People with the type of depression and anxiety I suffer from can be fine one moment and feeling like they are about to have a heart attack or stroke the next. The worst anxiety attack I ever remember having was when my son was a toddler and I had just picked him up from daycare. Nothing in particular was bothering me that day. In fact, I remember having had one of the best discussions with my Freshman English class earlier that day, so there was nothing going on to forewarn me of the meltdown I was about to have. I went inside the daycare, spoke to everyone, and gathered up my son’s belongings without incident. But, as I walked to the car, I felt panic swell up in me from the tip of my toes, to the top of my head. I was fortunate to even get him into his car seat.
I know we sat outside of his school for at least thirty minutes, perhaps longer. I couldn’t breathe. I was sweating profusely, and I was gulping for air and trying to free my clouded brain enough to figure out what to do next. My son was terrified. At that time, I didn’t have a cell phone. There was a pay phone outside his daycare, but the thought of walking the few steps it would have taken to get to it and make a call to my ex-husband or my good friend, seemed as implausible as me climbing up Mount Everest. And anyway, at that time, there was no one I felt safe calling. Paranoia and the reality of my situation kept me from seeking help.
Thankfully, the feeling of anxiety passed. I pulled myself together and drove my son directly to McDonalds. Money was tight back then, but I knew without all doubt that for what he had just endured, I was determined to reward him with a Happy Meal. For months after that, those attacks would come on me without rhyme or reason. Once it happened while I was at a poetry reading. The actress in me came out. I worked my panic into my reading and the crowd loved it. They loved it and I felt like dying.
My depression is something altogether different than the panic attacks. There is no “acting” through it. Imagine there is a huge boulder inside your head, weighing down your brain. Imagine trying to think with such a boulder pressing against the parts of your brain that allow you to function. Clinical depression is not sadness. Living with clinical depression, when it is at its worse, is like being inside of a dark hole where there is limited amounts of oxygen for you to even breathe, let alone get up and be a productive person.
Some days, when I felt that overwhelming feeling of despair, I could fight it. Most days, I just had to ride the wave until it let up. I am not ashamed to say that I rely on meds to help me deal with it. But even being on medication can be a trial for the person living with depression. I have had “well-meaning” people tell me, as I’m struggling to hang on, if my faith were stronger I wouldn’t need the meds. I’ve said in response, when I had the energy to respond, “Yeah, so go tell that to the person with diabetes, heart disease, and high cholesterol.” Years ago, I had a stroke. For a time, doctors had me taking medicine to prevent me from having another one. I cannot imagine those same people telling me, “Oh, stop taking those blood thinners. Where is your faith, dear?”
Well, I am here to tell those of you, who think depression is a game some people play to get attention (Oh yeah, I’ve heard that one too) or that it is not equal to the diseases I listed above, in the loudest voice I can muster, DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY IS REAL. So, if you can sympathize with those individuals with “physical illnesses,” then please, do the same for those of us who struggle to cope with depression and anxiety.
I mean, I do get why people are confused. Everybody feels sad sometimes. We all get anxious. Well, I am here to tell you, what ordinary people feel and what those of us with diagnosed depression and anxiety feel is almost literally night and day. There are days when raising my head off the pillow seems too much. There are days when I feel weepy for no apparent reason. There are days when I know I have tons of things on my to-do list, but the best I can do is channel surf and watch reruns of Project Runway or Charmed. There are days when I put on my “Angela Jackson-Brown persona” and pray that others can’t see how vulnerable and broken I feel inside. There are times when I have thought about dying. Wished for the death angel to come and steal my breath away. Thankfully, those days are few and far between. Thankfully, I now have a husband who “gets” me and knows that when I withdraw it isn’t personal. He understands that sometimes the shadows are more real to me than flesh and blood. But again, thankfully, those days are not the norm.
So, why am I confessing these details about myself? Mainly so people will understand that those who appear to be the most “put together” are often the ones with the most cracks. Telling this part of my story is a bit frightening. The questions always are: “What will people do with this information?” “Will coming clean about my experiences with depression and anxiety affect my personal life?” “Will it affect my career?” Well, today, I say, Whatever. If sharing my most closely guarded “secret” can help someone, then so be it, and let whatever comes come.
I have held crying, depressed students in my arms. Students who were so far over the edge I was amazed they were still hanging on. Students who could not produce a medical document saying they were sick, but all it took was for the fellow sufferer in me to look at them and know, those young men and women are drowning. So, with them, I share my story. And if they repeat it and/or twist it, I say, that is on them. But mainly what I see happen when I tell them my truth is their eyes become less cloudy. Most times they look at me incredulously and say, “You? You have this too?” My answer is “Yes. I do. But, we can fight it. We can win. It doesn't have to define us. We can take this mess and turn it into our message.”
You would be amazed at how much good you can achieve by just owning up to your “stuff.” No matter what the stuff might be. Hence why I talk about the child sexual abuse I went through. Hence why I talk about being adopted. Hence why I talk about my struggles with my health. Suffering in isolation is the worst part of suffering. If we can speak our truth to the world, then we have the power to overcome our suffering.
We live in a society where it is acceptable to live with diabetes, heart disease, chronic arthritis and a myriad of other conditions. Yet, to acknowledge having any form of depression or mental illness is often a quick way to lose respect and confidence from those in our lives, both professional and/or social. The CDC reports “1 in 10 U.S. adults report” they are living with depression. The operative word is “report.” Because depression and anxiety is such a taboo issue, most people just “live with it.” Silently. This is wrong. No one should have to face this sickness alone. And no one should be condemned for having to deal with this monster of a disease.
So, I am coming out of the closet. Yes. I am a survivor of depression and anxiety. Yes, every day I get up and use every coping mechanism I have to keep myself above water. Some days I float. Other days, it is a constant doggy paddle to keep from going under. But in the words of V. Michael McKay and Paul Jones, “All of my good days,/Outweigh my bad days/I won’t complain.”
Angela Jackson-Brown was born in Montgomery, Alabama and grew up in Ariton, Alabama. She is an English Professor at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. She graduated from Troy University in Troy, AL (B.S. in Business Administration); Auburn University in Auburn, AL (M.A. in English); and Spalding University in Louisville, KY (MFA in Creative Writing). Her work has appeared in literary journals, such as: Pet Milk, Uptown Mosaic Magazine, New Southerner Literary Magazine, The Louisville Review, Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal, Blue Lake Review, Identity Theory, Toe Good Poetry, and 94 Creations. Her short story, “Something in the Wash” was awarded the 2009 fiction prize by New Southerner Literary Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in Fiction. Her play, Wade in the Water, was professionally read at The University of Louisville in the summer of 2012. Her debut novel, Drinking from a Bitter Cup was published by WiDo Publishing on January 7, 2014. She is the mother of two sons, Justin Bean and Michael Brown, and the wife of Robert L. Brown.