when only descriptions work

It’s all in your head.  You’re feeling things that aren’t real.

It’s a silent disease so you shouldn’t expect people to notice anything. Just get over it.

You’re one of those “tortured” artists, so this all fits your creative needs.

You’re oversensitive.  You’ve always been too serious and moody.

Are you PMSing?

This is just a cultural thing, right, because of where you live? Everyone expects you to be perfect all the time.

Oh please, you think you’re stressed? Come see what I have to do in a day…

It’s just the time in your life right now as a young mother — hormones!

Well if you didn’t try to do too much in your day, you need to cut back on your schedule.

You’re not doing enough in your day. You should go back to school and take some classes, or maybe do some volunteer work.


3a4a4de1f0206b61a3aaaab39210c5a1These are all things I have heard from mostly well-meaning people in the past week or week and  a half. I say mostly because I assume they are.  I don’t believe anyone would be truly hurtful and I understand that I hear things with an anxiety accented ear lately.  I am gentle with others because I know that when it comes to the Land of Mental Illness, there is still a distinct boundary between the Haves and Haven-nots: there are those who have the understanding and those who have not.

It’s difficult to explain to someone what is “wrong” with me when he or she are not able to see anything wrong with me. I understand when a person is unable to understand.  What I am unable to understand is someone assuming that nothing is wrong because of a visual assessment.  Nobody wants to see what’s going inside of me.

Winston Churchill called it his “Black Dog”. My dad calls it “impending doom” while I’ve described it as “drowning in air”. I’ve had a former principal tell me that I’m just thin-skinned and need to toughen up and my mother tells me that I run too many errands in a day and I’m overtired. My mother has also told me that I just need to get over “all that stuff” that has happened in the past because I’m a mother and so I need to just focus on the kids now. My hormones are taking over, she tells me. It’ll pass.

The depression I feel is heavy, like wearing wet clothes that never dry. Medication only makes the weight unnoticeable but I still feel the water clinging to the fabric reminding me that it’s there. Maybe if I did more in my day, I’m told, the schedule will do me good. Fit in some exercise and ignore depression’s lies when it tells me I’m failing as a mother because I didn’t get around to preparing my daughter’s preschool lesson that day because I decided to go on the treadmill instead.

Reasonable people are able to do things like schedule and make sense of time in a time. Depressed people wear heavy wet clothes and perceive fifteen minutes as two hours and two hours as five minutes.

Everybody gets sad, they tell me. Eat some chocolate — it’s obviously “that time of the month” — cue the laugh track for the oldest joke since puberty and boys learned that girls get periods. Hilarious.


For some reason, it becomes the heavily depressed person’s responsibility to justify her illness — my illness — to  other people. I wonder if this how people with “legitimate” illnesses feel. “I’m sorry I can’t make it to the meeting because of this pneumonia. Have you heard about pneumonia? Let me tell you about pneumonia…” This calls up an old argument with my husband when he snapped at me, “It’s like you don’t want me to understand your depression!” and he was shocked when I snapped back “Why should it be my job to make you understand?”

I live in a beautiful state with beautiful mountains around me.   Unfortunately, while this is an incredibly beautiful area of the west, it is also nestled in an area known as the “suicide belt”. Being a member of a particular church, I enjoy living near those of my same faith.  There are many others (both in and out of the church) who assume that there is a great deal of pressure on members to live perfectly. I have never felt this pressure, probably because I have long been familiar with my own imperfections. I also know that any pressure that might exist comes from people and not teachings. When I talk to others about my struggles with depression and upon realizing where I live, I know all to well the smirk that shows up on their faces — “Oh, I would be depressed and anxious too if I had to live there” is something I’ve heard. “Isn’t everyone there on some sort of antidepressant because of the pressure?”  Or my personal favorite, “Don’t they treat antidepressants like the pills from Stepford so all the wives are perfect?”

There seems to be what I call a Cake Effect when it comes to depression and suicide. We can’t dismiss depression as being something as irrelevant as being caused by culture yet when a celebrity commits suicide rally to bring awareness to depression as a mental illness.  If depression is a mental illness for celebrities and the wealthy, then it is also — obviously — a mental illness for average people living in the Rockies who happen to live religious lifestyles and believe in a faith that might not be believed in by everybody.

People might not understand depression.  People might not understand the despondency that comes from depression, but that doesn’t make it less real. And it makes me mad when it’s just tossed aside as “the culture made them do it”.  And yet time and time again, people have a difficult time in accepting that something ambiguous (to them) can cause something like suicide. Sure, if we were to break everything down into its parts, we would say the individual committed suicide, but if the mental illness was not part of the equation at all we would have to ask ourselves “Would that person still be alive?”

