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Writing Away the Stigma: 'A day-to-day courage that comes one step at a time'

| Monday, May 30, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Elaine Quinn
Elaine Quinn

Nine people shared stories of their mental illness in Pittsburgh in May as part of a Creative Nonfiction Magazine project to fight the shame and embarrassment that often accompany the illness, which is estimated to affect one in five Americans each year. The Tribune-Review printed excerpts from some of the essays May 31 and has published full versions of six of them online.

Sitting in an examining room, waiting for a yearly physical checkup, I am hoping I will like my new family doctor and this new practice. Kelly, the physician's assistant, enters my vital statistics into the computer while I study a poster on the examining room wall demonstrating how to “cover your cough.” This reminds me I need to get a flu shot during this yearly check up. Kelly looks at me, her fingers still on the keyboard and asks, “Do you take any medications?” I re-adjust my gown and ask her, “How is my blood pressure?” trying to stall.

“Am I taking any medications?” I repeat in my mind.

The answer would be “yes,” yet I am not sure I want to admit that to her and have it typed into my records. The information will go out into cyberspace for everyone to see. They will recognize the names as anti-depressants; and not knowing me, I fear they will judge me wrongfully. She looks at her watch, and I say “No.”

I surprise myself with the lie. Yet, I feel the need to protect myself. Even people in the medical profession vastly misunderstand depression. Kelly stands, smiles and nods, then turns, opens the door and leaves. I want to call her back and say, “I know you are educated and surely aware of the research done with brain scans that show depression is an illness. You have knowledge, but do you understand?”

Would she understand, who would understand, that I have been so sick, I have crawled into my bedroom closet in a desperate attempt to escape from life? Lying in the closet, self-loathing along with depression's relentlessness made my every thought torture and my every muscle hurt. I hit my head repeatedly against the closet wall in a frantic attempt to distract myself from the depression's horrific pain. Fear crawled through me like a serpent coiling itself inside of me. I felt a weight lying heavy on my chest, suffocating and disabling me. I curled up into the fetal position, crying, smelling shoes, a belt buckle stabbing into my ribs. I ignored the calls to find me as I buried my head in my hands. My chest heaved and shook, as tears dripped from my chin. In the closet I strained for any hint of light, any hope, any help. There was nothing — just a complete absence of light. My life felt as dark as the closet and it seemed there was no escape.

I could further explain. I stopped running along the river, I stopped planting my vegetable garden, I stopped going to book club and I stopped inviting people over for Sunday dinner. I let the phone ring when friends called to laugh and chat. I couldn't even sit down and write a simple thank you note or pay a bill. And I stopped making cinnamon rolls. I condemned myself for not having the strength to do it. Hot, homemade cinnamon rolls are one of my family's favorite treats and I enjoy making them on special occasions.

Depression robbed me of many things. Yet, I slowly found my path to wellness. I say path but it was more like an obstacle course. Through medical care, medication, therapy and a determination to fight and conquer, I have learned how to manage my illness.

I made a “tool box” for myself. The box, blue with gray stripes and green flowers, was a large make-up kit that I removed all the plastic dividers from and began to fill it with items I found inspiring or helpful. Gathered into one place, these articles are easily available for me to use. There are CDs of John Denver and Simon and Garfunkel music, stationery pages, worn from use, with uplifting quotes and scriptures written on them, ideas for exercising written down, ideas for service, a couple of my favorite books and some family photos. There are articles about depression research I clipped from magazines, a small gratitude journal, my favorite picture of Christ and more. The items in this box help me to maintain courage. A day-to-day courage that comes one step at a time and receives no medals. Yet, it is this courage that gets me to my psychiatrist's appointments and helps me to take my medication daily. It is this courage that sustains my continuous efforts to manage depression. It is this courage that makes me strong and helps me feel like me again.

That day, as I leave the doctor's office I am determined not to lie again and, cowardly, perpetuate the stigma of depression. I have so much I can share. I am the one out of four people who suffer from this illness, and I know that this illness is life threatening and disabling, if not treated. I can encourage people who are suffering to seek professional help. It will validate them, lessen their suffering, help keep their relationships strong and bring wellness. There is light.There is no need to be afraid.

Elaine Quinn, 54, of Naperville, Ill., has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder

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