Stigma Fighters : Tony Welch

The Stigma of Depression

“It’s all in your head”. Yes, unfortunately it is in my head. And my gastro-intestinal system. And muscles. And my checking account. And the hole that once resided a social life. Manic depression – specifically, and mental health issues in general – takes no prisoners and often solicits little understanding. We beat ourselves up. We are tougher on ourselves, punish ourselves more than anyone on the outside could possibly do. And, unfortunately, depression is usually accompanied by an additional partner or two in misery – anxiety, alcoholism, substance abuse, chronic pain. “Take a walk”. “Everyone has problems”. “Be a Man!”. “Toughen Up!” Etc. Some of the pearls of wisdom and encouragement those of us with depression hear. The well-intentioned, but still often cynical and critical, sentiments of “oh, you look like you’re feeling good today” (translation: you are obviously fine and, finally, over your little “illness” and can resume your normal life … and stop moping) do not usually help. The stigma of depression.

Is stigmatizing others, the perceived weakness or inferiority of others, natural? Is it a part of human nature, the human condition? Or is it learned or developed? Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all guilty of stigmatizing someone at some point – whether it was said or thought, we have all made comments or had thoughts, even in jest, about someone who is different from us (it could male/female, age-related, racial, sexual-orientation, mental or physical disabilities or a host of others). Anything about someone who cannot help the shape, form, or condition they exist in. With depression and other mental health issues, it boils down to do you believe someone? Depression cannot be measured like white blood cell levels or heart rate. Yes, everyone “feels down”. And yes, there are those out there who say that they suffer from depression – or any other condition – for their own reason (to scam Social Security or an insurance company, to get out of work or other obligations, to solicit attention or sympathy). Still, it is best to take people at their word until you know different, treat them respectfully and do not belittle them with your own cures and superiority – trust me, we already feel bad enough.

We beat ourselves up. I beat myself up, always dwelling on the past and the bad decisions or plain, old bad luck that have sabotaged this or that. It is extremely unhealthy but it is what we do. And we often turn to drugs and alcohol to cure the pain. Work can become impossible, especially when you are in a stressful situation and/or work for a very demanding and overly critical boss. Most have no idea the amount of guilt that manifests when we call in sick to work or miss an appointment because we are feeling so poorly. “Get up and tough it out”, you tell yourself over and over as you fitfully try to sleep it off. Most have no idea how badly we feel as we constantly make up excuses to not go out and socialize, to spend time with our friends and family (the people in our lives who make us feel best but even then, we want nothing more than to lay in bed and ignore the world). Finally, as I did, you come clean to those who you love and who love you (and even the world in general) and tell them, “Hey, I suffer from manic depression (or whatever it is you suffer from) and …”. Veins are opened, words pour out of your mouth or into the text or e-mail and the relief felt is wonderful. And most will understand, if not immediately, in time. And if not, it is time to do an assessment to check if they really deserve your time, love, and energy. It is our responsibility to eliminate as many negative forces in our lives.

Depeche Mode once sang “Words like violence, break the silence … painful to me, pierce right through me. Words are meaningless and forgettable …”. “Enjoy the Silence” is the song. “Words are meaningless” … and yet so meaningful. They do hurt and we do carry them with us and dwell on them, like bad memories. Words are forgettable? Sorry, no. We can say they do not affect us , that we do not care what others say or think about us but we do. In those dark corners of the mind, where it is just you and you, they lurk under the bed and in closets, ready to pounce and remind you of how bad you feel. “Enjoy the silence?”? You usually never allow yourself to enjoy it. Lord Byron once said, “It is in solitude that we are least alone”. Those who do not suffer from mental health issues must know that we are our own worst enemies, inside our conflicted minds, and we do not really have a need for more misery. Thank you.

In popular culture, depression has been a frequent topic, and that is a good thing. David Chase created our generations alpha male, Tony Soprano, and the late James Gandolfini played him perfectly – strong, full of rage, and manic depressive. Early in the first season, Soprano is driving with his “nephew” and Family heir, Christopher, and, after just being told by the woman who would become his therapist throughout the series about what he suffers from, he asks Christopher if he ever feels depressed. Christopher replies, “Me? I’m no mental midget.” and dismisses the entire subject with a look of irritated disdain. It is a look we know well. Several episodes later, Tony opens up to his crew about his condition, explaining that he sees a therapist and is on medications and the camera pans to Christopher, who has the perfect expression of embarrassment and regret, obviously looking out of the corner of his eye for the closest hole to bury himself in. Chase and Gandolfini did us a great service with their brilliant work but much work remains.

