Moved by Wayne Brady, Tammy Palazzo delivers an inside view of depression … and a call to start talking about it more.
The disease that no one wants to talk about is making more news this week with yet another celebrity confessing to his struggles with depression. This time, popular comedian Wayne Brady shared his story about his own battle that reached a peak this summer on his 42nd birthday.
Following the sobering news of Robin Williams’ suicide in August, the conversation around depression has gotten some increased airtime, but there is no question that this is still an illness that carries an overbearing stigma. As Brady suggests in his interview on Entertainment Tonight where he talks candidly (and, regretfully, comically) about his illness, in his world in Hollywood, it is perfectly acceptable to admit to suffering from substance abuse and be admitted to rehab, but if you openly confess to being clinically depressed, people think you are making it up and you become shunned. With all the faces we can now attach to depression, it is alarming that we still encounter a resistance to accepting how real this disease is. When looking at the commentary around depression, it’s disturbing to hear it correlated to “the blues” or the rough patches all of us face when we experience difficult times in our lives. If you are wondering if what you are experiencing is really depression, then you are not depressed. Someone who suffers is catapulted into a state so devastatingly paralyzing and altering that you never question what is happening, you simply hide it. Clinical depression is a chemical imbalance and a very real disease that affects, according to the CDC, 9% of American adults. It is also reported that 18% of the adult population—40 million Americans—suffer from anxiety disorders, closely related to depression, and the most common mental illness. These are staggering numbers for a disease that we still avoid talking about.
As someone who has battled depression since my teens, I’d like to take you inside my world when I am experiencing a depressive episode.
In his interview, Wayne Brady talked about how, when in a depressive state, he simply does not want to move and openly acknowledges that he chooses to wallow in his state because that is what he believes he deserves. This is the same person who, on a day when he is not suffering, is remarkably upbeat and can entertain millions of people, appearing as jovial and carefree as we expect a successful entertainer to be. For someone who is suffering from depression, the alteration in our personalities and thinking can be so startling and sudden that even we cannot understand or explain it despite the fact that it is happening to us. In my case, I often experience some early indications of the onset of a depressive period through physiological shifts. Sometimes, I begin to feel what I would describe as cranky and irritated and then slowly I can feel my entire self imploding as if each of my cells flips inside out. I begin to experience an emotional dullness and a physical heaviness that resembles moving through quicksand. I can literally feel myself sinking into a hole and, while I might see a ladder to pull myself out, I often am too distanced from myself to direct my brain to move towards safety. When I am depressed, my mind assaults itself aggressively and relentlessly. I experience anxiety and hopelessness that often logically makes no sense but I do not have the capacity to reason with myself and, as Wayne Brady describes, I wallow in it because it is all I feel that I deserve. And, while I have never experienced what I believe to be true suicidal thoughts, I do experience periods where I wish for complete self-annihilation because I cannot contemplate how to survive the overwhelming heaviness.
It feels shameful to acknowledge these thoughts and, when I am feeling fine, as I am right now, I struggle to connect myself to that experience. Sometimes I fear that I am bipolar because, when I am not in a depressive state, I am so genuinely happy and content—and often experience true joy—that it seems illogical that I could fall so far down and then be just fine. Through years of therapy and lots and lots of research, I have come to learn that my experience is quite normal for someone suffering from depression. And, that is why it is so confusing to those who don’t suffer when they learn that someone like Robin Williams or even just a person like me, who is otherwise happy and pleasant, battles depression. It is a remarkable juxtaposition. I equate my experience to watching myself through a two-way mirror and not being able to communicate to myself sitting on the other side of the glass. I watch helplessly as I fall deeper and deeper into a darker and darker place. Sometimes the episodes last a day or two and, less frequently, they can last upwards of a week. For some, they are hurled into black holes that last for weeks and even months and, without medication, the results can be fatal.
When doctors speak of the experiences of victims of Alzheimer’s, I sometimes relate to the descriptions of being lost in your own mind. Being depressed feels like you have been abandoned in a dark forest and, while you know there is probably a pathway out, you do not have the desire or energy to find it and you feel lost and hopeless. And then, suddenly, often as quickly as it arrives, it lifts and the sun begins to rise and you can find the exit. In my most recent episode, I found myself talking myself through the experience, reminding myself that I was in a state and that it was only temporary. I tried to limit my attachment to any of my thoughts or feelings and focus on the fact that it would pass and I would come out the other end and be OK. Yet, I still stood in the shower crying every day and would lay in bed at night, struggling to sleep, searching for any remedy that would allow me to escape my thoughts. I had no ability to focus on anything other than my unbearably painful thoughts. Loneliness and abandonment are hallmarks for me, and I felt separated from everyone I love and, even sitting in a room with my children who typically bring me so much joy, I was lost at sea. I would look past them listlessly and struggled to concentrate on anything they would say to me. There is no talking yourself off the ledge. There is no reasoning with the demons. You are possessed and it is brutal and painful and the worst experience you can imagine.
I worry that my depression will ruin me. I sometimes am hanging on by a very thin thread that usually is the reminder that I have two young children who would be devastated by my death. I have to play that out in my head each and every time I suffer. I have to forcibly remind myself that giving in to the pain would destroy the two people I love the most in the world. I go to battle with myself to restrain the desire to shut it all down once and for all. It rips me apart and, for me, that is always the reassurance that I have not fallen too far down the hole. When I can still focus on the salvation of my children, it is a microscopic tether to reality. My fear is always that I will lose that shred of sanity and fall too far down. That is what happens to everyone who takes their own life. They have lost the ability to connect back to reality. And, as Wayne Brady suggests, we typically keep our struggle a secret because of the stigma and the secrets kill.
Anyone suffering from depression, when being brutally honest with themselves, will acknowledge that the biggest fear is that one day we will not be able to come back.
We need to remove the stigma. We need to be able to stop hiding and keeping our secrets. We need to save our lives.