What My Depression Taught Me About Compassion


I’m writing this because I believe my depression offered me a small window into the world of those who know they are different from the majority, those who feel incapable of fully participating in society. My last two cycles of clinical depression taught me to have compassion for those for whom such struggles seem part of an inescapable reality.

Depression affects everyone in unique ways. A recurring theme for me is being robbed of many cognitive, social, and emotional abilities. While I haven’t figured out how much of it is real, and how much simply a matter of distorted perception, it all seemed to me like an objective, permanent reality (and there was no talking me out of it — just ask my therapist, my family, my boyfriend, and my close friends).

I distinctly remember what it was like being at a friend’s 21st birthday party. I excused myself to go to the bathroom many more times than necessary, all to avoid having to converse with another person. I don’t know how to hold a conversation. I wouldn’t know how to respond and react appropriately. All it would take is one sentence or one stammer and I’d be exposed. They would know I’m a freak. And then they would either walk away, or at best they might stay out of pity. 

At the dinner table, I freaked out when an academic asked me what I was majoring in in college. I knew that the moment I said Sociology, he would follow up with a question that would expose my ignorance and my failure to understand my own discipline. And I dreaded how everyone at the party would inevitably ask, “Where do you go to school?” Because I knew what they’d expect when I told them I went to the University of Chicago. They’d expect me to be intelligent and insightful, and I would hopelessly fall short. I didn’t even dare to talk to the little children at the party, believing that I would be looked down upon even by those a whole decade younger than me.

It wasn’t just in public. I found this picture of me (in green) and my sisters watching “Midnight In Paris” at my apartment.

karen zainal friends the mighty

You can’t tell from looking at the picture, but while my sisters both loved the movie (as do most who’ve seen it), to me it was torture. I couldn’t really pay attention to the plot or dialogue — I was too busy feeling tortured about not being able to identify with the thoughts, motivations, and emotions of the characters in the film. The credits rolled and I had no idea what the movie was about.

karen zainal friends the mighty

And here’s a picture taken on graduation day.

It’s an iteration of classic goofy shot I often took with my friends. Except this time, it wasn’t funny to me because all I could think of was how I would ever justify being a UChicago graduate when I was so “dumb,” when I could function neither in the classroom nor in the real world, when I believed my life was “over” because I’d never be able to get/hold a job or start a family in the future.

Not long after this picture was taken, I began going around saying my goodbyes as if I’d never see many of these people ever again, as I was planning to go into reclusion for good.

And as I come out of depression, as my mental agility, emotional energy, and ability to relate to other people are coming back, I haven’t been able to forget how lonely and out of place I felt all those months. Those feelings of not belonging, of not being able to live up to the expectations of society, will always remain fresh in me.

And this is how I believe God humbled me, and instilled in me new and deep love and compassion for those who similarly struggle with society’s expectations. I invite everyone out there to reflect on how you’ve perceived or treated our brothers and sisters who don’t meet the constructed, arbitrary standards of beauty, success, and so-called normalcy.

The Mighty is asking its readers: What’s a moment or situation that changed the way you think about disability and/or disease? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

This post originally appeared on Under Reconstruction.

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