Five Lessons I Learnt From Dealing With Depression

Five Lessons I Learned From Dealing with Depression

Depression is a hard topic to talk about. It's an even harder thing to live through. I've lived with depression for more than two decades. After a while, there were a few things I learned about how to get by without giving up.

Picture: Hyperbole and a Half, aubrey

I want to start off with a disclaimer: these are my personal experiences. I am not a doctor, nor am I qualified to diagnose or treat any given stranger. I've learned as much as I can about my own situation as well as how depression works in general, but always seek out professional counsel for your personal situation. That being said, here are some things that helped me. And if you're on the other side of the fence and want to help a friend who seems depressed, our guide here can help with that.

Your Self-Perceptions Are Frequently Wrong

The central problem with depression is that it distorts your reality. Not only do things you normally enjoy seem less fun, but you have a hard time seeing the good aspects of yourself. Depression tends to latch on to and cycle through negative thoughts over and over again until you become convinced that the worst must be true.

"I'll never get out of this rut."

"I'm worthless."

"No one really cares."

"I'm not good at anything."

"There's no reason to keep going."

The voice that says to give up is a strong one. It's difficult to challenge those beliefs — not only because they feel true, but because you might even be in a situation where they seem true. The key thing to remember is that perception doesn't equal reality.

Set aside depression for a moment. Even among successful people who don't suffer from depression, the disconnect between perception and reality is relatively common. To use an example we've discussed before, imposter syndrome occurs when you feel like everyone around you is more talented and successful, while you're just faking. It also occurs no matter what level of success a person achieves. This is just one of many tricks your brain plays on you.

The problem is that depression takes away a lot of the motivation you need to fight these inconsistencies. Someone who doesn't suffer from depression may feel like a fake, but remind themselves that it's all in their head and everyone else feels the same way. A person with depression, by definition, has a hard time doing this. In my personal experience, I found that even when circumstances changed and I had evidence to the contrary, I still believed the worst about myself simply because that was what my brain did. It didn't matter how much external validation I got.

It's a hard fact to keep in mind. Depression says that you're different and no, really, you're the exception to the rule. For this reason, it's so very important during those high(-ish) moments to remember that just because you think something about yourself doesn't mean it's true.

How You Feel Is Completely Valid

Five Lessons I Learned From Dealing with Depression

Given the above situation, it's understandable that the natural reaction would be to tell someone suffering from depression that how they feel is irrelevant and to disregard their emotions. After all, you're not really a loser, right? So buck up! Get your happy face on. You don't have a factual argument for why you should be sad, ergo the sadness should obviously disappear, right?

Except that's not how it works. Your emotions (and everyone else's for that matter) are not inherently bound to facts. Even if you know intellectually that you have valuable traits, a promising future, or a pretty good present life, that doesn't guarantee you feel good about it. That's the whole point. Depression isn't about having perfectly justified sadness. It's about being unhappy despite your circumstances.

How you feel with depression is valid. You don't have to justify your feelings or defend them. As long as your actions don't harm yourself or others, you can feel whatever you need to feel. Everyone feels things that aren't perfectly reflective of their situation. Suffering from depression doesn't mean you're in a special category where you and you alone aren't allowed to feel certain things. It just means you need to deal with your emotions in a different way. Where others might be able to instinctively separate feelings from reality, you need a few extra steps, and maybe some help.

You Need Other People

Five Lessons I Learned From Dealing with Depression

Depression is isolating. It actively undermines your relationships and encourages you to break down connections by telling you that people don't care, they don't understand, and you don't need them. The truth is, you do. Because depression makes it difficult to accurately assess your situation, other people's input becomes more important.

The scariest part about depression is that it's in your head. With a cold, you can point to the part of the body that's afflicted. With depression, you can't always know which feelings are based in reality and which are over-reactions. Talking with other people is one of the most important ways you can learn to distinguish between the two.

Talking with other people about your depression is uncomfortable. Some people with it may be lucky enough to have trusted friends who are willing to listen and who understand. Others may not be so fortunate. If you don't have a friend you can talk to (or if they're unable to provide the listening you need), there are always avenues you can explore to find some help. More importantly, there's nothing wrong with doing so.