Depression, like all mental illnesses, is complicated. And I don’t only have depression so when someone tells me to “just shake it off” I have to remind myself that this person really does mean to be helpful. Quite possibly “shaking it off” helps this person when he or she is sad, or it might just mean this person is really into Taylor Swift. Either way it doesn’t help me. Depression is multifaceted. It’s wearing soggy wet clothes.  It’s knowing you can’t stay in bed all day to stare at the walls so instead you pretend.

It’s a lot of pretending.

It’s pretending to be normal and happy and functional. So now, instead of depression I am also emotionally exhausted from performing all day. That’s awesome.  But wait there’s more.

You don’t get just one mental illness with me, you get a few more. Grab  your shopping basket.

Imagine heading into a quiet park after it has snowed. It’s tranquil, silent, the landscape pristine condition with no footprints. You take a deep breath enjoying the moment knowing you’re the first one to walk across the snow-covered grass. However, just after a few steps you begin to get pummeled by snowballs from all directions. Falling, tripping, getting blinded by snow and ice everywhere, you have no idea which way to run in order to get away from your anonymous snowballers so all you can do is curl up and wait for the onslaught to be over.

Welcome to my life with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It could be any day at any moment when I can experience a trigger and I feel as if I’m being attacked with no way out. All I can do is attempt one of several coping mechanisms that I have learned or, if it is too much, retreat. Otherwise, the triggers can begin to overwhelm me to the point where I can completely break down and it will take me days to recover. This goes hand in hand with another issue I deal with which is agoraphobia. If you have read To Kill a Mockingbird than you may be familiar with agoraphobia because Boo Radley is a fellow agoraphobe, though I am far better dressed and I have not attacked family members with scissors. Yet.  I’m also not nearly as pale because I do go out of my house on a regular basis and while I am always looking, I haven’t saved any small children dressed up as hams.  Someday, maybe.  Like Boo, I would rather stay inside my home especially after my PTSD has been triggered.  I’m sure this makes sense: if my coping strategies have broken down and I’ve become overwhelmed by triggers, than my agoraphobic tendencies will rise and I am more prone to stay home, avoiding larger areas and people, unfamiliar places and situations.

Once I am home, though, my depression can easily escalate because I begin to feel like I am a failure for not getting out there, for being defeated, for all this’s and that’s. But then the possibility of getting out of that cycle will start the knot of anxiety in my chest and that feeling of drowning in air begins.

Boom. Anxiety attack.  The chest begins to clench like a hand is squeezing — not mine, which is worse — my pulse is racing and I’m trembling.  I feel trapped.  I can’t breathe.  It’s the frantic survival of someone who has already survived and doesn’t know it. I’m lost in my own mind and I can’t find my way out.  And so if it is easier for people to believe that I am aloof or keep to myself than to understand that I get nervous in crowded places, than okay. I can’t change that. Especially when my feeling of a crowded place is different than the average person’s.  If other people assume I don’t like going to church because of whatever reason I can’t change that either. I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to do a PSA about how I am mentally and emotionally fatigued by Sundays and I honestly believe I will mentally snap by being around so many people. I also don’t feel offended, by the way. That’s the great thing about agoraphobes. We really are a table of one.

In some ways, yes, it is all in my head.  But what I am feeling is more real than expected because it is every nightmare come true: it’s the unknown chasing me and the inability to move or scream.  And truly I believe this is what is at the crux of people’s inability to understand this mental illness. Nobody wants to face their nightmares, especially in someone they know.

C. Streetlights
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Published by C. Streetlights

I wrote and illustrated my first bestseller, "The Lovely Unicorn" in the second grade and I've been terrified of success ever since. Published by ShadowTeamsNYC and represented by Lisa Hagen Books

2 thoughts on “when only descriptions work”

  1. Rilla says:

    This is so moving. I have always admired the honesty and clarity of your writing. And this piece feels as if you are sitting across the kitchen table. So often, when I read your posts, your humor and your family stories leave me envious of the life you have, that I missed. I see we each pay a price. I hope this period is like a long migraine. Ultimately, it diminishes. My heart strings will be pulling you to the other side.

    1. Sweet Rilla, You are always so tender and giving in your comments to me. Trust me when I say my life is not one to be envied, just one that is to be shared and enjoyed alongside me. Thank you for your willing friendship.

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