CNN did a great thing today. They published a first-person account by one of their editors, Stephanie Gallman, about her experience of being diagnosed with depression, and of telling her friends and family about it.
Initially when I saw this article, I was overjoyed. It’s good to see mainstream media outlets publishing articles about depression that are personal rather than scientific in nature, and I’m relieved that more people are willing to publicly state the fact that they have depression.
But then I actually started reading it:
In August, after several months of seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist, I was diagnosed with depression.
The news came as a shock.
“I’m not depressed,” I said defiantly, shaking my head when the doctor deducted that must be what was ailing me.
“I hate depressed people.”
She laughed at my strange reaction, but I was serious. I don’t want to be in that category of people. Everything they take in and spew out just breathes negativity, and they are difficult to be around. I despise these people.
Gee, thanks, Stephanie. We despise you too.
She goes on to describe how, at her doctor’s urging, she finally realized that the symptoms of depression really did describe her experience. When her doctor suggests antidepressants, she’s not too excited about the idea but seems to at least consider it.
Then she discusses dropping the “D-bomb” to friends and family. Her favorite response from them, apparently, is surprise:
A lot of the people reacted to the D-bomb the same way I did — “You’re depressed?! You? Stephanie Gallman? But you’re one of the happiest people that I know! You Hula-Hoop in Walmart!” (I really do Hula-Hoop in Walmart — every time I go.)
These are the people I wanted to reach out and hug; they made me feel like I hadn’t turned into Debbie Downer.
It’s true, to the outside world, I do appear happy. And I realize this is hard to grasp, even for me, but I am happy most of the time. I am fully aware of how blessed my life is and express gratitude for it daily. I have worked hard not to let what’s going on with me on the inside affect the way I present myself on the outside.
It’s hard not to notice how much this smacks of a certain self-congratulatory relief, of “doing” depression the right way. This woman is clearly such a considerate person, for not letting her depression affect how she presents herself!
Gallman’s gratitude for her blessed life strikes a chord with me, as it will with many other people with depression, because of how damn often we’re told to “count our blessings” and “be grateful for what we have.” There’s nothing worse, apparently, then being ungrateful.
That said, there are definitely some great things about the article. Gallman talks about her anger at being told to “do more of the things that you enjoy” rather than taking antidepressants. “Bite me,” she writes. “These patronizing (“The Secret”? Are you serious?) prescriptions infuriated me, as if the reason I wasn’t happy is because I hadn’t tried hard enough.”
She also makes a great point about the need for more openness surrounding mental illness. One of the responses she often received when she dropped the “D-bomb” was stories about friends and family members who had also suffered from depression:
I was dumbfounded. I wanted to scream like Adam Sandler in “The Wedding Singer”: “Gee, you know that information … really would’ve been more useful to me yesterday!” Why isn’t anyone talking about these illnesses that affect our most important body part — our brain?
Indeed, why aren’t more people taking about these common, devastating illnesses?
Unfortunately for Gallman, one answer is that it’s because of people like her.
Specifically, it’s because of the people who call us “Debbie Downers,” who tell us that we’re “spewing negativity,” who blame us for our own illness just like Gallman (tragically) blamed herself.
The problem with Gallman’s narrative is that we’re not all as “blessed” as she is. Her theory that she may be to blame for her own depression because she withdrew from friends may be applicable to her own life (though I doubt it), but it’s not very applicable to those depression sufferers who may not have a strong support network like she does. She writes, “No surprise, the wonderful people in my life have all been very kind and sympathetic, offering words of comfort and support.” Well…good for her. Not everybody has that.
Furthermore, not everybody is an accomplished adult who has a dream job as an editor at CNN. Gallman’s habits of eating well and exercising healthfully, which she is proud enough of to mention in this article, are not available as options to everybody. It’s clear that she has a full enough life that she’s able to throw herself into other things and avoid that terrible label of “unhappy.” Her optimistic personality, another trait of which she is very proud, is something that psychologists generally agree is inborn and possibly genetic–not something that all of us are so lucky to have.
After reading this article, I was struck by the pervasiveness of the message hidden between its lines–that there is a “right” way to be depressed. Gallman plays this role well. She does not embrace her diagnosis, nor her doctor’s suggested treatment; after all, doing so would imply that she “wants” to be a victim. She steadfastedly counts her blessings every day and reaches out to her supportive friends and family. She eats well and exercises. She is absolutely not to blame for her depression because she does everything “right.”
And most of all, she sees her depressive side as something shameful and ugly, just a foil to her sunny personality.
What about those of us who don’t have a sunny personality?
I feel for Gallman, not just because of her struggle with depression, but because of how indelibly she has internalized the idea of depression and unhappiness in general as something Wrong and Bad. There’s no room in this article for the scandalous idea that depression, while being difficult and unpleasant, is something that a person can make peace with–the way they might make peace with having asthma or diabetes.
There’s also no room in this article for sympathy for those who don’t play the role of Optimistic Depression Sufferer as well as Gallman does. No sympathy for those who don’t identify themselves as happy people at all.
I’m glad that Gallman has shared her story, and I wish more people would do the same–with their real name attached. But I hope that readers who don’t have experience with depression do not assume that Gallman speaks for all of us.
Edit 4/2/12: If you want to see a brilliant, prominent person discuss her experiences with depression without being judgmental and promoting stigma like Gallman does, read this.