Carolyn Hax: Wanting to bring depression out of the shadows


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
Columnist

Dear Carolyn: I’ve struggled with depression and self-injury (among other things) for years, and I recently had a wake-up call that I needed to change things. Instead of going back to college this fall, I’ll be taking a leave of absence and going into an inpatient treatment center to get better.

I know I’m making the right choice, but what should I tell people? My parents are very much of the mind-set that this should be kept hush-hush and mental illness should not be mentioned, at all costs. I know it’s a subject that is hard for many people to understand, but I am also tired of the burden of having to keep everything secret.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I feel as if telling people myself (without going into detail) is somewhat empowering and will also prevent people from gossiping. If the story comes straight from me, it removes most of the incentive to speculate. I also won’t have access to my phone or computer while I am in treatment, so I don’t want people to think I’m ignoring them.

I know I don’t owe an explanation to anyone, but is telling the truth to people who ask (and I feel comfortable telling) really so bad? Am I setting myself up to be known as “the crazy one”?

L.

Only among people ignorant of mental illness and its prevalence, and I’m not sure what you accomplish by keeping secrets solely to appease the judgmental and underinformed.

I would never pressure someone wary of telling the truth into hoisting the honesty banner for its own sake. But someone in your position — who wants to tell the truth, who is not ashamed of it, who isn’t seeking attention for it, who anticipates therapeutic value in telling it, and who also sees pragmatic reasons for transparency — is uniquely positioned not just to advocate on your own behalf, but also to chip away at the stigma that clings to mental illness.

Certainly it’s not as thick as it used to be, and your parents and their hush-hush shame are relics of another time. But the only way to force that shame into ancient history is for regular people to treat their own struggles as a regular illness. Diane Rehm steps away from her show to rest her vocal cords; Michael J. Fox lightens his work schedule to accommodate Parkinson’s; you withdraw for a semester to treat your depression. Each of these things is like the other.

Managing health is no more scandalous than maintaining one’s car, and I give you a dining-room-table standing O for not only grasping that but being ready to prove it — especially at a time when you clearly have more important things to do than running your own PR.

Hi, Carolyn: My fiancee and I are living with two roommates we’ve both known for a few years. This is for financial reasons and will end in six months.

My fiancee seems to be in a little bit of a funk recently, more stressed than normal and slightly more depressed (yes she’s medicated). She seems to be in a better mood hanging out with our roommate who is the same age/sex as me.

They don’t go hanging out together just the two of them, I don’t think anything extra is going on. But when they’re just talking or watching TV or doing something mutual around the house, she seems to be happier than when she does the same things with me.

This makes me happy for her, because she’s in a better mood, but then I get sad and jealous because I start questioning why I don’t put her in that good of a mood.

I don’t get the same negative feelings when I see her having a much better time with some of her lifelong friends of the opposite sex. She sees them infrequently, and they all have much more in common.

Should I bring this up, or let it go? When we move out, we will rarely see this roommate more than once or twice a year.

Minor Brooding in Oregon

New relationships are easier. Relationships with old friends you see infrequently are easier.

It is important not to read too much into relationships that are easier than a lifelong commitment. Money, health and stress are burdens that committed couples have to deal with together, but that acquaintances can push temporarily off the screen.

But: It’s also important not to read too little into her easy compatibility with others. Did you two ever have that rapport?

If so, then the answer could be as simple as making more room for fun.

If not, then it’s entirely possible you’re not as compatible, and maintaining a relationship that, while loving, requires extra effort from you both. It’s also possible for the depression, stress and jealousy to be side effects of the emotional fatigue of having to work to make things work. Not definitely, just possibly, but enough to be worth a think.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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