Around Christmas of 2010 I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Many outside factors contributed to this–my mother’s cancer diagnosis, the impending end of college, our recent family move. But the fact remained that my hours in bed (going to bed early, sleeping in late, never feeling awake), my self-perceived worthlessness, my minor bouts with self-harm (I’d clench my fists often, digging my nails into my palms, and occasionally punched my thighs to relieve tension) could no longer go untreated. I worried that soon the depression would get worse, and I would no longer see the point of treatment. I asked my mother to take me to the doctor, where I was diagnosed and encouraged to start a regiment of meds and therapy. I was afraid of meds so I asked to start exclusively with therapy.
I went to my first therapist with deliberate skepticism. This woman can’t help you, I told myself. If you want to get better, just get better. Feel better. Stop being so sad. Just be happy. I labored under the belief that depression was mere unhappiness, and that I was letting myself be unhappy, and that I could choose to be happy. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Stop feeling sad.
In my journey through to depression, I tend to write off this therapist. While I didn’t necessarily feel that strongly about our time together, she gave me something for which I will be eternally grateful–the opportunity to begin a dialogue about my feelings without the pressure of judgment or guilt. I have been extremely blessed with a vast community of friends and family that I have always felt open with, but this network of friends can (and should) only go so far. With a therapist I discovered the importance of naming my feelings, recognizing them as real and needing to be felt, and, perhaps most importantly, not inherently bad. Very slowly I began to shed the belief that there was something wrong with me because of my depression, that I had let myself feel these things, that I could save myself. There were actual physical changes that had happened in my brain, pathways that had been rewired by my constant negative thoughts that couldn’t be changed by simply “feeling better.”
I also discovered another vital truth about depression around this time–for most people (myself included) it is a lifelong struggle. There would be no cure-all for me, I wouldn’t suddenly hit thirty therapy visits and feel elated all the time. Depression is a constant in my life. I make a conscious effort many days to combat it–to avoid situations where I can feed it. Fortunately my depression is currently quiet, but I am aware that if I don’t take care of myself it can and will rear its ugly head. I make sure to get enough sleep, to eat healthy foods that make me feel good, to get exercise, and most importantly to me, to avoid feeling shame my emotions. I will not be happy all the time, I shouldn’t be happy all the time, and I am no less because of that fact. I embrace my emotions more than I ever have in the past–recognizing that shame about them is more toxic than actually feeling them.
My point in telling you all of this is two-fold. One, depression affects a vast array of people, 1 in 10 Americans will suffer from it at some point in their lives. The stigma that you should just “feel better” is dangerous, and shuts down the dialogue about mental health. It is why I felt so responsible for my own depression, that I had somehow done it to myself, that I was broken. The more we stigmatize depression the more people suffer its terrible consequences–convinced as I was that they can fix themselves, or worse that there is something wrong with them. Depression likes to be fed, and the idea that you are broken only brings you closer to your depression.
Two, an awareness of your emotions is vital to your mental health. I am extremely fortunate to be at a place where I can manage my depression (many, many people are not). I am aware of what feeds it, and I try to take care of myself. Having dealt with depression, I can see some paths like road maps–too many hours of TV, sleeping too long, staying inside all day, avoiding contact with friends and family, long sad music sessions, not eating properly–these all feed my depression. These are by no means universal, but they are some of my indicators, like flashing lights on the highway: danger ahead.
Depression is a terribly easy thing for many people to fall into–and it might not even be apparent to those you love. I imagine this post will come as a shock to some of my friends. Depression likes to get you alone, make you feel alienated, make your emotions feel unsharable. Outwardly you can be bubbly and friendly, putting on a face to keep your negative emotions quiet, feeding the alienation you feel, feeding your depression. Take care of yourself. Name your emotions. Talk about them. Recognize that life is hard. Don’t compare your emotions, life, struggles with other people’s. If you think you need to, talk to a therapist or doctor–even if you aren’t depressed, therapy is a great way to tap into your emotional health. Be in touch with all of your feelings, not just happiness.
Please, please, please take care of yourselves. There are many people that love you.
If you feel you need immediate attention, the National Suicide Hotline is available 24/7: 1-800-273-8255.
I love you. Be good to yourself.