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5 Invaluable Life Lessons That Depression Has Taught Me

I’ll admit I have a pretty strange relationship with my depression. Of course, I resent it for making me miserable all the time; but, in a way, I’m also grateful not necessarily “for” depression, but for what it has taught me.

Do I want to live with depression? No. Of course not. It is miserable. However, if someone were to ask me, “Do you wish you never had depression?” I would hesitate to reply “yes.” Having depression has taught me a lot of invaluable life lessons I truly don’t think I would’ve learned otherwise.

Here are five important lessons I have learned from having depression:

1. Empathy. Depression taught me empathy. 

Many people don’t know the difference between sympathy and empathy — that is, feeling for someone because you can (literally) only imagine what they’re going through (sympathy), or feeling for them because you know how it feels because you went through it yourself (empathy). If I tell you about my depression or anxiety, you can wish me well — but you can’t empathize if you haven’t experienced it. It’s a fine line to walk. People have said things to me along the lines of “I hope you get better,” or “I hope you’ll be happy soon.” While I know they’re just saying these things because maybe they don’t know what depression is like and how it’s not that simple, because they can only sympathize and not empathize, I often can’t help but feel a bit patronized. It’s as if this depression is just something that will magically “get better” or I’ll suddenly “be happy.”

I always knew I wasn’t “alone” in this fight — over 300 million people have depression, so it’s not a rare thing — but depression has the power to make you feel alone and isolated anyway. But only when I discovered The Mighty did I truly realize other people felt like I felt. For the first time in my life, I found myself reading things other people had written and walked away feeling like someone really knew how I felt because they had felt it themselves! I found myself reading article after article, empathizing with the author because we were in one way or another going through something similar (or at least, feeling similar emotions). It has truly been a beautiful experience, and I often attribute depression with being the main way I learned how to empathize.

2. Being physically alone and mentally alone are two very different things. 

I can tolerate being physically alone — in fact, I often crave it. When I’m having a bad mental health day, I actually want to be alone sometimes because it removes distractions and allows me to process my emotions more clearly. I often look forward to solace. While I don’t particularly rejoice in the fact I have a nonexistent social life, I know I can take being physically alone — I’ve been doing it for the last two years. I’ve since learned the meaning of true friendship and learned how to value people who truly care about you.

However, I have learned the hard, painful way that being physically alone is not the same thing as being mentally alone. Before I was depressed, I had no idea that such an isolating, alienating feeling existed. It’s a feeling of complete and utter hopelessness and alienation. Even more painful is the feeling of being mentally alone while you’re not actually physically alone. I was in a situation like this recently and I’m putting it lightly when I say it was not pleasant and not something I want to repeat. The feeling of being surrounded by people, even by people who seem to care about you, yet still feeling like you’re alone and that the opposite is true — that no one cares — is among the most painful experiences I’ve had.

It’s very hard to explain — I’m struggling to write this in a clear way, even — but I can safely say there is a distinct difference between being physically alone and mentally alone and depression has taught me that.

3. Looks can be deceiving. 

I’ve had a lot of people say to me “you don’t look depressed.” Tell me something I don’t know. I am fully aware that on the outside, I appear to be a bright, bubbly, confident teenage girl who has her head screwed on straight and has big dreams and plans. That’s my coping mechanism. I love talking about my goals and dreams because it keeps me from falling down the rabbit hole and keeps my mind distracted from being consumed by depressive thoughts. However, I think those who know me closely and are familiar with my depression know I often put on a mask (as cliché as it sounds) when I go outside. I’m not necessarily trying to “pretend,” but often I am trying to appear better than I actually feel. I have to force myself to go outside. I often marvel at the fact that just by looking at me (or anyone with depression, really), or having a conversation with me, “no one would have any clue” I’m depressed unless I blatantly mentioned it. Granted, I have good days and bad days just like anyone else, and no doubt does this influence how I appear.

This also brings to mind a question: does depression really have a “look?” I don’t know anyone with depression who walks around with a cloud and personal rainstorm over their head while wearing a hoodie that says “I’m Depressed” like the actors in the antidepressant commercials do. I have truly learned now that looks can be deceiving. Each time I see someone (in-person or online) who looks like they lead the life I would want to live, or looks like they have it all together, or looks like they’re “happy,”  I remind myself that each person has their own battles and that this person could be going through a lot that can’t be seen on the outside.

4. Listening is crucial. 

I’m pretty open about being depressed, to the point that I sometimes question if I’m too open. I am blessed with people who will listen to me, even if I’m just repeating the same things over and over, and those individuals will never know how grateful I am.

I know people are listening, but I often feel like I’m not being heard. Still today, after almost two years of depression, every time I open up to the few people I trust (who, coincidentally are the few people I have left), I am plagued by thoughts that no one is really listening, that I’m just a burden, that I’m making someone uncomfortable, that I’m wasting my (or someone else’s) time by speaking up, and they shouldn’t have to listen to me. It’s usually nothing they say or do, besides when I’m ignored or receive a response that I interpret to mean they aren’t interested, regardless of that’s true or not. I have felt this enough times to have learned how important listening is. Because I know what it’s like to not be heard, to feel like no one is listening, like no one cares, I have learned how crucial it is to listen to others. The golden rule of treating others how you want to be treated is golden for a reason — it’s important and it’s true. I can honestly, wholeheartedly say I would never want someone to feel how I have felt, and I intend to do everything in my power to make sure they never do.

I think a lot of people hesitate to listen because they are afraid; they know they might not have the answers to the other person’s problems, might not know what to tell them, and maybe they don’t want the responsibility of knowing what’s going on. But I don’t want answers… all I could ever ask for is for someone to simply listen. I never expect anyone to whom I open up to have the answers, to understand or even to empathize; I just ask that they listen, and I will always do the same for them.

It is so important to listen in general, but especially in the context of mental health. That’s all most people want: to be heard. Some may be surprised at how powerful just listening can be. You can change a life simply by opening your ears and mind.

5. Everything is temporary, whether good or bad. 

When I was younger, and when anxiety and stress-related issues were a bigger deal for me, my mom used to always remind me: “Everything is temporary.” I knew it was a true statement, but I never fully understood the true meaning and reality of the saying until I was older. The last few months have mentally been very tumultuous for me — a lot of up and down. It’s a common theme in the realm of mental illness — the up and down and up and down cycle — but it makes you learn to cherish the good moments. I have learned to rejoice in the days I feel free and the thought that it’s temporary is often what pushes me through the bad moments.

Although it may seem like it, I know depression isn’t forever. Although I can’t see a time depression will just magically disappear, I do truly believe there will come at a time when depression isn’t as big of an influence in my everyday life. It’s important for me to keep this perspective and it’s a huge part of my coping skills.

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Photo by Ryann Flippo on Unsplash