Wednesday, August 13, 2014

In the Brain

I volunteered with a group of special needs people this last year. I'll never forget the day one of the "buddies", a woman named Lindsay, stood up at the front of the room and said, "How many of you have depression?"
Hands went up.
"How many of you have anxiety?"
Hands went up.
She rattled off a list of friends and relatives she knew with one or both. Then she said, "My friend passed away of anxiety and depression. I have anxiety and depression. So if you have one of these and you need a friend, come talk to me."
We had almost as many volunteers as buddies. Together, we numbered around 200. Yet as I looked around, I noticed none of the volunteers raised their hands. Surely in a group of this size someone was waging a war inside their heads. They just didn't feel like they could raise their hands.
Our leaders never tossed around euphemisms like "differently abled" or told them, "You're not a special needs person. You're just a person with special needs." None of the buddies who could talk were shy about saying "I have down syndrome" or "I'm autistic."  One boy even had a bright orange shirt that read CAUTION: AUTISM AHEAD.
We have this idea that an illness needs to be visible before you're allowed to talk about it. From down syndrome and autism, all of them had something going on in the brain. Something that showed up in their face or speech or the way they carried themselves. Two were deaf and many used wheelchairs or walkers. And in addition to that, they had "normal" mental disorders. The kind you're supposed to conceal instead of fighting your battles in public.
One of the most powerful words in the English language is community. It's a fighting word, and more importantly, it's a defensive fighting word. Community implies people banding together. Community garners respect. I tell people I volunteered with the special needs community. Our school's Christmas fundraiser wasn't set up to help deaf people buy hearing aids, oh no, they're for the deaf community. People acknowledge the visibly handicapped as a community, as they do religions and ethnic groups.
Never once have I heard a reference to the depression community. They exist, there's no denying that. Robin Williams' death has brought them out into the open. They may not meet for lunch every other Tuesday, but there are lots of them, and I don't think it's a stretch to use the c word.
I am not clinically depressed. But I live in Utah, depression capital of the universe, so three of my five closest friends are and a fourth lost her father to suicide. So often, I've seen that the "problem child" isn't always the one with piercings and hair dye. Plenty of people prefer to conceal their depression instead of living a stereotype. It's amazing what you can hide just by putting on a smile.
What can we do to help fight depression? The biggest thing is for people who don't have clinical depression to stop tossing around the word. Never say you are depressed. You can say you're feeling depressed today, but please remember that it's also a medical condition, and you are not depressed after a bad break up any more than a man with an injured foot is a paraplegic. Only then can a depressed community distinguish themselves. Only then can the very word be a cry for help. Only then can we give the depressed community the help they need.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. I must admit I have always thought we were really lucky that Alec has Down syndrome - a visible disability. People really do make allowances for him that they do not make for the visibly disabled. It is sad that we have to be so judgmental. I have a friend whose son has Tourette's. He blurts very inappropriate things out in very public places. She has been made to cry as people chastise her for doing such a poor job raising her son not realizing he and she have no control. I have seen people berate someone for using a handicapped parking space when they aren't limping, in a wheelchair, etc but how do we know that person does not suffer from a very serious heart condition. Whether it's depression, Tourette's, autism, or anything else, we as a society need to step back and not judge! It would be great if we really could act like a community and be supportive and helpful to each other even when we don't know the struggles.