I don’t know much about Jason Kander, except what I read about him in the news. A former Army intelligence officer and Afghanistan veteran. First millennial to win a statewide office when he was elected Missouri secretary of state in 2012. Up-and-coming Democratic Party leader.
Last week, Kander abandoned his campaign to become mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, citing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that he traces to his tour of duty in Afghanistan. He had a hole inside that he was hiding from himself and the world, he said. To his credit, he faced up to a problem that he did not bring on himself. He went so far as to state publicly that he was depressed to the point of calling the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Crisis Line, “tearfully conceding that, yes, I have had suicidal thoughts.”
Kander realized that this wasn’t occasional spells of feeling glum. It wasn’t something he could just snap out of. His symptoms of depression, he said, were “just getting worse.” He had to step back from his public pursuits and get help.
I’ve been there, done that, too.
Unless you are suffering from it, you can’t know what depression is like. Oh, you can read about it or listen to someone try to tell you what it’s like. But nothing comes close to living with it, and the frustration of not knowing how to put into words how you are feeling, and why.
Depression is debilitating. It can take you out of the life you want to live. In my case, the written diagnosis is “persistent depressive disorder.” I have battled it for years.
Sometimes, when I miss taking my meds, the disorder creeps into my day, and I slide into the world of a Stevie Nicks lyric: those “dark desperate hours that nobody sees.”
But the moments and the symptoms are there: the feeling of worthlessness – notwithstanding a wall filled with plaques and honors.
And there’s the sadness, the sense of emptiness, the fear of impending doom. And the urge to cry, even though you don’t know why.
My bio doesn’t share the full picture.
There are times when I don’t want to leave the house. The thought of going out the door for a social gathering or to meet new people is pure agony. But I’m urged – no make that made to do it – by my wife, Gwen. There have been times when I wanted to self-medicate through sleep. She wouldn’t let me get away with that, either. She is good for me. Been that way for 57 years.
So are my three adult children and seven grandchildren, who help me take my mind off myself and the feelings of guilt that arise because of real or imagined things I might have done or failed to do.
If there’s a saving grace, it’s therapy, medication, supportive folks and a faith that tells me I am not alone – “lo, I am with you always.” These things help me get through the rough patches to those moments when I can smile without forcing it, concentrate without faking it and laugh like I mean it.
Part of coping with depression is knowing that it’s not your fault. The other bit of help is knowing there are people you can trust to understand the problem.
The Washington Post’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, under whose authority I write this column, has known about my disorder for years. He doesn’t attach a stigma to it, because he understands that depression is a serious mental health disorder, not a character flaw. I have shortcomings, but depression is not the reason for them.
Thanks to brave souls such as Kander, the country is shedding the taboo around depression.
Depression is an equal opportunity disorder striking without regard for race, religion, age, gender or political persuasion.
Awareness of depression and what to do about it is especially needed in the African-American community, where the stigma is most acute.
I can’t thank enough Academy Award- and Emmy Award-nominated actress, and my fellow Howard University alumnus, Taraji P. Henson for launching the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation to get rid of the stigma around depression and other mental illness in the African-American community. She and her family have an experience with this.
Henson explained in a speech, there’s “the misconception about celebrities that we have it all together.” “When they tell cut and the cameras go away, I go home to real problems just like everybody else.” “We’re suffering and struggling just like the regular person and money doesn’t help.”
I join with Kander and Henson. It’s past time to bring the problem out of the shadows. Diagnose and treat the pain; show that life, despite it all, is still worth living.
Colbert I. King writes a column – sometimes about D.C., sometimes about politics – for the Washington Post. In 2003, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.
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