Earlier this week, I had a couple of bad days in a row. My family threw me a birthday party Saturday night, and, even though it was low-key, I woke up gray the next morning and stayed that way for the next 36 hours. I wasn’t extremely sad, but I was empty. My body felt anxious. I could keep the anxious thoughts at bay, but my body still felt anxious. My stomach was upset, I had chills, and I was twitchy. I felt panicky, and vaguely afraid. I tried to meditate and sleep, but my body remained anxious. I tried tv, music, and movies, but I felt too distracted to engage.
On the second day I was supposed to have a playdate with a friend and her son, but I felt too anxious to drive the hour long trip. I was afraid to cancel, but I was more afraid of driving when my mind and body were not under my control. My friend graciously allowed us to reschedule, and my daughter lovingly accepted that we had to cancel because I was not feeling well. Both of their reactions were a shock to me. I expected to be rejected and criticized. I expected my friend and daughter to hate me for my weakness. Instead, both of them were understanding and loving in their own ways.
I realized that my openness about my illness allowed for these responses. I do not usually talk to my friends about my depressed thoughts or feelings, but I am very open about the fact that I have a chronic illness. It is one of the main reasons I do not work outside of the home, so it tends to come up early in the getting-to-know-you phase of friendship. When I honestly told my friend that I did not feel capable of making the drive because of my illness, she understood without further explanation. Depression will impact your daily choices, so it makes sense to me that people regularly involved in your life should know about it. It helps me avoid lying to keep it a secret. And because I have been open with my friend, she also sent me some encouraging words rather than just rescheduling the playdate.
My daughter is a different story, though. She’s only 6, so her understanding of my illness is much different than my friend’s. And yet, her response was also loving and kind. During my last episode, my daughter was 3; she saw that I was sad a lot, and I told her that I had an illness that makes me sad for no reason. Miraculously, she just accepted it. She immediately showed me sympathy for being sick, and treated me as she would if I had a cold. She has continued to act the same way anytime I have had bad days over the last 3 years. She still accepts that I am ill rather than just sad, and she still shows sympathy. When I told her we could not go visit our friends because I was not feeling well, she showed more concern for me than for her own situation. I was blown away. Overall, my daughter is a normal 6 year old, but her love and kindness toward me and my illness seem beyond her years.
When you feel compelled to keep your mental illness a secret, you set yourself up to have to lie about your circumstances. But if you are open about the existence of your condition–no need to go into the gory details–you may be surprised at the acceptance you find. If you treat your illness with the seriousness it deserves, you will find it easier to let go of the shame that causes you to keep it a secret. It won’t necessarily make it easier to admit when you’re facing a moment of weakness, but it might set you up to receive more understanding responses from those affected by the ripple effects of your illness.