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3 Positives I've Learned Through the Negatives of My Depression

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If you were to pass me on the street, or stand in line behind me at a coffee shop, or watch me move behind the counter, you would never know I am a person who has depression. You would never guess a good portion of my year is spent tearing myself down, and the rest is spent rebuilding the foundation I damage while doing so. You would never know the war that is fought in my head, and the struggle that plagues my heart. And that is OK, because although I am sad almost consistently, I find reasons to get up and reasons to be happy. I have been thinking a lot about stigmas and other things that become apparent when the words “depression” or “anxiety” roll around, and I think it’s time to speak out about what it really feels like. Not all parts are filled with darkness. There is a lot about depression I believe is a blessing.

There are silver linings in the dark clouds that hover above my head. Here’s what they are:

1. My love for the little things.  

I will happily rant and rave about the importance of little victories, or the celebration of life’s small triumphs. It is the awareness and adoration for the little things in life that really allow me to appreciate the bigger things. Small steps make take time, but they can ultimately lead you to a beautiful place. In the past, as well as the present, when depression takes hold, I forget how to use my muscles. I stop doing the simple things because even those seem impossible. Mornings are the worst, when I don’t have the option to sleep until noon. When I actually have to be up and mobile, when I actually have to be human. Getting up, getting dressed, brushing my teeth and the like, all become things I wish to avoid. Things I try to avoid. Things some would deem as simple tasks, I view as a rocky hillside I need to climb in order to start the day. I hate climbing. But I do. I know this time of year is the hardest, but I also know I can get through it. Therefore, clinging to the acknowledgement of my small  victories keeps me moving away from the dark and into the light. By being able to see little things are great accomplishments, daily things to be proud of myself for, I move toward being better.

2. Being in tune with the emotions around me.

Every single person is fighting a battle of some sort, whether it’s with themselves, or with someone else. People experience hard times in their own ways, and I don’t believe anyone deserves to be judged on whether or not their pain is “relevant enough” to be called struggle. While it is true that some instances are far worse than others, it doesn’t diminish anything you or the next person is going through. Experiencing dark times makes me more inclined to stop, listen and try and understand what others are going through. Sometimes, I even sit there and feel it with them. So they know they’re not alone. It’s said that those who experience the darkness regularly are the best when it comes to providing love. You never want another to feel the way you have felt. They say we are the ones who love the hardest. We feel with you, we experience it with you and we do everything we can to help you through it.

3. Being “whole” on my own.

If the past year has taught me anything, it’s that for me, I don’t need medication to navigate my personal darkness. I learned how to appreciate feeling again, learned to meander through it, bruised, but in one piece. Trudging through sober self-hatred, I learned to manage, not just survive. I worked through it, took the time to get to know my heart, body and mind. I rebuilt the broken and overflown damn of emotions, and patched the holes with melted gold. My imperfections are now displayed with beauty, not swept under the rug like problems to be ashamed of. I learned to own the things that make up who I am, to be proud of them, both good and bad. It’s a process, and I am still learning. I am learning a steady pace of self-improvement without self-destruction. Moving up without putting myself down. This year has taught me the meaning of true, healthy relationships and it’s taught me how to shed the toxic ones. I’m learning the importance of loving myself first. Of being whole on my own and allowing someone to be whole with me. I have learned that it doesn’t take another person to give me worth, they are there to add to the abundance of worth I already possess. I am enough on my own, always.

Last year held both demons and angels alike. It is representative of a journey I was not aware I was capable of. I believed I could, so I did.

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How I Have Learned to Manage My Depression as an Senior Person

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I have struggled with depression and anxiety for several years. I am 67 now. It seems to be like I have a huge plank of wood I drag around with me all of the time. Sometimes this load becomes too great.

I describe depression as falling into a deep black hole. It swirls around me. I can’t get out of it. I am once again in its grip. This is a place I just do not like to be. It is horrible. The inner voice of self-doubt and hopelessness takes over my mind, my body and my soul. My thoughts whirl around and despair takes over.

Unfortunately, depression in my case doesn’t seem to be related to any particular incident. But, it always tells me the same things:

“You are worthless, you are useless.”