On March 16, 2015, Anna McDonald of ESPN.com wrote an article on former top prospect, pitcher Ian Ferguson. Out of Colorado, Ferguson was a top prospect in the Kansas City Royals system and was poised to make an appearance with the big league club in 2003, but he suffered from debilitating anxiety and his career derailed to the point where he was soon out of baseball. However, he was able to come to terms with his condition and move with a positive life – he is now married and works for the city of Denver’s Parks and Recreation department. I do not want to spend a lot of time re-hashing his story so please check it out on the link below – it is definitely worth reading. If nothing else, the article highlights that mental health issues can affect anyone, at any time and completely destroy everything in its path – careers, relationships, lives.

http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/55724/minor-leaguers-anxiety-a-cautionary-tale

Depression, anxiety, and the other, various forms of “major depressive disorders” reportedly affect up to 7-8% of the population, with women approximately 70% more likely to experience these symptoms than men. Of course, it could easily be that many men do not actively or officially report their symptoms, their “disorder” to a medical professional due to the on-going stigma in this country. They may fear admitting this “weakness”, for “not feeling like a man”. It is widely believed that in many of these cases and situations, many will self-medicate to help fight the demons, rather than spend time with a therapist or psychiatrist. Alcohol or illegal drugs are a common substitute for antidepressants. It should be noted, though, that many – if not all – antidepressants have side effects, many serious, and the first (or second … or third) medication prescribed and taken may not work. If often times takes some time to find the proper medication, and course of action including psychotherapy. And, like me, you may easily find that no medications truly work.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (nimh.nih.gov), “Most likely, depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain. Brain-imaging technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), have shown that the brains of people who have depression look different than those of people without depression. The parts of the brain involved in mood, thinking, sleep, appetite, and behavior appear different. But these images do not reveal why the depression has occurred. They also cannot be used to diagnose depression.

People with depressive illnesses do not all experience the same symptoms. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness.

Signs and symptoms include:
• Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
• Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
• Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
• Irritability, restlessness
• Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
• Fatigue and decreased energy
• Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
• Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
• Overeating, or appetite loss
• Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
• Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.

Depression is an awful thing. Checked, you are on medication or seeing a therapist or psychiatrist, or both, and do your best to understand it and cope. Unchecked, it is largely ignored and misunderstood – although it is misunderstood no matter – and manifests through bouts of self-medication and self-loathing, volcanic fits of rage or silence and just not feeling well. Once you understand what you are suffering from, once you can accept it, the rage or silence and “un-wellness” of it all will likely continue but accepting it, confronting it, and seeking help in fighting it are so vital to living better. Living better is always the goal, the key for everyone in life. We are not weird, we are not devoid of love or feelings. We love our husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, family and friends as much as anyone and we can be just as successful as anyone in our fields. We just need some understanding … from you and from ourselves. Be nice, please. And we will always do our best. And then we can realize that what others think, their stigma’s, really do not matter.

*   *   *

I am a 43 year-old writer, having self-published my first novel last summer, graduate student in Urban and Regional Studies (government, basically) and manic depressive. Having worked for years in mortgage lending, I was laid-off for the third time a couple of years ago – while on medical leave for my depression – and moved in with my parents, which is not ideal at my age but has been nice considering my mental health issues. I hope to soon be back on my own, feeling well, and beginning a new career. I live in the Twin Cities, Minnesota.

