How I'm Learning to Not Be Ashamed of My Depression

by Brionne Janae

I have lived the better half of the last five years with shame. A shame I didn’t know how deeply I felt until I sat sobbing in a Pentecostal church, my head resting on the chest of a woman whose name I don’t know, and had never spoken to until just then. Yet there I was in her arms as she rocked and prayed for me. I had only once before spoken honestly of the state of my mind in church, though I have spent a good portion of my life there.

The first time I shared my burden, I got the typical give it to Jesus prayer. I’m sure many of us who struggle with depression in churches, especially black churches, have heard it. It’s the kind of prayer that turns my blood, makes me want to stand in the pulpit, and shout. Jesus gave this to me. Jesus handed me this weight and never asked if I wanted it. I didn’t choose this. Give it to Jesus? You might as well say walk away from yourself, or get over it, or if the fire is so damn hot why don’t you get out of the kitchen. Because my whole life is tied up in that kitchen. 
But this woman Sunday before last, didn’t pray one of those prayers. She was specific. She prayed for my body, that I would have the strength to get out of bed in the morning. She prayed that I would not stop believing in the sanctity of my mind, she prayed that I would not feel the need to kill myself. She prayed that I would not be ashamed.

I am ashamed of depression, but mostly I am ashamed of how often I have wanted to stop living, to cease existing, to get in bed and stay there. When I was 19, I fantasized about stepping in front of busses. It was my first time living away from home, first time living without a car, and walking everywhere and catching the bus. I was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, living for the first time with real space in my life for depression and anxiety to spill over into. I didn’t have to stress about my parents worrying about me, calling my gloom insolence, or using my angst as a mirror for their own. I started cutting, mostly as a means to cope with living. I knew if I decided to leave my body it wouldn’t be with a knife.

I would walk down College Avenue, and every time a bus would drive by, I would want to lean into it, and I'd be filled with this terror that I actually would. I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted to not be alive, to stop and rest a while, to be at peace. I’ve long stopped leaning into busses, but never spoken of that time or any of the ways I’ve imagined leaving my body, not even in my poetry.

It has always felt wrong to ask people to step into this with me. Wrong and terrifying. What if I tell someone and they decide the best place for me is a mental hospital? What if every conversation I have with them from then forward is with their eyes looking at me as if I were a wounded deer? What if I drag them down with me? What if they walk away?

I’ve always believed that it was my job to pretend that everything is good, even and especially, when it isn’t. I do this for the sake of those around me, but mostly for myself. I’ve internalized this belief so much that often when I’m confronted with a person who wears their depression on their sleeves, my knee jerk reaction is nasty. I think get over it. I think fucking filter yourself. I think just fake it like the rest of us. Fortunately, I have a decent filter, and have come to realize that what I dislike in them is, simply, what I am ashamed of in myself.

That afternoon, after I wept like a small child in that church woman’s arms, I tried going about my normal Sunday routine. I went to the cafe downtown where I like to grade essays and pretend to be productive. I went to the movies on a whim and saw whatever was playing next, and after as I walked toward the station, I detoured through Macy’s and bought a small silver cross on a whim. Or if I was continuing my usual dishonesty, I’d say because it was 55 percent off. I mean I payed $65 for a cross that was regularly $150. What a steal. But that is not why I bought the cross. As I meandered home I made myself a promise. A promise I make quite frequently: I will keep on in this fight for my life, and if I keep fighting then, God, you must be here with me. I’ve ended more than a couple poems with this sentiment.

Living with my mind constantly under attack means, that sometimes every day, and sometimes every hour, I am fighting for my life. I am asserting that I want to be here. It is my choice and I choose life for myself, knowing full and well, that abandoning my body looks so much easier.
And that’s what is hardest about mental illness. Here I am fighting for my life, making the most important choice I’ll ever make every day, and I’m ashamed of it, which means I tell no one, which means I fight, for the most, part alone. We don’t send soldiers into combat alone for a reason. People need people. We are fundamentally social beings. People with mental illness shouldn’t struggle alone. And so even as I have committed myself to life for the umpteenth thousandth time and purchased a tangible symbol of that struggle and commitment. I also need to commit to not doing this alone. To letting go of shame.

This mind I have, this temperament of my heart and soul, was given to me at birth. I did nothing to earn them. It has shaped and worked at me for better, for worse. Has made me more compassionate, and attuned to the world around me, even as I struggle to love myself and all the ways I move through this life. I do not need to be ashamed. I must commit today to finding new ways to exists in the world. Ways that allow me to be honest about what I’m feeling. Ways that permit me to ask for help when I need it. Ways that allow me to trust and believe that the world is filled with people like the woman from my church, people who will offer a hand up when it gets difficult to stand. I need to not only speak but live the words of Audre Lorde:

“….when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid

So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive”

Photo: Shutterstock

Brionne Janae is a California native, teaching artist and poet living in Boston. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in jubilat, Apogee Journal, Waxwing, The Nashville Review and Bayou Magazine. Brionne received her MFA from Emerson College, and is a Cave Cane Fellow.

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