For more than 30 years, I have lived with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For much of that time, I didn't know what was wrong. I had no barometer for sorrow. It was as if I'd been given a pair of eyeglasses that made the world gray, and worse, the lenses were cracked, shattered by the secret violation I'd lived through as a child.

My mother's heart ached for me, her youngest daughter. My sister sang songs of hope over the phone. My brother, a mental health professional, shared knowledge, wry jokes, a golden smile. My friends encircled me, and I was grateful. Sometimes these acts of kindness took hold, seeded in my mind, only to wither and die. I saw everything through the warped glasses—through a prism of pain.

For many years I rarely slept, kept nightly vigils against my memories. Some mornings it felt like I was weighted to the bed. A deep shame descended: Why couldn't I "buck up," "get over it"? I watched people bounce back from breakups, recover from job loss, foreclosures and worse. I couldn't fix myself. I began to feel there was something wrong with my character.

My spirituality confused me. I believed that God, nature, and the soul-filling music I heard in church should be able to heal me. Many nights I prayed: Surely this ache will disappear. At times it did. At times I felt held by a universal love. But then life would go slate gray and hollow again.

I also faced an unlikely problem: I'm strong. My mother is a fighter, and I am my mother's daughter. I can bear a great deal. So many women learn to endure this way.

So I held on. Ruby, a character in my novel, lived with anguish for 11 years—as did I, my hopes drifting away like milkweed in a breeze. Every step was a battle. One night I lined up sleeping pills in a perfect row, planning to take them one by one. But God, or angels, or both, held me that night, pressing against my heart and whispering not to let go of this life.

It wasn't that I wanted to leave the planet; I just wanted an end to the suffering. I confessed this to my mother and was taken to a hospital. The people there had fallen, too. One woman's family had disowned her, blaming her for her illness. Others had lost their jobs, their homes. They were broken in ways few can fathom. Still, they had made it through those doors. They had survived. Many do not.

I began, slowly, to walk the path to wellness, but soon found I had another battle to fight: Once I admitted that I was recovering from depression and PTSD, my voice became suspect. My decisions, my career, my ability to parent were questioned. It was as if the broken glasses I had removed had been taken up by others. Some never saw me the same way again.

But I learned that I could use my strength for more than just survival. That my spirituality could fill me, but that I also needed professional help—and these were not mutually exclusive. That while I had resisted medication—afraid to become a victim of emotional Botox—I needed medicine like a diabetic needs insulin. That I could have feelings without being disabled by them. That I had done nothing wrong. That I had no reason for shame.

Stop on any busy sidewalk. You'll see people walking, talking, working. Nearly one-fifth of them have experienced some type of mental illness. Perhaps you're among them. Know that none of us has to go through it alone. Know that wellness is possible. It happens one moment, one step, at a time. Among those many steps, the first is the hardest to take, and the most important. Know that help is waiting—that it will arrive the moment you inhale, let out a courageous breath and ask.


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