Doug Leddin’s courage to talk about his struggle with depression has given me the courage to do the same. Take a moment to listen to Doug’s story. It’s his story. It’s my story. It’s our story.
I am telling my story on my travel blog, because the spirit of my blog is the spirit of my story.
It is not the things you do that you regret, but the things you don’t do. I don’t want to regret my silence, especially if speaking out in such a public forum can help one other person. In doing this, I honour Doug’s courage and the courage of all those suffering openly or in silence with mental illness.
I am also telling my story here as I hope it demonstrates that someone can have everything – adventure, independence, travel – and still suffer. Anyone can be cursed by mental illness.
“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” ~ Steve Furtick
Behind the scenes as I travel the world, living the life that many might envy, I have cried in Cairo, wept in Wadi Rum, and been sad in Sydney and Singapore. But such is life, you take the good with the bad. All you can do is your best given the hand you have been dealt.
Although some know my behind the scenes story, or parts of it, many do not.
It is not insignificant that I haven’t posted on my travel blog for three years. My last post leaves you hanging. Where is “Leaving Wadi Rum – Part 2”?
Depression and anxiety set in. I remember sitting in a hotel room in Aqaba, Jordan trying to distract myself by browsing Facebook friends and photos, remembering better times and I noticed a friend’s Facebook ‘Religious Views’ was: Terry Stevenson.
I laughed. And I cried because I needed that right there and then. I was touched by his humorous vote of confidence. As ‘leader of the faith’ perhaps it is time to speak to my people.
I’ve tried to do this several times including that night in Aqaba. It is very hard for me to talk about this, but I am ready. That is why I never continued my blog. I knew someday my next blog post would be not about travel, but about mental health.
I have lived with depression for more than 25 years, half of that in tortured silence. In recent years, anxiety has been an equal affliction.
Thinking back to my twenty-something self, I wasn’t able to place it. To name it. To identify it. I’m not even sure if I knew it wasn’t normal to feel this way.
We don’t talk about depression enough now. We certainly didn’t twenty years ago. There was no Internet or social media back then. I remember terms like ‘bad nerves’ or ‘nervous breakdown’. That is how mental illness was discussed. It was taboo.
Only recently have I been able to connect the dots in my struggle as I reflect on my journey and one of the earliest memories of my depression, which I wasn’t able to label at the time.
Around 1992 a friend called to ask me to go to a movie. I said, “I want to go, but I don’t want to go.” She replied, “That doesn’t make sense!” and hung up. I didn’t understand what I was saying either. She hung up as my non-participation was a common habit without a reasonable explanation. As time passed I learned to say, “I’m sick” or “I have the flu” or some other excuse.
For years I was labelled (and self-labelled) as moody or anti-social.
One day in 2005 I was ‘home sick with the flu’ watching Oprah. Brooke Shields was the guest and she talked about her postpartum depression. She spoke about how she was afraid to admit how she was feeling because people would think, ‘she was crazy’ or ‘weak’. This is exactly how I felt. It was my ‘a ha’ moment.
She spoke of how she worked up the courage to visit her doctor.
I did mine. I got help. You can’t do this alone.
My doctor said depression is a disease like diabetes – a chemical imbalance in the brain.
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Terry, I have my own issues with depression,” he said.
I wasn’t expecting that. I broke down. It was like I was given a pass to a club – a validation.
He prescribed an anti-depressant and warned me that a side effect was it could make me feel worse. It did, but I am grateful because it was only then that I started to open up and really deal with my illness.
On the long weekend of Victoria Day that year, I was eating pizza with my coworkers. I dropped a piece of pizza on the floor. I picked it up and threw it down the office hallway. My coworkers were stunned. I was stunned. I went home.
I remember two things from this incident. The next day, a friend and colleague asked, “Are you sad?” She had the courage to ask that difficult question. And yes, I was sad. Those three words. I knew that she knew that this wasn’t run-of-the-mill sadness. There was something bigger.
Later that morning, I was sitting in my office and another friend and colleague brought me a cookie and a glass of milk. I don’t know if he said anything, but the cookie and glass of milk were an offering of compassion and understanding.
A few days later I was at my lowest. I couldn’t hide it any more. I couldn’t make a decision. I couldn’t complete a thought. I was incoherent. I was paralyzed emotionally and mentally.
I knew I couldn’t continue to work until I got this sorted out and I had to tell my employer. My boss, the CEO, was out at meetings, but I couldn’t wait so I asked a fellow member of our management team to come with me to our Chief Financial Officer’s office.
With tears rolling down my face, I told them that I have lived with depression most of my adult life and I had to leave work…today…right now. And I didn’t know when I would be back.
They were caring, supportive and made everything so easy.
I went home and curled up on the couch.
The phone rang, but I couldn’t answer it. It was work calling.
An hour passed before I retrieved the message. It was the CEO calling to give his support and told me to take as long as I needed.
I called back and thanked him. He reiterated his 100% support. He was so understanding. He spoke of people he knew who lived with depression. Again, I wasn’t alone. I am not a freak. I am not weak. I am not broken. I am human and I am imperfect.
Later that day, a friend and coworker called me. I couldn’t answer the call. It took me several hours to work up the courage, the energy, the will to retrieve the message.
I saved the message for several years.
“Terry….it’s Devin. Um, so, yeah, just calling to see how you are doing…if you are OK? Some of the guys and I would like to come over tonight if that was OK. Call me. Call me!”
I called back and that night a posse of friends came over and the power of people helped raise me enough above what Winston Churchill called ‘the black dog’ until I was able to take further steps to address my illness.
Silence, stigma and shame are the three ugly step-sisters of depression. They stop us from getting help. They play mean games in our head to compound the underlying problem.
When we talk about it, we know we are not alone. We can get the help we need and put a plan in place to deal with this incurable disease.
I have spent most of my life isolating myself from family, friends and coworkers. They have and will always be there for me, even when I have pushed them away. Thank you for that.
Just as Doug says, in many ways I am grateful for what I have gone through and continue to. It has made me stronger and it is part of who I am. I look at my depression and anxiety as gifts – albeit often like a pair of socks on Christmas morning. Or a lump of coal.
Everyone reading this knows someone who lives with depression. You may not know it, but you do. This is the silence and stigma that still surrounds this disease in 2017.
If you take the ‘i’ out of ‘illness’ and replace it with ‘we’, what is the result?
“We don’t heal in isolation, but in community.” S. Kelley Harrell