I've been battling with the "D" word for most of my life. Sleepless nights, sleeping during the day, coping with my emotions with food, no appetite, crying spells, negative thinking, suicidal ideations, isolation, lack of motivation, helplessness, hopelessness, lack of concentration, irritability, etc. were amongst the many symptoms I experienced. I just didn't know there was a name for it. I thought I was just tired, or sad. I thought I had one too many bad dreams or a horrible case of insomnia. I had always loved food and never realized I was turning to sugary treats and carbs to quiet my inner cries. I didn't know that mental fog or dark cloud I was experiencing had a name. I didn't know that I was depressed. There. I said it. I was depressed. I never knew what it was until a doctor made me aware of it in college. The on-campus physician prescribed me with medication without me even truly grasping what depression was. I had a prescription to get me through the day and one to help me sleep at night. I didn't even conduct research on the subject. I just took the medication as prescribed and went on with my business. I didn't like the medications. I either felt like a zombie during the day or groggy in the morning after waking up from a chemically induced slumber. Rather than discussing this with my physician, I ceased taking them. I usually felt better anyway and didn't see the point in taking the medications any longer. There would be years to follow where I took various prescription medications on and off again to treat the depression. Like before, I would eventually stop taking them when I felt better.
Mental health is a very taboo subject in the Black American community. Although various campaigns have evolved over the years to raise awareness around this topic to eliminate the stigma, the shame and guilt one feels when suffering in silence has not seemed to dissipate fast enough. For me, the shame began at home. Aside from the fact that I grew up in a very dysfunctional household and was abused in many forms, I still was put to shame each time depression reared its ugly head. I was often told by my dad, "Don't be a punk, stop crying! Crying is for the weak." He not only said these words during a beating but when I was emotional in general. He instilled into me that expressing myself was a sign of weakness. He also instilled into me that whatever internal turmoil I had was not to be shared with anyone.
Fast forward. As a young adult, I had found hope in the Christian faith and went to church frequently, praying to be "delivered" from this debilitating illness. When I was having an "episode" with depression, I was often told by church members and even religious family members that I "wasn't praying enough" or that I "needed to go to church more often." I felt ostracized and misunderstood. Did they not think that I hadn't been praying? I'd been praying since I was a young girl about all of my woes. I went to church every Sunday and Wednesday. How much more did one need to attend to be "delivered" from depression? I even overheard a church member say, "she's always depressed. I'm tired of encouraging and praying for her. She needs to encourage herself." I felt judged. The condemnation I experienced caused me to feel even more embarrassed and ashamed that I struggled with something I felt I had no control over. Like those who suffer from physical maladies, I too did not ask to suffer from a mental illness.
In more recent years people expressed to me that they felt I had no reason to be depressed because I was educated and had a home, a car, a career, a man, and an intelligent and well-mannered son, etc. But the truth is that I never asked to be depressed. I never asked for it to come unannounced as it does. It just shows up when it feels like it. It doesn't care if you're rich or poor; young or old; black, white, or any other race - it does not care! When I realized depression did not care about any of the above, I decided to become proactive.
After I began healing from my abusive childhood, I was able to pay more attention to the signs and symptoms of depression. I noticed patterns. Each year, my counselor and I observed that when the seasons transitioned into the winter months I became more sad, which usually evolved into Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The symptoms decreased as spring approached, but I knew I did not want to be depressed every single winter living in the central part of the country, all because I could not get more direct exposure to the sunlight. Therefore, I invested in a Verilux "HappyLight" light therapy lamp. Light therapy is used to affect brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep and can alleviate symptoms of (SAD).
I also began increasing my vitamin D intake. I was able to identify triggers as well. After committing to a lifelong journey of self-development, I did some cognitive behavioral therapy work and continued to work on my thinking. I knew when I began to think and speak more negatively, and my mood began to shift, that it was time to conduct a self-check and see where I was at. Practicing introspection has enabled me to do this. I also began learning how to take better care of my physical body to reduce the onset of the depressive attacks. I began studying nutrition and started exercising. By exercising, my brain releases endorphins, the brain's "feel good" chemical. This helps to keep depression at bay. I even adopted a plant-based lifestyle and became more cognizant of what I put into my body. I've also learned that when situations in life occur, it is best to face them, rather than ignoring them and pretending like they do not exist or that they didn't bother me. It is actually healthier for me to allow myself to feel that emotion in the moment, and then let it go. Avoidance and internalizing life challenges and circumstances caused me to harbor emotions internally that did not serve me well. I was inadvertently creating an internal pile of junk that only took a matter of time before I imploded. It was like a volcano waiting to erupt, but in this case, the depression was waiting for its opportunity to creep in. This is usually considered situational depression. Once I addressed the pieces of the internal avalanche I neglected, relief was not far from my reach.
I've also implemented other tools in my life to help keep me mentally healthy such as prayer, meditation, counseling, affirmations, and journaling. One of the most beneficial tools I have ever practiced is reaching out to loved ones. It was not easy at first because I feared judgment and ridicule. However, I reached out despite my fears. When I felt the depression coming on, I talked to a close friend or family member about it. I was honest with them about what I was experiencing and also opened myself up to receive their love and support. It took several years for me to feel comfortable admitting when I was battling with depression and to talk with a loved one about it. I've grown to learn that those who truly love me actually appreciated that I wasn't isolating myself as I once did and that I entrusted them with such sensitive information. Now I don't have to fight alone. When I'm experiencing a depressive episode, my loved ones take me on a walk in the sunlight to ensure I'm getting sun exposure; check on me; send me encouraging words and scriptures to keep my spirits lifted, and also by simply letting me know they love me. With their support and my fight, depression doesn't stand a chance! This also usually causes the depression to go away faster than it used to, because I'm not caving into it, nor am I fighting it alone.
Although I do not discourage medication for those who prefer it and may need it, I have found these tools and resources to be extremely helpful for me. Living holistically is very important to me and has helped me to become the person I am today. I'm certain practicing these preventative tools has ensured my success in my fight against depression. Since depression did not care about who I was, I decided to show depression who I am. A fighter! I decided that I was not going to allow this ugly thing to beat me. It tried to beat me once before when I nearly lost my life to it several years ago. Since that day, I vowed to fight back! Now the depressive episodes I experience have become less and less. The amount of time I experience a depressive episode has also decreased.
My faith in God, the tools I practice, my loving support system and my will to live a happy and healthy life has helped me to arrive at this point where I can become so transparent in my own journey and fight against depression. My hope is that this information will help someone else to have hope in their fight, to get rid of the shame and guilt, to reach out to someone, and to begin to implement tools and resources to help them live a happy and healthy life. There is hope. There is relief. And there is light at the end of the tunnel.
If you, or anyone you know, are having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255)