For two weeks, Brittany Ernsperger’s depression and anxiety were so overwhelming she couldn’t even wash the dishes. The messy kitchen made her feel like a failure, which made finishing the dishes even more challenging.
"I walked by them morning and night and all day long," Ernsperger wrote in a Facebook post last year. "And just looked at them. Telling myself that I could do them. Telling myself that I would. And feeling defeated everyday that I didn’t."
When the 26-year-old finally washed them, she snapped a picture of the mound of clean dishes and shared it on social media with a powerful message that still resonates.
“This is what depression looks like. No. Not the clean dishes. But that there were that many dishes in the first place,” Ernsperger wrote in the post that has been shared more than 350,000 times and it has more than 17,000 comments since June 2018. “Three-days ago I sat on the kitchen floor and stared at them while I cried. I knew they needed to be done. I wanted to do them so bad. But depression pulled me under.”
As thousands of supportive reactions filtered in, Ernsperger experienced a new feeling: gratitude.
“I was pretty sure I was alone,” the Milford, Indiana, woman told TODAY. “I think people responded because it was such a vulnerable moment.”
Mental health experts were moved by the young mother's candor.
“It is so beautifully honest,” Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told TODAY. “She puts it all right out there … and I think that is really compelling.”
Duckworth said her message reveals some of the lesser-known symptoms of depression and anxiety — negative self-talk and not being able to complete daily tasks. These bad emotions keep people stuck in an unhealthy cycle.
“Incompetent. Stupid. Lazy,” Ernsperger wrote. “Being scared to let people into your home because they’ll think you’re nasty. Feeling like you’re failing your kids.”
What’s worse, negative impressions might prevent people from seeking treatment, said Duckworth.
“They might not feel like they deserve help,” Duckworth said. “But no matter how bad you feel, it is possible to feel better."
While not being able to do a common chore like washing dishes may seem minor, it's often a sign of something serious.
“People feel very overwhelmed by the demands of daily life,” Dr. Holly Swartz, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. “It is kind of a double-whammy. The depression makes it hard to get things done and the depression makes you think that you are a bad person for not being able to do them.”
'It is OK to struggle'
Ernsperger says she used techniques that she has learned in therapy to think more positively about herself.
“I locked myself in the bathroom. I sat in there for a half hour. I told myself, ‘I need to be kind to myself. I need to go easier on myself,’” she said. “I feel much better. I told myself I was doing a good job and my kids still love me and my husband still loves me.”
Duckworth said that cognitive behavioral therapy teaches people methods to counter their unhealthy emotions.
“The goal is to let them ... challenge their negative beliefs,” he said.
While Ernsperger is amazed by the positive response, her story also helps others.
“It takes away the stigma associated with having a psychiatric illness when others are brave enough to speak up about it,” Dr. Sarah Mathews, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told TODAY. “People feel a lot of shame and guilt and it helps to hear others' experiences.”
For her part, Ernsperger hopes she inspires others.
"It’s OK to not be OK sometimes. It is OK to struggle," she said. "You are not alone."