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The stigma of mental illness

So here's the thing: I have a problem with depression. I know what you're thinking.

So here's the thing: I have a problem with depression. I know what you're thinking. I've got it all, what with my beautiful baby girl, handsome, loving husband, rented home with leaky, but functioning dishwasher, running 1987 Toyota Tercel and a career far from public scrutiny. So what's my problem, right? I think it started on that day 26 years ago when I was born human. This isn't your regular column, I know, and I was told by many not to write it, but I started thinking, as I sometimes do, that depression isn't that big a deal. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that no mental illness or emotional problem is that big a deal. We all just attach such a stigma to these things that people who are dealing with them feel they need to hide them and pretend everything's fine. Or perhaps they go the other way, into a life of drugs and alcohol that numbs reality and pushes them into deeper feelings of hopelessness. I've wanted to write this column ever since I was diagnosed with postpartum depression a little over a year ago. But postpartum has its own stigmas that include homicidal mothers in the worst case and inept mothers at best. I found myself constantly educating everyone around me about postpartum and felt at ease to talk about it only in groups with other women who had "come out" about the depression. Even in those groups, women, who will remain nameless because I understand their concerns, came up to me after meetings and told me they too had feelings of depression but didn't want others to know.

When talking to my mother about this just a few weeks ago, she told me the story of my grandmother, who had panic attacks when she was young. Panic attacks are common with postpartum depression as well and were what eventually sent me to get help. Anyway, back to my grandmother's story. At the age of two she was having panic attacks daily, probably as a result of having to watch her father kill and clean animals outside her bedroom window. Of course, that bedroom was shared with five other children who all lived in a home as big as my living room. So perhaps the harsh life of the early 1900s got to my grandmother, and she began having panic attacks. Her mother burned her clothes after each episode because she thought my grandma was demon possessed. This is a good time to note my grandmother is often compared to Mother Theresa by people who know her. At the emotionally stable age of two my grandmother learned to hide when she was having an attack so that her mother wouldn't burn all her clothes. As it was, she only had two outfits left.

I'm not sure much has changed since 1915. Maybe we're not burning the clothes of people afflicted with depression, prone to panic attacks and plagued by dozens of known mental illnesses, but we're scared of them. We label them. We think they're incapable of being "normal," although the longer I live the more I think "normal" is an incredibly crazy term. We've all got problems. Mine is a tendency to cry uncontrollably and pass out from panic attacks if I don't take the medication that boosts my seratonin levels. So that one pill a day is my disguise, making me appear "normal" to others.

I just think it's time we all come clean and bring compassion and understanding to our workplaces, to our families, to our friends and even to those people we're scared of. After all, we may just be one horrible life experience away from becoming that person we cross the street to avoid.

For more information on mental illness, see the website