I have had a mild to moderate clinical diagnosis of depression for most of my adult life. Since I’ve felt like this for as long as I can remember, it’s been longer than that, but I wasn’t “diagnosed” until early adulthood. Because I’m not a huge medication taker, I’ve mostly dealt with it without them. I’ve been told it’s called high-functioning depression, or PDD (Persistent Depressive Disorder). I get stuff done so it doesn’t “look” like I’m depressed, but it takes a lot of focus. When I was diagnosed with HIV, I can say honestly that survival mode and navigating all of the changes I was going through at the time were my primary emotions. Survival, and fear and pretending I was fine, were my operating mode for a good amount of time. A sense of aloneness and isolation were ever present as well. The depression was there, lurking; it just wasn’t the loudest voice in my head until about nine months later. When it decided to remind me that it was there, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It made all of the other emotions harder to manage, and in a moment of transparency, it almost took me out. Sheer stubbornness, a guilty feeling of not wanting to leave people with more questions than answers, and a bone-deep weariness are what keep me walking the planet, and I’m grateful for the lessons that period taught me.
Why share this now? I’m here writing and showing up for life so things must be good, right? Better to leave it as a lesson, and move on, right? Well, sort of...
I still live with depression. I take my meds to manage it, find joy triggers to manage the trauma triggers, and have learned to acknowledge it, but not let it run me or my life. It cycles, but I’m better able to manage the cycles. I talk about it because I know from experience someone out there thinks it’s just them. Someone thinks they are being ridiculous or small or dumb for “allowing” themselves to feel what they feel. People who don’t have depression don’t understand depression. I know there have been times when people have asked me why I’m depressed when I seem to be doing well. Depression is not about lack of “have” or need of “wanting stuff.” Isolation can happen in a room full of people because of feeling a sense of “otherness.” Being a support or an ally for someone struggling with any of these emotions doesn’t require you to understand or accept. You just need to be patient and not judge.
One thing I do want people who are not living with HIV and depression to understand is that HIV itself can carry an element of depression. Physiological changes in the body related to the virus, the inflammatory process the body is constantly under, and the medications used to treat HIV can all affect mood and a person’s general sense of well-being. Any one of those taken alone is tiring, but all together it can be exhausting! Feeling tired 70–99.9 percent of the time is exhausting! The anxiety of disclosure of HIV can make you want to isolate yourself so you don’t have to explain. Exhausting!
Know this: If you are living with HIV, you are not crazy. You are allowed to feel what you feel, I just encourage you not to unpack and live in those emotions. You deserve an amazing life, so please find someone to help you get there. Don’t like meds to treat your depression? Cool, there are other tools you can use. Seek them out. Love on yourself. Not living with HIV but know someone who is? Be patient. Educate yourself. Love on them. HIV-triggered depression, isolation, and anxiety are real. Give people space to emote and heal.
Depression is not all there is or can be. You are not how you feel.
Be well. You matter.
Bridgette Picou is a licensed vocational nurse in Palm Springs, California. She uses her voice to speak for others as a member of the Board of Directors for HIV & Aging Research Project-Palm Springs (HARP-PS) and as a Community Advisory Board Member for The Well Project-HIV and Women. She is also an active HIV blogger and member of ANAC, the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, Greater Palm Springs Chapter. Finding a voice in advocacy and activism is a natural progression, since she feels that every time she fights for someone else, she affirms her own life.