What happens when the deep, dark secret comes out?
During the last dozen years, numerous people have asked me why I don’t keep my depression a secret, why I “advertise” it. Mainly, I say, it’s because I don’t like keeping the gift to myself.
Yes, I call it a gift.
Maybe I should keep it to myself. After all, there really is a stigma attached to any mental illness, even something as relatively common as depression. Millions of people in America have been diagnosed with the disease, but millions others haven’t sought help even though they have the symptoms because they fear what others might say.
And what might those “others” say?
He’s lazy. He’s not tough enough. He should be able to work through it. Everyone has bad days once in a while, and most people don’t have to take medication or see a therapist to deal with them.
We kept my disease a secret for quite some time after I was diagnosed in the winter of 2001-2002. Only close family members knew something was wrong and what the issue was. My wife Donna and I didn’t tell friends or co-workers. I know some of them had concerns because they told us later, but they had no idea exactly why we continually turned down invitations to social gatherings, why they never saw me, why I left my dream job and why I missed a good bit of work at my new job.
They didn’t know about all of my tears and inability to get out of bed some days. They didn’t know about my anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
Finally, Donna and I made the decision we couldn’t keep it private any longer – in part because of our children. We saw how the stress of keeping the secret was taking a toll on them.
As we found out, the benefits of sharing our lives with others far outweighed the setbacks.
Most people in our lives were supportive immediately. Not that everyone understood – and I suspect some of them still don’t understand. Many of them never have said a word about it to me or Donna. A couple of them have said that while they don’t completely understand the disease and what I experience, they have learned compassion while trying to “get it.”
People keep all sorts of things in their lives a secret. Opening yourself to scrutiny can be challenging. That said, the best decision we ever made was to open our situation not just to family and friends, but to the world at large. That is how I have come to recognize the disease as a gift.
I’m not the first person ever to look some kind of adversity in the eye and embrace it. Oh, there usually is initial hesitance. You struggle with the cancer, lament the lost love, fret over the job loss, wonder how you ever will overcome the addiction. In time, that turns into a fight.
And then you win. Victory might not be complete. There might be scars, temptations, doubts.
The victory actually might be more like survival. That’s where the gift unveils itself. There are countless people in the world with cancer, with a lost love, with a job loss, with addiction – with depression. They need to know that survival is possible.
They need hope. In the face of adversity, they need hope.
At a certain point, I found myself in prayer wondering why God had allowed me to be struck with depression. It’s absolutely hard. The suffering might not be as severe physically as many other diseases. I haven’t had to endure chemotherapy – but there are side effects to the medication, and many of them haven’t worked at all. I didn’t lose muscle function the way people with multiple sclerosis do—but there is a kind of paralysis that can set in.
I have been fortunate enough to stay married and keep my job – but my relationships have been tested and my job performance occasionally has suffered.
Plus, my life literally has been in danger several times.
I’m not alone in that. I have met many people who have considered suicide, who find no help in medication, who have cut off all social contact, who haven’t been able to work because of their severe depression.
That’s why I consider the disease a gift. In my curiosity, in asking God “why?” I realized that I can use the experience to help someone else. So difficult as it is sometimes, I talk about it. I have made myself available to talk with any group that might be interested in the subject – from 10 people in a church basement to 100 people at a mental health conference. I have gone on the radio to talk about the disease. I have written the book about my journey, refer to my depression in some other things I have written.
Along the way, I have met many suffering people, men and women on similar journeys. There is relief and encouragement in finding out you’re not alone.
After one gathering, where Donna and I talked about our experiences for about an hour, we each faced a separate line of people wanting to chat and ask us questions. People who had family members with depression lined up to talk with Donna, those with the disease waited to talk with me. I remember one young couple that approached me. She was quiet, appearing a little nervous and almost afraid. “My wife was just diagnosed with depression two weeks ago,” the husband asked me. He was overcome with concern. “We have no idea what to expect.”
On radio call-in shows, some people will call choking back tears and saying they have been battling for a long time. They seek advice. Every once in a while, a family member of someone will contact me and ask if that person can call me to share their story, to seek some help or solace.
I’ll be honest, it can be intimidating. What makes me worthy to enter the life stories of these people and pretend to have any words or thoughts that might guide them through the darkness? I’m not a doctor or therapist. Heck, I still struggle with the disease myself.
Yet I’m still here. I am an example of someone that has survived. I have fallen and gotten up – thanks in large part to the strength provided by God, but I’ve gotten up. That hope is what I have to offer.
We all have a gift, something God has given to us to share with at least one other person in a way that will make their life better. A breast cancer survivor can serve as an example to someone recently diagnosed with breast cancer. A recovering alcoholic makes the ideal sponsor for someone trying to overcome the addiction. That doesn’t make anyone a hero. They don’t usually have the right answers to the problems, but they can be present in the life of another fellow human being.
They can serve as a symbol of hope.
For anyone suffering, that’s a priceless gift indeed.
Mike Eisenbath has been married to Donna for 30 years; they have four adult children and two grandsons. He was an award-winning sportswriter for 23 years, including 18 at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Severe depression forced him out of that career. He continues to write, with a monthly column in the St. Louis Review and his www.eisenbath.com website. He is a frequent speaker. Among his three books is Hence My Eyes Are Turned Toward You: Confronting Depression With Faith and the Prayer of Jehoshaphat.
This article originally appeared in The Christian Review and is republished here with permission.