I didn’t know Rick Rypien or Wade Belak. Even though I enjoy hockey, I didn’t know who they were until they died. But when I read of their recent deaths and struggles with depression, a weight came down on my heart. Why did I survive when they didn’t and what could I do with this gift?
One day, nearly 12 years ago, sitting on the porch of the rental I shared with my roommates, I realized that if I didn’t get help soon, I wasn’t going to live much longer. I still think about the fear that gripped me. I was 21 and knew I wouldn’t live to see my 25th birthday.
Outwardly, I was a high achiever, getting on the honour roll my last year of high school while holding down a part-time job, tutoring children in French, writing a novel and exercising every day. I had lots of friends. No one knew that I felt like a fraud, that I barely slept and sadness consumed me.
I coped the way my family copes. We work harder. We tell people we’re fine. I am proud of the steely core I inherited from my parents. It may have helped me hide my illness until it was almost too late, but it also helped me when I needed to get better.
Many people don’t understand depression. They say, “You have so much to live for. Why are you so sad?” They mean well, but they miss the point. Others treat depression like it’s the fault of the depressed person. Which other disease do we blame on the sufferers?
Often, people with depression know there’s a lot to live for, but it doesn’t matter. I call it a cancer of the soul, a tumour that destroys your spirit. While there may be a triggering event, in many cases, it just happens. Like in my case – the only cause I can find is that mental illness runs in my family.
By the time I got to university, I couldn’t keep up my façade. Away from my family and community, I had no reason to pretend. My grades fell and I discovered drinking.
I wasn’t exactly suicidal at first, but I became careless about my safety, taking too many risks. I suspected I had a problem. Anyone who can drink 12 beers in a sitting and feel normal, better even, has a problem. Anyone who can look back on a night and not know what happened has a problem. But with enough alcohol, I could pretend to be happy.
Even when I started cutting my arms and legs with a razor blade, I didn’t appreciate how ill I had become – or couldn’t bear to acknowledge it. For me, cutting was a bargain, not a cry for help. I would give the blackness this much, but not all. I still have the scars. They remind me of how close I came.
Shortly after, I learned what was wrong. A doctor and a therapist told me I had severe clinical depression. I probably had had the disease for about five or six years.
When my family found out, they were shocked. I felt a grim pride in the fact I had hidden it so well. Imagine a cancer victim nursing her cancer alone for years, then being proud of hiding it from view. Ridiculous, but that’s what this disease does. Part of its danger is how it changes the way you think.
On a particularly bad night, I ended up at a psychiatric hospital talking my way out of being committed for my own safety. I outright lied to the psychiatrist and said I would be watched by my parents. He didn’t know they lived eight hours away and had no idea about any of this.
I was charming, using all the tricks I had learned to mask my problem. I wonder how many people struggling with depression have played similar tricks on the people who care for them.
Eventually, though, that night on the porch, I understood I couldn’t continue this way if I wanted to live. I could hear that part of me that knew something was seriously wrong, like a small voice calling from the bottom of a deep hole. That moment of clarity gave me something to hold on to so I could find the strength to get better.
My parents convinced me to drop out of university for a year and enroll at a school closer to home. It took years to fully recover. I tried therapy and antidepressants, but they didn’t work very well. I needed time to heal.
Even when I started at my new school, there were days when I fantasized about running my car off the road. But I kept moving forward and I learned to ignore the disease whispering in my brain until it lost its voice.
I don’t know why I made it through and so many others haven’t. It’s not the enormous will I brought to getting better because sometimes, just as with people stricken with cancer, will is not enough.
I don’t talk about my illness. Not with my husband, my friends or my family. I certainly don’t share it with strangers. So I felt a weight when I heard about Rick Rypien’s and Wade Belak’s struggles. Because if people like me do not speak up, we squander the gift we’ve been given. I hesitated over writing this essay because I didn’t want people to know and judge me unkindly. But I realized I had a duty to others that trumps my own worries.
By keeping this disease a secret, we are giving it too much power over those who suffer. We should be rallying around people with depression just as we rally around those who suffer from other illnesses. One way to start is for those who are ill, or who have been, to begin telling their stories. Just as I’ve told mine to you.
Bess Hamilton lives in Winnipeg.
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