Sometimes it isn’t just the blues.
That’s what I thought I had shortly after my divorce became official in 2002. I thought if I just stayed busy, the blues couldn’t get me. I got a new job, moved across the country and threw myself into my work. I joined a gym. I lost 20 lbs. I bought new clothes and told myself my life was great.
But it wasn’t. Nine months later I had to take two weeks off from work due to severe anxiety attacks. Two years after that I was hospitalized for the first time for severe depression.
I wondered how could I be depressed? I had a great job, friends and a loving family. And it had been two years since the divorce. How was it that every year I was getting worse emotionally rather than better?
Denial is a powerful thing.
I thought to be sad all the time was a personal weakness. I thought I could just will depression away, force myself to focus on work or happy thoughts, and those dark, scary moments couldn’t get me.
What I didn’t understand was this was no longer an “emotional” issue for me. It was chemical. I’d been depressed for so long that my brain no longer could make or receive the chemical serotonin in a normal capacity. You can’t will away a serotonin imbalance any more than you can will away diabetes. You have to fight it.
But the first step is realizing you have something to fight at all.
Only 12 percent of Black women suffering from depression or other forms of mental illness seek help for it, usually because they think their case of the blues is temporary or a personal weakness, rather than a chemical imbalance or a disease.
Depression is highly treatable, either through talk therapy or medication or some combination of both. But if left ignored, it could develop into physical health problems, like complications from extreme weight gain or loss, high blood pressure, or even suicide if left untreated.
Being sad all the time is serious, so it’s important to know if you’re just a little down or it it’s time to talk to a professional.
Here are some signs to look for:
- Do you find you are no longer interested in things you traditionally have loved? For me, it was children. All my life, I’d loved kids and loved being around them. Even dreamed of having my own. But after my divorce, I couldn’t bring myself to hold a baby, let alone have a conversation with any child of any age. They made me feel uncertain, even annoyed.
- Has your sleep pattern dramatically changed? Are you not getting enough sleep? Or maybe you’re sleeping more than usual. At different times I dealt with chronic insomnia and periods in which all I wanted to do was sleep. Oversleeping is often a sign of wanting to escape from the reality you have to deal with when awake, and insomnia is usually a sign of stress or anxiety that can also lead to depression.
- Do you have more bad days than good days? Feeling bad once or twice a week is one thing, but if day-in, day-out you’re not just unhappy, but miserable at work or school, that's a bad sign. For me, it was realizing that I no longer said hello to my friends and co-workers, but sort of grunted, or didn’t speak at all.
- Do you suddenly get mad or are easily irritated? Trying to deny your sadness when it’s still inside of you can make you difficult to be around because, even when you try to hold it in, sometimes you end up projecting that negativity on others -- either by being rude or hypercritical. Your anger may come from a place of pain, but to others it just looks like straight up hostility.
- Does it all seem pointless or negative no matter what you do? Losing hope is never a good sign. If you’ve reached a point where you’re constantly thinking “what’s the point?” -- you have a problem. If you can’t make the negative thoughts stop, no matter what you do, you have a problem. If your personal relationships are deteriorating because you don’t see the point in putting any energy into them, you have a problem. When I found that I didn’t care what happened to me anymore, I knew that couldn’t have been the right way to feel.
If you said yes to 1 or 2 of these, it’s time to seek help from someone who understands mental health better than you or your friends. Check out the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance group. They have information on everything from local chapters and health professionals, to group meetings, discussion forums and advice. I utilized DBSA’s services during a time when I was without medical insurance and the group, health professionals and volunteers associated with it helped me apply for prescription drug help, and found a group for me to attend, and a therapist within my budget.
It was a great first step in finally getting to the place of peace and stability where I am now. With hard work and good medicine, you can get there too.
Danielle Belton is the editor and creator of the blog blacksnob.com. She was diagnosed depression in 2001 and with Type II bipolar disorder in 2005. She is currently writing a book about her decade-long battle to get to contentment and stability. Read more about her experience with mental illness here, here and here.