The Greatest Gift Depression Has Given Me, a Former 'Happy Girl'

I have an embarrassing admission to make. For most of my life, I didn’t believe depression was a real, legitimate thing. Don’t get me wrong, I have always known it exists, but as someone who, for the most part, always found it easy to be happy, I believed other people could always also do the same. I dismissed those who were frequently sad – including my own mother – as negative, or simply not trying hard enough. Like most people, I would get an occasional case of the blues – the result of a tough day or receiving some bad news – but I found if I just went for a run or watched a funny movie or played some upbeat music, I could chase away the doldrums pretty easily.

And then, in an instant, everything changed. My parents both died. On the heels of my mother’s death, my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Suddenly, she too, was gone. And in the midst of it all, a close friend from college died suddenly in the gym of his apartment building, less than two weeks after his 31st birthday. A life full of promise cut abruptly short. Just like that.

All of this happened in the space of less than a year. For a while, I was in shock, moving from one tragedy to the next. But eventually, I was forced to confront the person left standing: me. A series of impossible events held a mirror up to my own life and what it reflected back was soul-searing. I was lost, unfulfilled, unhappy, but it was worse than that: I had given up. Given up on my dreams, given up on the idea I deserved to be happy, given up on the person I had always wanted to be. I didn’t recognize myself anymore, and it was terrifying. Confronted with the choice of change or die, I chose to change. And that’s when things got really scary.

I suddenly found myself alone, trying to build a new life from scratch, with no idea what to do or how to start. I was 33, feeling utterly adrift while everyone around me seemed to have their lives figured out – relationships, kids, fulfilling careers.

And that’s when the sadness shifted into something more: depression. For the first time in my life, it was no longer easy to get out of bed. I found social events with even the closest of friends exhausting, and anything that involved meeting strangers was nearly unthinkable. My everyday worries and anxieties became worse. An above average fear of heights turned debilitating. My motivation to tackle even the most basic of tasks was utterly nonexistent. I (once again) took up smoking and continued to smoke even though it made me feel sick, taking some sort of perverse pleasure in how destructive it was. I hated myself.

But I also found something else in my spiral into sadness, something I didn’t expect: empathy. As a former “happy girl,” I never understood the monumental effort it could take someone with depression just to get dressed, to leave the house, to plaster on a smile, to make the requisite small talk that fills life’s daily interactions. But now I did. I understood all too well.

I’m pretty sure people with depression – or at least this person with depression – don’t want to be depressed. If given the chance, they’d prefer to be joyful rather than sorrowful, prefer to find it easy to be with people rather than difficult, prefer to be up, rather than down. Who wouldn’t?

But the thing I never understood until I started wrestling with my own depression was in the face of all of my friends’ well-meaning advice about focusing on the positive and choosing to be happy, for some people, the pursuit of happiness is a constant, ongoing battle. I am tough and relentlessly stubborn. I don’t give up easily and throughout this dark period, I’ve fought. I’ve worked really damn hard, forcing myself to be social when I didn’t feel like it, exercising regularly, practicing gratitude, joining organizations, going on trips, getting involved in my community and doing all the things you’re supposed to do to shift your outlook. But the key words here are “hard” and “work.” I never could have imagined a simple quest to feel lighter could be so damn heavy. That the most basic tasks could spend me as though I’d just run miles through beach sand. That sometimes in spite of my best efforts, there wouldn’t be one single solitary thing that would make any of it better.

But here’s the flip side of sitting with this darkness, of living in it, of trying to learn from it: gratitude. I’m grateful for what my struggle has taught me. Being incapable of walking through this phase of my life as anything other than a broken person has stripped away all pretense and artifice. It has attracted people into my life the old me never would have met, and it has caused me to chase new, different experiences, things the old me never would have done. In my battle to get better, I’ve met some truly beautiful souls – both in person and online through writing my blog. They have known profound pain, pain deeper than anything I’ve experienced. And like me, they too, are doing the best they can.

We all have our particular prejudices, our long-held beliefs, our wealth of experiences that form the framework through which we view the world. Sometimes – as in my case – they can cause us to be too judgmental toward other people, to feel self-righteous about their choices. Human beings are naturally curious and though we want to understand each other, sometimes we don’t, we can’t. What the last couple of years have taught me is there is always more to the story than meets the eye, no one has it easy, and while some of us are better at dealing with hardship, none of us are left unscathed by the joys and sorrows that make up this beautiful, difficult, complicated life.

As a former “happy girl” currently engaged in the battle to get better, I have learned patience, gained self-awareness and discovered the true value of gratitude. But empathy, above all, is the gift my depression has given me.

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Thinkstock photo via RKaulitzki.

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