Depression and Normalization: My Personal Narrative

“When you’re lost in those woods, it sometimes takes you a while to realize that you are lost. For the longest time, you can convince yourself that you’ve just wandered off the path, that you’ll find your way back to the trailhead any moment now. Then night falls again and again, and you still have no idea where you are, and it’s time to admit that you have bewildered yourself so far off the path that you don’t even know from which direction the sun rises anymore.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”
– Laurell K. Hamilton

Well how could we know that our lives
would be so full of beautifully broken things.
– Dave Matthews, “Broken Things”

I’ve started to see the mind as a broken thing, just like the body can be a broken thing.

I broke my ankle in April of last year. I went to the doctor and they gave me an x-ray and crutches. I called security and they drove me to academic quad for class. I took pain medication every morning, and no one said a word. There was no fuss…people could see that I had a boot. I’d hurt myself. Other students in my classes or friends would ask me if I was doing ok and I’d always say “yes! No worries…the doctor said I’d get the boot off in 4 to 6 weeks!” I knew exactly when I’d be “better”…when I’d be back to normal.

Last November, I found out my brain wasn’t working just right. For a while before that, I was experiencing physical health issues like a Vitamin D deficiency and swollen lymph nodes. Before I was officially diagnosed with anxiety and clinical depression I was constantly exhausted, I was persistently getting knots in my chest, and I was having “down” weeks when I was in bed for days at a time. It just didn’t seem like me. It took me months – maybe even close to a year – to acknowledge something was wrong and it wasn’t with my body…it was with my mind. The appearance of those symptoms the year before begged the question: had I been suffering long enough that my body was trying to heal my mind?

In January, after a month of break and three months since my diagnosis, I came back to school thinking I was feeling a bit better. I figured I could estimate my “healing trajectory.” But a doctor hadn’t told me that I’d be “fixed” in 4-6 weeks like he had with my ankle.

I didn’t have a timeline and I didn’t know when I’d be back to normal. I wasn’t given a cast or a quick fix. It wasn’t that simple.

I did take steps, though. I started to see a psychotherapist every week and started medication as soon as possible to combat the fatigue and anxiety.

And things are certainly looking up! It’s just been a much longer battle than I’d anticipated.

If we operate under the belief that everyone is given a gift when they’re born, I’d say mine is joy. I’m usually laughing, I am the furthest from inherently serious, and I am lucky enough to have surrounded myself with good people. I am an extrovert to the core…I get my energy from others. My spirituality is my community and the people I care about are absolutely, unequivocally, my greatest priorities. These parts of me, luckily, have not changed. Had my depression affected the ways in which I engage with those closest to me in drastic ways, I do not know how I would be handling this or moving forward in the same way I have been.

Now, I didn’t tell this story just to tell it.

It’s just another – perhaps more personal – way I’ve seen normalization working in my life.

That girl I described doesn’t sound like a “typical depression patient.” Why? Because we see happy and sad, healthy and unhealthy, mentally well and unwell. Imagine the harm these dichotomies do to people like me, the happy and unwell. This absolutely was a reason why I didn’t seek help right away. I told myself over and over that yes, it’s a thing that happens but how could it happen to me?

We don’t talk about mental health the same way that we do physical health.
I can’t imagine that if a bone broke temporarily we’d call the person permanently disabled. Just as easily, depression is a temporary break. There are cures. They aren’t fast and they sometimes aren’t easy. But they’re there. However, we’ve normalized physical wellness as an acceptable public health topic.

In the U.S, on the contrary, mental health has been widely normalized into silent struggles.

At one point in their lives, one in ten of all Americans will suffer from clinical depression. A staggering 80% of that number is not receiving any form of treatment (through psychotherapy or medication.) But the statistic of effectiveness of treatment is just as striking – 60-80% patients – experience full recovery.

You want to know just how pervasive normalization is in mental health struggles?

Look at that percentage…80%. While I assume a portion of that is simply a lack of resources or a lack of knowledge, I can guarantee that some of that 80% is just like I was…unconsciously affected by stigmas of mental health, preoccupied with the word “disorder,” and pretty good at convincing themselves that they are “too happy” or have too many incredible friends in their life to be suffering from a mood disorder.

Just how present is normalization in my “new normal?” Inescapable.
We’ve all been taught to think that if we have a mental health problem, our mind is “broken,” and that we may be incapable of doing what we used to be able to do. We’ve been normalized to think that we can’t do the same things we once could because unlike my ankle, this chemical imbalance isn’t as easy for others to put into discourse.

Perhaps the toughest part of all of this is articulating, day-to-day, how it affects me.

It has absolutely been like learning to speak a new language.

The unfortunate part of all of this was at the very beginning, when I was a responsible student who owed explanations to my professors for my sudden disengagement in class and more frequent absences. In January, I was expected to be fluent in a language that I could barely speak. Luckily, things have gotten much easier in that regard; I’d say that I’m now conversational in this new language…just not quite fluent yet.

But I am still the first to admit that I am afraid to tell someone I have depression. I understand it and I am getting better at articulating it. But normalization practices in our culture still make me feel that if I say, “I have depression” it’s still widely known as code for “I can’t do what I used to do,” or worse, “I’m not being authentic with you when I say I’m doing well.”

Mental illness looks different for every person. My life has been deeply affected by depression and anxiety. I am constantly exhausted, I struggle with motivating myself to finish work sometimes, and I have trouble getting to sleep and waking up. I know things will get better…they already have.

And maybe, when I’m back on my feet, I can start working against the stigmatization of depression by being open about my own struggle.

But until I’m at 100% again, I’m going to keep on keepin’ on,
remembering that I – we all – could always be more free from the restraints of preconceived notions and the harm done when we silence struggle.

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