I think every person at some point in their life will be depressed.
You go through a hard break up, lose your job, experience the death of a loved one, or just go through a challenging transitional period that makes you feel scared and listless. Regardless of the reason, I don’t think having a depressed period of your life is that unusual. Life is scary and sad and then wonderful and brilliant by turns, and sometimes all that contradiction is hard to process, and I think a lot of people can relate when they read an article or watch a movie about depression, because everyone has felt a little hopeless and unhappy at one point or another.
Feeling depressed, however, is different than having depression.
When someone asks me when is the first time I felt depressed, I tend to think of the 7th grade. I had always been a good student, but for no reason I could understand, I just couldn’t find the energy to do my homework for my Social Studies class anymore. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have the time. I would just not do it, or forget. My teacher brought it up to my parents, but it wasn’t like I was trying to be a rebel or I didn’t understand it. I was a bright kid who just didn’t or couldn’t do her assignments. That pattern continued, and for just about every year after that there would always be one class I would drop the ball on. I always managed to not fail, and the rest of my grades were good, so it wasn’t something that could really be explained to other people by anything other than laziness. But I wasn’t purposefully being lazy. My senior year of high school I would stay up until 2 am with my textbook in my lap, not letting myself sleep unless I did something, but inevitably I would end up going to bed with nothing to turn in the next day. After graduating with the first failing grade of my life, I had to write a letter to my dream college explaining why I had received an “F” in the math class I had taken online (so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone). I was lucky, and Mount Holyoke decided to take me on anyway.
Sometimes I still wake up from nightmares where I am about to graduate high school when I realize there is a class I somehow forgot to go to all year. The scariest thing is, it’s not that hard to believe.
I’ve spent most of my life with depression, sometimes so minor it was hard to notice, and sometimes so major that I would wish I could stop existing, without all the drama of dying. I would lie in the grass and wish I could just sink into the earth and become part of something else, so I wouldn’t have to be myself anymore. It never worked out though, and eventually I had to stand up.
And what better metaphor for recovery is there? Just the anti-climactic moment of getting up. Sometimes you feel a little wobbly and sit back down. Or flop back down and try again later. It feels like it should be the easiest thing in the world but actually it took all the strength you had, and you can only hope that someone will meet you where you are, and help you go the rest of the way.
At some point in college I got up. I went to my school counselor who recommended me to a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist. After a few months I ditched the psychiatrist but stuck with the psychotherapist, and she helped me do the work that would allow me to get to a place of recovery. Thanks to my school’s no copay health insurance, I went to her twice a week. Sometimes I would drag myself to her office after two days, worn out and broken down, and try to use that hour to become buoyant again. Some days I would go in thinking I had nothing to say, and I would end up sobbing on the couch. My therapist would refer to that time as my “fifth class” and to be honest, it was a lot more work than any other course I took at Mount Holyoke.
Depression took up so much of my time and energy, that I feel like I am still trying to figure out what vital information I missed while I was under it’s spell. I’ve had to be taught how to clean effectively, as opposed to letting my clothes build piles on the floor, and allowing dust to cover my nightstand and the corners of my room. It took months to be able to promptly reply to emails, because they made me feel anxious and exposed. Even though I’ve been able to cook for myself since I was 9 or 10, it’s just last week that I learned to make pasta, because I’ve always relied on a couple of comfort foods. Sometimes I wish more than anything that I could do college while in recovery, so I could have gotten better grades and gotten more out of my education, but I also know it wouldn’t have been possible before. I doubt I could have done all that work anywhere other than Mount Holyoke.
I’ve had depression for so long, and unfortunately I can’t say I’m rid of it. In the dark months of January (even a mild one like this), I find myself falling back into old habits: lying in bed for hours willing myself to get up, eating even when I’m not hungry, feeling relieved when plans fall through so I can go back to bed. I sleep more and get annoyed easily. It’s terrifying to feel like I am falling back down that hole of despair. However, because of the work I did in therapy, I find it easier to reach out, and sometimes I am lucky, and people talk me through where I am.
Other times, however, what I hear are the platitudes we’ve learned to associate with mental health. “Self care!” “Take a shower!” “Write in a journal!”
Self care is a great thing, and I’ve done a lot to make sure my lifestyle is more conducive to positive mental health than it used to be. I do my best to walk outside, take vitamins, and eat a little bit healthier. I write more and don’t let anxiety stop me from pursuing things I enjoy. I make plans with my friends and do my best to follow through on them. I have a wonderful partner who reminds me to follow through on these steps, and who supports me when I make choices that I believe will make me happier.
But while things like taking a shower can be enough to get you out of bed and improve your day, in my experience, they don’t keep depression at bay for very long. Without talking about what it feels like, and where it’s coming from, depression can’t be worked through. It makes me uncomfortable when I go to someone else to talk about my feelings and instead I am brushed off with advice. It makes me feel like someone who has been depressed is trying to condescend to me about how to treat my long history of depression.
Self care is more than a mug of tea and a night of netflix. It’s challenging yourself to face your anxieties, and having someone to hold your hand when the fear makes it feel impossible. It’s working every day to combat your self destructive behaviors, like insisting on getting out of bed when you’re sick, or constant negative self-talk. It’s forgiving yourself for the things you had to do to survive, and not blaming yourself for not being as successful as your friend with the great job because you had depression and you couldn’t work towards your aspirations. It’s allowing yourself to reach out to your friends when you need someone to listen.
It’s allowing yourself to be angry when you’ve been hurt, instead of turning all that anger inwards at yourself.
Those who are depressed can benefit from a lot of the same treatments as those who have depression. Many of the feelings are similar. Both are hard to admit to and scary to talk about. Counselling is beneficial to pretty much everyone, in my biased opinion. The difference for me is that feeling depressed is a short term condition, and having depression isn’t. Maybe journaling and moisturizing is more effective if your depression is short term. I wouldn’t know. In my experience, however, most people benefit more if someone who is authentically listening to them, rather than repeating some memorized advice.
I’m grateful to my friends with depression, for their ability to say “that sucks,” “I understand,” and reminding me that there are things that I can’t heal with the power of positive thinking. It is incredibly validating, and keeps me in a place where I can do the good work towards taking care of my mental health. I am a better person because of it.
If you’re struggling with depression and reading this, I want you to know that it is hard, but you are a valuable person, and your depression does not have to control your life. I am not a mental health expert, so if you have questions or are looking for resources, check out the links below.