That’s a long title; I promise I wanted to do something clever, but I’ll take clarity over quirkiness this time.
We’re hearing more and more about the topic of mental health, which is great! Even so, it still holds a strong social stigma. I never knew how I was supposed to go about this topic, and there are plenty of reasons why I haven’t been open about it. Let’s lay down some groundwork first:
What is Depression?
Specifically, Clinical Depression is described as a mental health disorder characterized by persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, causing significant impairment in daily life. Tying depression to a single route cause isn’t possible; it typically includes a combination of physical, psychological, and social sources. Some common signs of depression are typically things like loss of interest in things once loved, loss of appetite, decreased energy level, decreased concentration, feelings of anger or agitation, etc. In severe cases, depression also includes thoughts of suicide.
It feels like now more than ever depression is considered a very common occurrence. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t believe that “more” people are having mental health issues. It’s just that now there is more awareness of such issues and ware seeing more people come forward about it.
Trying to define depression by definitions and statistics isn’t the best way to do it. Describing depression to someone has never experienced it for themselves is quite a challenge in itself. For the uninformed, depression may seem like simple sadness. When someone asks me to describe depression, I usually point them to performances or visual aids instead of articles. The articles can give you the facts and figures, but I believe artistic pieces are the only thing that can remotely describe the emotional toll. Take this notable performance by Sabrina Benaim titled Explaining My Depression to My Mother from her collection Depression and Other Magic Tricks. Her last, and arguably most resonating line in this poem:
“Mom still doesn’t understand….Mom, can’t you see? Neither can I.”
I can’t speak from the experience of others, only from my own. And there has been a lot of fear of “exposing” myself as someone who has suffered from Depression. I wanted to go over some of the lies I told myself about it, which were all rooted in the fear of confronting my issues. Denial is real, and because I couldn’t acknowledge the following excuses and lies, I prolonged getting better.
“I Can’t Be Depressed Because….”
“I haven’t been to a doctor so I can’t claim that”.
There’s still some truth to this statement; with there being several different categories of depression, having that clarity from a medical professional is essential to understanding how to combat it. I masked my fear of acknowledging my depression with “consideration” for the community affected by it. But this was simply a form of denial. I know this because, instead of going to verify that I’m fine, I continued to fall back on this excuse. I was so sure that I was fine, but somehow I still feared to talk to someone about it because what happens when I don’t have that excuse anymore? What happens if that professional confirms what I don’t want them to confirm? That would mean I had to face up to it, and acknowledge that it’s there. Because of this, I kept myself from taking that step. This way, I wouldn’t have to be real with myself or with anyone around me.
The reality of the situation is that I was quite aware of the signs and symptoms of depression. Even more than that, I was aware that I checked a lot of those boxes of symptoms. And when you are aware of illness and check an alarming amount of boxes tied to that illness, you don’t need a doctor to tell you what may be happening. It’s not different than someone with a lump on their body dodging a visit to the doctor. We put it in our minds that if something isn’t made ‘official’ then it isn’t here and it isn’t real.
“I have so much to be grateful for! I have no reason to be depressed!”
A lot of people have the false idea that if someone lives a prosperous life, if they have accumulated a lot of wealth and achievement, then there is “no reason” to experience depression. The big problem with this mindset is that it misunderstands the causes of depression while also perpetuating the stigma associated with depression.
There is a big difference between “achievement” and “fulfillment”. Achievement is when something is done successfully, typically by someone’s effort and skill. But being fulfilled means that one is satisfied or happy because of the development of their skill and character. Whether you are a celebrity with a bunch of advantages or just someone with a pretty nice lifestyle, you can still fall privy to depression when you are not experiencing fulfillment. Celebrities like Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, Kim Jonghyun, and Chester Bennington had accomplished and achieved a lot in their lifetime. However, none of these achievements kept these celebrities from experiencing severe depression, to the point of committing their suicides. Depression can affect anyone, regardless of your race, status, or economic background. Tying your achievement level to determine whether or not you are susceptible to depression only perpetuates the idea that depression is rooted in a lack of perspective. We have to keep in mind that people of all walks of life, of all cultures, of all ethnicity, of all social status, can experience depression. This serves as an iceberg to the next point:
“I’m a Christian. It’s not right for me to be depressed”
This was one of the biggest excuses I made to myself. Mental Health and the Church have an interesting relationship from what I’ve gathered in my experience. Depression is already a touchy subject, but even more so from the typical Christian church perspective. If people are like me, they may avoid being vocal about how they’re feeling because they feel that they will be criticized for not being a ‘good’ Christian. “God has done so much for you! Why would you doubt and feel this way when He is your Creator? Why don’t you have faith that He will bring you through this?
I say ‘The Church’ rather than ‘Christianity’ because they are, in fact, not truly the same thing. That’s a different topic for a different day. Sometimes the Church will make depression out to be a character defect or a spiritual disorder. On the more drastic side, they may even view it as a demon. They view it as a ‘lack of faith’ in the idea that God will provide for all our needs. Knowing this, the Christian who is experiencing depression will continue to fall through this cycle of guilt: Why am I feeling this way? God has done so much for me. There are people with bigger problems so I should be ashamed. Am I out of alignment? Am I not praying enough? Am I not studying scripture enough? How could I be so ungrateful? What is wrong with me? These questions would spin around in my head and it always led to the same place: Shame, Guilt, and then right back to Depression in a never-ending self-deprecating cycle.
