Friday, August 18, 2017

High-Functioning Depression – Think beyond the stereotype

By Radhika Maira Tabrez
‘Stereotype’ has never been one of my favorite words. It plays out exactly as its definition says it
would – hackneyed, oversimplified and yet, unfortunately, widely held.

So if we go by the stereotype that the society holds for people suffering from depression, I would get the following image. Of someone who has trouble getting out of bed every morning. Of someone who spends her days crying and feeling hopeless. Of someone who hardly has any friends and barely keeps in touch with her family.  Of someone who is unable to function well in her daily life and deliver on her responsibilities.

While all that holds true for some types of depression, it is not a behavior pattern that covers all. During the last twenty years of dealing with this affliction, I have managed to earn an MBA, build a successful career, get married, have a child and raise him with minimal outside support, and then make a successful career switch to being a writer. Most of my friends and family consider me to be a person of above average wit. I am a very sociable person. I deliberately chose, and thankfully managed to excel in, a career that demands extensive social interaction – Training and Development.
A lot of people even state these facts while voicing their amazement to me, as to how could someone as funny, confident, sucessful and outgoing (as they have come to define my personality in all the years that they have known me) one day just declare that she has been depressed for as long as I have.
I remind them of Robin Williams, one of the finest comedian and actor this world has ever known, who suffered from depression for years before he finally succumbed to it. Chris Cornell had performed to a crowd of thousands, just a night before he committed suicide. Hemingway had bagged a Nobel before his depression and psychosis got better of him.

That’s the thing. The way the world sees a patient suffering from ‘high-functioning’ depression is a factor of many variables, different than those that define who they are or how they are feeling, inside. All the things they stated as my personality traits are as much a part of me, as is the constant feeling of sinking that keeps tugging at my heart. Somedays it is at its peak and those are the days I experience the sleeping, eating and other social disorders that define a depression patient in the common parlance. But on most days I wake up, do what my life and my responsibilities as a wife and a mother demand of me, and deliver on them, hopefully as well as I would want to.

That’s ‘high-functioning’ depression for you, in a nutshell. Or in the correct medical terminology – Dysthymia.

A common question I have been asked often enough since I came out with my confession is – why then, did I keep up this facade of a happy life. Someone even went to the extent of quoting what I have written in the ‘About Me‘ section of my blog, as something quite contrary to my depressed self. I would like to clarify something.

Suffering from depression doesn’t mean I am perennially sad. Sorrow is a state of mind based on some temporary situations in your life. Depression is a medical condition set off by chemical imbalances, made worse by genetics or environmental factors.

That is an important distinction for people to know and get when dealing with someone with depression. Sorrow may pass on its own, with time. Depression needs an intervention of some sort, in the form of medicines, therapy or conscious actions on the patient’s part.

Some people wrote back to me saying that they are surprised at my confession, considering how strong a person they have always known me to be. The person they know was the High School Captain. Was one of the youngest people to head a function in one of the organizations she worked for. Was the only female to become the President of the Students’ Council of her Business School. Got married for love, outside of her religion – a move which, sadly in India, is as big a taboo as it is. Went on to write a book and win an award for it. They spoke to me as if reminding me of someone I used to be a long, long time ago. I wrote back to them saying, I still am that very person. I am just making them aware of something about me that they didn’t yet know. That I have a medical condition, have had it for all those years when the aforesaid milestones happened; and that I am finally speaking out about it so that others may benefit from my journey.

In my experience, the strength someone displays in their daily life functions has got little to do with the weakness they feel in their spirit sometimes. Both are definitely not mutually exclusive, as most people would have you believe.

Our body and mind have an incredible coping mechanism. We know of cases where people with one physical handicap find some other part or sense of their body compensating for that. People with hearing disability with a strong sense of smell. People with a visual disability with an enhanced auditory capability. The examples are many.

Someone who has been dealing with depression may, therefore, over the years build a strong personality. It could be both, a defense as well a coping mechanism. But just because someone can be strong whenever life demands them to be, doesn’t mean they lose the right to crumble down to pieces every now and then.

The important thing is that they have also, with time and experience, learned to pick them selves up again and put it all back together, with minimum help from others. That is a skill developed over the years. And therein lies the strength that everyone sees and relates with them.

So just because someone appears to ‘have it all together’, doesn’t mean it comes effortlessly to them.
I write all this as a plea to everyone. Understanding a monster like depression is the first step in enabling those who are dealing with it to speak up about their trials and tribulations. Speaking up is essential for healing from a layered and complex affliction like ‘high-functioning’ depression.
And it all starts with everyone willing to look beyond the stereotype.