“You never get anything right.”

“Nobody loves you.”

Etc.

Anyone who experiences depression will recognize this destructive self-talk, and like others, I have tried to understand this illness and tried to deal with it. Meditation, yoga, cognitive therapy, exercise, medication — I’ve tried all of these. The only thing that is effective is a combination. I have been on medication for many years. 

During bad episodes, I cannot do very much at all. It’s like depression gets a grip on me and doesn’t want to let go. I really just want to curl up in bed and stay there. Breaking this grip is hard. 

Over the years I have learned to recognize when its grip is tightening and I am becoming unwell. So, I make appointments to get professional help. This is important as I need reminders of strategies to deal with my feelings and thoughts.

I make myself do at least three things every day such get up and have a shower, prepare a meal and go for a short walk — simple activities that break the desire to wallow in bed, that break the grip of depression. 

I need to make sure I deal with stress in my life, that I look after myself properly — plenty of sleep, plenty of exercise and a good diet. I need to do things I enjoy as this makes me feel good too: funny movies, talking with close friends, reading, walking along the beach, swimming and riding my three-wheeler bike. I also actively sit and challenge, in writing, the negative self-beliefs … I try to take their credibility away through these challenges.

I am so glad there is a greater understanding of depression nowadays. I am glad accessing professional help has become easier over the years. I am glad I understand that I can’t loosen depression’s grip by myself.

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How My Depression Has Changed Since My First Experience

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Like most things, depression can change.

When I was first diagnosed, I was 15 and a freshman in high school. What my depression looked like then is a lot different than what it looks like now. I couldn’t get out of bed, I zoned out a lot, I never willingly left the house and I couldn’t hold a conversation. I either couldn’t sleep or I slept too much. I forgot to eat. My emotions were all over the place. Now reading this seems like I was just being like every other lazy teenager with a messed up sleep schedule due to binge-watching Netflix, right? Wrong.

There’s a difference between not wanting to get ready for school and my parents having to force me out of bed. When I zoned out, it was near impossible to get me to focus again. When I say I didn’t willingly leave the house, I mean my mom bribed me to go out and I’m pretty sure my body shape was molded onto the couch and my bed. I never had the energy to talk, let alone start conversations. If I wasn’t awake for 4-5 days straight, I was sleeping right after school and not waking up until the next morning. As someone who loves food, it became quite noticeable to those around me that I’d forget to feed myself. I had to keep food in my locker and my parents checked my lunch account to make sure I was buying lunch. I cried in the shower. I cried in the car. I cried at school and I cried at home. I just cried. A lot. If I wasn’t crying, I was angry or I felt nothing at all. I was a complete mess. This is what my depression looked like — this was my truth — but after getting help from my doctors and therapist, I can gladly say my life is different.

Now I am 20 years old and I’m still living with depression, but I’m not always depressed. The saying, “it comes and goes in waves,” is very true for me. At 15, I was used to being depressed every moment of every day and that’s just how it was. Now I can go out, hold conversations, laugh, sleep and eat without having to force myself to do so.

I do have “episodes” where my depression makes it very apparent to me that it’s still around. Sometimes these episodes are a day and sometimes they last for two weeks, but my mental health is extremely important to me, as it should be for everyone, so I try my best to practice self-care. That doesn’t solve my problems, but it’s the best way for me to be honest with myself and others that I need a little extra help. 

 I have had people ask me if, because my depression took over my life for so long, that maybe I’m fixed and I just don’t realize it. That maybe I’m experiencing “normal” emotions and are just too quick to call it depression.

These are things I have thought about, but dismiss because:

1. I don’t like the use of the word “fixed” in relation to mental illness.

The word “fixed” is tied to a feeling of shame for me. When I go a significant amount of time without feeling depressed, I always think the last time was the last time. But when depression rears its ugly head at me again, I feel a sense of shame and stupidity, thinking I could get away from it.

Demi Lovato once said, “I don’t think I’m fixed. People think you’re like a car in a body shop. You go in, they fix you and you’re out. And you work like brand new. It doesn’t work like that. It takes constant fixing.”