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  • http://astrongradio.tumblr.com Allison Strong

    I have been diagnosed with Bipolar for 25 years. During that time, for the first ten years I worked as a highly rated alternative Disc jockey and music director. I know Depeche Mode and the lyrics very well. I like the song “Fly on the Windscreen,” especially when depressed. I was not the type of person who could work happily at radio stations that played EZ listening ballads by Adult Contemporary artists such as Celine Dion or Michael Bolton. They made me cry. But when I first heard Nirvana lamenting the ‘passive consumers’ with “Here we are now, entertain us, life is stupid and contagious…” from “Smells like Teen Spirit,” their breakout hit, I could really relate and I do still now. A lot of our big alternative artists like former Stone Temple Pilots Scott Weiland suffer from dual diagnosis and I get it. I really do.
    I went to AA for support for years but in my home group, it’s become fashionable for them all saying about how if you do the 12 steps correctly, you won’t have mental illness and to “Stop taking your meds as they will keep you from ‘sobriety.’ ”
    I for one think ‘sobriety’ technically is overrated and I plan to write letters to AA’s central office, local intergroup and the guy who runs the clubhouse where this is going on. In addition, I’m going to attend our home group’s business meeting and make a motion to add 8 words to our written preamble that say, “We are not doctors and refrain from giving medical advice. ” Then people can say what they want but we’ll all know that they are going against group conscience.
    I’ve had best friends die because their sponsors insisted on them stopping taking meds that they’ve had working for them for twenty years and they drank and felt guilty when on the meds and when off.
    As this writer wrote, we manic depressives and depressives have enough mental trouble, we don’t need any more from family, friends and other support groups. I loved this article.

    • arw

      Thank you, Allison. A career like yours would have been a lot of fun. Did you met any famous/great musicians?

      • http://astrongradio.tumblr.com Allison Strong

        When I was young, I lived in a part of North San Diego County and was able to receive even the Los Angeles Freeform radio station KMET and even get Dr. Demento, who played these goofy songs like “They’re coming to take me away to the funny farm hee hee haaha” (You’d have to have been there..he specialized in weird and I related) the lady dj’s were so cool I could never imagined being one of them. But it happened. I met Courtney Love, Sheryl Crow, Everclear, Stone Temple, Juliana Hatfield, Blink 182, Members of Sublime, Robert Patrick of industrial self hate band “Filter” (“Hey man, nice Shot)
        Nirvana didn’t do press or interviews. I met alannis Morrissette, Luscious Jackson, Beastie Boys..it goes on and on because I was a journalist for UK Melody Maker, The Arizona Republic and LA based “Hits Magazine.” Oh, I forgot, I met Shirley Manson (lead singer of Garbage) and Butch Vig, who produced Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album and Sonic Youth.

      • http://astrongradio.tumblr.com Allison Strong

        Sheryl Crow, Butch Vig and Shirley Manson of Garbage, Robert Patrick of Filter, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Bjork, Juliana Hatfield, mostly alternative groups not so mainstream.

  • Little Girl Lost

    I very much identify with the beginning of your article regarding self-loathing, beating myself up, self medicating. My childhood was not the best. And I believe that both my parents have mental illness. They were quite successful business people and I never understood why they were never happy, now and again they would be.

    They would argue and fight, smash up the house, which always got to me, I used to think (probably because I am quite lazy) why did you do that? you have wasted so much money, and you are now going to have to spend ages clearing up and gluing and fixing things.

    When they were in good moods I was their precious daughter, in bad moods, they would crush my dreams of moving away, or studying by saying ” you won’t make it, you’re not really that good enough” …. so here I am in the same town I was born in. I am lucky in that I have seen some of the world through lovely holidays I have taken with my husband and family. But at age 41 I feel resentful, my time is over, I won’t do anything now. And my resentment toward them is growing and growing.

    I have managed to keep the self-loathing under control. After being bullied in work for 5 years (the employee was dismissed) I figured why hate myself, there are other people out there who will do that for me. I need to be my best friend. No-one will love me as much as I can. Only I can truly take care of myself. I do slip sometimes and those feelings do creep back, especially if something bad is happening in my life or my depression starts to creep back.

    I have loads more to say, but in my mind I can here my mother saying “hmmm what are you typing this for? you have not got depression, I have depression!! you should try putting up with your father, your life is wonderful compared to mine. You never had to go through the things that I did, you are being selfish and ungreatful ……. etc” while my father gets drunk and tells me … well that varies from time to time. I guess the song for me would be Fairy-tale of New York … those two characters are exactly like my parents, all they would need is little girl to stand in between the fighting and I guess that would be a summary of my childhood.

    Anyway, I’m gonna go now, as my mother would probably be right, I’m rambling.

    But all of you take care, love yourselves, and be kind to yourselves <3