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Depression is a Disease, Not a State of Mind

  January 08, 2015


By Monica Vest Wheeler

When one of the funniest, most beloved, resourceful, and generous human beings on the planet, actor and comedian Robin Williams, commits suicide after a long battle with depression, you know there’s something wrong.

Yes, something’s wrong, not with the man, but with the rest of the planet.

Like millions of individuals, I was stunned by the news of Robin’s suicide at the still young, vital age of 63. How could a man who seemingly “had it all” have succumbed to such a drastic, hopeless, final decision? Did he not know how much his family and the world loved him? Just what was going on in his head?!

Stop it. Stop it right now.

It’s all about the brain, plain and simple — the most vital and delicate organ in our body. And too few individuals in the world fully comprehend that when our brain is broken, whether through internal or external forces, we are broken in some way. If we could only peer deep into the brain of someone living with depression and see what’s going on with all those cells, our world would be a much better, understanding, and compassionate place.

Sometimes I stand and look in the mirror and wish that I or someone else far wiser could do just that — while doing minimal damage to my naturally beautiful streaked silver hair — and help me better understand why I’ve been battling depression for many years.

Why did some of my brain cells send harmful and inaccurate signals at dark, unexpected moments that the world might be better off without me? Why did some of my brain cells get together for an unannounced party and decide to tell me not to “bother” anyone when common sense tells me that hearing a friend’s voice always brightens my day? Why did my brain cells tell my hand not to pick up the phone and call?

It’s so freaking stupid and maddening! I know better than that but I could not see through the pain!

Even though I inaccurately at one time subscribed to the verbiage that it’s a battle of inner demons, I know now that it’s not. Depression is a disease, not a demon. It’s not some creepy critter punching holes in my brain cells and having the last laugh. It’s a serious medical condition.

It’s a disease, not a weakness. And until our society gets that crucial message, there’s still going to be a whole lot of hurting going on, even more than there is now. Robin Williams may have been a very public tragedy, but this disease devastates countless families, who often struggle privately and alone and with a sense of shame.

I didn’t comprehend for years that my private sadness and inner pain was depression. It wasn’t until one January morning in 2001 when I started yelling at my husband and son, and crying and shaking uncontrollably that I finally sought professional help. My husband insisted. I could no longer hide the intense agony that was literally killing me from the inside.

My physician diagnosed me with depression and put me on medication. When I better understood what I was experiencing, he and I agreed that counseling therapy would also be a beneficial part of my overall treatment plan. So, I also started seeing a therapist, who determined I had depression, an anxiety disorder, and also suffered panic attacks. Oh man, I was a mess!

Remember the classic song, “I Can See Clearly Now”? That happened when medication and therapy started kicking in. I plowed through endless layers of stubborn cobwebs as I could finally see the world much more clearly and free myself of years of crippling emotional pain that I hadn’t been able to explain to anyone, hence, the fear I was crazy.

Yes, I had a disease. I wasn’t “crazy.” Depression is a disease, just like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and even alcoholism. Each needs a unique treatment and follow-up. When my brain cells started functioning the way they should, I could finally look around me and see the world in a whole new way.

I did not share my diagnosis of depression with too many folks beyond my immediate family and closest circle of friends, all of whom did notice a “new and improved” Monica, who had a much more consistently cheerful demeanor and outlook on life. However, I was fortunate that no one had ever hounded me, “Hey, cheer up!” I really had mastered the art of hiding it around others. I just crashed badly when alone.

In 2004, I was asked to work on a book related to coping with cancer. I had interviewed thousands of people during my many newspaper reporting and editing years, but interacting with cancer survivors and their loved ones challenged my brain in a new way as I delved into the emotional side of this horrible disease of cancer. However, when one of the women I had interviewed died just before the release of the book, I was devastated.

She had ovarian cancer that had gone to her brain. I remember the amazing conversation we had about her frustrations in getting her brain to cooperate with what she wanted to do mentally and physically.

