by Pavel Sazonov

My first book, “Boy in the Ivy,” is a memoir of shame and the disconnection, rage, and despair that come with it. That story was crystalized by my brother’s suicide in 2009. In the aftermath of that tragic event, I asked myself why I hadn’t killed myself as well. After all, David and I were very similar people raised in the same family with the same darkness, which I describe as hereditary shame. “Boy in the Ivy” details how our paths diverged in one crucial way: I asked for help while, like so many men, David chose silence.

I was a child when I decided I was essentially bad, unworthy of connection or love, and undeserving of success or happiness. In other words, when I was a kid, I decided I was a piece of shit. There’s no way to put this more delicately and still convey the sense of being an abomination, grotesque and toxic to those who loved me.

This core belief is, of course, a lie. But I bought into that lie with every fiber of my being. And, once I’d decided I was a piece of shit, shame was the only logical response. It was shame that buried both my brother and me in depression, rage, and hopelessness. It was shame that had us contemplating suicide. And now that I have named it, dismantling this core belief and healing my shame remains the task before me. It may take me the rest of my life, but at the very least it gives me a reason to live in the first place.

Where does a small boy get the idea that he is a piece of shit? It would be easy to blame my parents. They were flawed, certainly, and there were times when each of them suggested in word or deed that I was shameful and unworthy of love. But the more I worked on the book, the more I understood what they had gone through themselves, and the less I could cast them as the villains of my story. Instead, my parents were two good people trapped in shame-cycles of their own, an ancestral darkness that reached back beyond their parents and grandparents into the distant past. In other words, writing “Boy in the Ivy” taught me to see my parents – and myself – with compassion. That is the healing power of memoir.

Fact is, my mom and dad did their best. This included trying to protect me from the worst of their own pain. My parents passed shame onto me, obviously, but it was only a pale imitation of what they themselves had experienced as children. I honor their efforts to shield me, and I have always tried to do the same with my own kids.

So my parents are not to blame. Despite what they did or said, or didn’t do or say, they never wanted to pass along their darkness. Instead, I own my shame. I made that decision about myself, after all; I embraced that core belief. I was the one who spent the next 30 years or so collecting evidence to support the proposition that I was a piece of shit. And I must say my efforts paid off: by the time I hit 40, I had trapped myself in a life characterized by secrecy, depression, and rage. As a bonus, my shame was poisoning my marriage and seeping into the consciousness of my children. It was conveying to them as my parents had to me.

So I asked for help.

I have just begun to heal. My shame is exposed; I have named it. But it still hangs around, my shadow side. There are excellent researchers and therapists out there who provide excellent strategies for healing shame. For me, the trick has been to understand that shame is something I constructed on my own, when I was too young to imagine an alternative. In other words, I acknowledge no one was actually trying to make me feel worthless, defective, broken, and beyond hope. That was something I did for myself when I decided I was a piece of shit. And undoing that decision is the path ahead. It may be long, winding, and dark, but there is light at the end of it, I am sure.

That’s the way I own my shame. This first step is perhaps the most difficult, but healing can’t happen without it.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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At my first book signing, a woman I work with asked a question I hadn’t anticipated. It went something like this: “Do you worry what the people you know at work – your friends and colleagues – will think of you after they read your book?”

She painted a picture for me: August comes, and the faculty and staff of our school return for the first round of meetings. People are excited to see one another and swap tales of summer adventures. I walk into the room, and it’s suddenly like a spaghetti Western when a stranger steps into the saloon. The honky-tonk piano jangles to a stop; the row of faces along the bar slowly turns my way. In the tense and expectant stillness, the sound of a single bluebottle fly sounds like a passing 747.

See, they will have read my book. They will know stuff about me – intimate stuff they may find weird or even a little upsetting. Some might be friends who are now rethinking that friendship. Others may be meeting me for the first time, and the impression they will have formed from my book might not be exactly complimentary.

“Do you worry about that?” she asked.

I need to point out this woman is a friend of mine, a gifted teacher at our school and an ardent supporter of “Boy in the Ivy.” In fact, she ordered the first copy of the book ever sold on Amazon. And now she’d come to my very first book signing. She’s a warm and caring person, and her question came from a place of real concern.

“Do you worry about that?”

To my surprise, I found I didn’t. Not even a little bit.

For one thing, I only included material that related to and furthered the story’s purpose. This means I left out much, much more than I put in. Certainly, some of what I omitted was because I didn’t want people knowing about it. So it’s out. And I know some of what I included raises eyebrows. For example, I talk about the fact that, as a young man, I masturbated to pornography. That’s not something you lead off with at a job interview, obviously, or include in your profile on Match.com. At the same time, a man my age who has never masturbated to pornography bears watching. And as for all the other men in the world who have masturbated to pornography, if they judge me for doing the same they have missed the point of the entire book.

This also goes for the more idiosyncratic revelations, like my dancing around late at night in the basement by myself. I grant that’s pretty weird. But idiosyncrasies themselves are universal. While you may never know the singular joy of being Peter Gabriel or Pat Metheny or Prince, I’m betting you occasionally take imaginative journeys that are just as goofy. Again, I wouldn’t trust you if you didn’t.

Finally, I have to consider my friend’s question on a deeper level. Essentially what she was asking, with great care and concern, is if I am ashamed of my memoir. I am very pleased to say that I am not.

In fact, writing this book was the biggest step I could have taken towards healing the shame that fueled my depression and buried me in hopelessness.

I believe in the healing power of memoir. In the process of writing “Boy in the Ivy,” I had to own my story. By this I mean I had to look at myself as honestly as I could – examine my light and my darkness, my shadow and my gold – and understand all of it as essential to my humanity. This opened a door to compassion for myself, a sure-fire counterbalance to shame. Compassion for myself enables me to cultivate compassion for others, an excellent check on grandiosity. Owning my story with honesty, understanding my story as somehow universal, and telling it as best I can have all allowed me to shake up my shame, shine sunlight on my depression, and entertain a glimmer of hope.

So I don’t feel shame around my story. Instead, I begin to heal my shame by telling it.
I still have a long way to go. Springsteen sings about one step up and two steps back. But I am far, far better off these days for telling my story. And I am very grateful to my friend and colleague for giving me the impetus to put that new knowledge into words.

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