Here is the full transcript of Jessica Gimeno’s TEDx Talk: How to Get Stuff Done When You are Depressed at TEDxPilsenWomen conference.
Depression takes practice. Now, some of you may hear that and say: “Jessica, that’s preposterous. Do you know my boss? Have you met my ex? Don’t you know that mental illness runs in my family? I don’t have to try to be depressed. It just happens.”
What I’m saying is that living well with depression takes practice. Being productive every day, despite depression, takes practice. Being a student or an employee with depression takes practice.
I’ve had experience with depression both personally and professionally, but before I go there, I want to share with you a few numbers that illustrate how depression impacts all of us, as a society.
According to the World Health Organization by the year 2020, depression will be the second-greatest disability in the world, second only to blindness. The National Institute of Mental Health tells us that depression is the number one disability among Americans ages 15-24, preventing millions of people from being able to finish school or hold down a job. Psychology today calls it ‘presenteeism’, the phenomenon by which companies lose billions of dollars every year in lost productivity to depressed employees who come to work but don’t actually work. All of this means that depression can be as debilitating as a physical obstacle.
For instance, carrying a cane. But, with a visible disability, we assume it will take practice to cope, including things like physical therapy. Yet when it comes to depression, we think that a label and medication are enough to cope. Now, I’ve worked in mental health non-profit for years. And while I’m thankful for the great strides we’ve made with anti-stigma campaigns, it’s time to go beyond getting a diagnosis, into giving people actual coping mechanisms.
Because without coping mechanisms, we’re trapped in a downward spiral. Being depressed leads to falling behind, falling behind leads to more depression. So let me tell you why I care so deeply about this cause. I had a happy childhood, I was the youngest of 15 grandchildren, and we were very close. And yet, in spite of faith, family, friends, I had these moments of darkness and the only way I could describe it would be to call them flashes of grey, in an otherwise cotton candy childhood.
I remember my first episode, I was 8 years old, and we were going to school, and all of a sudden I thought, gosh, all this feels meaningless. Like, I don’t know, I just feel like I’m going to live seventy years, and die, and go to Heaven. So, I don’t know why we go to school, I don’t know why we go to work, I just feel — I just feel really empty. And thankfully those moments were very fast.
However, when I became a teenager, those moments of darkness, they stretched into hours, and hours became weeks, and sometimes hours and weeks became months. And during these depressive episodes, I would have crying spells, I found it difficult to concentrate on anything, sometimes I did have suicidal thoughts.
But just as bizarrely as these depressive episodes came, they left. And they were replaced with episodes of genuine stability and happiness, and sometimes highs where it would take me 5 to 6 hours to fall asleep, and I would have extreme outbursts of artistic creativity, where I could finish a painting that takes 4 weeks to make in 4 hours. And so, the roller-coaster of mood swings continued until I had an epiphany when I was 18 years old.
I was a freshman in college and a friend with bipolar disorder committed suicide. This prompted me to research the illness. And everything started to click – I realized I had half the symptoms of bipolar disorder; it explained the inexplicable episodes of depression, the highs due to what we now know as hypomania, where I couldn’t sleep and I had racing thoughts.
So I saw the campus psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with bipolar II, and I got a second opinion, which confirmed the diagnosis. Now, with therapy and medication, things were much better. But something was missing. What nobody taught me was how to get stuff done when I was depressed.
So, on my own I developed creative strategies. I graduated from Northwestern University cum laude with two majors, I competed for Northwestern speech team, I was a state champion, a national quarter-finalist, a national semifinalist. I also co-founded an organization to help depressed students on campus. But bipolar disorder was not my only foe.
When I was 19, I was diagnosed with a very painful polycystic ovarian syndrome. And then when I was 24 years old, an autoimmune neuromuscular hurricane by the name Myasthenia Gravis invaded my life. I’ll never forget my first episode. I was climbing up this long flight of stairs at work, this beautiful sunny day, when all of a sudden I couldn’t feel anything below my waist. And so I kept falling, and falling, and I could hear my high heels tumbling down the stairs. At first I thought, you know, where are my quadriceps? I know I brought them with me when I left the house this morning.
But then, my thoughts turned somber as students stepped over my limp body, in a rush to get to class. And my mind was screaming ‘Get up!’ But my body couldn’t move. And I couldn’t speak. A few weeks after that, I was diagnosed and hospitalized in critical condition with Myasthenia Gravis. The doctor gave me a 50/50 shot of living. And that was 7 years ago.
So today, I carry a cane for the Myasthenia Gravis. People often ask me: ‘Hey, what’s it like to live with 5 diseases?’ And I tell them the truth, I say: ‘Well, I see myself as Rocky and my 5 diseases as Rocky’s different opponents’.
So, bipolar disorder is Apollo Creed, the polycystic ovarian syndrome is definitely Ivan Drago, Myasthenia Gravis is Mason Dixon, asthma is Clubber Lang, and psoriasis is Tommy Gunn. The odds of getting the first 3 of these 5 diseases are 1 in 50 million.
And after that I stopped counting because I just didn’t think there was a point. So, every day I wake up in pain and what I do when I wake up is I play ‘Eye of the Tiger’, and I put on my Rocky boxing gloves, and I pray to God for strength to get through another day. Today, I’m a health activist, a writer, and a speaker, I have my own award-winning blog, ‘Fashionably ill’, which is about surviving pain with style and humor, and I’m a contributor to several other websites, including The Huffington Post, MSNBC did a documentary on my life, Psych Central named me a mental health hero.
And right now, I’m really excited about a project I’m working on; I’m consulting on a project with Rutgers University and University of Massachusetts medical school. We’re developing a program that will help young adults with severe mental illness finish school and find meaningful employment. And that’s the thing I want to talk about today, it’s how to get stuff done when you’re depressed.