Recently, I attended an educational workshop which was geared to raising awareness of depression and suicide. The speaker, a clinical psychologist, clicked through PowerPoint slides at a steady clip. She listed the signs of depression. Click. New slide.
She stressed that depression is a disease that can be treated. Click. New Slide.
She said, “If you know someone who experiences chronic depression, you need to ask them if they are thinking about suicide.” Click.
“I’m not sure that I feel good,” a friend recently told me over the phone from 350 miles away.
“What do you mean? What doesn’t feel good?”
“The right side of my face feels numb. I have trouble walking and I can’t write.”
I have a sliver of medical know-how which I gained during one shift as a 15-year-old volunteer candy striper. When the shift started, as I stepped off the elevator onto the hospital ward in my red-and-white-striped uniform, I felt filled with purpose and joy; however, in ten short minutes, I found that oozing body fluids and tubes connected to bodies disturb me. Feeling queasy and faint, I ran to the bathroom and hid for the rest of the shift. The next day, I turned my uniform in.
But even I knew my friend was experiencing stroke symptoms. I told her, “You need to get to the hospital. Now.”
I haven’t always been so adept at diagnosing medical conditions.
Sometimes, I misread a situation and choose to do nothing when urgency is called for.
Once, my husband Steve came home from playing pick-up basketball feeling uneasy. “I feel strange. In the middle of the game, I got dizzy and then I lost my vision for about a minute.”
With a wave of my hand meant to diminish his concern, I said, “Happens to me all the time.”
I have never played pick-up basketball. I meant the dizzy feeling. “Why don’t you take a nap? And eat a sandwich. Yeah, eat a sandwich. Your blood sugar’s probably low.”
A few days later, almost past the lifesaving window of opportunity, a neurologist showed me pictures of Steve’s torn carotid artery and mentioned the life-threatening possibility of a blood clot catching on the flap. Urgency and a panicked oops swelled within me. I didn’t offer the neurologist a sandwich.
Then, we went through years during which our young adult son’s life was falling apart. He often stayed in bed in a dark room with the covers over his head. All day long.
He rarely spoke. He never responded to my nagging: write a list of activities and do them. Check them off one by one. And smile. Smiling doesn’t hurt anyone.
I thought his behavior was a choice. He’s lazy. He’s unmotivated. He’s really grumpy and downright hostile. He can choose between right and wrong and he’s choosing wrong.
When he sat on the back porch, stared into the yard and smoked cigarette after cigarette, I said: stop sitting. Start doing.
He consumed large quantities of alcohol and some drugs. The police arrested, charged, fined and told him to stop.
It took eight long years and our son attempting suicide before we learned his behaviour pointed to medical conditions called major depression and anxiety disorder.
Now, I recognize mental illness when I see it. Not only do I recognize it, I know to seek medical help.
Also, I know the challenge of loving someone who struggles with depression and anxiety.
I often meet people who face that challenge. An encounter that sticks with me took place in December 2010. I was visiting tent cities near Port-au-Prince, Haiti with a medical missions team. Because, as I mentioned earlier, my medical expertise is limited, my job was to serve food (peanut butter sandwiches on white bread) to the hundreds of people who lined up to see the doctors and to hand out crayons and coloring pages to the kids who came along.
At one location, when our supplies were gone, I walked in the tent city with one of the interpreters who assisted our team. We walked on dirt paths between rows of small dwellings. Some were tents emblazoned with relief organizations’ names and others were make-shift structures cobbled together with corrugated steel, cardboard and blue tarps.
Near one tent, some scraggly plants grew. From them, a woman picked beans. I stopped to chat with the interpreter’s help.
The woman held a few beans in her hand. She said they were supper.
“How many people will you feed?”
“Myself. My husband. My three kids.” She motioned to three little kids who played nearby in the dirt.
“Your husband? He’s?” I wondered where he was.
“He’s in the tent sleeping. Since the earthquake and our move here, he can’t find a job. He looked and looked and now he sleeps. He sleeps almost all the time.”
I remembered my son and how, when he was depressed, he slept all day long with the covers over his head. My best efforts to rouse him failed.
In my mind, I listed the symptoms of depression:
sleeping –a lot
persistent feelings of sadness and worthlessness
an inability to engage in formerly pleasurable activities
low energy level
thoughts of suicide
I wanted to say that I recognize depression. I have lived the long, hard years, trying to pick up the slack, beside a depressed individual. It’s not easy.
The woman, the interpreter and I stood in silence for a long moment.
The afternoon was hot and dry. I felt sweat coat my forehead. I wiped it with my dusty hand. I was thirsty. I looked around for water. I wondered how she watered her small garden.
My glimpse into her life revealed that she faced a situation that would sideline most people.
I don’t know what our stand in silence meant for her.
For me? I had no words to acknowledge the extent of the challenge she faced.
She’d fled from an earthquake that left large portions of her city in piles of rubble. Ten months later, bodies remained under those piles. She’d lost her home and moved temporarily to a dusty hillside. There was no running water. No electricity.
Her three kids played in dirt. Her husband faced lingering unemployment and severe depression that interfered with his ability to function.
Yet, she’d planted a garden. And harvested food to cook for her family.
I hoped in some small way that our moment of silence was a tribute to her: queen of resilience.
And I wanted to help. The peanut butter sandwiches that we’d been serving at the clinic were gone.
I dug in my pocket. I found a crayon and three American dollars—not even enough for a Starbucks’ coffee. A dismal gift in the face of her need, I thought. But I handed her the money. “Could you get some rice to go with the beans?” I asked.
Tears streamed down her face and she hugged my neck again and again.
I didn’t learn her name. But I resolved to never forget the challenge she faced. And to someday contribute to getting resources to people like her.
Depression and anxiety are a huge and growing problem all over the world. In the United States, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, these disorders interfere with daily functioning for 40 million American adults. The disorders often go undiagnosed and untreated
Depression is also a big problem in developing countries like nearby Haiti. Experts say that people in developing countries have a lot to be depressed about like scant food, limited resources and few opportunities. Experts say that in most developing countries, there is about one psychiatrist and one psychiatric nurse per 100,000 people.
If you face mental illness or love someone who does, check out these resources:
I’ve written a book called On the Loving End of Crazy: Our Story Told to Equip You to Live Yours