How do you write a post on depression without it being…well, depressing? Do you write in a hopeful and light-hearted manner and trust that you aren’t belittling the situation, or get all deep and intense and scare everyone away? I’ve opted for somewhere in the middle.
Depression is one of those things I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. However, it is my sincere wish that everyone go through it. Why? You learn a LOT about yourself going through it. “An unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates once stated.
Depression isn’t uncommon; it’s merely not talked about. It’s right up there with money, sex, and politics – everywhere except in conversation. Thanks to some very brave people who have held the media spotlight or our respect (ie, Robin Williams, Chris Guillebeau), we are now seeing how common depression is and that denying it isn’t doing anyone any good.
I was diagnosed with depression over 20 years ago. I can see now that a host of factors ganged up on me – genetic predisposition, my parent’s divorce, graduating high school and starting the rest of my life, culture shock at moving from a small town to a big city. Within the span of six months, I went from active and functioning to being a zombie.
What is depression?
We know that depression isn’t just “being sad.” It’s a state of being – emotional, mental, and physical – that knocks you out at the knees and lays you out. Literally. “Depressed immune system” is the phrase doctors use to describe an immune system that is compromised in some way by something; it isn’t supposed to mean an immune system is sad. Taken this way, if we look at depression as a compromised state of being, we can begin to see that it isn’t just about the inability to be happy.
Twenty years ago, I went from being a functioning human to experiencing a total loss of control over my mind. I was unmotivated, couldn’t concentrate, my perception became distorted, and I experienced anxiety (or panic) attacks – I’m told they are different, but the anxiety was so extreme (shaking, racing pulse, ‘1000 frames a second’ racing mind) that I term them panic attacks. This loss of control was so complete and frightening that I contemplated suicide: it would have been an act of regaining control and ending the terror.
Please know that I don’t acknowledge or write these things lightly. It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with what happened. Even longer to openly admit and now to write them.
I can describe to you ad naseum what I went through. Everyone goes through something different; depression is a continuum of symptoms and tailors itself to the individual and the context. But, because of my survivalist personality and the extreme symptoms I was experiencing, I immediately sought a physician’s help, got drugs, and then got into therapy. I needed to get a handle on things NOW. I could not let the terror or the depression win.
Depression is a Symptom
In hindsight, I can say a few things biased toward my own experiences:
1) Drugs aren’t the answer.
2) Depression is a symptom of an underlying issue or issues.
3) Listen to your body and your heart.
4) If you want to be truly free of depression, or enable yourself to fight it, you will need to face your fears and accepts some hard truths.
I believe that depression is a conspiracy between the heart and body to tell you that something needs attention or resolution. Figuring out what needs attention or resolution requires the time and space to listen to what’s going on in your heart and your mind. Hard truths will need to be acknowledged and faced. As alluded to above, if we view depression as a ‘compromised state of being,’ what is it that is compromising your state of being? What is the root of the problem?
(Please note here that I see a difference between what triggered the depression and what is actually causing it. For example, let’s say you break up with your significant other, and it takes longer than usual get out of the funk and friends start to worry. The trigger is the break-up, the root cause of the depression is a fear that you are generally unwanted, unloved, and undeserving of love, and the belief that you will never feel whole.)
I’ve read a lot of viewpoints that postulate that ‘focusing on the now’ and ‘ finding moments of happiness and gratitude’ will enable you to fight off or emerge from depression. If this works for you, I don’t believe you’ve truly experienced depression. There is no ‘pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.’ Depression can be incapacitating. Finding the root cause(s) and addressing it, in my opinion, is the only way to gain true freedom from depression.
Drugs and Therapy are Tools, not Quick-Fixes
Drugs can clear the fog so that you can begin to ferret out the underlying root of depression. Drugs are not a quick-fix. In this age of instant gratification and on-demand whatever, drugs are often taken (and sometimes even administered) as if they are magic. Drugs, however, only mask the symptoms. If you want to address the root cause of whatever you’re going through — albeit the flu, a cold, depression, broken leg — you need to do some deep-down healing. Therapy can lend a hand helping to dig through the emotional and mental baggage and personality make-up that has contributed to the depression and help find a way to heal.
I was on drugs for a year and a half. I also was in therapy for that entire year and half. I worked my ass off to surface from the depths of depression. I kept a journal. I investigated why I looked at the world as I did, my self-worth, my childhood, all those emotions that I hadn’t fully expressed and why. The list ranges far and wide of what I investigated. I left no psychological stone unturned. All in all, I faced some very hard truths about myself, the world, and the people in it. It was because of this work that I was able to go off the drugs. It was also because of these lessons and the tools I acquired that I was able to recognize symptoms of depression in myself and preempt future depressive episodes.
I have been drug-free for 20 years. I’ve come close to going back on drugs, and I do attend therapy every once in while when I have something specific I need to address. For the most part, journalling, meditating, and listening to what my heart and body say keeps me from falling back into the black abyss. Everyday I discover something new about myself, good or bad, and everyday I face it and heal. Books like “Emotional Yoga” help(ed) me a lot.
The Hardest Truth
The hardest truth I faced through all of this was that I had compromised my own state of being – this was the root issue that depression urged me to address. I’d been guided by the external rather than the internal. When I felt happy, I should have raced and bounced and laughed and smiled, despite what society or the people around me said. When I felt sad, I should have cried and sobbed and wallowed and blubbered, despite what society or the people around me said. When I needed to say ‘no’ I should have done so. I should have listened to my heart and my body, and not what my head or others said. Depression taught me that being truthful with myself about myself, and living with that integrity, keeps me happy and healthy.
Now, when I start to see the symptoms popping up — lethargy, inability to concentrate, lack of appetite, uncontrollable desire to sob — I break out the journal, free write, dig, investigate, then I sit down and meditate (and/or sob). Rinse, repeat, until the depression lifts. It is hard work and it requires a lot of effort. It also requires time and space. However, like setting aside time with your kids, time to exercise, or spending time with your family or friends, it is an investment that pays off. The sun always comes out again; it may take some time, but it will. I’ve done it again and again over 20 years.
Truth has set me free. It is not any easy way to live; it is a fulfilling way to live.
Christmas can be a season of great stress, depression, and desperation for so many people. I hope you can use these words to see the truth of what someone close to you is going through, or of what you may, in fact, be going through yourself. If anything, I hope this post can help facilitate an openness of thought and talking. Coping with depression requires support, the right tools, and courage. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t be afraid of the truth!
Chris Guillebeau – 2014 Annual Review: Lessons Learned (#AnnualReview)
Fatshion Hustings – If you choose not to treat your mental illness…
Jon Kabat-Zinn – Mindfullness Meditation