My depression and anxiety went undiagnosed and untreated for years. I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t think it was “bad enough” for me to be officially diagnosed with depression or anxiety. My life wasn’t “bad” — my health was fine, and I was a good student and employee with a fantastic support system of friends and family. My sister’s health was far worse, and she couldn’t work full-time for several years before her death, so it didn’t feel right for me to be diagnosed with depression when my life circumstances seemed to be so much better than hers.
It wasn’t until my sister’s death that I allowed myself some space, and it was the final straw that proved to me that my depression and anxiety were “bad enough” to warrant treatment.
It’s hard to put into words the viciousness of the situation in which I was living. Parts of my mind were broken; my brain was enveloped in unhealthy thought patterns and I was convinced I didn’t “deserve” to be depressed or anxious, as if depression was a sort of dystopian award.
Physical and mental health are two sides of the same coin with a chronic disease like cystic fibrosis (CF). We have a culture that struggles to understand the nuances of mental health and where antiquated views on masculinity, strength, and weakness are prevalent. “Strong” men aren’t supposed to share their emotions or show vulnerability. They shouldn’t be open about how they are sad or anxious. If they do express their feelings, they’re told to “man up.” Or they hear, “Oh come on, it’s not that bad” or other dismissive remarks.
It’s hard to avoid this socialization. Even when we consciously combat those harmful, reductive ideas, our brains have developed within a traditional masculinity framework. We can try to be open, but how long are we allowed that grace period of understanding before we’re expected to fit back into our neat masculinity roles?
The way we talk about and treat mental health in our culture is harmful, and the state of our mental healthcare system makes the situation worse. Getting an appointment with a professional can take months, and the bills add up. Once we find the right help, it can take months or years to begin to correct the deeply embedded thought patterns developed over time. With such a steep learning curve, the challenging combination of finding and paying for care can be too much for people to commit to a treatment plan. It’s imperative that we find a better way to streamline this unwieldy process.
And what about working full-time when we’re struggling with our mental health? As those with depression or anxiety will tell you, each person experiences the conditions in a different way. Some have a depressive bout for months and can still work, maintain a social life, and appear “fine” on the outside. Others can’t leave their bed. The same is true for anxiety. My experience tends to be generalized anxiety with intermittent panic attacks.
I’m fortunate and privileged that my employers in both my full-time and part-time jobs are understanding of my mental health. I recently had one of my most severe bouts of depression and anxiety. I realized I had invested so much of my heart and soul in work — science, writing, advocacy — that I wasn’t taking care of myself mentally. I missed my sister and tried to replace the hole with work. I was working 60 hours a week when I realized that no matter how “productive” I am, work can’t replace my sister.
My financial health wouldn’t allow me to take much time off from my day job. But I could take a break from my other responsibilities at BioNews Services and other projects. Some people are not so fortunate to have compassionate employers. It can be difficult to talk to our managers about such a heavy topic. It’s critical that we learn how to cope with working and the personal productivity paradox while making sure our brains and minds are also healthy. Talking about it is the first step.
Follow along with my other writings on my humbly named site, www.trelarosa.com.
Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.