2. Depression and sadness are different. 

This isn’t true for everyone, but I am extremely aware of the differences between my everyday emotions and my mental illness. It wasn’t always this way and I sometimes can’t tell until after I start to feel better, but I can. 

3. I hate the word “normal.”

It is extremely irritating for people to say what I’m feeling isn’t normal. Having a mental illness isn’t ideal, I get it, but being told there’s something wrong with you sucks. I always feel a sense of “you versus them.” The wrong versus right. The mentally ill versus the rest of the world.

That isn’t right. We’re all in this together. You aren’t alone in this.

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When Depression Makes Me Doubt My Own Depression (and Everything Else)

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Here’s what my mind is saying:

“Oh, woe is me, as usual. You’re just going to write some little article, pretend to be something you’re not, to elicit some sympathy. Do you even know if it’s depression? Will anyone even believe you? They probably see right through you, knowing you’re a fraud.”

And I’m pretty sure I am. Part of me — a small, insignificant part, like a flame trapped in a jar in a chest in the ocean — believes I have a mental illness and believes I’ve been struggling with it for as long as I can remember. But the rest of me is the ocean, and you have to swim pretty far down to even catch a glimpse of that minuscule flame.

Times like this, I dredge up the chest. I unlock it and take out the jar, and the flame is still flickering away there, and for a second I believe in it again before it goes back under. Until recently, I kept that flame hidden, safe from view. If anyone else saw it, they’d doubt it. They’d wrench open the jar and the water would flow in, and it would be gone. That’s the danger, my mind said, in letting it be shown. Hell, it’s almost happened. I’ve let others in on it before writing articles for The Mighty, and they’ve doubted it and mocked it. It might sound like insecurity, but it’s a sad fact. I know there’s some out there who don’t believe in my struggle with mental illness, and the ocean says, “They’re right.”

I turned 30 a few days ago. Most of my 20s were filled with depression after my dad’s sudden death. Prior to that, I had a school life of almost consistent bullying which no doubt contributed to my suspected avoidant personality disorder (AVPD) and anxiety. I’m waiting on that diagnosis to be confirmed. In just a few days, I’m seeing my psychiatrist again, and I hope to get some answers.

I digress, and I feel pretty sure I’m making no sense here. I have a history of locking myself away, escaping from my thoughts by playing video games and, at one time, drinking more than I should have. I’ve discovered friends were not who I thought they were and have lost friendships because of it. I’ve been bullied by those I thought I could trust. I thought the bullying stopped after school, but it seems it just continued in a different form. Now, I find it hard to trust anyone.

I certainly don’t trust positive feedback. When someone tells me they love my writing (fiction or otherwise), I don’t believe them. “They must be lying,” my head says. “They’re just trying to make you feel better, or they’re taking pity on you. Look, they see how worthless you really are. You’re pathetic.” The negative feedback is easier to take. It confirms how I feel about myself. It confirms the worthlessness, the self-hatred, the inner monolog I’ve likewise kept largely hidden like the flame of self-belief.

For the past 10 years, I’ve worked on a novel. It’s one I believed in, sporadically, for a long time. I wrote a first draft that was punctuated by periods of self-loathing and zero motivation before I’d return to work with renewed vigor. I finished the first draft in 2013, then left it for several years.

Recently, I received some interest from a publisher. Therein came the renewed vigor. They said they loved the first few chapters. (“They’re lying, they don’t really, they’re taking pity on you for some reason.”) They wanted to see the rest of it. I wondered if this could be my chance, regardless of what the self-doubt was saying. But hey, the self-doubt grew and festered. I missed my deadline. I fell into depression. I stopped working on it. It’s been over a month now, and again no writing. Again, no idea if I can write, to begin with. Again, the self-doubt is heavy in my chest and my heart and my lungs.

What’s the point in any of it?

If this sounds like depression to you, then hey, maybe it is. “Or maybe,” my mind says, “you just know enough about depression now that you’re able to emulate it with fairly good accuracy and fool a few people into believing you.”

