More Than An Illness
by Avram / MNHTN
By Sarah H. Puklin
About two years ago I got a Base newsletter in which Rabbi Avram announced that he would be starting a group called "support space"; I was excited and nervous to attend such a gathering but when I arrived Avram greeted me with a hug, a smile and a warm cup of tea. Avram's courage to start a group where not only the members discussed their own struggles, but he too discuss his own struggles gave me the jolt I needed to write the following essay. This community is so lucky to have such a kind, empathetic and caring soul. Thank you Avram for taking the time to listen to me, to support me, and to allow me to feel less alone in this struggle. I hope that I too can encourage others to reach out and not be afraid to find the support they need. As we near Rosh Hashanah, a new year, I want to enter with open arms and a vulnerable soul--for the only way to really heal is to accept both accept the struggles we face AND reach for the support that is always there. Shana tovah u'metuka.
I am 28 years old—I will be 29 in a few months. I have 2 bachelors’ degrees, a master’s degree and am a nurse at one of the best hospitals in the country. I was raised in a wealthy suburb, in a home with 2 successful parents. My childhood was nowhere near perfect—whose is? —but from the outside I had a picture perfect life AND yet…
I battle major depressive disorder, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. I have been hospitalized 4 times over the last decade in addition to spending a summer in a wilderness treatment program.
Right now I am in a stable place (for me). In a society that disregards people with mental illness, I am incredibly lucky to have some of the best care mental health care one could ask for. I take 5 different medications every day, go to therapy once a week, exercise regularly and do everything I can to take care of my mind and body. But I would be lying if I told you that I am not always on alert, waiting for the shoe to drop, for the depression to come back and the panic to take over.
I think the AND in the first paragraph is the most important word in this essay.
With all of the stigma surrounding mental illness it is hard for many people, both those with and without a mental illness, to believe one can struggle with a mental illness and still live a successful life. There is so much negativity associated mental illness, it is utterly terrifying to admit to struggling with mental illness for fear of being looked down upon or thought less of. For these reason I too have kept my struggle a closeted, letting very few people close enough to know about my deep dark secret—that I’m not the happy, easy going, carefree person they think they know so well.
This is the first time I have publicly written about my struggles, and truly still hesitate to do so—yet, that is why it is even more important that I do.
I ask you to take a minute to think about how a person with a mental illness is described—“he is schizophrenic”, or “she is bipolar.” Have you ever heard a patient with a physical illness described this way? It would be the same as saying, “he is cancer,” or , “she is diabetes.” People are not defined by their
physical ailments, so why are people defined and categorized by their mental illness? Mental illness is just as any other illness. I did not ask for I, I didn’t cause it, and it does not define who I am.
One of the most dangerous forms of depression is a condition known as “smiling depression.” It is a state in which a person who is highly depressed maintains an appearance of happiness and stability to those around them. They go about their lives hiding how broken and beat down they feel everyday—no one knows that the are struggling because they work so hard and are TOO good at hiding it. I have smiling depression. Even in some of the worst of times I get up, get dressed, and go to work—where I take care of other people. No one knows that I am struggling; no one sees the battle that I am fighting. This can be one of the most dangerous forms of depression. The battle is invisible and thus the person does not receive the support that they desperately need. They are alone in their struggle, which can lead to disastrous and devastating outcomes.
Okay enough. I want to offer a message of hope—to those who are silently, or not so silently, struggling. To let the world know that a person can struggle with mental illness and still be a successful and productive member of society. Even if only my writing only touches a few people, I hope that they too will gain the courage to speak out about their own illness, and too share their own stories of hope and triumph to help those who are still struggling to share their own stories.
Bottom line--I am not depression, I am not anxiety. They will always be a part of my story but they do not define who I am. I am just a person, a human, who happens to struggle with the two.
Sarah is an Oncology nurse in New York City with a MA in Public Health and spends her free time running, looking for good deals and good (rescue) dogs.