My name is Shira Renee Thomas, and I am coming out of the closet.
First, let me tell you who I am.
I am an Opera Singer, and the Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of a small but well-respected opera company in Southern California. I am a Voice Teacher. I am a Wife and Mother. I am a Daughter and a Sister. I am a Colleague. I am a Friend.
I am loving and caring. I am passionate. I am intelligent. I am giving. I am sensitive. I am creative. I am understanding and non-judgmental.
I am a Super-Feeler.
My name is Shira Renee Thomas, and I have a chronic illness.
My illness is similar to Multiple Sclerosis or Diabetes, in that it is a recurrent, potentially deadly disease that must be monitored and treated for a lifetime. My illness first attacked when I was 16 years old, and I have been fighting it ever since.
As recently as two years ago, my illness almost took my life. It has almost taken my life many times over the past 20 years. It has landed me in the hospital three times, and in outpatient hospital programs twice. I will almost certainly be medicated for the rest of my life.
My illness has gotten progressively worse over the last 5-7 years. I have at least 2-3 very serious, completely debilitating bouts of this illness per year. These flare-ups last anywhere from one week, to several months.
I have had to give up pursuing an international singing career because of this illness, a decision I only recently realized was necessary for my health. I have never, in my entire life, been able to hold down a “regular” job, because of this crippling illness. I am not able to maintain close friendships because I don’t want to be a “downer”, so I isolate myself. I am terrified that I will not be a good mother to my baby, because I will not be able to manage my illness well enough. I’m fearful that my sweet, innocent daughter will inherit this horrific disease from me.
Only a handful of people outside of my family know that I suffer from this disease. It is not something that is widely accepted or understood, and I have felt the need to remain quiet about my illness in order to avoid judgment from those who don’t, or won’t, understand. Today, I am coming out of the closet.
My name is Shira Renee Thomas, and I suffer from Recurrent Major Depressive Disorder.
Recurrent Major Depressive Disorder (or Recurrent Major Depression) is a serious illness that affects millions of people around the world. According to the World Health Organization, “Globally, more than 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression” (Oct. 2012). It has many common symptoms including, but not limited to, fatigue, irritability, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, insomnia, lack of concentration, memory loss, loss of interest in most or all normal activities, and persistent feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and emptiness (mayoclinic.org). Physical symptoms may include aches and pains, headaches, chest pain, and digestive issues (webmd.com). The most serious symptom of Depression is suicide.
Writing down that I suffer from Recurrent Major Depressive Disorder (commonly referred to as “Depression”) is causing me a great deal of anxiety and shame, even now.
But why? Why should I be ashamed of being the unwitting victim of a serious illness? Why is so much stigma attached to this disease?
There are many answers to that last question.
The word “depressed” is used in our everyday vernacular quite commonly. We use the word “depressed” to describe how we feel when dealing with very trivial things. I often hear (or read on social media) exclamations such as, “My favorite restaurant closed! I’m so depressed!”, or “Starbucks discontinued my favorite drink. I’m so depressed.”
While these are disappointments that may make someone sad, they are not examples of Clinical Depression. Using the word “depressed” or “depression” in such flippant ways trivializes the illness for those who suffer with the disease, and it serves to invalidate Depression as a serious mental illness that needs to be treated by a professional medical team. It also contributes to a landscape of misunderstanding and trivialization in our society as a whole.
When I am feeling sad or blue, I use the term “down” to describe how I’m feeling. When I tell my husband, “I’m feeling kind of down,” he knows that I’m not feeling good, but I am not depressed. I encourage you to find a word that accurately describes your mood when you are feeling less than good, and replace “depressed” with that new word. Some examples include the words “blue”, “down”, or “disappointed”.
Many of the symptoms of Depression are feelings or pains experienced by everyone at one time or another in their lives. Because of that, many people will think, “Well, I was sad about losing my job last week, but I just got over it and moved on.”
That’s an important statement. It illustrates the difference between those experiencing feelings of normal sadness, disappointment, and grief, and those who suffer from Clinical Depression. Seriously depressed people can’t “get over it” and “move on”. People who experience normal sadness and hardship are not to be trivialized or written off. They are just experiencing something different than what seriously depressed people experience and, therefore, those suffering from depression should not be expected to respond to and get through their illness in the same way.
