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.