“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” – Kahlil Gibran
The summer before entering the 8th grade, when I was 12 years old, I broke my left ankle and was in a toe-to-thigh cast for two months. During that time, I graduated from crutches to a footed walking cast and then experienced greater freedom of movement when the cast was removed altogether. Because my leg muscles had atrophied, however, my doctor wrote a note excusing me from PhysEd until my leg became stronger. I sat there on the sidelines during class, watching my fellow students playing volleyball, shooting baskets, and taking runs around the gym. I felt damaged and different, and very alone.
As often happens in such situations, the other children started jeering at me, claiming that I was faking having had a broken leg, just so I wouldn’t have to participate in P.E. The pressure got pretty intense and, along with it, the shame. I didn’t want to be different or excluded. Finally, after several days of being taunted by my peers, I got up from the bench and attempted to participate in whatever exercise they were doing at the time. I seem to recall that it was jumping rope.
You can guess what happened next. On the very first jump, my leg buckled and went out from under me, and I fell to the floor. The fall exacerbated the damage that jumping on my weakened leg had caused. Pain set in, then swelling. My father had to leave work and come pick me up from school and take me to the doctor. Dad was very angry with me. He clearly thought that I had done something stupid, although he never said so. Thankfully, he pulled me out of P.E. and I did not have to return to the gym that semester. It was a huge relief. And yes, my leg eventually healed.
Although 12-year-old girls are not known for their confidence and ability to stand up for themselves (at least not in my day; hopefully, that’s changing), what kind of outcome might there have been in that junior high gym if I’d accepted my leg’s weakness and the fact that it needed time to heal? Clearly, my leg would have healed much more quickly and I could have returned to a normal life that much sooner. And perhaps I would have gained the respect of my peers if I’d had the chutzpah to say “no” to their taunts.
I know first-hand that having a broken leg is not on par with suffering from chronic depression, yet the principle is the same. I said in an earlier posting that it took me a couple of years to get to the point of being willing to recover from depression. I think that was because it took me that long to truly accept I even had the illness and that it was going to be a part of my life for a good long time to come. Acceptance must come before willingness.
If you took Psych 101 in college, you probably remember the five stages of grief, developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and made famous in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The five stages can apply to any loss, not just to the death of a loved one (or even your own death), whether it be the loss of youth; a favorite possession that was misplaced, stolen, or destroyed; a friend who has moved away; the loss of a beloved home through moving, foreclosure, or natural disaster; a relationship that has ended; or the loss of health and identity due to illness.
In future blog postings, we’ll take a look at each one of these stages through the eyes of the many losses that having depression causes. Because depression is an insidious mental illness with devastating consequences, it is particularly hard to accept and to make the adjustments necessary to have a satisfying life in spite of it. The fact that having depression is a bit like being a fish in water makes it even more difficult; oftentimes, we don’t even know we’re in the grip of the illness because it has become our “new normal.” Yet, becoming aware of the losses that depression engenders and grieving them is essential if we are to pick ourselves up off the floor (or the couch) and start doing what we can to recover and live better lives.
(c) 2010 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.
Note: This article is Part 1 in a six-part series on depression and grief. Part 2 is “The Comfort of Denial.”