It's OK to Seek Help

There's a tendency to believe that suffering from depression means you're flawed. We're bombarded with news stories and statistics that tell us how fundamentally any mental illness makes us broken (like "Depression causes suicide" or "Autism causes mass murders"). But the reality isn't so simple. And depression doesn't mean you're broken.

Depression is a maladjustment. The way we react to emotions when we're depressed isn't calibrated the same way as other people. It becomes habit to be negative and it's difficult to learn the proper way to react or how to feel certain positive emotions. That doesn't mean you can't. You're not missing a happy gland. You're just out of alignment.

Seeking help for depression is no different than going to a doctor for a cold, a sprained wrist, or even just a check up. We all need to check in on our physical health once in a while. It should be just as natural that we consult experts on our mental health. There's no shame in it and no reasonable person should make you feel bad for wanting to get help. Not only that, but help can work.

It Doesn't Always Have to Be Like This

Depression doesn't have a "cure." Unlike a cold, or chicken pox, or even cancer, there's not a thing you can point to in the body and say "Once this is gone, you're all better!" Depression is in your mind. Depression is, in some ways, part of your personality. Even if you stop being depressed, how it felt shapes who you are. You can't necessarily be entirely separated from it.

You can feel different, though. We've touched on the subject of neuroplasticity before, but the basic idea is that the brain is capable of changing. The way we behave, the habits we form, and even the environments we expose ourselves to can affect how we think. As recently as the mid-20th century, it was commonly believed among neuroscientists that the brain doesn't change after childhood. That notion is no longer accepted fact.

Neuroplasticity, aside from having a broad range of scientific impacts, means that the habits and brain patterns you have now don't have to stay the same forever. It's not an easy process to change. It may take a lifetime of adjusting. You may adapt and deal with it, but keep the ghost hanging out in the back of your mind. Everyone's different and there's no perfect solution that everyone experiences the same way.

It does mean, however, that when your friends tell you there's hope, they're not wrong. Even if you've been miserable for years (which more than aptly describes my personal story), there's a chance, so long as you don't give up, that you can adjust. There's a chance that things can get better. And when you're fighting depression, that sliver of hope may just be the difference between life and death.

If depression is affecting you or someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.


Comments

    "So buck up! Get your happy face on."
    As someone who has been told something similar by "friends", my only advice is don't EVER say anything like this. (See also: "harden up, princess" "eat a spoonful of cement" etc).

    I'd been struggling for 15 years and got told "just think happy thoughts". I wanted to punch the person and tell them "just don't think about the pain, there - see, you're cured! Simple! Are you an idiot?! How could you not have known that would've fixed you?!"

    Telling someone who is in the midst of a very bad episode of depression that it's all in their head and they're just not smart enough or strong enough to out think it, is dangerous.
    Saying "how can I help?" "want to talk?" "anything I can do?" would be much more appropriate.

    I finally sought help, and am on the "trial and error" game of finding the right medication, along with therapy. I'm better than what I was, but still have a long way to go. Having said that, there's no way I could've gotten to where I am now, just on my own.

    This must be taught in med school, because I've been told it from a few different docs/shrinks, "saying that you can just out think depression is like telling a diabetic they can go without their insulin, and just *think* that their blood sugar level is ok". (or some form of variation.... they all put it much more eloquently than that).

    Another thing - don't ever tell a depressed person that they don't have any reason to be depressed. I got that a lot too. ("you have a roof over your head, you have food on the table, what do you have to be depressed about?!")
    Although, after being officially diagnosed, the minute I say "clinical depression" (instead of just "depression"), I think they realise that it's more to do with the brain rather than a persons circumstances.

    Great post - agree with all the points :)

      I think part of the difficulty here is that people seem to think experiencing the problem means they gain some form of expert view albeit without the ability to express it in authoritative terms. All they gain is their own view of their own suffering. To use your diabetic analogy (which I have never heard used in relation to depression - it's usually trotted out by some dumb psychiatrist who tells the patient that taking their brain toxic drugs is necessary just like diabetics have to take insulin - not true at all) just because you have diabetes does not make you an expert on the subject of diabetes. And conversely... no... you don't have to be, say, a drug addict to be an expert in that field. My point? People who suffer depression and have a distorted and self-effacing view of themselves and their world, may not make rational judgements about others' attempts to help.

