At the age of 22, I was diagnosed with depression. Since then, by reading through a lot of old journals, talking with people in my life, and learning how the disease presents itself, I have come to realize I had been living with the disease for a really long time. I suspect it has been my entire life.
Which begs the question: how did no one know until I was 22?
Ten years after my initial diagnosis and quite the journey of learning how to live my life as healthy as possible, and that question still gnaws at me a bit.
Not because I don’t have the answer, I do. No one knew because I didn’t tell them. On the outside, I looked like a normal, functional (sometimes overachieving) person. I maintained a high GPA in the schools I attended. I received awards for scoring high marks on aptitude tests. I had lots of friends and activities. I volunteered. I worked. I didn’t look like a depressed person–on the outside.
On the inside, I was exhausted. I struggled understanding my value. I felt like I constantly had to prove I was able to handle it all. To be the best. I put my effort into all the things I was good at because achievement was my high. Things that gave me actual joy took a back seat because they were ‘impractical’ and didn’t look as good on a future resume. All this I kept to myself. I didn’t know how to have a vulnerable conversation. I didn’t know how to tell anyone I needed help. I didn’t know that there was really anything wrong. I just thought this was life.
Until life got to the point where it was too much. Until I wasn’t able to function anymore. Until I couldn’t deal and I finally had to get help.
I don’t want anyone else to have to live through the mess I did. This is why the questions gnaws at me; because there has to be a way to help people communicate the stuff on the inside. I want to help others learn how to communicate when they are struggling. To make communication more simple. To make asking for help less dramatic. To help start conversations that will lead to healing. So I started looking at the things that helped me the most.
One of the changes I started making when I was diagnosed was to learn how to talk about the disease. I had a very strong sense that the more I talked about it, the less power it would have over me. The most important thing was to learn how to tell people around me when I was having a really bad day.
So I started using code words.
On bad days, I started telling my husband that I was having a ‘fighting the darkness’ kind of day. He learned to be on alert when I used that phrase.
Then an interesting thing began to happen. We started cutting out the excess from our conversations. Now, when I am having a bad day, I can tell my husband and he usual responds with the following questions:
- Have you eaten?
- When was the last time you went outside?
- Did something trigger you?
After I have answered the questions, we figure out the best ways to alleviate the symptoms. It usually involves prayer, sometimes chocolate frosting or going for a walk, and oftentimes just being together until the darkness passes. It doesn’t fix my depression but it does make it easier to bear when I know I am not alone in it.
It took us a lot of trial and error–and sometimes tears–to get to this place of standardized communication, but it works really well. I am more ready to talk about the bad days because it doesn’t have to be a long drawn out dramatic conversation.
So when I was pondering ways to help others who might be going through the same things I went through, I came up with Encoded Apparel.
Each shirt design has a special meaning based off of morse code. Every apparel item also comes with a pack of conversation starter cards. These cards are designed to jump start your communication by helping you identify who you are talking to, why you want to talk to them, what you want them to know, and how to help. They set clear expectations and remove some of the guess work from the complexity of emotional and mental health conversations.
It is my hope that these tools will help individuals, families, friends, communities, and especially loved ones communicate more easily and with fewer lessons from the school of hard knocks.
Here’s to conversations,