Worth the Fight
by April Tucker
It was 2011 and I was in graduate school taking night classes. The classes were long and sometimes boring, but I loved the social interaction! I was a stay at home mom and had been for 10 years. I soaked up this adult learning atmosphere week after week and enjoyed every minute of it. One evening, upon returning to class from break, we found our chairs arranged in a circle facing each other and our professor announcing, “For the remainder of the evening, we are going to get to know one another better”. She asked us to share a little bit about ourselves and why we would like to become master level social workers. Everyone’s story was unique. Listening to them share their motivation was inspiring.I will always remember Elizabeth’s story. Listening to her as she shared her experience would help me understand my own one day.
Elizabeth started experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations when she was fifteen years old. Fear kept her from telling her family about the experiences. The hallucinations were frightening, but she feared her family’s response even more. The hallucinations persisted with more frequency and she started experiencing delusions. Specifically, she felt dangerous people were following her and she feared for her life. As symptoms increased, her ability to hide them from her family and friends decreased. Unfortunately, her loved ones did not understand and eventually all of them turned their backs on her.
At age 20, Elizabeth moved away from her family in Oklahoma to the Texas Panhandle. She did not have a place to call home so most nights she slept in a park near a day shelter where she could get food and a shower. She formed relationships with others who were living without homes and assumed she would never see her family again. She felt shame, embarrassment and anger when she thought about them. But above all, she felt alone.
One day, a social worker came to the park. The social worker talked with each person, one at a time, asking questions about their lives and really listening. There wasn’t a hint of judgment in her eyes. The social worker came to the park three days a week to provide individual and group services. She handed out free hygiene products and coats. She also shared information about additional services available throughout the community and helped link people to those services.
Eventually, Elizabeth went to see a doctor and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. With perseverance, she found an effective medication and a compatible therapist – both of which have been very important in helping Elizabeth manage symptoms associated with schizophrenia. One of our classmates asked Elizabeth if her symptoms completely disappeared. Elizabeth replied, “I still experience hallucinations and delusions but they happen less frequently. Thankfully, the medication I’m on and the support network I have established makes it easier for me to differentiate between what is real and what is just a symptom of the illness.”
Elizabeth became a social worker so she could return to the homeless community equipped to help those living with severe mental illness get connected to vital services. Her strength, courage, and love for others inspire me in more ways than one.
I’m not sure when it started but as far back as I can remember in my adult years, I have felt as if I have to be diligent in beating back depression or it will creep in and take over. Like it’s a fight and if I stop fighting, I will become depressed. For years, I have had thoughts like:
- “I need to get a good night’s rest or I could start to feel depressed”
- “I need to open all the curtains in the house or I could start to feel depressed”
- “I better go for a run or…”
- “I need to stay on top of the housework, laundry, and yard work or…”
- “I need to have regular quiet time or…”
- “I can’t watch that Netflix series or listen to that type of music (country!) or…”
Even though it’s exhausting, most of the time I win the fight. But, some days I wish I didn’t have to fight. I wish I could trust that even if I don’t do all the things that help me beat back depression, I will still feel peace and contentment. I should try it some time. But, I’m too afraid. Depression sucks. I would rather go to sleep each night exhausted from the fight but not depressed than experience depression again.
It was during a depressive episode that I remembered Elizabeth’s story and applied the wisdom she shared with us that night in class to help strengthen my own mental health. She said she knows how to differentiate between what is real and what is a symptom of the illness. Depression causes us to believe things that aren’t true. It produces thoughts that make us feel guilty, unloved, and forgotten. Depression strips us of hope, energy, and connection. I remembered the wisdom Elizabeth shared and applied it to my own experience with depression. I told myself things like:
- “You don’t want to exercise because lack of energy is a symptom of depression. Do it anyway, even if for 15 minutes. You will feel better if you do.”
- “You don’t want to answer the phone because isolation is a symptom of depression. Answer it anyway and maybe talk to the person calling about your thoughts and emotions. You will feel better if you do.”
- “You feel guilty about things you think you should be doing and are being critical of yourself because inward focus is a symptom of depression. Reach out to someone who could use your support.”
- “You feel unloved and alone because feelings like those are symptoms of depression. You know how to differentiate between truth and symptoms of depression. Respond accordingly. You will feel better if you do.”
When it comes to thoughts and emotions produced by depression, being able to recognize the difference between truth and mere symptoms is important. This awareness allows us to take back some of the strength and hope that’s been taken from us. But awareness is only half of the solution. The other half is our response. Use that insight, strength, and hope to fight. You are stronger than your symptoms. Keep fighting. You will feel better when you do.
You might be reading this and thinking to yourself, “I am fighting! Every day I fight to lift the depression and it doesn’t budge!” If that’s you Reader, please don’t give up. Keep fighting. Small steps really do lead to big changes. I know it’s a difficult and slow process. Even though you feel tired, the fight is making you stronger. Depression is experienced by people at varying severities – mild, moderate, and severe. This means our fighting strategies will vary as well. For mild depression, engaging in strategies similar to the ones mentioned in this essay might be enough to help us get out of the depression we are experiencing. But if it’s moderate to severe, we might need to take additional actions. Thankfully, there are many treatment options available for depression. If medication will help, it does not mean we were too weak to win on our own. Medication is just another tool to fight with and there should be no shame attached to taking medication or engaging in other treatment options for our mental health. You are not alone. Tell someone how you feel. You are worth the fight!
April Tucker completed her Master’s Degree in Social Work at West Texas A & M University. She has over 25 years of experience serving children, teens, and families in the Texas Panhandle and East Tennessee. With a passion for teaching and learning, April most enjoys helping young people grow in their knowledge about mental health. She loves interacting with students, learning from them, and helping them to become better equipped to protect and strengthen their own mental health.