Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Scarlet D

I wore a badge of shame and secrecy. The scrap of red cloth for all to see in the form of a letter. The letter "D" signified my "sin" of depression which I kept largely hidden from most in the world. But sometimes I would feel the looks and stares boring into me and I would think that person can see the letter, they know.

The world of mental heath is hush - hush. There is a social stigma. Few people want to admit that they live in a world where they can't control their feelings or emotions. No one wants to be perceived as abnormal, scarred, crazy, weak or any of the other adjectives that are linked to the description of those that live with mental illness. No one wants to be dismissed as unworthy based on their brain. No one wants to face rejection or discrimination based on a sickness. And so someone with cancer can talk openly about the pain and the treatment and people rally to their side, but someone that suffers from depression often hides in shame and fear. They watch people avert their eyes as the wheels in their brain turn judging the person before them when they do reveal. The stigma is so pervasive that the practice where I was receiving treatment and therapy was virtually unmarked. There is no sign advertising it and the name plate on the door simply reads the doctor's name, minus the doctor and associates. When you walk in anyone passing the office has no idea what occurs behind those doors.

So as I sauntered into my place of employment the next day I felt like all eyes were on me - judging. I had lied to most people saying that I was off work because of something that I had done to my foot. But when I walked in to drop off my doctor's note I watched the first co-worker's eyes move to the flip-flops I was wearing. I felt the eyes and the questioning and the talking that was going on when I turned my back. Everyone was wondering why I needed more time to recover when I seemed to be walking pretty well. I tried as much as possible to tell the "story", I didn't really say anything if I could avoid it,  but I felt like those really looking could see the outline of the "D" that I wore on my chest whether I liked it or not. I felt the eyes follow. I knew that even if they weren't looking close enough to see they were looking close enough to know that something wasn't right with my cover story. And so now on top of a major depressive disorder, anxiety attacks and an eating disorder I thought I might need to add paranoia to the plethora of issues. How much of the looks and stares were a product of my vivid imagination and how many of them were real?

So I had the privilege of walking through my own version of the town square shaming ceremony. I again surrendered the note that said I needed to be off for a "biological disorder." Even the note was coded to lessen the stigma. The doctor knew what it was like for someone to walk in the world with depression. She knew the scorn and judgement that people issued without really understanding that it too was a disease, it was just one where the marks are borne inside and they evolve so slowly that it's difficult to easily notice the change. And even in the vernacular the word depression is thrown around to describe a bad day or week or a little sadness; and that too creates more issues because for someone that hasn't been there they just think "well I was depressed a few months ago for a week and you just need to get over it." I had been that person once, but now I knew how the depression invades your brain, washes over you and slowly cripples the person that you are so that you can no longer function in everyday life. You smile and you act, but you aren't well. And when someone is truly depressed they are so afraid that anyone will know and see that it's difficult to imagine the clinically depressed would use that word so casually. People are afraid to be that person made to stand before all her peers as they stare at that red letter and judge.

And with even those that you are confidant you have fooled you are left to contemplate what the response would be if they did know. How would they look at you differently? How would their thoughts and perceptions of you change? How much judgement would they levy? Which ones in your circle of friends, co-workers, acquaintances and confidants would be the one to sew the letter and pin it to your chest for all the world to see - that red letter always present every time they looked at you? Life is so much easier when you don't have to have the answers to those questions and yet it also perpetuates the shame and stigma that you cannot be that honest about something that permeates your life so profoundly. It's a striking reality when you realize that you are a participant in the novel of your life as both shamer and shamee.

What a lesson there is in how Hester wore her badge of shame. She wore it proudly and definitely. She owned her sin. And she was the one that learned to live with and accept herself by doing so. If only I was brave enough to wear that "D" the same way. But instead I walked with my fear and shame and hoped that no one noticed, that no one saw, that no one had been there that afternoon when I appeared in front of my audience with that big red scrap of cloth in the shape of a letter.

I walked out of the door and let the paranoia dissipate. Maybe one day I could be that brave, but today was not the day. Today I would still suffer silently, telling no one and living a lie. I wasn't ready for the ridicule that I had handed out before to anyone that said that they were suffering. For one more day I would hide my pain from most everyone I knew for fear that I would lose what little I had. But if you looked closely you could see that scarlet letter branded on me as it screamed out to the world - depressed, diseased, disturbed, degenerate ...

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