Shake It Off

Tony Welch

“It’s all in your head,” some people tell you. Yeah, it’s in my head. And my gastro-intestinal system. And my core muscles that chronically hurt due to four massive surgeries. And my checking account, even with very good insurance. And the hole where there once resided a social life and a career and romantic relationships.  

They tell us to be positive and credit ourselves for our accomplishments. CBT, right? Yeah, basically what your therapist tells you and your psychiatrist and all of the nice, learned hospital inpatient staff who drilled the Cognitive Behavior Therapy into your head while you were Randle McMurphy.

“Take a walk.” “Everyone has problems.” “Just shake it off.”  These are some of the sound pieces of advice that some of us with severe manic-depressive disorders sometimes hear. People are generally well-intentioned, and caring, but, still… yeah, taking a walk is nice and exercise is good, but a walk or shaking it off don’t necessarily make the demons in your head disappear. Some of those demons are always there, lurking in dark corners, ready to spring into action. Growing up an only child in a fucked-up family – a cop father who did not storm Omaha Beach, but instead dropped out of the Navy after six months – homesick or upset because he wasn’t promoted to Fleet Admiral. But he excelled at drinking and bitching about how he got the dirty end of the stick. Like I said, demons you can’t erase.

Manic depression is awful. It ruins lives – ask anyone who has lost someone who took their own life. Those moments when we’re truly in the abyss, looking up into complete darkness and hoping, praying, we can see some sliver of light. Those moments when we’re out on the edge and looking down and thinking about nothing other than the fact that we simply don’t wish to continue. But then the sliver of light appears, providing enough hope to move back from the edge.

This time.

Checked, we’re on medications and seeing a therapist or psychiatrist, or both, and doing our best to understand and cope. Unchecked, we’re mostly ignored and misunderstood – manifesting sometimes through bouts of detachment, self-medication and self-loathing, volcanic fits of rage, long periods of silence, and just not feeling well. However, once we understand what we’re suffering from, once we accept it and find treatment, the rage and silence and un-wellness will improve because seeking help is vital to living better. And living better is always the goal.

You have no idea how badly we want to live our normal lives again, lives where we’re not constantly beating ourselves up and looking back at bad decisions we’ve made. So, please, just try to be nice and respectful and we will always do our best to be ourselves. Our normal selves – the self you may remember and the one we may not.

Most people have no idea the amount of guilt we feel when we call in sick to work or miss an appointment. “Get up and tough it out,” we tell ourselves as we roll over in bed and fitfully try to sleep the pain away.  We feel badly as we constantly make up excuses to not go out and socialize, to disassociate ourselves from the world. The life we had seems a lifetime ago and we’re no longer able to remember what that felt like. We took normal life for granted.

Depression, anxiety, and the other various forms of depressive disorders reportedly affect up to 8% of the population, with women twice as likely to experience these symptoms than men – although men are twice as likely to commit suicide. Of course, it could easily be that many men do not actively seek help for or officially report their symptoms to a medical professional due to the ongoing stigma of mental illness. They may fear admitting this makes them weak or unmanly.  Many people self-medicate to help fight the demons, rather than spend time with a therapist or take medication. Alcohol or illegal drugs are a common substitute for antidepressants.

In popular culture, depression has been a frequent topic, and that is a good thing. David Chase created The Sopranos and our generation’s alpha male, Tony Soprano. The late James Gandolfini played him perfectly – strong, full of rage, and manic depressive. Early in the first season, Tony, recently awakened to the benefits of therapy, is driving with his nephew, Christopher and asks him if he has ever feels depressed.

Christopher replies, “Me? I’m no mental midget,” dismissing the subject with a look of irritated disdain. It is a look many of us know well.

Several episodes later, Tony opens up to his crew about his condition, explaining that he sees a therapist and is on medication. The camera pans to Christopher, who has the perfect expression of embarrassment and regret. Chase and Gandolfini did us a great service with their brilliant work, but much work remains.

I hope more people will be open and honest about mental illness. It shouldn’t be a secret. The stigma needs to go away.  We all want the same thing, don’t we?

If you have a severe depressive issue, please take comfort in knowing you have a brother-in-arms, someone who is stuggling and persevering right along with you. My adivce is simple.  Find some joy each day as you fight those demons.  Everything is possible.


“Oh, Lord, what can I say?

I'm so sad since you went away

Time, time, ticking on me

Alone is the last place I wanted to be …” – Brandi Carlile

Tony Welch is a writer living in Minnesota.

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