Another example of a common, inaccurate use of the word “depressed” is in a statement such as, “I was feeling depressed, so I went to Magic Mountain and now I’m feeling better.” People who are suffering from Clinical Depression do not have the ability to find enjoyment in activities that would normally bring them pleasure, such as going to a theme park. A seriously depressed person can be in their favorite location, doing their favorite activity, eating their favorite meal with their favorite people, and they will still feel depressed. They are unable to distract themselves or “snap out of it”. In the original statement about going to Magic Mountain, it would be more accurate to replace the word “depressed” with a word like “down”.
People diagnosed with Major Depression do not have the ability to process thoughts and feelings normally. They are not able to see anything other than utter despair and hopelessness. Images of blackness, deep holes, or long tunnels are often used to illustrate what Depression feels like. Many times, the sufferer feels like they have fallen into a deep hole, and they cannot even see the opening of that hole anymore. That is the hopelessness of Depression.
Images of an isolated person in a crumpled fetal position are also regularly used to illustrate those who suffer with the illness. Many depressed people feel the need to withdraw from society, and can develop a type of social anxiety that causes them to isolate themselves. One reason for this is that they know (usually from experience) that most people do not, or will not, understand what they are going through and will say things that will only make them feel worse.
Those suffering from Major Depressive Disorder do not always need an outside trigger to push them into an episode of Depression. The Depression that I almost did not survive two years ago was during a time that should have been full of happiness, excitement, and fulfilment. I was in a great place personally and professionally, and nothing had happened to me or anyone close to me that could’ve triggered my very fast decent into despair. Sometimes, there is no warning sign, even when you’re watching (and being watched) so closely for one.
The good news for me is that I have a family that supports me and loves me unconditionally. My husband, parents, and siblings understand what I struggle with and are always ready to drop everything to catch me when I fall. I also have a therapist that I’ve seen continuously for 20 years, who is equally dedicated to my health and well-being. I have a wonderful psychiatrist who monitors my medications and provides medical support for me as well. I have a few friends who also do their best to understand my illness and, even if they may not understand completely, are always there to support me when I need them.
I am one of the lucky ones. Many, many people either don’t have support systems in place, or are so ashamed to admit they have a mental illness, that they keep it locked up inside of themselves and suffer in silence, never seeking professional treatment (National Alliance on Mental Illness 2013).
These are the people most likely to commit suicide.
A Brief Word About Suicide…
Seriously depressed people do not simply choose to end their lives because they are sad. They do not simply make a decision to “check out”. Depression is a disease that can be fatal; it just so happens that the fatal outcome presents itself in the form of suicide. When a person is in a serious depressive episode, they are not thinking clearly. Their thoughts are clouded by the disease. When I am not in a depressive episode, the thought of ending my own life is beyond my comprehension. I can’t imagine ever making that choice. However, when I’m seriously depressed, I have thoughts that I cannot control. I am truly not myself during those times. The disease takes over and makes it seem that there is no other option, and that my loved ones would be better off without me. Far from being a selfish choice, it seems that it is the selfless thing to do. It’s not rational. It’s not sensible. But that’s the point. Depression steals all logical thinking from you. Suicide is truly a symptom of the disease. It is not a simple decision that someone selfishly chooses. Suicide is an outcome that must be avoided by utilizing professional medical care, and through careful monitoring of those who suffer from Depression.
In my entire 20 years of battling this disease, I have never “come out of the closet” about it to more than a handful of people. This is a terrifying step for me to take, but I feel that my finally being open about my continuing struggle might provide much needed support, understanding, and camaraderie to someone who needs it.
Although I fear that more than a few people will judge me and no longer take me seriously in one capacity or another, this is something I need to do. I’ve been contemplating coming out of the closet for a few years and, with the sudden and tragic passing of an American icon last year (Robin Williams), I feel now is the time.
If you read this and have any questions, please feel free to ask. I will do my best to answer them. If you read this and feel that we can no longer be friends or colleagues because of it, that is your choice and I will accept it.
Thank you for reading this. I hope it will push you to learn more about Depression, to be a non-judgmental support to those you come into contact with, and to fight the stigma attached to this and all mental illnesses.