Shawn Henfling shares what he’s learned about depression … from his own battles with depression.
It’s been a couple of months since I came out as a man suffering from depression. Perhaps it is the people I’ve chosen to surround myself with, but I have faced none of the harmful judging I’ve heard accompanies such a revelation. Conversely, there is a better than good chance people are judging me negatively because of their preconceived notions of mental health, manhood, weakness and cowardice without making me aware of it. I am OK with that. In my prior two articles detailing my struggles with depression, I spoke of the isolation it causes and the unimaginably deep levels of despair inherent in a depressive disorder. I have seen and read countless accounts of people dealing with the same or similar hurdles in their lives, and know full well that we all share similar stories though each case is different at its core. Those differences are part of what makes recognizing and treating clinical depression such a problematic undertaking. Since opening up, however, there are a few things I’ve learned about myself and others that may be a revelation to some.
We know the damage we are causing in our relationships and daily interactions in life. A depressed person is acutely aware of our inability to function at a high level in public and more so with our families in what should be a safe place: home. I was cognizant of just how little everyone wanted to be around me, of how angry they thought I was, and just how much of life I was missing. I know how much it hurt my children to have a step-father incapable of having a good time without some kind of crash. It was the worst kind of balance in life. For every good day, there was inevitably going to be a day that was equally horrible and we all knew it. That knowledge, driven home to me and parents like me every day, is like salt rubbed painfully and constantly into a deep and open wound.
Depressed people know something is wrong, and on the bad days, we know it is savagely ripping away at our sanity, rendering the flesh of our mind, and shredding our humanity. On those days, we try to isolate ourselves lest we lash out at the first person to trip a trigger we didn’t know was there, akin to stepping on a “Bouncing Betty” mine. There is a split second when we can see what is coming, but there isn’t time or ability to avert the disaster. The guilt drives itself home instantly, and the consequences and scenario play over in our minds ad nauseam, depriving us of sleep and peace. We accept them, because, in our minds, that is our penance. We fail to see and understand our failures lie not in character flaws we are somehow unable to overcome but in a hurdle that will forever be just a little to high to leap. We lay all blame squarely at our own feet, because, in our minds, we’ve created the situation and are required to reap what we’ve sown.
People like me have an uncanny ability to find other depressed people. We cling to those friendships, and I believe I have a partial understanding of why. We long to be understood, to not be judged for the way we are. I have never blamed anyone for judging me, because it is human nature to do so, but I didn’t want to be that way. We know those who suffer as we do can both relate to us and accept that our behavior is unintentional.
Part of me knew I should be talking to my wife about everything, but I couldn’t bear to do so. The fear, deeply ingrained and irrational, eliminated my wife as a confidant. I didn’t know how to express to her what I was feeling without sounding weak and confused. I was those things and more, but my role as patriarch precluded me from showing or verbalizing it. I had constructed this warped and horribly detrimental view of what my job was in the family. I couldn’t reconcile the damaged man I was with the stone faced and unwavering rock I felt I needed to be. I simply couldn’t bear to further damage her view of who I was. Naturally, what I was doing instead was pushing her further away. My damaged psyche was simply making things worse rather than insulating those around me from my pain and struggle.
Instead, those who already suffered as I did became my advisers. Looking back with clearer sight and an open mind to that difficult night last Christmas when I nearly killed myself, a brief conversation with someone who understood the pain and struggle saved my life. We want to talk about what is going on in our shredded psyche, but fear the additional pain of judgment, exclusion and loneliness.
The fellow sufferers I’ve been fortunate enough to come in contact with lately have also had in common the drive to help others, even while battling their own demons. The feeling that accompanies knowing we’ve somehow, despite everything else, managed to help in a meaningful way allows us a momentary glimpse through the darkness. With only anecdotal evidence to back me up, I’ve noticed the drive to help, to make a difference becomes stronger, somehow sharper as we heal. For my part, I know I’m early in the process, but I see each new day as a way to repair some of the damage I caused and to find some meaningful way to touch others. Perhaps it is just a misguided need to repent for our time in the purgatory of our minds and the pain we caused. Instead, my hope is that we see the world clearly for what it is: our time and place to find some small way to reach out, to lend a hand to those struggling and gasping for air.
For family members and friends hurt by our inability or unwillingness to reach out, I hope this helps. When we choose to confide in those who suffer from the same crippling emotional shackles as us, we are not casting aside our relationships with you. We truly believe we are saving you and ourselves from additional torment. Judge us not for what we’ve failed to understand or achieve. Instead, be thankful we have somehow found a way to get through another day. Until we find the courage to ask for and get the help we require, the few support structures that keep our teetering lives from collapsing like a Jenga tower are all we have. I am eternally grateful for those who, during the darkest times of their own lives, managed to help me struggle on for another day. I live each day hoping to repay my family and friends for their patience and with the willingness to reach out to anyone suffering as I once did and still might. You never know when a simple “Hey, I’m just checking in. Are you OK?” may be the difference between life and death. In essence, take the time to care, you may never know the difference it makes.