Living with depression is a series of macro struggles, not least navigating those who know the status of your mental health. Often, we inhabit two worlds.
The familiar sound of “Opening” awakes me from a night of restless sleep. As I get my feet to the floor and hit stop on the illuminated screen which lights up my bedside table, the initial thought crosses my mind, “What could it possibly be today?”
I gather my gym bag, backpack, lunch, and head out the door to hit the gym before heading to school. My doctor told me years ago about the importance of daily exercise, so, dutifully, I rise at 5:00am each morning to drag my body and mind through another workout.
This morning’s rise and grind though is not the most challenging part of my day. Smiling in front of a room full of teenagers when all you want to do is cry, that is. No amount of weights lifted or miles logged on the hamster wheel can prepare me mentally for the muscles that I will have to use throughout the day to force a smile. Whoever said it takes more muscles to frown than to smile definitely didn’t suffer from depression.
The current political climate that has infiltrated our daily lives has created a space in which two dichotomies are present surrounding issues of mental illness. On the one hand, groups and persons advocating to raise mental health awareness and advance treatment options/coverage; on the other, I am simply viewed as another millennial snowflake. These stark differences in viewpoints back someone like me into a corner…well, a closet really.
I am a high school teacher. I have been for ten years now. I am a husband. I am a father. A homeowner (bonus points: we have a pool). Educated (some people even remember and refer to me as Dr Hamilton rather than coach). I am published. I am well-versed. I am funny. I am athletic. I am covered in tattoos. I am everything that some would view as successful and masculine.
And underneath all that, I am deeply depressed.
One morning, as I am scrolling through my social media feed while brushing my teeth, I come across an Instagram post that pulls me in with the Valencia filter (that one has a way of doing that, am I right?). It is a quote on a typewriter by K Piper, who I admittedly had no idea was until my BFF Google filled me in. Typed cleanly across the white paper was the phrase:
“I am made up of two worlds;
one in which I exist to hold
and the other where I watch
myself constantly fall apart.”
I am momentarily frozen reading these words over and over. As I let the words wash over me, I feel my heart begin to beat faster, eyes swell, and finally the tears began to flow for the first time in weeks. In that moment, I feel something. I feel myself falling apart. My electric brush shuts off, I rinse my mouth out, smile in the mirror, take my Lexapro, Wellbutrin, and pull myself back together to play the role of father, dad, and teacher.
I kiss my amazing wife, spin my son Jackson around in my arms and give him several kisses on his face that make him laugh that toddler laugh that can light up any troubled spirit, and head out the door.
I spend my day smiling, joking, teaching and building relationships and connections with students that, when done well, last a lifetime. I teach them about the importance of both intrapersonal reflection and interpersonal communication. How to calm nerves before a big presentation and the work required to nail a big sales pitch. I smile, rinse, and repeat. I answer emails from upset parents about their students’ grades (which really is about lack of effort), make phone calls home, sit through meetings about students’ needs, struggles and academic concerns. In a given day, I am teacher, counsellor, lunch guy (someone always forgets their lunch and I always have extra), giver of feedback, grader of assessments, listening ear, shoulder to cry on, and, at the end of the day, custodian of the trash that is left around the room.
When I arrive home, I have no energy left. It took every ounce of me to push through the day and hold it all together because, in between the instructional/clerical duties and the social-emotional components of being a mentor, I forgot to take any time for myself.
I sit on the couch and watch my son play. Watch, not play. Even when he looks at me with his big blue eyes and says, “Dada, trucks,” I still cannot manage to muster up enough energy to push the trucks back and forth with him. Once he is asleep, my wife and I aimlessly stream a show, occasionally cuddle on the couch, and finally call it a night unless we have to do some work for the next day. And so it goes until I can go no longer.
Whoever said it takes more muscles to frown than to smile definitely didn’t suffer from depression.
It’s a Friday afternoon and a student drops by at the end of school to talk. As I sit and listen to him go through the list of things that are bothering him—from home life to school—I start to feel empty. Drained. As if nothing I can say can change anything anymore. What am I supposed to tell this child sitting in front of me on the verge of tears? That it’s going to all be okay? When, in reality, it’s not. So, what did I tell him? Probably some bullshit line about “things get better” and sent him on his way as I smiled and made a joke. Honestly, I can’t remember. What I do remember is taking his stories home with me. His emotions, his feelings. Like I do every time this happens with a student.
I wish I was leading up to some happy ending where I tell you about self-discovery, the right combination of medication and therapy… I am not. I am still battling. I am still sad. I am still anxious. I still smile.
One of the tools I use to get students to talk about their feelings is this, it’s simple: “the follow-up.” When I ask a student, “Are you okay?” and they respond with, “Yeah, I’m fine,” I immediately start the follow-up:
“Are you sure?”
“Anything stressful right now?”
“How are things at home?”
“How do you feel in this moment?”
And my favourite, “You do know it’s okay not to be okay, right?”
When is the last time you checked on those you love? No, really checked in with them? Do you ask probing questions and follow up to be sure? Do you try and look behind the smile that people like me are putting on to please the rest of the world? If not, please, give it a try.
I am not sure if the magic fix for me would be someone taking the time to check in and care about me, but I am saying that, in the grind of the daily routine, stopping to check in on someone’s mental health might be invaluable.
Yesterday, one of my students stopped me in the middle of class and asked, “Ham, you doing okay today?”
It must have been the longest pause before a response I have ever given.
As I am struggling to stream together an answer, he says, “It’s okay if you aren’t, we can be quiet.”
I shockingly did not start crying. Rather, I smiled and simply said, “No, I would rather you all keep talking honestly.”
So, we did. We talked about life, pop culture, politics, and spring break plans. In that moment, I felt what I needed to feel: normal.
I cannot say with certainty what would help me or others in my position, it varies from person to person and day to day. What I know for sure is that stopping to check in on someone’s well-being in the thick of depression can give a person hope—and when you suffer from depression, hope is everything.
So, while I still feel like I live in these two worlds where I hold myself together for others and watch myself fall apart, my goal for the future is to let the worlds collide. Maybe we can fall apart together so we can turn around and build each other back up.