It’s 2003 and I’m on a beach in Isla Cristina, Spain, a few days shy of my 18th birthday. It’s my first time out of the country; I’ve spent 2 weeks traveling Spain with a busload of other American high schoolers, but at this moment it’s just me and one other student with our host siblings on the beach. My Spanish is limited and we are barely trying to understand one another, but it doesn’t matter. Our host siblings are drinking wine and Fanta, and Krista and I are taking photos of each other, two Minnesotan girls just giddy just to be on a beach. I’m running sand through my fingers and laughing when she snaps this picture.
I brought this picture when I went to college a few months later. I remember it was in a gaudy frame with fake seashells and a starfish on the edge, and I kept it on my nightstand. Some girls from my dorm told me it was weird to have a photo of myself like that. (This was before selfies.) They asked me why I had it, and I said, “Because I look so happy.” It’s not a particularly good or flattering photo – I am wearing a dark shirt and jeans on a beach – but I didn’t care. I was happy in that moment, and my smile is genuine.
I don’t have this picture on display anymore – I had to dig it out of my closet just now – but I still think of it the same way. It’s like a totem for happiness. I have others – a video of my niece laughing; lyrics to a Sam Cooke song – and I need them around me as a reminder. Maybe not everyone needs proof that happiness is attainable, but I do, and I’m not alone.
I’ve battled depression for about a decade. (Before I go any further I should clarify I’m doing well right now, despite a really, really shitty year. The fact that I’ve managed my mental health well is probably my greatest accomplishment in 2016. More on that on a later day, maybe.) I spent a long time being quiet about it because it’s personal, and it’s hard to explain, except to people who get it. The thing is, it’s hard to find people who get it if none of us are willing to come forward, and that can make depression seem even more isolating and dangerous.
A few weeks ago, a woman who was on this same trip to Spain with me took her own life after a long fight with depression. It hurts me to my gut to think about her family. It hurts every time I hear about someone losing the fight. That’s why I dug out the picture, and that’s why I’m writing this.
I’m not going to try to explain what depression is like, except to say it is hard. There was a time when telling just a handful of people what I was going through seemed insurmountable; finally doing so saved my life. Since then, finding other people who get it has made it easier. So that’s all I’m doing. Saying I get it. Lots and lots of people get it. We’re here if you need us.