This is hard to write, admit, and publish but I’ve been in a long and deep depression. However, about a week ago I woke up. I can see the world in color again. I think a bunch of you will know exactly what I mean by that, but if you don’t it is the ability to even brush my teeth in a day. There have been plenty of days where that one task might as well have been at the summit of Mt. Everest.
For those of you that don’t already know, please don’t worry about me. I am being treated for depression, anxiety, and insomnia through my transplant clinic. I’m getting great care and based on my behavior and realizations over the past few months we are re-adjusting meds, treatment strategies, etc.
Usually, though, I’m a functional depressive. With that I mean that I struggle but I still meet my life obligations. It feels impossible, but I would still perform decently well on exams, or a work presentation, or going to my clinic appointments. I’ve been extremely lucky, I know, but in some former moments of clarity I have accomplished some great things. For example, I killed my voice auditions going into undergrad, the LSAT before law school, and to secure a job in San Francisco which was the impetus for our incredible cross-country move. I’ve discovered that new beginnings always tend to surround my best times, mentally.
For me, beginning in middle school, that’s how it’s always been. Slow, gradual rising and falling – there is only one other time I’ve even sought treatment for mental illness. This was during what was supposed to be my final quarter in undergrad. But, this most recent time was different. I’ve been, understandably I hope, struggling since right around the time of my leukemia diagnosis. Last summer was really tough, but nothing compared to the beginning of this year. We officially got off the kiddie coaster with it’s gradual changes and moved to the scariest hill, on the scariest roller coaster.
There are a number of things that contributed to this sudden and scary drop: family issues, loss of my primary source of income, health insurance, and I could continue. Finally it was so bad that I stopped caring for myself in every sense of the word. I would miss clinic appointments, never keep up with my pills (that, mind you, are KEEPING ME ALIVE!), showering felt impossible. But, in the context of this letter, I was awful at communicating with all of you. When your name would flash across my phone screen, I would freak out. I just couldn’t do it and I’m sorry. I used to blame these periods of no communication on my hatred of talking on the phone, etc. But, really, it was more than that and I’m sorry.
Earlier this year I was given an amazing and generous invite to spend a week in Tampa with family by the best double-cousin in the world. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was fighting for myself. I knew I needed this opportunity to relax and not worry about cancer, life, everything. So, I took her up on the invitation. Then, I learned about the date of my Mom’s surgery. I wanted to be there with her, help her, etc. At first, I thought there is no way I can accomplish this – but then that inner drive spoke again and helped me decide, instead, to make it a huge cross-country road trip. This type of trip has always been a dream of mine. I grew up on road trips; the excitement for travel runs very deep. Plus, what better way to knock out as many “new” states as I can on my way to 50?
The idea and planning of the trip truly excited me, but the depression lingered. I did the minimal amount of planning and as the trip got closer I thought I would have to call it off. I just didn’t think I could do it. But, I still talked a good game when I was up for chatting. Then, thankfully, my family intercepted. I couldn’t admit it then, but you were all correct, I couldn’t have done it on my own. So, another incredible cousin, less than a week before my intended start date committed to flying to the bay and taking the first leg with me to Tampa. The fun, conversations, and adventures we had during this week are, I now know, a huge part in why I’m doing so well today. So, thank you, for helping to save me.
The six-week adventure was amazing. It could have been so much more, I know. But, I did everything that I could. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed. Sure, pain was a huge part of it, but if I’d been better I wouldn’t have missed out on anything, I think. I could have attended more family gatherings, spent time with more friends, talked to people who needed me, too, during this period. To each of you that I let down during my trip, I am truly sorry. There are a number of things that I would have done differently, mostly surrounding communication and accountability.
With that steep fall came an equally steep and fast rise. This is the first time I can remember snapping out of things so quickly. About a week ago, like I said, I woke up. I have value again. It’s incredible. I can finally envision a world after cancer and transplant and graft v. host disease. I want to re-enter the world, and with a splash. I want to make a difference, and that’s where this letter comes in.
There are a number of things I attribute to this rise: since March 2nd I’ve been surrounded by family (this is not meant against you at all, hubs, I mean not our little family but couldn’t figure out how to say that), I’ve been able to help others in all the ways that I could at the time, I was forced out of the house, a certain engagement, the hubs for letting me have this experience, two unexpected but extremely welcome companions from Cincinnati to Oakland, etc. But, these amazing realizations also come with a whole lot of what if’s. I know things in my life would be better right now had I been better at communication and handling my relationships.
Further, I’m discovering that the mental health portion of the last few years has been the hardest and toughest battle I’ve faced. It doesn’t compare to moving away from my home and my loves; not to getting a crappy cancer diagnosis at 29, just 6 months after that huge move; not to having chemo and a bone marrow transplant; and nothing compared to my recent battles with graft v host disease. My struggles with depression, anxiety, insomnia, and even PTSD have far exceeded the pain and mental strife caused by all of those other events combined. And, I really and truly mean that.
But, I don’t think it had to be this bad. I think had I been as open and honest about my mental health as about leukemia, then the hole would have been smaller. Clinic would have changed my meds sooner; sent me to psycho-oncology sooner. I wouldn’t be writing this letter now, I think. Frankly, I was embarrassed. But why? It’s 2018, can’t we all agree that mental illness isn’t a weakness? If you are that rare human that still doesn’t think they’ve been touched by any of it, you are wrong. Your loved ones, friends, colleagues, they suffer, just in secret. It always has to be a secret. A pilot can’t take antidepressants? What is that? We’d rather be flown by someone who hides their illness or is going untreated? I’d rather be flown by someone who will talk about their issues and not suppress forever. To me, that’s crazy.
So, as part of my recovery I’ve decided a few things. First, to make amends to those I’ve hurt. Second, to practice what I preach. And, third, I want to do what I can to normalize the conversation around mental illness/health/etc.
While I am working on new and different approaches to my mental health, I still feel like I’m tied to a ticking clock. I can’t say for sure that this wonderful feeling will stick so I want to do all I can during this “up” period to accomplish everything as fast as possible. For me that includes: writing and publishing more, staying in active communication in all aspects of my life, figuring out what the hell I want to do with the rest of my life. So, you know, nothing important. 😉
The key to this, I think, is human connection. It’s often said that those around a person often know long before they do that they are slipping. So, please, the next time you see this in me, just let me know. Let’s stop being afraid of discussions about mental health. It really is nothing to be ashamed of. I am not weaker because of it.
But, this is so much bigger than me. As part of my attempt to normalize this conversation, I ask that you share this post if it meant something to you. Most importantly, I hope that these words stick with you and the next time you see a shift in someone you know, double-check. If you think someone is struggling, be there for them. Be compassionate and open a communication channel. Who knows what’s really going on behind the scenes?
To the family and friends that I’ve let down in the past couple of years, I hope you will accept this as my first step to making amends. For whatever reason this feels more doable, more actionable than reaching out to each of you personally, right now. I’m trying, but I just can’t do it yet. I ask that you not view this as a cop-out. Please know that the lines of communication are open. You are all on my list, but in the meantime feel free to reach out to me. I’m ready to have open and honest conversations with each of you about my journey, struggles, etc. Ask any questions you’d like.
Mental health is not a weakness.
Thank you for your time and love,