By Dr. Salim Bilal-Edwards
I was diagnosed with major depression three years ago. We all experience depression at some point in our lives, for most it is situational due to specific events such as the loss of a job, death of a loved one, or other disappointments. However, for persons with major depression it lingers and is often recurrent. Persons with major depression or what is commonly called clinical depression may have good days and not so good days. A person with clinical/major depression may go a period of time having days, weeks, or even months of good days, but then out of nowhere they fall into a funk without explanation. Often we try to mask our pain and hide in the crowd laughing and joking, and then go home to a dark house which is empty of life. Those of us with major depression are sensitive to others who we see hurting or going through a rough or difficult time. I found myself trying to help people I loved, but was not helping myself and inside my brain and emotions I was going through pure hell. A revelation came to me one day as I was suffering and trying to help a loved one. The revelation was the voice of the flight attendant giving instructions prior to take off. I was reminded of one of the major instructions which is “if the cabin loses pressure, an oxygen mask will drop from the area above your seat, put the mask on yourself first before helping the persons around you”. Those may not be the exact words, but you get the picture. I was going through my personal hell called depression trying to help others but neglecting my mental health.
THE EVILNESS OF DEPRESSION
Depression not only effects the person who is suffering, but often impacts those around them. The impact of depression on marriages and families can be devastating. As for me, not seeking help in a timely manner came at a great cost. I languished in mental and emotional agony. I am in private practice as a clinician and relationship/life coach. I would go to work and be on top of my game helping others through their rough patches, but at the end of the day I would go home and suffer in silence. I would attend church Sunday after Sunday being inspired by the Word of God, but that was short lived as I would fall back into a funk within a day or two. I found myself easily agitated and angry at any and every one. There seemed to be two different people that were diabolically opposed to one another. I was this spiritual God fearing man who was full of life, sought peace, and had a servant’s heart; then when depression would come upon me I was this angry agitated person who did not want to be bothered with anyone and would stay in the house alone for days at a time. However, my job demanded that I pour into the lives of clients who were coming into my office to seek help with their pain. I had to push myself to provide the best counseling and coaching possible because my oath stated that first and foremost to do no harm. I am a man of integrity, so I put on my game face, went into my office and gave the best counseling and coaching possible. I am quite good at what I do and my clients and other therapist often refer clients to me. I became good at masking my pain, but it was just that a mask.
ON AN ISLAND FEELING ALL ALONE
The hardest part of my depression was wanting help and support from my friends and family and them not being able to provide that support. You see, I had always been the strong one. I had always been the persons who everyone could depend on. So, when I was struggling with depression they didn’t know how to help. They continued to rely on me to help with their issues even though I was suffering with depression they still relied on me for help because that is what I always did “help”. I take full responsibility for allowing family and friends to pull on me because I continued the masquerade as if I was alright when I wasn’t alright. My depression was getting the best of me and I began to cancel sessions with my clients because there were days in which it was difficult to get out of bed. There were days that I was so drained that my entire body ached. After hitting a low point and having more bad days than good days, I reconciled that I needed to seek counseling again. Let’s be clear that every doctor needs a personal doctor, every lawyer needs a personal lawyer, every minister needs to be ministered to, and every clinician and life coach needs a personal clinician and life coach. As the ole saying goes “a person who have himself for a doctor has a fool for a doctor”. I was being a fool for quite some time helping people, but not getting the help I needed.
FIGHTING THE STIGMA
As a clinician, I know full well the stigma in the Afrikan Amerikan Community attached to counseling which prevents persons from seeking help. While I was not caught up in the stigma, I was acting like Superman and thought I could handle anything. The stigma attached to counseling coupled with the Superman mentality keeps most Afrikan Amerikan men from seeking counseling. As Afrikan Amerikan men, some the misconceptions of manhood are major barriers to seeking help. Growing up I can remember hearing that men are not supposed to cry and crying is a form of weakness, men are not supposed to show emotions, men should always be strong and be tough. As a young boy growing up in the inner-city of Washington, D.C. showing any signs of weakness or frailty would subject you to being picked on, bullied, and having your manhood challenged. I believe as young boys grow into adults they carry those misconceptions of manhood which become barriers to seeking counseling.
Major Depression effects more people than we realize and far too many people are unwilling to seek help. Getting help for your depression can prevent you from self-medicating. Yes, self-medicating. Too many people who are suffering with depression, instead of seeking help, turn to substance use, gambling, sex, and other deviant behaviors to mask their pain. For me, I turned to prayer and my spirituality to deal with my depression. I prayed. I attended church and bible study. I studied my Word. I prayed for others and yet God seemed silent. What compounded my depression was that I thought I was doing everything I was supposed to do by having integrity, by being faithful and obedient, by treating others nice even those who were not being nice to me, but I continued to live in this hell called depression. Yes, God is a Healer. Yes, God is a Deliverer. Yes, God is a Counselor. Yes, God is a Provider. However, God created doctors and therapist to be Angels here on earth to help us through our difficult times of depression. I was self-medicating in religion and neglected my mental health by not seeking help.
