Running Tall to Lift Awareness About Depression

Recently GMW.com connected with Wilton resident Lindsay Wheeler. A WHS grad, Wheeler will be running the NYC Marathon in November to raise awareness for mental health awareness, most especially for youth and young adults. We asked her to tell her personal story in her own words.

Soon after Robin Williams committed suicide, I turned to Facebook. I’m still not sure what gave me the courage that day to finally submerge myself in truth and openness, but this is where the sharing began. Just days before that tragic incident, I had blurted out to my family—after years of ruminating about being open and even more years of personal struggle—that I have depression.

There it was…floating out in the open and drawing a far less chaotic response than I had always anticipated. I posted the following on Facebook after hearing some disturbing comments about Williams’ suicide:

“Every tragedy offers an occasion for collective and personal growth and an opportunity to stand up for both the victims of such adversity as well as those with whom these grave issues have yet to be explored. Let the highly publicized events of yesterday morning serve as an important milestone in an increasingly fast paced, sometimes self-centered and frequently consumed society. On behalf of the many who have been touched by, suffer personally from and/or remain voiceless in the face of mental illness, it is through deep personal devotion to these issues that I ask you to be mindful today; to be an advocate of open mindedness among a population facing adversity, bliss and everything in between on a gross spectrum. Smile at a stranger, offer a hand to someone you suspect may be struggling and remember that for even those who appear to have it all, sometimes the darkness overtakes the light. I am so grateful for many of my own experiences as    well as the eye opening contributions of those with whom I have been so fortunate to meet and converse. I deeply respect and acknowledge the progress that has been made to date. Still, I am increasingly hopeful that the propensity for our communities, big or small, to recognize the beauty of acceptance and understanding surrounding matters of such import and urgency can one day come into full fruition. The amount of energy it requires to partake in deliberate open mindedness and basic human kindness is nothing relative to the difference your words, understanding and ultimate acceptance can make for a human life or many. Thank you.”

The responses I received from that post were nothing short of amazing, inspiring and uplifting. Friends, family and even acquaintances were sharing what I’d written, commenting on how eloquent my post was, and expressing gratitude. I’m not sure if it was the encouragement I received or some strange, random spark that ignited within me, but I realized I was extremely tired of hiding.

Days later I had told several others in my life about my experience and my diagnosis—Major Depressive Disorder—realizing with each word that I could do this, I could be myself without being scrutinized, judged, or diminished.

Sadly, I realized the face I had shown the world for so many years was not the face of Lindsay Wheeler, but instead the face of a girl I didn’t even know myself. Sure, depression doesn’t “define me” as people always say when they are afraid to too closely associate with the illness, but it is truly a huge part of who I am. After years of self-negativity, guilt and frustration, I have finally realized how depression contributed vastly to my caring and compassionate nature.

Realizing that, it also hit me that a perfect forum exists for this sort of dialogue to explode and prosper, and it wasn’t that of my own home and social group alone. It was time to bring this public on as large a scale as possible because, well, this is who I am.

While some have told me as I’ve shared my diagnosis, “You shouldn’t shout it on the rooftops,” I have chosen to challenge this opinion and ask, “Why not?” Perhaps, unfortunately, some may find it easier to view my circumstances as shameful, while still others may view them as indicative of strength. Either way, I choose to be an advocate for mental health awareness, human potential and both personal and collective strength, whether that means I lose friends or family, gain them or find my message is altogether ignored.

Here I am, shouting from the rooftops:  I am a survivor.

Many amazing people, like the beloved Robin Williams, have fallen to diseases of the mind, just as many have fallen victim to cancer, heart disease or any other life-altering, all-consuming health circumstance. I am fortunate to have had the support of so many beautiful, kind and selfless individuals throughout my long journey and I hope, with everything I have, to have the chance to pay it forward.

I have been entered in the TCS NYC Marathon “Get Your New York On” Challenge as a runner in the upcoming November Marathon. In raising money for GROW, a mental health organization as well as Team for Kids, and following closely as the topic of mental health gets more mass-media attention, I thought, why not now? I am also working closely with other organizations advocating mental health awareness to lend a hand in whatever way I can. There is no better time than this moment to put myself on the line for the benefit of others. The winner of this competition [chosen by online votes] will be photographed by Runner’s World and featured on a Times Square billboard as a representative of whatever it is that he or she finds important in one of the most visited landmarks of the modern world. So I figured, why not me? I am super awkward in front of the lens, giggly when I’m nervous and by no means ‘usual’; I’m the antithesis of a Runner’s World model. But today, I am proud to be who I am and am finally ready to say that to the world.

