Wednesday, April 27, 2016

I can't, I'm in a Depression

When I was a kid, my parents would occassionally let us take mental health days from school. In the eyes of a fourth grader, that often meant that we weren't feeling sick, but were taking a day off to recharge.  (I was not diagnosed at the time.)  As an adult, I still often hear people say that they need a mental health day, but it seems to be a ubiquitous term, thrown around without a whole lot of actual meaning other than "I need a break".  Nobody becomes concerned, unless they know the person and their health history on a deeper level perhaps, that someone taking a mental health day is actually struggling with their mental health. Because that's not something society does.

We are a society that's afraid of illness. We are so afraid of catching something that if someone so much as has a cold, we tell them to stay home from work/social obligations/etc. If a child has even a mild fever, they have to stay home for 24 to 48 hours as to not infect someone else in the class. And I understand all that. I'd like to avoid the stomach flu as much as the next person, trust me.

But the problem isn't what we allow, it's what we don't. Actual mental health days are not "OK".  Most of us can't call out of work and say, "I'm sorry, my anxiety is horrible today. I need a sick day," Everyone at work is stressed out and they're all there. Can't we just get over it? Nobody stops to consider that diagnosed anxiety and stress from a busy schedule or deadline are not the same thing.  If a friend invites us to a gathering, we can't say, "I'm really sorry, I know I promised to come but my depression is just awful right now." If we do, we're a downer, boring, a party pooper. People start saying things like, "You've changed, you used to be so much more fun!"  Yet people in those same situations would treat us like we had the plague if we felt sick to our stomach.

The bottom line is, society as a whole doesn't accept that mental health conditions are physical illnesses that have incredibly real symptoms and cannot just be pushed through. Just as you don't want to wake up with a stomach virus or the chicken pox, I don't want to wake up in a severe depressive episode. And it's no easier for me to work during my depression as it is for you to work with the flu. But we've not come to accept this. And even if we're given a small reprieve (one sick day, one missed outing with a friend), it's not allowed to continue. Despite the fact that you wouldn't expect someone to  be completely recovered from the flu in 24 hours, people quickly lose patience and understanding when my anxiety or depression are bad for three, four, five days straight. They may feel bad at first, but by the fifth day I often need to "pull myself together". And if you do need to take this extended time away, people become suddenly quiet and avoidant when you return to whatever it is.... work, social life, etc. Despite the fact that I find it downright rude to not ask how someone is feeling when they have been ill for a week or more, people don't. If they do, it's a pleasantry and they don't actually want an in depth answer. Nobody actually wants to hear about your depressive episode or your crippling anxiety. And while they probably don't want to hear the nitty gritty about your stomach flu, they'll probably at least be empathetic to the fact that you were ill.

My hope is that one day I'll be able to say, "I'm sorry, I can't... (do whatever it is).... my depression is bad," just the way I would say, "I'm sorry, I can't, I have a stomach virus," and people will understand. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go. 

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