I am writing this as part of the Bell "Let's Talk" campaign, which aims to reduce the stigma of mental illness.
Let me give you a hypothetical scenario: Imagine that for about 18 months now, your friend has been intermittently complaining about pain in her leg. She doesn't mention it every time you speak, but often enough that you realize it's an ongoing problem. You start to realize that she's actually cut back on social engagements due to this pain. She has not seen some of her friends because they always want to go out and do active things, but she can't go with them because of this pain. She seems to have given up on it ever getting better, and you get the sense that this is something that troubles her most days, if not all the time, and it seems to be getting worse.
What would you do? If you were her sister, or her close friend, you would probably be nagging her to go to the doctor. You would point out that this could be something serious, that you are really concerned. You might even offer to take her to the doctor yourself. If you knew a specialist, maybe you'd call them to try to get her in. You wouldn't just accept it or tell her to figure it out herself.
Yet, friends, this is what we do with depression. It happens all the time. It has happened to me. I cannot tell you how many people that I have talked to in the past 18 months, how many times I have said that I'm sad, that I cry most days, that I feel hopeless, that I struggle with feeling like I've lost many of my friends because I can't relate to their lives as parents. Some people act sympathetic, while others are clearly uncomfortable. Even my former doctor said she was concerned that I was showing signs of depression, but her response was to tell me to come back in 6 months and we'd talk about whether it was worse. (This is part of the reason why she is my former doctor and not my current one....) Yet no one ever stepped in. A few people suggested counseling, and one promised to follow-up with some contacts and never did. I'm not saying this to blame people, but rather to point out the difference in how we treat depression versus physical illnesses. If I had cancer, all of these people would be bending over backwards to help, bringing meals, driving me to treatments. I know this because I know and love these people. But when it's mental illness and not physical, we step back, because it feels so personal and we don't know how to help. As a result, those who are suffering in darkness get the message that it's "their" problem and that, as one person recently told me, "Only YOU can figure out how to help yourself." Is that true? Maybe, but would you say that to me if I had diabetes or cancer? Probably not.
The truth is, infertility and depression go hand in hand. Lots of sources corroborate this. It is hard to describe how debilitating the emotions surrounding infertility can be. There is something spectacularly awful when you fail at a reproductive norm; it's like you have actually failed at being a human being. Then you go into tests that are often embarrassing, and you often end up with hormonal supplements that play with your emotions. To add to that, for women especially the culture around motherhood is all-encompassing. It can be hard to make friends, because after a certain age, women's lives often revolve around children. This leaves childless women and single women out. It's hard. It's isolating. It is honestly a recipe for depression, and yet so many people brush it off with comments like, "You don't realize how hard it is to have children" or "You'll get there someday." Maybe, but a person struggling in darkness doesn't need someday, she needs help right now. She needs a hand to help her get out of the pit.
"Why can't you ask for help?" many will ask. "Why can't you pull yourself out?" The answers are as varied as the sufferers. Sometimes we ask, and are rebuffed, so we learn not to speak up. Sometimes the pit is too deep and too dark. When you are infertile, sadness and futility can easily become the norm. It's not as though I went to bed cheerful and woke up deeply depressed. My walk into depression was like walking into the ocean, where before I knew it, I was in over my head. It became normal to feel low, and then to feel sad. Treatments were difficult, and disappointment came month after month after month. After a while, it seemed incomprehensible not to be sad, to think that I could ever be happy when the dream I had had for my whole life had collapsed. After a while, it felt like the pit was all I knew.
If you are in the pit, please please keep speaking up. You may have to scream and shout, but do it until someone listens. If no one else will listen, I will. Email me if you need to. Being depressed does not mean that you are weak or that there is something wrong with you. It just means that you need help finding the light.
If you have a close friend who is infertile, really listen in to what he or she is saying. Don't ignore signs of depression or other mental illness. Come alongside others, urge them to see a doctor or to look into counseling, and don't let it slide. Many people like me are just waiting for someone to really see them, to realize that they are losing part of themselves, that this isn't normal. Don't let it happen without a fight. Sometimes the most loving thing you can say is, "You need help. Let me get it with you."
What's the end of my story? I don't know yet. I've seen two counselors, and neither one was a great fit for me, and I wasn't able to get another appointment until the end of February. I am strong enough to advocate for myself, but I know that not everyone is, so I want to keep the dialogue alive. "Let's Talk."