When the cancer book was completed, I took a long hard look at my own life, which had improved much, as I had completed nearly two years of therapy and accepted the fact that I had a type of depression that would require swallowing those powerful meds, one tablet a day, likely for the rest of my life.

It’s how my brain is wired. It is me, someone with whom it took me a long time to fall in love. It isn’t ego when I say I finally loved myself. It’s finally grasping one of the most essential loves to truly live life.

When I looked in the mirror in 2006, I realized that I needed to focus on the everyday and emotional challenges of brain-related injuries, illnesses, and diseases. Why? Because society as a whole equates virtually anything wrong with the brain as mental illness, crazy, wacko, psycho, other nasty terms… ugh.

I had learned that family and friends quickly gathered around a loved one who had cancer, a heart attack or similar medical crisis, needed emergency surgery, or was involved in an accident. Most people naturally have empathy when they see someone with a broken arm or leg or if they’re in a wheelchair.

But folks don’t understand or “get” a broken brain. If someone they love or know starts acting, walking, speaking or behaving odd for no visible reason, they’re afraid and start to scatter. This was proven time and time again as I began working on a book in the fall of 2006 about coping with Alzheimer’s. The social isolation and heartbreaking changes in their loved ones were leaving these families reeling in despair. I came across many caregivers who were suffering with what I felt deep inside was undiagnosed depression. I could sense it immediately because you can’t “con a con.”

Upon completing the Alzheimer’s book, I decided to focus on stroke, traumatic brain injuries, brain tumors, and brain cancer. The need is so great for survivors and caregivers to better understand what had happened to the brain. It’s a brain illness, disease, or injury that is the source of upheaval, transformation, grief, and loss! It’s the brain!

As I engaged with hundreds of survivors and caregivers in all these areas, I heard every heartbreaking and heartwarming experience you could imagine. I could see the hints of depression adding to the everyday and emotional challenges many were already facing. I began to speak openly about my own struggles because people needed my courage of thumbing my nose at the stigma of depression. Yes, I still struggle with it and have to keep it in check. Yes, I still have occasional nights where I really don’t care if I wake up in the morning, but I know tomorrow will be better. 

I’ve probably broken all the practical rules of dealing with my own depression by “hanging around” with folks going through catastrophic injuries and illnesses. I’ve laughed and cried with so many individuals, hugged and been hugged a million times, held hands and rested my forehead against another person’s as our mutual tears fell. We just need to be heard and needed. That is an essential part of the healing journey and life.

With my husband’s endless and loving support, I cope with my depression by helping others, by sharing my words, and the gazillion photos I shoot of the true meaning of life and our mission here on this earth: humans connecting with each other to share this journey. There is a reason why there are so many of us! Hello!!

It’s an essential part of the cure for me. It is the glimmer of hope and purpose that keeps me going and driving thousands of miles all over this country, attending and volunteering at traumatic brain injury camps and Retreat & Refresh Stroke Camps by helping those who also face brain challenges, even though each is different because we are unique human beings.

We must banish the stigma of depression and mental illnesses and injuries. We must focus on addressing and researching these devastating conditions. We have to do it now because it is already costing our society more human resources and money than we can begin to calculate. We can’t afford to lose one more precious life to depression. We even need to eliminate the term “mental illness.” It is illness, period.

We have to keep talking and listening. We must ask for help and offer help. We cannot be ashamed or afraid. We need to love each other and life in a whole new way…

…because it’s worth it.



Books and ebooks by Monica are available at www.teapress.com, www.monicavestwheeler.com, and at Amazon.com, with several new titles scheduled to be released before the end of the year. Monica is available for presentations on coping with the emotional and everyday challenges of brain-related injuries, illnesses and diseases, including Alzheimer’s, stroke and traumatic brain injury.

Contact Monica at info@copeandsurvive.com or call toll-free 877-267-4640 or P.O. Box 276, Peoria, IL 61650-0276. You can also follow her on Facebook. Back to Top

January 08, 2015
Categories:  Feature

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