I could have just said “I don’t know” or deflected the question. I didn’t have to say anything. But when my boyfriend’s parents asked me over a family dinner the other night what I might want write a book about, I answered honestly: my struggles with depression.
Surprised, I think, neither parent said anything in response, which made me feel nervously awkward. But then another relative chimed in with her own depression story. She said when she started taking anti-depressants, she would sleep all day, so I shared that Lexapro used to make me conk out, too. Then the relative kept on talking, and pretty soon, the dinner convo had veered onto other topics entirely.
I’m not ashamed that sometimes I feel unbelievably sad and my life is temporarily derailed. My extended family knows about it, my roommate knows about it, even my boss knows about it. But I woke up the next morning and asked myself, “Did I really just tell my boyfriend’s parents that?”Parents love me. They’ve always loved me. On paper, I make a good impression. But peel back a few layers and that’s where good dirt about me and my family is hiding.
The juicy stuff was bound to come out sooner or later and, in fact, it kind of had already: on a long car ride alone with my boyfriend’s parents, they asked about my older brother and I told them about his struggles with mental illness and drug addiction. And my depression is my truth.
My boyfriend and I have been dating for five months, and early on in our relationship, I told him about the hand that I’ve been dealt by genetics. He has been as accepting and as loving as any woman could hope. We moved in together this past weekend and we know we want to marry each other in the next few years. Both of our parents more or less know we feel this way about each other. Even if I still want to make a good impression, his mom and dad should know the full story about their future grandkids’ mom, shouldn’t they?
Maybe yes, maybe no. As I thought harder about it, a lot of my old insecurities surfaced again. I’m not naive—I know depression conjures up unflattering mental images, and rightly so. It’s a messy illness and it can be hard on relationships and families. Maybe telling his parents was a dumb idea. Maybe I should have waited until I knew them a lot longer. Maybe I’ll get sick again and they’ll think I’m damaged…weak…crazy…not worth the trouble…and then I’ll go and prove them right.
Bouts of depression aren’t something I can control. I know that. But the stigma around the disease has caused me a lot of shame. Depression is not like an STD, which you can keep really, truly private if you want. When someone who is depressed withdraws from their friends and family, stops eating and sleeps all day, it’s obvious that something is wrong. It doesn’t help that I used to truly believe my uncontrollable sadness meant I was broken in some way. I didn’t want to tell anybody about what the chemicals in my brain were doing to me because I thought they’d run away. Worse, I believed not being able to control my feelings and thoughts made me weak. I used to tell myself I should feel happy about my job and family and friends, but I didn’t because I wasn’t trying hard enough to be happy. Other people would just think I was silly, spoiled or annoying if I was honest about how sad I felt sometimes.
None of those beliefs are especially helpful for a sick person, of course. Eventually, my parents and my sister were able to convince me that the stigma I felt about having depression was a problem, maybe even a bigger problem than the illness itself. They were right, of course, and lo and behold, when I trained myself to stop being obsessed with shame, nobody who I told about the depression ditched me. In fact, I even met the man I want to spend the rest of my life with.
But even if I’m at a better place now, I realized this weekend that the stigma I have over this illness still exists. There is still a real fear of being judged. I might be light years more accepting of who I am, but I still don’t know what to do with this hand that I’ve been dealt. At least now I’m worried about people whose opinion does sort of matter in my life, not just random strangers and acquaintances.
I realize no one is really as perfect as they look on paper and if it wasn’t my depression that worried the parents, it would probably be something else. And I know if I ever do feel judged, I can eventually prove to them again that I’m still the great girl who’s in love with their son. But I really, really don’t want to worry about whether that day will come.
Did I do the right thing by telling my boyfriend’s parents that I have depression? Tell me what you guys would have done.