The worst part about mental illness is not simply having it. It’s not the waking up some mornings in such a state that you wonder if you can get out of bed or, if you can, make it to the end of the day. It’s not unplanned crying or the deprivation of lasting joy, nor your aiming for, yet always missing, cloud 9. It’s not the heaviness or feelings of uselessness and inadequacy or the fear that someone will discover you to be the fraud you just know you are. It’s embarrassing that you continue to do what you do. You’re embarrassing. At least today.
The worst part about mental illness is not others’ misunderstandings about it. It’s not their quizzical stares or musings or third degree about your great job, your talented children, your loving friends, your comfortable home, your talents and skills, all of which form one tour de force of a life, so how dare you? It’s not even their presumption that you’re somehow ungrateful for all these magnificent gifts, that if you just woke up and recognized every morning how goddamned lucky you are, the despair would melt away. It’s not that as you write this, you know they just want to shake you or slap you or, best, snap you out of it. (Snap. Snap.) Nope, sorry.
The worst part about mental illness is not all the memes about positivity that blame you every day for not being able to make lemonade out of all the lemons, primarily because there are no lemons (see above), and life is beautiful. Sorry, all of you attitude-is-everything believers. Attitude is only everything when there’s nothing else in the way of it. It’s why some people who get cancer are cheerful and positive and others aren’t. That’s who they are. It’s a pretty lucky way to be born (cheerful and positive; nothing lucky about cancer).
The worst part about mental illness is not that you know what to do about it but can’t summon the energy to do it. That sleep eludes you. That elusive sleep leads to poor choices and bad habits and eating for serotonin and energy, which leads to weight gain, which leads to sluggishness, which leads to lethargy. That waking up at 4:45 after 4 hours and 45 minutes of sleep can, if you struggle with depression, kick the whole day’s ass.
The worst part about mental illness is not anything that happens to you, frankly, because you can take care of yourself. You know that tomorrow or the next day, you can stop swimming and take a breath that doesn’t choke. After all these years, you have some coping skills. You know there’s a bird called hope who might yet perch at your sill. Could be tomorrow. Could even be this afternoon, when the sun suddenly comes out, giving you enough energy to pick yourself off the floor.
No, the worst part about mental illness is passing it on to your children.
First, there’s the guilt: that driving a mile back to the house when she was three to make sure you turned the stove off (you did; you always did) or locked the door (you did; you always did) set a bad example for your child. That those times she saw you crying or heard you weeping in your room at night or pacing the floors in the morning’s loneliest hours when she was four or six or twelve were indelible. That your worry about money or crime or time or work was so palpable that she soaked it in and caught the disease. Guilt, even, that you had a child at all.
And then there’s the worst part about the worst part about mental illness, which is knowing that your child is suffering. Knowing that someone you love is in despair is hard enough, but when it’s your own kid, it is like a balloon trying to rescue an anchor or an anchor trying to rescue a balloon. It can’t go anywhere, but it can still pop.
A person who doesn’t understand that despair is no luckier. That person can look at her child with that quizzical expression (you have everything, dear! What is your life lacking?), missing the gravity of it, a blessing and a curse. But a young person’s hopelessness is a crisis. Because young people have not learned, like you have learned, that hope will perch at your sill, even come in and crap on your head, bringing such good fortune that it will be enough to make you keep that window open.
Not only do so many young people not know about this thing with feathers, but they don’t even open their blinds, which is, I have learned, the simplest thing you can do physically to alter the direction of a day. (It doesn’t work alone, but sun can sneak in, literally and metaphorically.)
So when my daughter and I argue, it’s in the back of my mind. When she apologizes to me, it’s in the back of my mind. When we leave her home, it’s in the back of my mind. When she takes the car, it’s in the back of my mind. When I don’t see her come home at night, it’s in the back of my mind. And when I wake up at 5:45 a.m. to discover that she has not yet been to sleep, it’s on my mind.1 Once you know what it feels like to be in a very bad place, you know what it’s like for someone else to be in a very bad place. And sometimes—this is the worst of the worst of the worst part—they don’t tell you.
