Depression is debilitating, with no easy solutions. Here’s advice from someone who knows.

This is not a feel-good story.

It’s not about overcoming obstacles or finding a satisfactory ending, wrapping the loose ends up in a neat little package.

This is a story about a constant struggle that I—like many people—face each and every day.

Even though I know avenues for getting help exist, my own shame, guilt, and regret keep me from getting the help I need. This is a story about mental illness and my own struggle with it.

When I was growing up, my grandfather was my best friend in the world. The Christmas I was 13, I had the flu, and I can remember laying in my grandpa’s bed, running a fever, petting my Aunt Christy’s ever-loyal dachshund PJ, and watching The Muppet Christmas Carol while the rest of the family celebrated.

My parents, aunts, and grandparents constantly checked on me, but my grandpa was the one who took the time to make me laugh, albeit weakly, at some random off-color joke. He always knew how to make everyone laugh.

As we finished opening our presents, Grandpa peeked behind the tree to find one more gift waiting there for me. I’ve always been a comic book geek—a badge I wear proudly—and when Grandpa asked me the month before what I wanted for Christmas, I told him I wanted Generation X No. 1. This comic book was insanely hard to find and at the time was worth nearly $40.

I found out later that he went to nearly every comic book shop in the Kansas City metro area and finally found it on December 23. For the 30 minutes it took me to read the comic and absorb the pictures, I was happy, and I forgot all about being sick. More than anything, though, I remember how happy my grandpa was when he saw my face light up.

Low Points

Two years later, just before my birthday, Grandpa died in his backyard while trying to get rid of a giant tree root. His death shook me to my core. He died before I could say goodbye and tell him I was sorry and I loved him.

The week before he passed away, my teen angst got the best of me during an argument with my parents and brothers, and I punched a hole in the wall. That hole is still there, covered up by a picture of the Virgin Mary. I hate that picture.

I stayed in a terrible mood for the rest of the day. My twin brother and I had a lawn to mow, a huge yard belonging to a distant relative I’d never met. The lawn took four hours to mow on a good day—and that day, it was hot. Grandpa came to help us. I remember finishing the yard and just avoiding Grandpa.

I didn’t want to be around anyone, much less talk to him. He went to give me a hug before he left, but I just gave him a defiant head nod. I immediately felt guilty. That was a low move, David, I thought, but you’ll see him again and it will be okay.

That was the last day I saw my Grandpa alive, and I’ve felt guilty ever since. Even sobbing into Aunt Christy’s hug on the day he died couldn’t give me solace as I told her it was my fault.

Five Things to Say to Someone Suffering from Depression

  1. I’m here for you. Knowing someone is there to help makes it a little easier for someone suffering to reach out for help.
  2. This is not your fault.” Letting loved ones know that they are not to blame for their depression communicates that depression is, in fact, a disease and not a choice.
  3. “I’d like to go with you.” Communicating that you want to help lessens the feeling of being a burden and opens the door to communication.
  4. How can I help?” Keeping a daily routine is very helpful but can seem overwhelming for people with depression. Helping with small tasks might seem insignificant, but it can free up the time and emotional space your loved one needs to attend to treatment goals.
  5. Sometimes, saying nothing at all is best. Just showing up and being present is very helpful. What might feel like a small, meaningless gesture to you most likely feels like an intimate, caring gesture to a loved one in need.


Inside My Head

Eventually, that guilt snowballed into depression and a lack of self-worth. One day when I was 20, I decided to do something about it. I was trying to juggle a job as a line cook while nurturing a budding career in journalism. I had just broken up with a girl, and my college coursework was piled up. I’d had enough. I took a handful of sleeping pills, not wanting to wake up.

When I did wake up, I not only still felt guilty, but I also felt selfish, rattled, and ignorant for trying something so drastic.

This guilt stays with me every time I hold my wife, look into my sons’ eyes, or spend time with family and friends. It eats at me and on my worst days, I feel like it defines me.

I think to myself, Look at where you are now, how beautiful your family is, and you almost threw it all away because you couldn’t get out of your own damn head. I think this, and I am ashamed.

What Is Mental Illness?

The Mayo Clinic defines mental illness as a wide range of mental health conditions—disorders that affect your mood, thinking, and behavior. Mental health conditions become mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function. The Mayo Clinic website lists quite a few symptoms, including feeling sad and/or down, excessive worries and feelings of guilt, extreme mood changes, alcohol or drug abuse, and suicidal thinking.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 20 percent of U.S. adults experience mental illness in a given year, while 13 percent of children ages 8 to 15 experience a severe mental illness. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in this country. Nearly 63 percent of the population receive some form of help for their mental health.

A Light in the Darkness

Since my attempt nearly 17 years ago I’ve been to at least three different therapists, talked to countless friends, and tried several ways to heal myself, but I’m still racked with guilt. I am an addict of various vices and self-medicate on an almost daily basis.

I’m trapped in my own head most days and don’t know how to get out. Sometimes it’s thoughts of my grandpa that spring this mental trap, other days it is thinking about how hopeless l would be if I lost my wife, or if my boys got sick, or if my brothers or parents were to die. I’ve tried prayer, but even the stillness of silence escapes me. For me, there is no silence.

Every day I put on a happy face, crack quick-witted jokes, go to the gym, talk to my wife, and play with my two beautiful boys, but on the inside I still feel like I’m dying. I still feel an emptiness. I still feel the pain of never saying “I’m sorry, goodbye, and I love you.”

I remain a prisoner of my own thoughts and feelings.

I wish I could sit here and type the words, “It gets better,” or “Time will heal this wound,” but the stark reality is that sometimes it doesn’t. I know now that suicide is not the answer. I know that I am loved by my friends and family. And on those days when I am at my lowest, that love helps me not to sink into an abyss I’ve briefly touched.

It took me a long time to realize this, and I still struggle. There are times when I feel like I can’t help myself, but I want to help others and let them know that the world is best when all of our lights are burning bright.

When You Are Living with Depression

How to take care of yourself or someone else suffering from mental illness.

  • Pay attention to warning signs. Work with your doctor or therapist to learn what might trigger your symptoms. Contact your doctor or therapist if you notice any changes in symptoms or how you feel.
  • Get routine medical care. Don’t neglect checkups or skip visits to your health care provider, especially if you aren’t feeling well. You may have a new health problem that requires treatment, or you may be experiencing side effects of medication.
  • Get help when you need it. Mental health conditions can be harder to treat if you wait until symptoms get bad. Long-term maintenance treatment also may help prevent a relapse of symptoms.
  • Take good care of yourself. Sufficient sleep, healthy eating, and regular physical activity are important. Try to maintain a regular schedule. Talk to your health care provider if you have trouble sleeping or if you have questions about diet and physical activity.

Free and Confidential Help

If you or your loved ones are suffering, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for help at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.

This article, designed by Mark Szymanski, was a 2020 Folio: Ozzie Award finalist.

About the Author

David Penner makes his home in Independence, Missouri, where he grew up, and is a graduate of the University of Central Missouri. He is the managing editor for Unity World Headquarters after serving for several years as senior copy editor and proofreader. Before coming to Unity, he spent five and a half years as editor of the Lexington Clipper-Herald in Lexington, Nebraska.


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