DON’T PUSH ME CAUSE I’M CLOSE TO THE EDGE:
Many people are pushed deeper into depression by the ones who supposed to love them most. The things that family and friends can say to a person dealing with depression can push a person close to and sadly over the edge. The things that are said such as “just get over it” can be debilitating to a person with depression. If the person dealing with depression could “just get over it” he or she would get over it in a blink of an eye, but it is just not that simple. Some people may have an episode of depression, that only last a few days and then back to some normalcy, whatever normal is, and some episodes of depression can last for weeks or months at a time. Telling the person dealing with depression to “just get over it” does more harm than good. Some of the labels given to persons dealing with depression can also be debilitating. Labeling a person or critiquing their behavior as lazy, attention seeking or simply manipulative is extremely harmful. Imagine Hearing your loved ones saying things like, “you are lazy”, “you just want attention” or “you are a manipulator” , it will hurt the depressed person at their core. Many persons suffering from a depressive episode, are Not Lazy, more likely they are drained. Depression can cause insomnia and the person can go days without getting any more than a few hours of sleep. A person having a depressed episode is not being manipulative and yes they may be seeking attention. They are crying out for help.
KNOWING THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Beloved, depression is a serious issue within our communities. There are too many people who are suffering in silence or crying out for help that is going unnoticed. I am reminded of the late great actor Robin Williams who from an outward view had everything going for him. He had money, a great network of family and friends, an established career, yet he was living a personal hell and didn’t seek help, much to his demise. We need to know the warning signs and symptoms of depression for the mental health of ourselves and those we love. According to the National Institute of Mental Health symptoms of depression may include the following:
• Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
• Fatigue and decreased energy
• Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness
• Insomnia, early morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
• Irritability, restlessness
• Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable
• Loss of interest in sexual intercourse (to include sexual dysfunction)
• Overeating or appetite loss
• Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
• Persistent sad, anxious, or empty feelings
• Thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts
BECOMING ONE WITH YOUR DEPRESSION CAN TURN YOUR LIFE UPSIDE DOWN
In hindsight, I realize that I was suffering from depression long before I was clinically diagnosed. I was able to do my every day functions and excelled at work receiving promotions and bonuses; however, I did not pay attention to my irritability, loss of energy, inability to sleep, and loss of sex drive. I meandered through life oblivious to what was going on inside my body and mind because the way I was living became my new normal. In other words, I adapted to my depression and depression became my norm. Getting help for my depression is one of the best things that I could have ever done for myself. I still have good days and not so good days, however, today I have far more good days than bad days. I first had to acknowledge that my life was spinning out of control and accept that I suffer with depression.
I made a conscious decision to seek help and I had to be willing to do whatever it takes to maintain my mental health. I have learned to put the oxygen mask on myself first, I was suffocating and dying with depression, while trying to help and fix everyone around me. Becoming more in tune with my feelings and emotions, allows me to notice when I am about to get into what I call a funk. I refocus, meaning, giving myself positive self-talk such as Salim don’t go there or purposely getting out of the house and engage in an activity or the company of family and friends who are uplifting. I am also mindful to schedule an appointment with my therapist immediately. I am comfortable with’ – ‘admitting’…. I may be in counseling for the rest of my life, if only for periodic check-ins or as I call them tune-ups.
Since I decided to seek counseling I can sing like Dr. Marvin Sapp “I am stronger, I’m wiser, I feel better, sooo much better”. I never could have made it, without a strong faith in Christ and the help from a therapist.
If you or a loved one is suffering with depression especially if it has been going on for a long period of time or experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned in the previous paragraph I suggest you make an appointment with your doctor or therapist to seek help or if you or your loved one has expressed suicidal thoughts or suicidal intentions do not hesitate to call the Suicide Hotline at (1-800-784-2433) or for TTY (1-800-799-4889).
Dr. Bilal-Edwards is an expert in youth development and social issues in an urban environment for men and boys of color. He has spoken in churches, at conferences, and retreats across the country as well as have conducted parent trainings and trainings to educators, social workers, youth workers, community organizations, and law enforcement officials. Dr. Bilal-Edwards specializes in counseling persons with co-occurring disorders and he is a highly respected relationship and life coach.