      Another issue is that when someone tries to help but says the wrong thing the depressed person, who already feels like a worthless and useless fool, interprets these comments negatively because they experience a fresh pang of what they interpret as validation of their lack of worth. It's easy to denigrate ourselves but harder to let others without us getting annoyed, embarrassed and down.

      The very best method of dealing with depression in my long experience of mental health work is diversion! The person has to freeze those thoughts and views, put the lid back on that can of worms, and move forward, at speed. Others can help in this by providing energy-by-proxy, distraction, enthusiasm, even brute force to start to change bevahiours and perspectives. To do these things is not to reduce the person's suffering - it is to acknowledge the simple truth: Depression is a name given to describe a degree of self-focus that interferes with the person's daily living and enjoyment of life. Psychiatry has hijacked nothing more than a degree of human suffering, and labelled it a disorder; imbuing it with pesudo medical authenticity, and possibly trapping millions in their analysis-paralysis.

      Encouragement, validation, HUMOUR, supportiveness, humanity... these do not come in pill form. If you are keen, read "Anatomy of an Epidemic" by Robert Whitaker. You may find this riveting reading, though it is not a cure for depression, merely a startling review of the treatment outcomes that depressed people need to be aware of.

      Don't battle depression. It's like trying not to think about the Big White Elephant in your lounge. Leave it behind. Fake it 'til you make it. Re-educate yourself and re-integrate with life. And don't try to make judgments about your distorted judgements. Find a family member or friend and hitch a lift back out of your own misery. And rest assured... nobody in psychiatry has the answers or any cures for this exacerbation of the natural human condition.

    A lot of the messages associated with this condition (even with campaigns attempting to combat it) are of broken down people with an air of being pathetic and less than. A primary barrier is agreeing to accept a position that is constructed in a manner contrary to your self perception. It's like voluntarily participating in an insult.
    For people who place a premium value on their faculties, the prospect that your views are corrupted by a chemical condition is painful to deal with. But worse was the realisation after i had accepted this and was being chemically altered to feel more buoyant that much of my logic seemed objectively accurate and that the depression was an effective means to avoid certain acute pains that a person who is resigned to their condition doesn't have to deal with.

      Just a point; there is no established "chemical condition" in regard to "depression". The Serotonin Hypothesis is just that: not proven. In fact it is simplistic in the extreme to suggest that the simple up and down motion of one of many brain-amines and neurotransmitters is the sole cause of depression (or mania for that matter). The brain is complex and does not work like that. For another thing, who knows if the way we feel is the driver for any such changes in the brain? Try this: close your eyes and imagine your worst nightmare experience. What happens? Your entire body is flooded with hormones and brain amines, you experience the full "fight-or-flight" response. Think about that; you CHOSE to change your entire body and brain chemistry! Depressed people may well choose their own brain chemistry; not the other way around.

      Study after study after study shows that most anti-depressants hardly work more than placebo in controlled trials all over the planet. Read "The Myth of the Chemical Cure" by Joanna Moncrief for details (she is a senior lecturer at London University, and a practicing psychiatrist).

      Robert Whitaker in "Anatomy of an Epidemic" describes a huge amount of research and logic that indicates depressed peoples' long term outcomes are severely impaired by anti-depressant use.

      Mm

    An oddity of the state that i've found is that it can make you feel more like you. When in situations when in a group where an elated emotional response is expected, the failure to feel that emotion is a moment in which you exist. It can have a certain perverse glory.

      I love that. I often think of depression as an unexpected moment of clarity about life and self. We NEED to go through these growing pains. It's like your first relationship break up that you didn't want: absolute hell. And the next time you visit that place you know it will be hell all over again... but you also know one more important thing: you will survive it! That's human growth and personal development. Don't be scared of it and don't disown it. Hold someone's hand and walk with them (but not a psychiatrist or doctor - they'll take it away from you and poke it with a stick while you watch crying and helpless)

    http://24.media.tumblr.com/af264349d551dc71c653c94970568ad8/tumblr_mtwjy0BynU1rlllj1o1_500.jpg

      You're throwing the baby out with the bathwater in that link.

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