I officially met Hannah last spring at a girls’ night in Atlanta but in my mind, I’d known her for years. I picked up her book, If You Find This Letter a few years ago and was captivated by her writing style. It’s like talking with a friend. As you can probably guess, Hannah is even lovelier in person – kind and relatable and with the best laugh. We immediately connected over books and Jesus and I soon learned that like me, she was living with – thriving with – depression. I knew when I began this series that her gentle but honest perspective on what so, so many people are battling would be invaluable.
Tell us a little about yourself (your job, your family, what you do for fun, what you’re passionate about, etc.)
I am an author, TED Speaker, and online educator. I’m 28 and live in Atlanta, GA with my husband Lane. We’ve been married for three months! I am currently working on my second book and I love reading novels, working out and cooking! I’m passionate about God, building up leaders, and creating stuff that changes people’s lives.
What is your earliest memory of depression? (whether it was you or someone close to you)?
My earliest memory of depression was my first year after college. It was only a few years ago but up until that point I don’t think I would have known how to identify depression or even call it that. My first year after college was the first time I experienced depression at a chronic level where there stretches of days where I didn’t want to wake up or get out of bed in the morning.
What was life like for you at that time?
Life was good. That was the hard part. I felt like something was wrong with me because nothing around me was bad or out of sorts. I thought you could only have depression if your life was falling apart or if something really bad had happened to you. I didn’t know depression was a mental illness that, for a lot of people, has to do with a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Do you remember first recognizing that there may be a pattern of depression in your life or that what you were experiencing was called depression? If so, how old were you?
I was diagnosed with depression officially in 2011. It was the year after I graduated from college and I was seeing a therapist. I had no idea this was depression. I thought it was sadness or some slump I could not get over. Now, looking back, I definitely had patches of anxiety throughout my life. Anxiety is a sister to depression. One can become the other. While I wouldn’t say I had any form of major depression up until after college, I would say I have struggled with anxiety for the majority of my life.
How were you feeling physically at that time?
I was tired, lonely, and constantly on the brink of tears. The littlest thing would set me off and I would be bawling my eyes out. I felt fragile and like I was constantly trying to push uphill with the smallest of tasks.
How did your physical/emotional state manifest in the other areas of your life (school, job, family, passions, talent, etc.)?
Depression sucks the passion out of you. It affects everything. Your job. Your work. Your self-image. I’m an overachiever by nature so my work was still good and on time but it became harder to do things I used to love or do joyfully. Your energy is zapped. I felt worthless and I couldn’t understand why I could not just get stronger. I just remember waking up in the morning and thinking, “Just a stretch of hours before you can go back to sleep again.”
Did you confide in anyone? If so, who and when? What were their reactions?
I confided in my mom, my best friend, and my therapist. For the first few weeks, I didn’t tell anyone because I honestly didn’t know what to say to them. I didn’t know how to identify it. Depression is strange sometimes because people don’t know how to react. My mother didn’t know how to help me and I don’t think it was until I struggled with my second bout of depression that she fully understand what a crippling illness it can be.
When, if ever, have you sought help with depression (whether professional counseling or personal mentoring)?
I sought counseling in 2011, while living in New York City. I also found a therapist in Atlanta when I started struggling with depression for the second time. My therapist led me to a doctor who prescribed me for Prozac. I am still on Prozac today and have since switched to a psychiatrist who shares the same faith as me. She helps me see what the battle with depression looks like through God’s eyes.
If you did seek help, do you remember a specific change in your outlook?
Everything changed for me when I started taking medication. I was a skeptic at first but I was desperate for anything to help me. I was afraid medication would me into a fog and keep me from living my best life. In actuality, medication has helped me live that best life. I take a very small dosage but it curbs my anxiety, helps me think rationally, and keeps me motivated. I’ve had to accept the fact that my brain is likely wired differently than a lot of people and that’s okay. Medication at this point in my life has helped me thrive and live my best life.
