Depression and Mental Illness: Disease or Condition?
by John Callas
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
Depression, anxiety, abandonment issues and suicidal tendencies are often referred to as “diseases” or “mental illnesses.” These designations can inadvertently offer false hope that these conditions are curable with medication. But prescribing pharmaceuticals can sometimes heighten the problem, not solve it. Many drugs take weeks to be effective, and sometimes not even then. The incorrect prescription can induce further depression and or suicidal tendencies. Often the remedy is to replace one drug with another. Unchecked, the patient is now on a roller coaster ride while the first drug leaves their system, and the new drug gradually takes effect. And, as all medications affect different people in different ways, there is no guarantee of relief.
Losing my father when I was three, coupled with being sent to military school at the age of twelve, I believe triggered my condition. I faced depression and abandonment issues that stayed with me into adulthood. Then; what to do? Education helps. Learning about depression, learning from others, and sharing my pain. That is the hardest part, but I have come to realize that, behind the smiles are many souls in torment. I know because I smile too when I just want to die. Fortunately, I found therapy to be a better choice over suicide. It doesn’t put a Band-Aid on the situation. It guided me to more nuanced understanding of the root cause of many of my issues. I uncovered truths that depression had blurred; leaving me in a state of uncertainty. Depression is so personal that it becomes the only point of reference that, in an odd way, makes sense to the person suffering. It isn’t something you can dismiss and get on with your life. It takes you to places that few understand.
Eventually my therapist suggested group therapy. I went reluctantly and, in a room filled with strangers, tears welled, my body became rigid and all I could say was, “I have questions but don’t know how to ask for help.” Listening to others with similar problems gave me a sense of comfort I wasn’t alone nor was I sick. My problems weren’t unique. It was the beginning of the way out.
In my opinion, calling depression an illness or disease is wrong. To hear you are “sick” is not a positive reinforcement. Words hurt. What word would describe a term to be more positive not degrading? The word condition comes close, but still falls short.
In “Darkness Visible – A Memoir of Madness,” William Styron used the terms mental illness and disease. His assessment of using drugs gave me confidence in my choice to seek therapy instead.
I am the sum of my parts, including a heart, liver and lungs. And depression. While my body and my organs age, my depression is forever young. It is confident, assured, and, it insists, a wise counsel. It can see the certainty in matters that elude me. And when the world has become too much it will encourage me to leave it.
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It has always been this way and I have come to understand it will remain so. In twelve-step literature, there is a saying: Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it’s because I find some person, place, thing or situation—some fact of my life—unacceptable to me. I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation exactly as it is at that moment.
Fine words, and often remembering and repeating them will carry me through a depression. But not always, because nothing exists with the authority and clairvoyance as depression. It knows I am badly flawed. It knows my work will fail because I am a failure. It is patient in explaining I have no real purpose on earth. If I won’t kill myself at least I can do damage to myself, and depression will be there to show the way.
What helped was understanding that help from others was paramount. A soccer coach in high school saw both my pain and promise. He encouraged me. I grew to love the game and became quite good at it. Although he has been dead for many years, he remains part of my arsenal in the fight. Another soldier was Mark O’Brien who I met in Colorado. He taught me how to get in touch with my spirituality. Mark gave me a gift that remains a strong pillar in my life.
What they and life taught me is that depression will always be with me. It will demand, in honeyed tones, that just the two of us should take care of things. But I learned that isn’t so. I learned that talking about my depression helps fight it, and I also learned from experience. I am seventy-one years old, which means I have survived all those years. I have defeated depression in that time, and there is no reason why I cannot endure further. Warriors learn from battles past, and I have fought many battles. And so far, I have won.
To all those suffering—don’t give up on yourself. It’s your life to live, but let others help you. When you are well enough to do so, help others, find things that make you smile and decide to have a happy and healthy life.
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
And so, we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.