My name is Ella, and from the outside, I’m extremely typical: suburb raised, middle child, pet lover, college grad, recently married. I love Jesus, coffee, Grey’s Anatomy, and Target. Yet, my life will never fit the cultural normal because I live with manic depression.
Living with depression makes some days anything but normal. My abnormalities range from hours of tears and sleeping, to therapy sessions and medications, to a few hospitalizations for suicide attempts. When I’m not having a “bad day,” I’m just like anyone else. In fact, I’m very social and active in my community. Many people who know me would be surprised to read this because my depression is not identifiable from the outside. I let few people into the battle, and I’ve only been talking openly about it for a year now. It’s been a journey, for sure.
My battle started around age seven. Every few years, my uncontrollable emotions would return, leading to a change in doctors or medications. It wasn’t ideal, but I managed a happy life all through high school. Freshman year of college was the first time I lost complete control. I went from being a star student to a college drop-out in one semester. What sucked the most was knowing I could kick ass at school if only I didn’t have depression. That was a hard reality.
Feeling like I had no attainable future, I made my first suicide attempt. It was in the form of sleeping pills that seemed to promise eternal rest. What I got instead was the weight of shame and guilt to carry along with depression. I’d go on to threaten suicide again, ending up with my first psychiatric hospitalization. Few people in my life know that. Believe it or not, psych wards don’t come up much in conversation. Life would continue with extreme highs and extreme lows for the next few years. Cutting and my last suicide attempt occurred sometime in the college years. Honestly, I struggle to piece everything together because for so long I just wanted to forget.
No matter where I was on my journey, there was a longing for normalcy. You see, I believed that if I were “just normal” I would be able to do a whole different slew of things with my life. I thought I could be more successful or a better friend or a better wife or any number of things that were affected by depression. Normal for me meant being able to control of my emotions.
I lived in fear of what could happen if I lost control. I’d constantly analyze who I was with because it mattered who I lost control in front of and what that meant for my career or my friendships or my family‘s reputation. I believed I had to control everything. My plans would alter depending on the number of hours of sleep I got, the number of glasses of alcohol I drank, or the number of meetings I had in a day. Every little factor played into what I would prescribe myself as able to handle the following days or weeks. I would live in constant worry. That alone drove me to be much sicker. It almost crushed me.
Getting out from under that fear was something I believed was impossible. I thought if I let go of control that I would legitimately be surrendering my life to depression. Fighting back against my own anxieties was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. It is also the best. It consisted of breaking down in front of people I loved. My husband (boyfriend at the time), my two best friends, and my parents would see me at my worst. To illustrate “my worst” I mean cursing them out and wishing awful things on them or having the police called to keep me safe from myself.
One thing God gave me to save me from this fear—the thing that allowed me to get out from under this crippling illness—was having friends, family, and my husband there to see those things and treat me as myself the next day. They would wake up the next day and give me grace and empathy. In spite of being afraid of the illness and not understanding it, they did not approach me in fear or worry but with an understanding that I didn’t know what had happened in my mind either. They were there to show me what it really looks like to receive the grace and forgiveness that God promises us through Jesus. That’s something that I believe every single one of us—whether you believe in Jesus or not—can represent. As human beings, we have the ability to forgive and acknowledge that somebody going through anxiety and depression probably has no better understanding of it than you do.
With the help of my friends and family, I had to redefine “normal” for myself. I had to come to terms with my illness and learn to thrive with it rather than surrender myself to it. When I am on the verge of something anxiety and depression says “I can’t” do, I’ve learned to say, “Watch me.” Writing this, for example. I went through days of fear thinking things like, “I can’t help anyone” or “My voice isn’t good enough.” But here it is. My win is writing this down and not allowing fear to silence me. I have learned to do this with anything that my own fears or society’s stigmas tell me that I cannot do. I had to find my own norm, one that many people don’t understand, but I am thriving. It’s taken me 16 hard years to accept that managing my life differently does not imply failure.
How You Can Help Those With Depression
Since finding stability and putting myself out there to help others, I often get asked what friends can do to help those who hurt. I would say give grace and understanding more than solutions. When you want an explanation, think about how much more that hurting person wants one for themself. When you want them to ensure you that it’s over and will never happen again, imagine how badly they want to be able to promise that. When you are terrified, think how much scarier it must be to be living in a body that you can’t control. As terrible as walking through this stuff has been for my friends and my family, they get the option to leave it behind. I don’t, and your friends don’t.
Being able to help is not made for everyone— that’s OK. It’s not your fault if you need to walk away from someone, but if you are there, be present with grace and understanding. Realize that you are not placed in this person’s life as a hero. They need you to be an advocate. Heroes show up with a fix; advocates stand with you the whole way. Heroes are experts; advocates listen and consider their friends the experts. Offering solutions can sometimes be more of an overload than a relief. I found it most encouraging to have friends surround me with open ears at any time of the day or night. Use relational actions like conversation and invitation to ensure others they are loved at all cost. My friends and family truly showed me they would do anything to have me around them day to day.
Give Hope a Chance
It is possible to stand against depression. I firmly believe that those with the most potential to change the world are those open to the most hurt. Those who have to fight daily for themselves are being equipped to fight for others as well. If you suffer from anxiety and depression, know that you’re a warrior. Coming to terms with the fact that my norms differed from someone else’s allowed me to truly find purpose in my fight. While I wouldn’t wish the struggle of depression on anyone, I would say those who deal with it are chosen to be justice seekers in a world that isn’t as nice as it seems.
I can’t go without saying, my fellow fighters, you are my reason for life. I live so that I might bring hope to even one other person who feels depression’s grip. Personally, I’ve found the most hope in Jesus. The promises of God ensure me that my future is going to be so much grander than what I experience here on earth. I wasn’t just grasping for anything when I decided this either. I was mid-suicide attempt (days of starvation) when I began to depend on Christ. So, I urge you to do a few hard things to give hope a chance:
1) Pray. Pray for help, peace, and lightness. You don’t even have to believe in the God you’re asking. I sure didn’t at the time.
2) Ditch comparison. There was no mistake in how you were made, so learn to use everything about you, including depression, to be the absolute best you possible. I know I wouldn’t be who I am without my whole journey.
3) Expose wounds. Lean on the people you love most in your life, even when it’s painful and embarrassing to open yourself up. People may let you down at times, but don’t give up on the moments they could support you. You are not alone. You are part of a huge story that needs your intense ability to overcome. Fight against all odds, like only you can.