Thursday 7 June 2018

When your brain is broken

I'm not a label person. I don't own any designer bags or sunglasses, because I never had the desire to. Yet, when I was looking for a phone case 2 years ago, I ended up picking a black-and-white striped case by Kate Spade - the only designer item I own. 

Hearing about Kate Spade's heartbreaking death last Monday shook me deeply. Not so much because of my phone case, even though I'm still very fond of it - but because mental illness won. And every time mental illness wins, it results in a huge, terrible loss for all of us.
I stayed mostly away from the online discussions, because I could imagine them vividly:
"She was so successful, what did she have to be depressed about?" As if it's a choice to have depression. 
"If she would have known how much she meant to other people, she wouldn't have done that." One thing has nothing to do with the other.

Or, and this is where I'm now quoting the incomparable Emily McDowell (an artist, unique card-maker, and all-around awesome and insightful human):
"I’m seeing a lot of well-intentioned but misinformed comments about Kate Spade’s (heartbreaking) death. Things like, “if only she’d known how many women she’d inspired and how beloved she was.” Or “it really goes to show that success doesn’t buy happiness.” 
Here’s why this thinking is misguided:
🌱 Even though science has proven it a million times over, our culture doesn’t yet fully recognize that MENTAL ILLNESS IS A BRAIN DISEASE, just like hepatitis is a liver disease. Depression (and bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and everything else) affects our brain— the organ we use to make decisions
If you’re suffering from suicidal depression, it doesn’t matter how beloved you are or how much you love your family or how much money you have, because your brain is telling you that despite all those things, suicide is your only option. 
(Or that you need to isolate yourself, sleep all day, or other behavior that a healthy brain would recognize as bad decisions.) 
This is one reason mental illness is so deadly: the part of our body that’s affected is the same part that’s responsible for our behavior. It’s like if you broke your leg and then had to use that leg to walk to the hospital. 
🌱 The other reason mental illness is so deadly: shame and stigma around seeking help. Reports are saying Kate resisted inpatient treatment because she worried about the effect it would have on her “happy” brand image. 
Depression is an ILLNESS. 
It’s not weakness. 
It’s not your fault. 
And it’s impossible to think or reason your way out of it without help, due to the part of your body that’s ill. 🌱"

I quoted that on my Instagram stories yesterday, because honestly, it's the best definition of depression I have ever heard. 
But I also want to talk about it for another reason.

My beloved town had its own tragedy last year, when one of its own committed suicide. 
We had just moved there, only knowing three people, when the news hit that one of the most well-known and well-liked citizens had suddenly passed away. 

Right away, it was weird. Two of the people we knew were reluctant to talk about it. "We heard something, but we don't want to spread false rumours," they told us, being uncharacteristically cagey. 
Then, a few days later, another lady we met spilled the news that the cause of death had been suicide. 
And she had a few opinions about it, very similar to the ones I mentioned above: that the person had everything to live for; was so successful; had tons of friends, a loving and supportive family; and had "no reason to do something like that". 

And that's what's been going through my mind over the last few days, and why I have to say something. 

There is still a wide-spread perception that depression is a choice. 
That people committing suicide are selfish. 
That the "strong" people just "deal with it". 
That mental illness is maybe understandable in people who are "losers" (i.e. people who have no jobs, are homeless, are on drugs, or had a "difficult upbringing"), but in the successful ones, it's unacceptable. 
And nothing could be further from the truth. 

It's like saying that only certain people should get cancer. 
That only the weak "deserve" to get sick. 
That fame and money protect you from the realities of life, like loss, illness, and death. 

Life doesn't work that way. 

I'm by no means an expert in mental illness, but here is what I know about depression:

When you're in the midst of a depressive episode, your brain is sick. It doesn't function like a healthy brain. Instead of being able to rationally look at your life and list all the good and the bad stuff, everything looks bad. All the things you normally love - in my case, reading books, taking the dogs for walks, talking to friends, etc. - suddenly don't give you joy anymore. You vaguely remember that you once liked them, but now you not only don't enjoy them - you are suddenly convinced that they never gave you joy at all. Everything in your life has been a lie.

You try to think back to the last time you ever felt happy - and you come up empty. 
You try to imagine ever feeling happy again - and you can't. 
You try to imagine living like this for the rest of your life - with the darkness, the hopelessness, with the absolute certainty that you will contaminate everyone who you're dimly aware cares for you - and you can't bear that thought. You don't want the people who love you to suffer the way you do. 
And you get that dangerous thought: the world will be better off without me. 

Is it rational? Of course not. Your brain is broken right now. 
Can you snap out of it? Can you snap out of diabetes?
Can you just "will it away"? Can you "will away" cancer?

Mental illness is a DISEASE.

No matter how rich, famous, successful, admired or beloved you are. 
Everybody can get it.  
Some famous examples include: Eminem, Ellen Degeneres, Cara Delevingne, Lady Gaga, J.K. Rowling, Emma Thompson, Owen Wilson, and many others

Do any of them look like they are struggling?
Of course not. 
Because we are all so good at hiding it. 
It's not a conscious decision. One of the most devious parts of mental illness is that it makes you feel unworthy, and the most important task becomes to hide it from others. 
Ask anyone: hiding it is second nature. We don't think about it; it's just something we do. 
Because it's so instinctual, I really had to think hard for a while for the reasons, but I think the biggest one is shame. We feel ashamed for being weak, for being difficult, for being ungrateful, for feeling down for "no reason". We don't want to be a burden. We don't want to cry wolf. We don't want to be one of those people we've all heard about: the ones that are "cuckoo", had to go to the "loony bin", are not functioning properly - the ones everybody looks down on.

Now, imagine you feel like that while you are successful in your job? Admired by others? Well-liked by everyone you meet? Rich and famous? Do you really want to disappoint all these people by telling them how you feel? 

No. So you suck it up, smile, and hope it will go away. 
For some, it does; but for others, it doesn't. 

Please, PLEASE speak up. Tell someone if you're struggling. 
Call a helpline:1-888-273-8255.
Or text TALK to 741-741 if you prefer texting.

Please know that you're not alone. You've most likely met someone today who struggles with mental illness, or takes medication for it, or had a breakdown in the car/bathroom/at home before/during/after work today. But you would never know, because we're all so very good at hiding it. But remember: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. 

Don't be ashamed. Before you do anything drastic, speak up - you have nothing to lose, but EVERYTHING to gain. 
Like Emily said: the world is better with you in it. 

xoxo Miriam



  1. This is such a good post. Depression is an insidious disease, and a disease is what it is. Not a weakness, not a choice, not something that can be cured with exercise, sleep, vitamins, or anything else as simple as that. Someone close to me deals with depression and I am constantly amazed at the continuing lack of understanding and sometimes lack of sympathy.

    1. There is simply not enough understanding out there yet. I'm hopeful that we will get there, but we HAVE to keep talking about it. I think the biggest misconception is still that you need to have a "reason" for it: it's okay to be depressed if you just had a break-up, but not if you're as rich and famous as Anthony Bourdain.
      That's what people get wrong: that people are somehow at fault for getting sick. That's not so. There may be some contributing factors (family history, lifestyle choices, etc. ), but it's a crapshoot: some of us will get cancer, others will get dementia, and others get depression.

      Like you said, it's not someone's weakness or choice to get sick. I believe that the more we talk about it, the more we will grow to accept mental illness as a disease, and maybe, one day, the stigma will disappear!

  2. Love this so, so much.
    Depression sucks.

    1. It's a horrible disease, but it's not hopeless. There's always hope.


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