Is there an especially negative memory/experience related to your depression (panic attack, argument, suicide attempt, etc.). If so, can you describe it?
I struggled with a second “semester” (as I like to call it) of depression from November 2014-Spring 2015. It was a million times more intense than the first time I experienced depression. That whole season is one big negative experience. I was out of work for four months. I lost 10 pounds. I was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. The whole period was dark and overwhelming.
Is there an especially positive memory/experience related to your depression (overcoming, sharing, empowering, etc.). If so, can you describe it?
My positive memories all involve other people. Depression can be a powerful and beautiful thing when you learn to lean into other people. All my positive memories from times of darkness have been when other people showed up to carry me and get me through to the other side. People made me food. People held me. People hung out with me. I learned throughout depression that I am surrounded by people who love me and want me to be better.
Is there a specific reaction to your struggle with depression (supportive or otherwise) that sticks out in your memory?
I think people have been very thankful for me choosing to share and be open with it. You would never think something you classify as a “weakness” would end up being your strongest point for relation but that’s how it has been. I ultimately believe I struggle with depression so that I can relate to the others who struggle to and don’t know the words yet to say it out loud.
What are some specific fears or struggles you faced (or are still facing)?
I used to be afraid my depression would come back and rob me of my life again. That fear isn’t there anymore though. I know there will be purpose if the depression does return. In the meantime, I need to take care of myself and trust God.
What/who is/was your “saving grace” in those struggles?
God. My people. Therapy.
How does the season you’re currently in compare to the darker seasons where depression was more difficult to navigate?
Everyday I am thankful to have a handle on my depression. I do have to work extra hard to stay healthy though. I watch the foods I put into my body. I work out 5 days a week. I see a therapist twice a month. I take my medication regularly. I get enough sleep. All of these things stack up to whether or not I thrive in daily life.
How do you feel like the social stigma/perception of mental illness affected your journey with depression?
Honestly, I’ve loved combatting the stigma. People silently struggle with depression because they are afraid to speak up. Thankfully, I got over the fear of speaking up (no matter the cost) before my battle with depression began. If there is a stigma, I’ll always make it my mission to come up against it.
What was the most helpful or powerful encouragement you have received during this journey?
My doctor tells me 1/3 of people go on medication, come off it, and never have to go back on it again. Another third go on medication, come off of it, and have to go back on it when symptoms return. The last third are on it for their entire lives and that’s okay too.
I’ve never had a doctor tell me “that’s okay too” in regards to mental health and medication. Words like “that’s okay too” are like water to me in the dry of a desert that has never seen rain. It gives me hope.
Any particular resources you found helpful on your journey?
I really loved the book Spurgeon’s Sorrows. It has been super helpful to me when it comes to finding God in the midst of depression.
What do you wish now, a bit down the road, that you had known in the beginning?
I wish I knew it wasn’t a matter of “get stronger.” That mentality doesn’t work. You are battling a mental illness. It’s not as simple as “just pull yourself together.”
What have you learned about yourself from this experience?
I’m a fighter. If I can make it through the darkness then I can get through anything. Now I have eyes that see in the dark. This is, by far, the most beautiful part of my diagnosis. Some days are still hard. Some mornings are still slow and threatening. The threats are empty though because I know the way home now. I have eyes that see in the dark. I know the dark cannot have me.
What have you learned about your relationships with others from this experience?
They will be there. You need to ask though.
What would you say to a woman currently battling/navigating depression who may be feeling hopeless, conflicted or ashamed?
I think the most important thing is to be careful with is language. Language can be so powerful when fighting in the dark. I am careful to no longer say I am “struggling” with depression. I say I am “dealing” with depression because it gives me more ownership and power over the illness. I’m not a victim. I’m a fighter.
Hannah, thank you, thank you for sharing your story. Friends, if you’d like to celebrate Hannah, please do so in the comments below! And if you’re not already watching her make waves, you’ll want to follow along – she’s not to be missed.