(I apologize if this got posted twice, something up with my feeds…)
Back at the beginning of the year, I decided my thing for 2018 was going to be wellness and health and getting myself back on track. My intention was to shrug off the low mood with time and self-care. I thought that maybe it was my anemia and lack of sleep and blah blah blah. Little did I know.
For a while I thought that if I could just get a tiny break in all the stuff, I could somehow bounce back. That this was just some stuff that I need to clear on my way up the mountain of life.
But then I felt like instead of recovering, something inside me started building this steely tiny box to try to tuck myself into. At some point I stopped regrouping and the focus went to just surviving and preparing myself for whatever might be coming next, which is fine inside times of trauma, but you can’t live your entire life that way. I mean, neurologically and cardiovascularly, living in a permanent space of fight vs. flight will kill you. It’s doesn’t just happen on a psychological level.
There’s this myth that life is supposed to get easier as you get older. Remember the show Mad Men? There’s something that Don Draper says in one of the later season that just really got to me: “We know where we have been, we know where we are. Let’s assume that it is good and that it is going to get better. [Life] is supposed to get better.” That resonated with me so much because I sort of banked on that my whole childhood. Doctors used to tell me that when I stopped growing physically (magic age of 18) then my body would settle and bones would stop growing in wonky ways and then I could see what I was working with and take care of it. And I just assumed the that was also the rule for life in general.
But life doesn’t work that way. It’s challenging and curve balls are thrown at you and you just have to go with it. And sometimes things hit too fast and too furious and you have a deeper response to it. One thing I’ve learned, scientifically, is that depression is of triggered by a specific situation that brings up deep emotional response- like personal loss and grief. It’s kind of like this bubble that comes to the surface when you have an emotional earthquake.
But how is depression different than just an emotional response?
Depression is not a bad mood, or a phase. It is not temporary, or something that can be chased away with positive thinking. People who tell you to “lighten up”, “distract yourself”, “practice gratitude”, etc. have absolutely no idea what depression really is.
Depression is also not a reflection of your general happiness. Happiness is NOT the opposite of depression. Happiness and depression have absolutely nothing to do with one another. You can have all the conditions for happiness and still suffer from significant depression. The two are not opposites on a spectrum. Creating the conditions for happiness doesn’t make the depression go away. In fact, it can often make it worse, especially if you just keep ignoring the underlying issues that drive depression.
I’ve learned this firsthand- I spent the last few years really trying to create the conditions for happiness for myself, trying everything from gratitude to meditation to practicing Buddhism (which I still do, but in a different way) but I wasn’t really addressing the problem. I had no idea. I just thought if I could reprogram the neurons in my brain (which you *can* do) I could sort of route my thinking towards positivity.
But if you have depression, there are underlying causes that will override pretty much anything and everything you do on a surface level. So it becomes an accelerant for *deeper* depression. There are actually studies showing this- depressed patients who used affirmations and gratitude practices on a regular basis actually *worsened* their depression because the affirmations and gratitude just made them feel worse about themselves. Because they weren’t *genuinely* feeling those positive emotions of gratitude and self-esteen, trying to force themselves into that sort of thinking further supplanted the idea that something was inherently damaged in them. It feeds the fire. This was a total eye-opener for me- especially, the gratitude studies.
While those practices all have proven neurological benefits, the bottom line is that depression is a disease, not a temporary state of mind. It’s a disease that changes your brain’s chemistry in such a way it influences important bodily functions (your nervous system, your digestive track, your heart function, the distribution of energy from your food and oxygen intake) so that your body operates in a way that is completely different than a healthy human body. So depression can make you feel terrible in a very physical way.
So no, depression is not all in the “head”. (And even if it was, what is inside a human head is the freakin’ BRAIN,which is the most important and CRUCIAL part of a human body. It baffles me that the “it’s all in your head” thing is sort of used as a dismissal of health issues, because anything afoot with the human brain seems like it should require MORE attention, not be dismissed.)
Depression is like any other physical disease in the body- if you ignore it, or try and positive-think your way out of it, it just gets worse. You have to properly diagnose it and treat it. You have to learn how to live with it because this is one of those diseases that millions of people suffer from (18% of the human population on this planet and that number only reflects people who have access to mental health professionals) from but for which there is no hard-and-fast cure.
Anyone who says they cured their depression with a change of habits is lying to you- they didn’t have depression to begin with. They had a period of low mood that they were able to counter with an increase in positive emotional habits. Depression doesn’t usually respond to that alone. Those positive habits HELP, but they don’t change the chemical structure of the brain in such a significant way that the depression is eradicated.
I wish I had known that, but I honestly had no idea that what I have been experiencing these last few years was depression and not me trying to bounce back from some stressful situations.
Depression is like a lens cap on a camera. You can set up the most beautiful scene, you can find the most striking landscape with the most perfect light, you can get your fancy camera all set up and have the timer set and everything in perfect order, but if the lens cap is glued to your camera, you’re not taking that photo. You’re not going to get the result you want. Depression is the glued-on lens cap.
So your life can be perfect, very happy and stable, all the conditions there for happiness, but if you have the right chemical mix going on in your brain to create depression, everything you experience in life has to go through that. This is why gratitude and positivity can fail- you start thinking “I’ve got this house and this family and ____, why the hell can’t I feel good about that?” and you feel WORSE. So it’s much better to say “the reason I can’t feel gratitude or positive responses right now is because of depression” and give yourself some self-compassion, which will ease the strain and the self-worth issues that can come with depression. So giving yourself a break, understanding *why* you don’t get excited over small things, why you have no energy to go out and do something, why you’re finding it hard to do some very simple tasks is actually the best thing you can do. It’s not permission to just shut down and stop participating in life. But walking around with the internal message of “I understand why this is hard” rather than “you should be feeling better! Snap out of it!” going through your mind is of great benefit.
One good thing about a depression diagnosis is it comes with a tremendous sense of relief. I mean, it’s hard because depression is not easily treated. Neuroscience and psychology have come a long way, but our brain is one of the least understood parts of our body. Our treatments for depression are not advanced, not yet. We’re just on the cusp of what might be possible.
But when depression is recognized, the feeling of “what the hell is going on with me, is the world eating me alive?’ resolves, which was such a huge relief for me. Now that I know that feeling grim and scared and insular and low-energy are symptoms and not permanent states, I feel a lot lighter, in a way. I’ve really have eased up on myself. I am coming to the understanding that depression is a part of my life, and likely will be for quite a while.
Another relief: I’ve happily excised myself from The Cult of Happiness/The Cult of Optimism – the belief that life can change with a smile, or an affirmation, or a weeklong positivity workshop, or a gratitude journal, or an Instagram-ready environment. There’s a fine line between helpful and inspiring information, and this false belief that if we have beautiful sun-dappled rooms with wheat color furniture and explorations in vast and beautiful locales and time for self-care, we can live a Good Life. That weird misconception that life can be manipulated in such a way to produce abundant happiness, that if you change your perspective, you change your life.
And the belief that if you’re not happy, then you’re not doing it right.
That’s just not the truth. For most people, life is messy, and hard, and surprising, and baffling.
But there is beauty in this chaos- you have this mess, and then all the suddenl you look out your window and see a big butterfly literally hovering in front of you, or you see your cat flop down on the floor and then stretch out belly-up in a beam of sunlight, or you hear an old favorite song and you know all the words and you fall in love all over again, or you just come back home after a long day, and are super content to just put on your pajamas and curl up on your sofa with the people you love and you feel very okay. So you may walk around with a dark cloud in the sky, but there are these beautiful transcendent moments that can still take your breath away and remind you that the universe is very full, not empty.