If pasting my face on a giant billboard, scribbled with words about acceptance, tolerance and mental health awareness will stop a few people in their tracks and help them feel less alone, or at the very least, make them think, then I will find a way to get there. My goal is to pursue this passion I have for making mental health care and support more accessible and less stigmatized. I won’t quit until I make some sort of difference, whether that is today, tomorrow or in the years to follow.

I figured I’d shock a few people, get a few Facebook likes and at best, help someone else who has suffered for as long as I had. A few days later I logged onto the TCS website to find nearly 100 likes, multiple hundreds of competition votes, dozens and dozens of shares and an unbelievable number of incredibly strong and courageous individuals reaching out to me privately and publicly with shared experiences, gratitude and an outpouring of strength that I could never have anticipated.

My wonderful family and countless others have backed me up tirelessly. Perhaps most humbling is the reality that several friends and acquaintances who have endured difficulty hiding in common circumstance have begun to find their own voices and articulate their own struggles since hearing my story. Words cannot describe this feeling.

Who says there is no place for a dialogue about mental illness in our society? As long as we live in a world composed of tremendous difference and human diversity, judgment will exist. What I have learned, however, is that this doesn’t necessarily mean a stronger community fostering understanding can’t emerge in the face of judgment. To those in the U.S., Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and beyond who have grabbed my hand and not let go in the last few weeks, I thank you endlessly and assure you that no matter what happens in this competition, be it the achievement of my very own mental health advocacy billboard, a close 2nd, 3rd, 4th place, or nothing, I have personally succeeded thanks to all of you.

You all accepted me for who I am and I can finally truly live. Imagine what we can all do for other people who haven’t yet been offered such strength and collective love.

In November, I will run the NYC marathon spreading my message for all to see and hear. I don’t just want to spark a quick conversation about it either; I truly hope to inspire a shared sense of pride in mental illness, however unconventional that may sound right now. We are who we are however long we may choose to resist this truth.

Who knows, maybe one day I will have the opportunity to start a local organization of some sort. We live in a particular demographic where mental health issues are not uncommon, and yet a lot of bottling up and hiding occurs. People are afraid to share their experiences in an environment of such wealth, success and seeming happiness. Many people do not realize how common these issues are and ultimately feel incredibly alone.

While it took me many years to recognize the beauty in openness and the silver lining to struggle, I have finally arrived. I will hit roadblocks and encounter stigma at times but I will also never wake up again thinking that I am alone, putting on a mask and refusing to give those around me an opportunity to extend the tender, loving and supportive hands that they were always fully capable of sharing.

The ultimate thing to find comfort in, if you are still uncertain, is that the world will not remember me for my mental illness. I am Lindsay Wheeler. I played hockey and lacrosse in high school and, to the disdain of others, sang louder at 5 a.m. in the locker room at morning practice than most of my team. I struggled academically and otherwise in high school but never stopped joking through it all, hiding the very little motivation and direction I felt I had. I truly discovered myself and my potential in college and thrived like never before, exceeding expectations and demolishing the words of those who said I couldn’t along the way.

It is for the positives that I will be remembered, not for the Major Depressive Disorder that made it all a bit more challenging. There will always be judgment. In the end, though, we need to start advocating a path toward happiness, no matter what that means. If it means therapy with some of the truly most kind, intelligent and inspiring people in the world (like my own therapist), then terrific. If it means sharing with a few friends that you have suffered and finding comfort in this, that’s wonderful. But one thing I am sure that it shouldn’t mean, is continuing to hide and putting on a face that masks the true depth of our experiences. I am proud today to wear this on my sleeve and wake up with purpose.

If you haven’t had a chance to vote, please check out the link for my TSC entry and share if you’re willing. You can vote up to once a day until the competition ends. Also be sure to check out the leaderboard on the top of the page. Thanks to you all I am on there, right smack in the middle and I promise not to stand down. Thank you all.

To vote for Lindsay, visit her entry page on the “Get Your New York On” Challenge website. She is currently in 8th place.