One day, your daughter is the captain of the volleyball team and a straight-A student, and the next day, you are calling 911. I know too many (one is too many, and I know more) parents who have come home to find their children unwell in a way they never knew was possible and that cannot ever be forgotten. Those children can be the hardest to save.
Though I’ve had it all my life, I was formally diagnosed with “high-functioning depression” shortly after I had my daughter. It’s characterized by over-achievement in the face of serious anxiety, OCD, depression, or other mental illness. My daughter, a talented songwriter and musician, has it, too. (Read more about it, please, here: “The Danger of High-Functioning Depression as Told by a College Student.”)
It’s why I go into my daughter’s room in the morning and open her blinds. She complains every time, but if she wants them closed, she has to get up to close them. It’s why some days I make her (as much as one can make an 18-year-old woman) go outside or start the day with something other than sugar. She is a new person and doesn’t know yet that these habits will help her when she is 40 and 50 and 70. Living should be, soon, an unbreakable habit.
Why am I telling you this? It’s not because I want your sympathy. I never want that. I don’t want pity or sorrow or a shoulder or even empathy (though empathy’s not a bad thing to have for others’ circumstances). I tell you about it because I want you to know, and I want that knowledge to lead to understanding. Eventually, I want you to stop believing that the only problem depressed people have is ingratitude or a bad attitude or that they can overcome their own misery by smiling more (because even if all the science in the world says that it helps, depression is an impediment).
But I’m not sure I want you to let us off the hook entirely, either. Sometimes we do need to let some of that shit go, and if you tell us that with some accompanying bad jokes and good puns and laughter and friendship, we might.2 And a pep talk every now and again can’t hurt.
No matter what you’re going through in your life, the best thing I can wish for you is that you have someone to open the blinds, even when you think you don’t want to let any light in. I will be that for you. You be that for me.
1Why wasn’t my daughter in bed asleep after coming home from her friend’s house after I was already asleep, after having texted me a sincere apology for our misunderstanding earlier in the evening before she left? She was recording this, “On the Shoulders of Giants (Maybe Someday You).” I sat listening to it at 5:15 a.m., tears streaming down my face and landing on my lap with a splash.
The last time she stayed up all night, she recorded this, called “Leather Jacket Art.”
2Just not, please, with a meme. Enough with the memes already.
So many layers! Makes me wonder about myself, actually. Thanks Leslie for your perspective, and you're incredibly insightful way with words!
Dear Leslie, I am at a loss for words right now but I did want you to know that I have read your blog. You are so brave and honest. May there always be someone to open the blinds for you and yours.
Lots of love to you.
How would your life be different if you didn't feel this way? Are you able to love and appreciate yourself (not the things you have)? If you haven't read Brene Brown's "Daring Greatly," I highly recommend it.
I can absolutely empathize with everything except the "worst" part. I don't have children, but I've been through some horrible things. I still struggle to heal the damage sometimes, but I'm much better than I used to be.
Sad, beautiful, and eloquently written. Look forward to talking to you about this over coffee soon.
I can't answer the first part, but the second part is absolutely, most days. I will look up the book. And I think we are all better than we used to be. That's a good thing.
I've tried so many times to open the blinds –and even the window, but the feathered thing seems to flit away. I only hope it flies in both of your windows and stays awhile.
Love and understanding to you. And thanks.
Love and understanding to you. And thanks.
Your words, followed by Serena's song, and your bird photos were a beautiful treat for a Monday afternoon. Thank you for sharing your creative expressions.
I tried to comment from my phone last night and couldn't remember my Google ID because it is automatic on computer 🙂
I related to all of this, though I'm a very low-functioning depressive. Chronic, persistent depression it's called I think. I especially relate to the feelings of seeing one's daughter struggle, as you know.
I love you. I love love LOVE Serena's song and her and her talent and she is fortunate to have a woman like you to lead by example on how to push through this shit.
What a beautiful song — and powerful essay, Leslie. Opening the blinds is an empowering metaphor as well as a loving and helpful act. I don't know if you ever saw the great Jonathan Miller talking about depression on Dick Cavett, but I saw this once 40 years ago and have thought of it often over the years when wrestling with demons (thanks, Internet, for making it available again): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fUZ9Dd7wf8