But in my heart, I feel it. I feel the fog, and it’s suffocating. I want to believe in my writing again. I want to believe what I’m saying here is worthwhile, and what I’m writing in my novel is worthwhile, and that I really do have a mental illness and I’m not just imagining it and I’m not worthless and I’m liked, loved even, for who I am with no caveat or addendum.

I want to believe my life means something and is worth something beyond the periods of isolation and escapism. I want to believe in myself.

Follow this story on the author’s Twitter.

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10 Books That Always Save Me When I'm Struggling With Depression

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Sooner or later, I think every person experiences it: Angst. When a therapist takes a vacation or a trusted loved one is sound asleep, our awareness of and ability to access healthy coping skills can fail. It’s an awful state to be in, and worse still, a lonely existence when less familiar crisis lines and support groups don’t feel like viable options either.

This is when I tend to reach for so-called “Self-Help” Books. Now in my 50s and a lifetime writer myself, my own journey and evolution through mental health care has paralleled that of the genre. As an elementary school, beginning reader, I watched my grandparents swear by the words written by Dale Carnegie (who wrote “How to Win Friends and Influence People”) in 1936; when I went off to college in 1978, Carnegie had been replaced. The words of Dr. Wayne Dyer (in his book, “Pulling Your Own Strings”) filled pages and hours of public television broadcasts, as well as my grandparents’ casual conversations.

The books I’ve come to reach for and depend on seem to surprise people. Sober for 29 years and in my 40th year in a therapist’s care, friends seem to expect 12-step manuals or religious program guides to dominate my self-soothing tomes. Instead, the books I trust are practical, filled with explicit images and demonstrate triumph. I conclude, upon reading them, that I can triumph too, and so I am inclined to not only fall asleep with hope but actually try some of what I’ve read.

Here, then, are 10 books that always save me; each one a treasure so precious to me, I feel honored to even hold them in my hands. Not only have I owned at least three copies of each of these, I’ve given away even more. Never have they failed me; perhaps it’s time to celebrate their life-sustaining blessings.

1. “Supplies” by Julia Cameron (Penguin Random House, 2003).

Though designed to assist writers and artists in identifying and coping with social challenges and archetypes, I saw the people in my life in every section. A very intimate kind of workbook, it helped me trust how I saw people and built my confidence as I dealt with them.

2. “Finding Your Bipolar Muse: How to Master Depressive Droughts and Manic Floods and Access Your Creative Power” by Lana R. Castle (Morrow & Company, 2006).

This imminently practical book is filled with exercises and encouragement. Fun and wise, it teaches how to honor the movement between highs and lows, and find maximum functioning amidst it.

3. “The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk (Penguin Books, 2015).

A scrumptious banquet of intricate but understandable detail fills this book. Van der Kolks’ empathy is palatable and spellbinding, luring one into a deeper and gentler understanding of the brain’s coping and caring.

4. “The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real” by Margery Williams (George H Doran Company, 1922).

Though originally published as a children’s book, a very wise college friend gave it to me as a mother figure lay dying of cancer. The defining of what makes any living thing “real” was my first form of comfort, amidst my grieving.

5. “Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s’ Ordeals” by Thomas Moore (Gotham, 2004).

This book not only acknowledges losses other than death, Moore suggests an alternate and more healing perspective on what can feel like powerlessness. While honoring feelings, it managed to help me steer clear of being paralyzed by them.

6. “The Courage to Heal” by Ellen Bass & Laura Davis (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2008).

A massive book on the stages of healing from sexual abuse, the book bravely confronted self-harming as an “unacceptable” coping mechanism. The essay “Don’t Kill Yourself” is a triumphant anchor for everyone who finds it.

7. “Holy the Firm” by Annie Dillard (Harper & Row, 1977).

Spending time alone is recommended as part of many treatment protocols; here, Dillard takes two years. This tiny book reveals the largess life offers Dillard during her time on an island in Puget Sound, inevitably suggesting what we ourselves might find, if we stop running away from and actually listen to the quiet.

8. “Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self” by Sarah Ban Breathnach (Warner Books, 1998).

