"It's a shame about your job," my friend says.
"Yes," I say. "But what can you do? In this economy lots of people are getting laid off."
We both nod and sigh a little. The part about the economy is true. The part about my job is a lie. I've been lying to a lot of people lately.
The truth is that I wasn't laid off from my job. I've been sick, too sick to work. I struggled through most of the winter to make it through those long, dark days at my desk, but eventually I had to quit before the end of a six-month contract. It wasn't a choice. I simply couldn't keep going.
So why didn't I just tell my friend this? Surely he would be supportive. Why would I lie to someone I've known for more than 10 years?
Because the thing I'm sick with usually doesn't generate the same level of sympathy and understanding as other illnesses, even though it's far more common than most people imagine.
Simply put, I'm depressed. Clinical depression, major depressive disorder, severe depression; there are several names for what's going on inside my head.
Major depression is more than just feeling sad all the time. It's a serious illness that can take over an entire life and make a formerly productive person incapable of doing pretty much anything. At least that's what it's done to me. But from my experience fighting depression on and off for the past eight years, most people don't see it that way.
There is a deeply ingrained belief in our society that mental illness is a form of personal weakness and that if sufferers really wanted to they could just (and I detest this phrase) "snap out of it."
Unfortunately, that's not possible. Believe me, I've tried. I've tried talk therapy, light therapy, yoga, meditation, medication, exercise, vitamins, you name it. But my boot straps firmly refuse to be pulled up. None of my efforts or the efforts of several medical professionals have so far been able to pull me out of the swamp of despair that I've been sinking into for months.
I barely remember what it feels like not to be depressed. I've heard depression described in many ways, usually involving the colour black - sometimes as a black wave, black dogs or a black hole. These make it sound like depression is something external to the depressive, as though it comes sneaking up from the outside or is a well-hidden area of quicksand that a person can slip into by accident.
For me it's never been like that. I've always felt like it's something inside me, always there even if I can't feel it at one particular moment. It does feel black, but more like a black swamp, a heavy, wet, cloying ooze that bubbles up from inside my chest and spreads throughout my body, weighing me down.
I tried for a long time to act normal in spite of it, and most of the time I did an excellent job. But I couldn't keep it up forever. I feel the depression so deeply that sometimes I don't understand how it's possible that people don't see it. I feel I radiate misery like a halogen bulb.
Sometimes, if I'm having a really bad day, someone will ask, "Are you okay?"
I want to burst into tears and say, "No, I'm not, please help me." But I never do. Instead I say, "Yes, I'm fine," in the high-pitched voice I always use when I lie.
This is only my personal experience of depression, and I'm sure it feels different for everyone, but I think a feeling of intense despair is common to most depressives, along with feelings of isolation and loneliness.
On top of the despair is the embarrassment and shame that inevitably come with mental illness. Sometimes the stigma feels as heavy as the despair itself. A few close friends and family know what I've been going through, but to the rest of the world I do my best to present a normal front. They ask how I am and I say, "I'm fine."
But I'm not fine. I'm so tired. I'm tired of lying, tired of hiding. I'm tired of feeling ashamed of being sick. And I know I'm far from the only person who feels this way.
Every instinct I have is telling me not to reveal my mental-health issues, telling me to keep struggling to get better in silence. I cringe at the thought of people I know reading this. What will they think of me?
But somewhere along the line, the silence has became more of a burden than the shame and the fear of judgment. There are countless people out there right now in pain and ashamed of their own suffering. So that's why I'm writing this, for myself and for everyone else who struggles with mental illness.
I haven't given up the fight to get better. I know it's possible. But it takes time, resources and, above all, patience. It also takes people to believe in us. We can't be afraid to ask for help. We have nothing to be ashamed of.
Sarah McCaffrey lives in Toronto.
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