We’d like to introduce you to Doug, another member of your 2015-2016 Team of Advisors. Doug is an actor, teacher and writer living with major depressive disorder (MDD). He’s been tracking his health on PatientsLikeMe since 2008.
Doug feels there is a lot of stigma surrounding the term “mental illness,” and shares that one of his biggest challenges has been opening up about his depression. He believes that MDD isn’t talked about enough in society: “We’ve got to figure out how to encourage the sensitivity and understanding.”
Here, Doug describes a vivid picture of what it’s like to live with depression and offers some advice to other patients: Find others living with your condition, and know that you’re not alone.
What gives you the greatest joy and puts a smile on your face?
My kids, their antics and achievements, their growth, even their mistakes, are what get me up in the morning. Drawing closer to seeing or speaking with them is probably my greatest motivator. It’s funny, though; I wouldn’t label what they bring as ‘joy,’ per se. When you’re living with chronic Major Depressive Disorder, and when you’re treated with an affect-flattening medication like lithium, joy all but falls out of your vocabulary. But my kids are definitely the closest I come. My extended family, my girlfriend, creating theatre and my faith all fall in close behind.
What has been your greatest obstacle living with your condition, and what societal shifts do you think need to happen so that we’re more compassionate or understanding of these challenges?
Perhaps the greatest obstacle I’ve had in living with depression, aside from considering self-injury or enduring an episode itself, has been personally and openly admitting that I suffer from what society and medicine deem a “mental illness.” Though it may help some folks (docs) with classification, I usually find it a fairly useless, divisive, overly-general, stigma-laden label. Yeah, it may be practical to use medical terms to initiate basic understandings, but I now try to move other folks I affect or who affect me past the crappy designations and into how the disease (and the medication/side effects) actually manifest themselves in my life. Moving past the ill-connoting “mental illness,” with its lurking suggestions of some sort of moral turpitude, loss of touch with reality and personal weakness or inability to perform/produce, I go into the specific realities of this dad’s/teacher’s/actor’s/partner’s life: how I deal with occasional flat effect, distraction and crying episodes; what Electroconvulsive Therapy actually consists of and why it had to be administered to me; and the prescription side effects like word-fishing, tardive dyskinesia and even ED.
When people are moved past the general and abstract toward the specific and concrete, I think we begin to enter productive territory and can make inroads. We’ve got to figure out how to encourage the sensitivity and understanding that come with specificity.
How would you describe your condition to someone who isn’t living with it and doesn’t understand what it’s like?
I’ve tried for figurative examples of “normal” human experience that people could magnify and see themselves in, but it usually doesn’t work. I often simply describe my own experience…
Imagine a trained general practitioner making fun of you for your “pretend” gut ailments, asking if you want to “man up” or whether he should prescribe you some Prozac. Imagine trying to choose the former when what you really need is the latter. Imagine suffering the consequences of foregoing treatment…
On the slide down, imagine crying in four-hour stints. Imagine trying to convince your three kids that Daddy’s crying has no relationship whatsoever to them, to what they’re doing, to their innate value or to your profound love for them. Imagine being so distraught that you don’t sleep for a month. That you forego food. That you lose 30 pounds.
Imagine not wanting to wake up. Ever. For weeks. And Imagine feeling that way even when no horrible incident, no traumatic scene, no injury had prompted it. Imagine never wanting to wake up, and for no particular reason.
Imagine not wanting to bathe. Imagine deriving no comfort from the warm water streaming down your body on a cold winter’s day in the shower when you finally get there (you’re mother’s been urging for a couple days now, and finally actually led you by hand into the bathroom).
Imagine finding yourself on a psychiatric ward, where they’re weaning you of meds so as to treat you with ECT. You learn your parents delivered you there (you’re 49 years old and live some 10 hours from them); you don’t even remember them delivering you (motivated forgetting).
I could go on, but I think this gives you an idea. Folks who haven’t done significant time with depression probably don’t understand these illustrations, but they may find a point to connect, or, at the least, be struck by such a profoundly different human experience. These examples, if nothing else, begin to point at the devastation depression creates.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone newly diagnosed with a chronic condition, what would it be?
Get armed with info and understanding. Do your homework. Find real, live people like you who deal with the same condition. Talk with them, listen to them, come to see that you don’t stand alone and that there are others who understand. Internet is good, but real life is better. Dive into your faith.
How has PatientsLikeMe (or other members of the PatientsLikeMe community) impacted how you cope with your condition?
PatientsLikeMe has done three major things for me. I had been logging basic baseline mood and other information on a smaller website when I learned of PatientsLikeMe. The stuff I’ve laid into the site chronicling my illness over the past eight years has served as a solid longitudinal record of the trajectory of my depression and PTSD, a record arguably more significant to me than my formal medical records. In addition, PLM has provided community; through site content and interaction with my fellows, I’ve gained insights and support. I’ve also been able to offer my own impressions and understandings in public forum, and, finally, through working on the PLM Team of Advisors, I’ve been prompted into deeper advocacy and peer support.
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