What do you do when it seems as if you have everything, yet nothing at all? Ban Breathnach provides the metaphorical stepping stones to our core selves, even acknowledging characteristics of borderline personality disorder (BPD) as a part of some journeys.

9. “Welcome to My Country: A Therapist’s Memoir of Madness” by Lauren Slater (Random House, 1996).

This book chronicles Slater’s journey from being a patient to returning as a clinician. Her spunk is palatable and lit the desire in me to defy stigmas manifesting in all kinds of treatment environments.

10. “100 Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler’s Life List” by Patricia Schultz (Workman Publishing Company, 2003).

As we heal, we wish and dream; this book fuels both. A quick escape from intense feelings and interactions, it’s safe and fun, discovering a new locale every time the book is opened.

These books ease my distress; don’t underestimate the power of your favorites. If they’re part of what keeps you alive, there’s a very good chance your choices will help someone else. Sharing the healing words with others in a way they can actually hold could save a life when clinicians aren’t looking…

When someone is all alone, let a book become a life preserver.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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The Difficulty in Trying to Begin a Career With Depression

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I recognize how blessed I am to be two weeks away from completing all of the requirements of a graduate school program and have had a job I want in place for months now. I have worked really hard, but I also know I have been given incredible opportunities. Nevertheless, trying to begin a career as a professional in the midst of major depression is really impossibly hard.

One of the things that makes it hard is not being able to celebrate. Receiving congratulations gracefully and seeing peers also be successful creates a contrast that makes the confines of one’s own head seem especially dark. I know I have no “reason” to be depressed and yet I hate getting up on a daily basis. The bare minimum of my day is utterly exhausting and comes with no joy.

 

Furthermore, one of the advantages in theory of being a young person in a field is bringing new energy and excitement into the work. I remember what that used to feel like, just two years ago, freshly accepted into the program that would both trigger and worsen my depression, creating deeply-rooted shame and difficulty trusting others and situations. I was unable to sit down or eat, I was so excited. Now, with the perfect job in hand, I look towards the future with distrust and doubt that I will ever recapture that initial passion.

My exhaustion makes the exciting changes feel like more of a burden. Looking ahead is dangerous. I’m better off getting by day by day.

Another difficulty that is even more highly apparent this month (Mental Health Awareness Month) are the ways in which being a young professional limits me from being an advocate for my own mental health and the mental health of others. I would like to be transparent about my struggles with mental illness, but unfortunately, stigma is a very true reality, even in a helping field. Especially while applying for jobs and even now, I have to be careful about who knows I have an illness. The impact of this is twofold. 

Firstly, I am limited in the kind of support and accommodation I can seek out. I have yet to achieve remission, so I am still struggling through finding the right medication and trying to work mental health appointments around work expectations. Much of this would be easier if mental health didn’t carry a stigma. I would feel so much less isolated if I could just tell a supervisor I’m having a bad day instead of faking enthusiasm. I’m not trying to get out of doing my job. I still want to push through and be the best I can be. But, I don’t want to feel like I’m constantly acting, making sure the secret that I am not a happy person right now doesn’t get out.

Secondly, it would be rewarding to be able to advocate for mental illness in an open way. I have a semicolon keychain and I write for The Mighty, but I feel I can’t share my work to a Facebook or participate in community events for mental health. 

I also wish others could understand that despite my success, my depression is still severe. I often feel people don’t take me seriously even when I am able to talk about my mental illness. I don’t have “high-functioning” depression. I have major depression and am productive. I can’t explain why I am able to move forward other than the fact my perfectionism wouldn’t let me do otherwise. It is really damn hard and not at all reflective of the severity of my depression. (Personal note: To those of you who aren’t able to work, know I respect you and that my experience is in no way meant to invalidate you or your experiences.)

I am still in need of support and consideration because of the high costs it takes to carry on every day. Because of the way society views mental health, I don’t anticipate that I will ever be acknowledged as someone who is both a highly accomplished professional and a person struggling with a mental illness. These two things need not be mutually exclusive, but I fear discrimination of the one may prevent the other from being fully appreciated. So, for now, I will maintain my relative silence.

I am a professional. I am also a person with a hidden mental illness.

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