Two years this May is my anniversary, if you will, of being diagnosed with major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression. At the time, I hadn’t realized it was mental health awareness month and how fitting it was that I was finally going to see someone about this problem I’d had, hid, and endured for far too long. And even in going to see my primary care health professional, I had gone in with the mindset that it must have been just stress and anxiety that was plaguing me. But after spewing my guts out to her, and sobbing for a good half an hour, she made me gently realize that no one was supposed to feel as awful as I was for as long as I had been. And thus began my journey into accepting my, and now advocating for mental health awareness.
I can’t speak for every person suffering from some sort of mental health issue. Every person, and every issue is so very different. But I can say with 100% certainty that what I can say for every person dealing with a mental illness is that there isn’t nearly enough information, awareness, and understanding about the struggles so many people with mental illnesses face each day. And I can also say that this needs to end.
And the best way for this to awareness to grow is by those of us living with or loving people with mental illnesses to speak up about their experiences. Because maybe, if one more person can see that they’re not alone in the way they’re feeling, that they’re not broken or hopeless, and that there are people who care about them and will support them, then that’s one more person to get help and then share their experiences so even more can benefit.
While I know I’ve shared bits and pieces of my story before, there’s always more. So, here’s a little bit you perhaps didn’t know before.
Many people who are close to me know that I love birds. I love having my feeders out and full each day so that I can watch the wild backyard birds in my neighborhood congregate and eat. I know each species that comes frequently, what their calls are, their habits, their mating patterns. I watch for my favorites, and am worried about them when the weather takes a nasty turn. I revel in seeing the babies each spring and summer, and am heartbroken when I find one that has smashed against our dining room window and didn’t make it. I’ve downloaded apps, bought books, joined groups, and researched websites all to learn as much as I possibly can about these amazing animals. And they are. I know this now having studied them for two years. But I didn’t always know this or care at all to learn about them.
If you’ve known me longer than two years, you might wonder when I suddenly became so obsessed with birds. My daughter certainly did, and asked me as such not long ago. “Why are you so into birds all of a sudden?” I think was the exact phrasing. And my answer was this: they saved me.
Two years ago, before I was ready or capable of admitting I was depressed, but was in the deep, dark hole of it, I found myself learning how to mentally check out. I would stare into nowhere, almost like an out of body experience because it was so much nicer than to be present with my feelings. Being numb to everyone and everything was far more desirable than feeling angry, desolate, useless, and out of control. So, I would leave my body where it was, and allow my mind to cozy up into a fuzzy blanket, and ignore the world.
It was during this time, early spring, that when I would check out during meals, I would turn my head and gaze toward the window and stare outside. Well, I imagine you needn’t be a birder to know that many birds start migrating back into our area during this time. And so, as I was trying to check out, a flash of color or a song would catch my eye or ears, and pull me back in. It began happening so frequently that eventually I simply couldn’t ignore it anymore. There they were, flitting here and there, dragging dried grass for their nests, or showing off to attract a mate. And always, always looking for food.
It was at that time as well that my dad put out a couple of simple feeders, and began filling them with seed. And still I would watch. I’d watch and see how different birds preferred different seeds. How some were ground feeders, while others preferred to eat while perched. Some were aggressive, and scared the other birds away, while others waited patiently until most all the other birds flew off, and then picked at the remains.
I watched and watched, and as I watched, I found myself being inside of myself for longer and longer periods of time. And the more I was aware of my emotions, the more I started realizing that I couldn’t continue to live this way. It was either I find help or I lose everything by permanently shutting myself off from everyone else. Everyone I loved. Luckily for me, I was able to recognize that, and did get help.
So, when I say that the birds saved me, it’s not because of some profound realization I had about them, or some meaningful connection I made between us. They saved me because their presence caused me to slowly creep out of the grayness of my mind and thus forced me to recognize that how I was living was unhealthy. I was able to begin a path of recovery, which to be honest, I don’t think will ever end. There is a distinct difference between major depressive disorder and situational depression, and therefore different treatments, which is a topic for another day. But part of the treatment I found was in connecting with something outside of my immediate bubble. And in doing that, finding that perhaps I wasn’t too far gone yet that I couldn’t be brought back. It allowed me to be cognizant enough of my own needs that I was still able to recognize that how I was feeling and how I was acting was not healthy, and so changed all that.
It’s been two migrations and eight seasons since the birds unknowingly filled a void in me that no one knew was there. And they continue to be a salve for me on days when everything still feels wrong.
I love my family. I love my friends. And I cannot express my sincerest gratitude for those who have expressed their care and understanding to me. My love for all of you is immeasurable. But these birds…they are really the ones I owe everything too. Because they don’t even really know I exist, they ask for nothing, they require nothing from me. They don’t want to solve my problems or feel inadequate if their attempts at making me happy fall flat. They simply are. And in their being, I can just be with them. And thankfully, those who love me best know this, and know now to just leave me be with my birds when they see that look in my eyes. Because they know that I’ve found my way of coping. And their love for me respects this therapy of sorts.
Because it is therapy. It may not be exactly conventional or backed in some scientific study, but it’s good for my mind and soul nonetheless. And I firmly believe that whatever it takes, so long as one’s choice of coping or therapy does not inflict further harm on themselves or others, then so be it. We all need different things, and respond different ways. And there’s no right way to live with mental illness.