It’s the most wonderful time of the year — unless it’s not. I loathed the Christmas season so much a year ago that I made that mean one, Mr. Grinch, appear as cute as Shirley Temple singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”
I resented the Christmas music in every store, the carols on every radio station, the New Year specials on every TV channel, and the Nativity scenes and Christmas trees on every card I didn’t write.
Actually, I can trace the patterns of my angst back three years or so, when I became increasingly crabby at everybody and everything. Although I didn’t realize it, I was battling depression that was plunging me into an increasingly dark rabbit hole.
The concept of depression was foreign to me because I had never experienced it until it invaded my psyche after a couple of lost jobs and a few other life setbacks.
I suspect I was like many people, wondering why depressed people couldn’t just snap out of it — turn that smile upside down, straighten up and fly right.
The irony in my case is that, as health reporter for the Tribune, I cover mental health issues, including depression and the consequences of unresolved mental illnesses — the most extreme of which, obviously, is suicide.
Objectively, I could chronicle the need to get help, but subjectively, I could not apply the advice to myself.
I wrote countless stories about how mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of — that it can and should be treated like any other malady. Armed with that knowledge, I nonetheless felt ashamed, as if I were a rare breed. I envied nearly everybody. They all seemed so well-adjusted, while I grappled with inner turmoil.
To conceal my condition, I presented a smiling emoticon on the outside but harbored a glowering one on the inside.
When I greeted people with a cheery, “How ya doin'?” to camouflage my own misery, I resented them when they answered, “Great.” (Full disclosure: Out of earshot, on particularly blue days, I mumbled curses about them and their zip-a-dee-doo-dah lives.)
The happy responses infuriated me. To be blunt, they royally pissed me off — if my editor indulges my use of the term to convey the rage that depression can inflict.
I was so exasperated that I was unfaithful to Kate. Oh, I don’t mean in the sexual context, or even the emotional realm. Rather, in hiding my depression, I was being dishonest with her.
Counseling salved some of the pain but didn’t resolve the condition. A prescription medication sporadically relieved my panic attacks and dark moods.
I plummeted so far that, in the fall of 2014, I often napped right after supper and didn’t wake up until bedtime, when, of course, I went to bed, because sleep is one of a depressed person’s most comfortable zones.
On Fridays, I didn’t rejoice with the traditional TGIF, but rather approached the weekend with the attitudinal acronym of OHMC, for “Oh, HELL, Monday’s coming!”
I spent much of each weekend either stewing about Monday’s relentless approach or sleeping.
I came to realize that I was cheating Kate out of the companionship I had vowed to provide.
I felt physically ill most of the time, which aggravated my mental state. I attributed that partly a pesky case of tinnitus, which made it difficult to concentrate, to work, to focus during interviews — all of which added to the depression.
A counselor I worked with early this year to lessen the irritation of the incurable and often excruciating condition of tinnitus suggested a change in medication that stunningly helped reverse my depression. Oh, I’ve still got the tinnitus, but it rarely bothers me because the medicinal switch leveled me out.
Whereas I had been fatigued constantly, now I’ve got energy. While I had been afraid to go to work, my decades-long love of journalism has returned.
I’ve regained some of my old high-school charm as a class clown, to the extent that Kate sometimes longs for me to act my age.
But I’m not cheating on her anymore, because I have addressed my mental struggles during the time I now refer to as “when I was sick.”
I’m revealing this side of me not to darken the days twixt Christmas and New Year’s Day but rather to let people who might be caught in the throes of depression — a phenomenon that holidays aggravate — know that they are not alone.
Neither am I seeking sympathy, but rather I'm urging anyone who might be overwhelmed with such feelings to seek help. It's out there, through family, friends and abundant resources in the Coulee Region — if you are not as bullheaded as I was when I wrapped myself in the cloak of denial.
I also embrace the philosophy of the national Campaign to Change Direction launched in La Crosse in March. The campaign to erase the stigma is in response to the fact that nearly 1 in 5 people in the United States has a diagnosable mental health condition.
The effort encourages us all to be part of the solution instead of just abandoning those with mental illness to whatever demons are dragging them down.
That community role includes learning to recognize the five signs of mental illness to help yourself and others:
- Personality change.
- Poor self-care.
If somebody seems down in the dumps, ask whether you can help. When you ask someone how he or she is feeling, follow it up once in awhile with a more probative, “Are you sure you’re OK?”
Imagine the benefits we could realize if we spent as much time and money addressing mental health issues as we do crooked teeth, or laugh lines or gravity’s natural pull on our bodies — or any other health challenge.
With 2016 right around the corner, I recommend a New Year’s resolution to give yourself a mental health checkup, at least informally. If you’re experiencing any of the five red flags, perhaps you could consider getting a second opinion.
Either way, it wouldn’t hurt to heed the Campaign to Change Direction’s tack. It takes a village to improve our mental health, so check in with other villagers to see how they’re doing.
Maybe we can check off 2016 as the year we changed direction and removed the stigma once and for all.