I have struggled with depression for most of my life. (That’s a lot of years now.) Unfortunately, for most of my adolescence and young adulthood, nothing helped. Not therapy (which I think actually exacerbated it). Not becoming a runner. Fortunately, in the last decade, some things have. Like medication. And having a family of my own. And discovering sewing. And doing the Landmark Forum. And Integrity Buddies, an outgrowth thereof. And having a sister who always reminds me of who I really am, and what depression really is, when I turn to her in tears.
For those of you who struggle with depression and don’t have someone like my sister to pull you back from the brink, here’s the kind of thing she reminds me of.
Depression is not who we are. It is an illness. It manifests itself as a voice, masquerading as our own, that presents negative, one-sided, destructive opinions as truth. It comes from inside us so it knows us and every feeling of guilt, shame, angst, fear, or doubt we’ve ever had, and which buttons to push (i.e. which thoughts to insinuate into our minds) so as to flood our brain with them. They are “our” feelings, yet the way depression causes us to experience them – as if they are overwhelming and inescapable – is distorted and not natural to us. It causes us to experience them as if in a vacuum, without access to any positive feelings to offset them or put them in perspective.
Just as other illnesses attack or suppress the immune system or otherwise inhibit various healthy functions of our bodies, so depression suppresses the brain’s ability to generate positive thoughts. Its symptoms aren’t as visible as those of some illnesses, but the pain it causes can be just as hard to bear. Often harder, in fact, because – perhaps uniquely among illnesses – it causes us to blame and loathe ourselves for even having the pain, thus compounding it.
Here’s what talking to my sister helps me realize. I am feeling this bad, and having these fears, because of an illness I have and not because of who I am. Realizing this doesn’t make the terrible thoughts disappear. But it helps me be less completely identified with them, i.e. less believing of them as the one and only truth and the sum total of who I am. “I” am the one noticing those thoughts and how strongly they pull me towards dark places, but not feeling completely powerless to resist their pull.
And then, suddenly, I’m just getting eagerly on with my life.
Until I’m not, the next time I get depressed. And then I’m depressed until something helps again. And so on. With each period of depression getting, however, more amenable to help, shorter, and less frequent.
That’s a lot of sharing, huh? It feels pretty scary to be this honest. But my intuition tells me this will mean a lot to others who feel the same way, and think they are alone in it, and therefore feel even worse.