I have spent most of my life running away from mental illness. I’ve tried in so many different ways to avoid its impact on my life. Eventually, I became too good at pretending to be okay. When I was in the seventh grade, my father died by suicide. Early one morning he took his own life in our home, and I was the first to find him. Words cannot express the impact of that trauma on my life.
I vividly remember my mom clutching my sister and me to her, just hours after my dad died. She told us that he had depression, that he had been taking medication, and that he was really, really sick. I was stunned. Until that moment I had never heard of depression or antidepressants. This was my introduction to mental illness.
My world was destroyed and my family was traumatized. Like most teenagers I wanted to fit in, and I didn’t know how to do that while talking about what was happening at home. So I started to cope with the trauma of my dad’s suicide by acting as if I was totally fine. I got good grades, and I hung out with friends. Nobody knew how much I cried when I was alone.
Nobody knew that I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or that I couldn’t sleep at night because I was terrified my mom or sister would die just like my dad. I put my pain and fear in a box and buried it deep inside myself, where only I could see it.
On the outside, everything looked okay, but in reality, part of me was always numb. I made it through high school and went off to college. During my senior year, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. I was absolutely terrified and felt overcome with sadness and despair. I told my therapist and she referred me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with major depression.
It’s hard to underscore how frightening this diagnosis was for me. I equated depression with a fatal illness. It was my dad’s problem, not mine. Once again, I detached. I separated myself from my mental illness and kept it from others. And although I took medication and saw a therapist, I wasn’t so sure that depression was a real illness. It felt more like my own personal problem that I had to hide from everyone around me.
In my twenties I threw my energy into work. I was soon recognized as a rising star, putting in long hours and never saying no. I kept my depression on the back-burner, occasionally hitting dark patches but powering my way through them.
I never revealed to co-workers that I had a mental illness. I often felt that I wanted to slow down or be more authentic, but I didn’t know how. I had built up such a strong defense system against my pain that I didn’t know how to stop the avoidance that had become second nature. I looked like I had it all together—no one would ever have guessed how much I was struggling inside.
“ON THE OUTSIDE, EVERYTHING LOOKED GOOD. BUT PART OF ME WAS ALWAYS NUMB”
Two years ago, at the age of 31, I finally hit my breaking point. I was going through a medication change and bottomed out. My depression and anxiety and PTSD and grief swirled into a raging storm of panic and despair that knocked me down hard. Nearly 20 years of holding it in and shoving it down exploded everywhere in my life. I couldn’t fake my way out of this—I was seriously ill.
As a result, I had to quit my job. I cut myself off from friends and avoided leaving the house. When I first became sick, I was overcome with shame—my urge to hide my depression had never been stronger. Barely six months earlier, I’d been chosen by my class to give the graduation speech for our professional leadership program. Now I couldn’t even go to the grocery store without having a panic attack.
But in the midst of that deep, dark depression, I began the process of accepting my mental illness. Getting knocked down to my knees forced me to start taking my mental health seriously. I have never worked harder on anything than my recovery, and I am so proud of the progress I’ve made.
Through the healing process, I began to realize something important: I’m not the only one. I’m not the only one who has lost a loved one to suicide. I’m not the only who has depression and anxiety. I’m not the only one whose life has fallen apart because of mental illness. And I’m not the only one who has recovered and rebuilt.
It’s not just me. It’s not just you. It’s not just any of us. And that’s why I’m finished hiding my depression. I understand now that mental illnesses are real illnesses, not character flaws. Having depression isn’t my fault, and it doesn’t make me crazy. It makes me human. One in four American adults and one in five teens will experience a mental health issue in any given year, which means that we are never the only ones. We don’t need or deserve to remain silent about something so vitally important. We need to talk about mental illness. I’m not afraid to say it now: My name is Amy, and I have depression.