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Why Was My Mental Heartbreak Not Taken as Seriously as My Physical Heartbreak?

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This is for anyone who has a difficult time understanding what all the “fuss” is around mental health. For those who might feel uncomfortable sharing their story. For those who think these stories are not worth sharing.

In the past few years, there have been extensive campaigns to get the word out about mental health – its prevalence, severity, and treatment. Yet somehow despite the great efforts across the country, people still do not feel comfortable explaining their illnesses.

Obviously, most discussions about health are very personal, often making it difficult to share. I don’t quite enjoy discussing my cardiac surgeries or my severe depression.

Yet a key distinction between enduring these two conditions – one physical and one psychological – is the support I expect upon sharing these diagnoses. 

The former – most react with surprise and optimism, reassurances that I’ll be in great hands, followed by a comment of how easily I will recover. 

The latter – I expect surprise, along with a great dose of pity and awkwardness. 

No one quite knows how to react to the news that I’ve been living with depression, most likely because I constantly mask my symptoms behind a smile. Many people apologize and offer support. Several friends have blamed themselves for not having noticed before. Few continue not quite believing my diagnosis is serious.

So why would two health conditions elicit such drastically differing responses? 

In my opinion, we have been raised to believe mental health challenges can be overcome on sheer willpower. Some people unfortunately think it’s the individual’s fault for not being able to get better. Or that it’s their fault they are even in that situation. Jokes are frequently made that belittle the seriousness of depression. TV shows make light-hearted jokes about suicide, making depression an everyday word – but not in a supportive manner. Somehow this translates into friends sarcastically joking that someone “would rather die” than root for the Yankees or that “we should just kill them now” because they anticipate failing an exam. These jokes are completely inappropriate, unwarranted, and almost always facetious – yet we hear them on a daily basis, not just on TV.

So why did jokes about suicide somehow become funny?

How did these jokes become funny?

By making depression a laughing matter, it has perpetuated the stigma around mental health. These comments essentially tease anyone for having suicidal thoughts because humor makes these sentiments too ridiculous to believe. You never know whom you may be hurting when making a joke about mental health. Personally, all of this discourse has made me feel as if my thoughts should not be concerning.

Since my diagnosis in October 2015, my friends were alongside me through the year’s roller coaster of depression. And for a while, they had no idea how to help. This is with no offense to them – I also had no idea what to do. We just have never had learned the proper mindset about dealing with mental health. Although they have the greatest intentions, they don’t fully understand the disease. So that’s why I was told to “just cheer up already” and that I was simply “blowing everything out of proportion.” When my depression reached its lowest point – I even heard how I wasn’t being a good friend anymore. I learned (too late) that some felt pressure to always be strong for me, not expecting me to capably reciprocate, thereby limiting our relationship. Soon I became sick of pretending to be happy, so I lost interest in spending time with others. I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone.

Struggling with the loss of my grandfather, the closing of our family-owned store, my parents’ divorce and my own relationship ending, I felt as if my problems were insurmountable. Several counselors told me that time and time again I was trying to mend a broken heart. Unlike my cardiac surgery, there is no set solution to this diagnosis. I started doubting the pieces could be put together.

My friends tried to comprehend how my disease restricted my thoughts and actions, but they couldn’t fully connect. I think this was primarily because the emotions surrounding depression are unfathomable unless you have lived with this disease. 

Never before had I understood hopelessness until I felt it. Never before had I genuinely believed I was incapable of healing. Never before had I wanted to let go…

The outward manifestations of my cardiac and mental health recovery were surprisingly similar. Both conditions left me either wide awake at night in great agony, or asleep too early, worn out by pain. With heart surgery, this pain was very visible – after all, my sternum was broken and I still had drainage tubes in place (disgusting, I know). However, the pain in depression is not at all visibly noticeable, only through its symptoms.

In both circumstances, I had lost a great deal of weight and strength – both times due to immobility and lack of eating, yet for vastly different reasons. 

After heart surgery, I was physically immobilized for several weeks and constantly nauseated from painkillers. 

Through depression, I have been mentally immobilized. There are evenings when I am completely unable to get off the floor because I am either uncontrollably crying or stuck feeling nothing at all. I slowly stopped eating because my medication and mindset gave me a constant stomach ache. I rationalized that eating is not worth the imminent stomach ache. I rationalized that eating may not be worthwhile because I am not worthwhile. I wished my cardiologist could fix me once again – because this broken heart of mine was becoming more painful than ever.

Neither of these situations are easy to discuss. But what is it that makes mental health so much more difficult to discuss? 

Why haven’t I shared more about this? 

Recently it’s become apparent to me how infrequently I share that I have depression. As previously mentioned, I’ve lost weight due to this illness, and in the past several months, people have commented on “how great” I look. Every time I hear this comment, my stomach churns and I wish I could explain that the weight loss doesn’t mean I am healthy. After all, for my physically broken heart, it would have been easy to correct someone by pointing to my scar from surgery. So through these emotional heartbreaks, I wish I could scream that I’m not doing well.

But I don’t do that.

Because by doing so, I am a burden.

At least that’s what I’ve come to feel through sharing my diagnosis. Those with whom I am not as close feel awkward by the situation, embarrassed for themselves. They take pity on me. My closest friends have been overwhelmingly supportive – yet it is apparent that none of them can “fix” me, so, in turn, I feel like a stressor in their lives (even though they are too kind to admit it).

But that’s the key — I shouldn’t expect my friends to “cure” me. This should not lie on them. 

Why should these two conditions be viewed so separately that for one, I need to see an esteemed cardiologist, but the other I’m just supposed to fix on my own or through friends?

After all, in both situations my heart needed mending. Mental health has become too much of a sensitive topic that many are wary of seeking help, so we end up falling back on friends for support. Even after seeking help, I realize I’m still not as open about this condition as I had been about surgery – even though both are life-threatening.

Why is it that while recovering from surgery I received mountains of teddy bears and flowers, but for depression, many of those aware often avoid bringing it up altogether? Why is medication expected post-surgery, yet unwelcomed for mental conditions?

Why is it that through one heartbreak, my hand was held in many doctors’ offices for consultations and procedures, but for the other, I’m left to find my own clinical help? Why is it that since the pain I feel from depression is not visible, that people assume that it has vanished?

Mental health should be more openly discussed to acknowledge its severity and eliminate the differing perspectives between physical and psychological health. Heartbreak is heartbreak.

Just because this pain exists in my mind does not mean it is not real.

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

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Image via Speeotoole Instagram

Originally published: March 17, 2017
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