Before my fellow Christians come for me, please understand: I still believe that prayer is essential to my life and my walk with God. I still believe that there is power in prayer. I also understand the power of the spoken word, aka speaking what you want and using positive affirmations. And I do believe that God can bring us to overcome our illnesses and weaknesses. But I grew to also understand this: Mental illness is not a sin. It is brought on by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. This means that while staying prayer, and studying scripture, and surrounding yourself with lots of support is essential, it’s still possible to search for additional resources to get ourselves better. This may mean medication, enlisting the help of a therapist, or both. Utilizing these other tools does not mean a person lacks faith, it means they are making full use of all the resources that God has provided. Imagine if I fell down a flight of stairs and landed on my head. What’s your first instinct? I would hope it would be to help me get to a hospital so that I can be properly treated for my injuries. Would you jump in front of the paramedics and shout “Stop! Don’t touch her! God will provide the healing she needs!” Meanwhile, God is looking at you saying “Girl…you know I gave you doctors for a reason, right?” The same should go for mental health. God works through people, not for people.
“That only happens to weak minded people”
This is a common misconception. There’s this idea that people who suffer from depression are weak-willed, weak-minded, ‘pansies’, or ‘snowflakes’. They are people who are spoiled, coddled and aren’t mature enough to handle the harsh realities of life. The thought process here is extremely dangerous. Once again, we are faced with a mindset that further perpetuates false ideas of what depression is and who it may affect.
I can only imagine how it feels to have the desire to open up to a loved one about what you’re going through, only for them to make such a hurtful remark. I think about what would happen if I had a son or daughter and they heard me say things like
“Those people need to stop whining as if they don’t live a good life”
“What a first-world problem”
“Can’t they see it’s all in their head?”
“Why can’t they just get over it?”
Emotional pain is still pain. The brain is a vital organ, and just like any other vital organ, it can become unwell. When someone falls into depression, they’re not thinking clearly. When someone harbors suicidal thoughts and then acts on them, they have already convinced themselves that 1) No one truly cares about them, 2) The world would be better without them in it, or 3) There is nothing in this world worth living for. This Ted Talk by Guy Winch articulates the importance of ’emotional first aid’, dealing with our emotional injuries just as we would our physical ones. We don’t ignore our other medical problems; if we’re bleeding, we clean and cover the cut. If we break a limb, we receive a cast. If we have a cold, we take some medication and eat some soup. So why is it that if we experience emotional trauma we are expected to….’get over it’? Every medical issue deserves attention and treatment.
What I’m Learning
The biggest part of learning new habits is unlearning old ones; this is much easier said than done. When I made the decision to acknowledge my depression and finally take action in doing something about it, it meant that I had to do things that I found to either be weird or very uncomfortable. These are few of the things I’ve been learning:
‘Feeling’ is Okay, ‘Dwelling’ is Not – I remind myself that negative emotions like sadness, anger, disappointment, discouragement, etc are not bad things. It should be common sense, but I always saw it as a failure to keep ‘a positive mental attitude’. I had to understand that emotional stability is not when you can successfully ignore your emotions, it is when you can acknowledge what you are feeling and most importantly: move on from that feeling. This is tough, especially in the moment. If I wanted to avoid falling into the pit of despair, there were some other things that I had to do as well:
Positive Self-Talk and Speaking What I Want – Initially, I thought this was ridiculous. Even more ridiculous (and brilliant) is a book I like to read called “What to Say When You Talk to Yourself”. People can say nice things to you, but your brain picks it up to another level when you say nice things to yourself. I start my day with positive self-talk, I surround my room with positive notes to myself, I keep positive things around me, I listen to encouraging podcasts and Ted Talks, I reference Bible passages that focus on joy and rebuke depression and anxiety.
Reduce Negative Outlets – Pouring in positive doesn’t mean much when you’re still consuming negative. For me, even though a part of me enjoys reading about current events and following the news, I had to put a limit on that because I also found it emotionally draining. I also have to be mindful of the people I’m around; I wanted to avoid people who saw the negative in everything, who always want to gossip about others, who didn’t support my goals, who purposely made me feel insignificant, etc.
Reach Out – This was probably the most challenging thing I had to change, and I would say it’s the same for a lot of people who have dealt with depression. It’s hard to do this without feeling like a burden, without having those thoughts that the other person will judge or pity you; you may even have the fear of being berated for what you’re going through. Being vulnerable, especially with our inner conflicts, is hardly ever easy. The willingness to be vulnerable and to work out these difficult emotions with (a very few) trust worthy people. For me, it meant being real with my best friend who also doubles as a mentor for me. And it also meant reaching out to someone who I knew for a fact could point me to helpful resources. Because I made the decision to reach out, I’m now on the path of seeking out therapy options for myself. It did a lot in strengthening my bond with my best friend, and I’m sure it felt good for her to know that I’m learning to trust even when it is uncomfortable.
The key thing is that I’m still ‘learning’. There’s no mastery here; there are times when I do forget to practice my good habits and sometimes fall back into the pit. The practices I’ve set up for myself aren’t a cure or a quick-fix, but if I do fall into the pit I have an easier time getting back out.
A close friend recently asked me if depression is curable. I gave her an honest answer: I don’t know, but it can be treatable with the right methods. The right method is going to look different for everyone, but the biggest thing that I can say has been helping me is to take consistent and intentional action towards it. A friend of mine says that it takes way more effort to be positive than to be negative; most people aren’t just naturally positive. I have to take action to be content, not happy. Happy is a fleeting emotion that we can never catch up to. But if I can be content where I am, while anticipating and being exicted about where I’m going, I don’t have to worry about the pit because I know I’m equipping myself with the ability to get back up.
*originally published in The Ascent on Medium