by: Cody Meinhardt
I guess it probably doesn’t sound all that remarkable – all families have their own distinct brand of “crazy.” But I don’t mean my family is just kind of kooky, like most are. What I mean is, I think members of my family are mentally ill.
I say, “I think,” because I can’t actually make the claim with any real certainty. I simply suspect that my immediate and extended family is secretly riddled with nutcases – people with anxiety, depression, attention disorders, maybe a nice sprinkling of bipolar… who knows? The point is, when my therapist asked me during our first session if I have a family history of any of the above, I couldn’t give her a definite answer. Much like most of our society, my family doesn’t talk about mental health. So piecing it together from remembered conversations and awkward gatherings with distant relatives, I gave it my best guess:
“I think so?”
What I’m not guessing about is this: I have depression.
If any members of my family are reading this, it might be the first time these words have ever been spoken (or typed) between us. This is reminiscent of when I came out to my parents and siblings as gay about three years ago, because this is something I’ve felt for years, but only recently have I been brave enough to admit and accept it. Part of what kept me from figuring this out sooner was a fear of the unknown. Our society is seriously lacking in open, honest conversations about mental health and what it’s like to realize that your brain chemistry is a little wonky. I wasn’t prepared to deal with this, so rather than sorting through the tangled mess that was my inner world, I bottled all my sadness and confusion for many difficult years.
What I find even more troubling is that we don’t often talk about the experience of searching for a way to improve our mental health, and what a harrowing process that can be. My parents were never big on taking pills, even for something as minor as a headache, so the thought of taking medications specifically designed to change my body’s chemical makeup and alter how my brain functions was more than a little daunting. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that is some scary shit that definitely deserves some dialogue.
I never considered myself depressed until about a year and a half ago. Generally speaking, I’ve had a great life. You could even say I’m incredibly lucky. But I’ve also had some painful experiences that caused me to sink to scary lows: my parents’ divorce when I was a young teenager; the unexpected deaths of close friends; a bafflingly unhealthy relationship that left me feeling used and manipulated. Nothing truly out of the ordinary for a young gay man, but painful nonetheless. I got used to attributing my chronic low mood swings throughout the years to these obviously difficult events.
But then I started to see that I was consistently feeling awful independent of those events, even when things were looking up. When my life felt so great that I probably should’ve ended each day dancing down the sidewalk singing show tunes, I was miserable inside. On more than one occasion I found myself trudging home from work or the bars with my head low, stifling tears so I wouldn’t have another embarrassing sobbing fit in public. The worst part was feeling like the emotional torture I was going through was happening for no reason, and realizing that I was taking it out on the people who loved me. I took a couple online questionnaires, consulted with friends, and finally decided that I was dealing with some serious depression.
Now that I’ve confronted my mental health challenges and am working toward a solution, I try to talk about it with close friends, but it usually just feels awkward. I inevitably start to feel like I’m throwing a woe-is-me, isn’t-life-awful, tell-me-about-how-damaged-you-are-so-we-can-cry-together Pity Party. It’s embarrassing. So that’s the kind of conversation I’m typically loath to start. But you know what? I think it’s time for us to have a Pity Party. We need to air our dirty mental health laundry and get a real dialogue going. Because truly, when I started actually acknowledging my depression, letting others in on how much I was struggling, and looking for a reason and a cure, a whole world of compassion opened itself to me.
When I moved to Denver nearly two years ago to work with an organization serving homeless adults, I wasn’t prepared to confront the realities of life on the street. Many of the folks who come to us suffer from serious mental health challenges. Because ours is a paid work program, our clients are expected to let us know if they can’t come in for their assigned day, and why. A fairly common explanation is “My doctor changed my meds and now I just don’t feel right” or “I can’t afford to refill my prescription this month…” When I first started hearing these explanations, my thinking was something along the lines of, “I’ve been sick before. I’ve had to take medications to get rid of the occasional virus. Isn’t this the same? You just take some pills and you’re set?” It has taken me some time and my own firsthand experience to realize just how difficult that process actually is.
Figuring this out hasn’t been easy. Actually, it’s been downright terrifying. I’ve been seeing a therapist for many months now, and until recently I never even wanted to whisper the word “antidepressants” anywhere near her office, because I thought she’d write me a script then and there and I’d have no other choice but to become another pill popping zombie. Taking medication to improve my mental state was something I thought was only for the craziest ones, the saddest of the depressives, the too far gone. But eventually I decided that I really did need another weapon in my mental health arsenal. If talk therapy and exercise weren’t cutting it, maybe an antidepressant would be the right tool for the job.
I’ve been on a fairly common antidepressant for several weeks now. Before I went to fill the prescription, I was given a whole list of pretty awful side effects to watch for: headaches, nausea, insomnia, dizziness, dry mouth, anxiety, and some others. And of course I’ve felt almost all of them. I’m like the Ash Ketchum of side effects – I’m just one bout with blurred vision and some skin flushing away from catching ‘em all. Hurray.
While I’ve been fairly miserable as my body gets used to this new infusion of chemicals, I also realize that it could be so much worse. I have my own safe, warm apartment with a cozy bed to sleep in each night. I have an amazing, thoughtful boyfriend who doesn’t mind holding me when I’m feeling terrible, even as I sometimes lie awake at night with the insomnia the drugs give me. I have beautiful friends and family who support me in more ways than they know. I have a steady job with benefits and access to doctors and mental health professionals. And relatively speaking, my depression is far milder than some of the more complex disorders.
The homeless clients I work with don’t have any of that. They lack the support network that I take for granted. Can you imagine bearing that kind of burden while also attempting to navigate the shelter system, or trying to find steady work in this economy? I have no idea how I would handle that. With this realization, I find myself feeling more empathy for our clients and their seemingly slow process of self-improvement. I’m more patient when the woman comes in and just can’t seem to focus on the task in front of her, or when the man won’t share a meal with us because he feels too sick to eat. Because I’ve been there too. I’m there now.
We’re all saddled with struggles and failings, whether they’re related to mental health or not, but I really believe that if we could just try to be more patient and forgiving with each other, and engage in real dialogue about those experiences, maybe it wouldn’t be so scary embarking on the journey to heal the mind. Or at least we might not feel so alone walking down that road.
Cody Meinhardt is a recent graduate of DePaul University. He lives in Denver and is the Community Engagement Director at a nonprofit garden and craft workshop program for people experiencing homelessness. He is an amateur activist, volunteering with ONE Colorado and the Colorado Anti Violence Program. When not mingling with plants or chatting with his honeybees, Cody loves biking around town, reading a good book, and discovering new music with his personal DJ (slash boyfriend). You can assume that he is mildly obsessed with Beyoncé Knowles.