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It's OK to Grieve What You've Lost to Depression

It’s late at night and I am sitting with my knees curled up to my chest, as my fingers are running through my hair and my gaze is positioned to the floor. Feeling imprisoned by my thoughts and stuck in a moment of helplessness once again, I try and remind myself to focus on my breathing. Tonight, though, appears to be one of the nights when the dark thoughts are too strong for my breath. They eclipse over the rational me who knows I should practice a coping strategy. They convince me to surrender to their attack instead.

After all, tired and defeated me reasons, “How can I channel my energy into challenging the thoughts when their negative accusations feel so right?”

And although the night is brutal — the self-hatred unbearable, the tears cathartic yet so strong it feels as if I’ll never stop shaking — I have to give myself credit for getting through the night. Despite the negative thoughts and their torture, I somehow always find a way to wake up the next morning with even the smallest belief eventually the days will get better. Even when I am left feeling numb and withdrawn, I somehow find my own glimmer of hope inside of depression‘s hopelessness to keep going.

Still, while I’m grateful I’ve always made it through these moments of unbearable sadness, the longer I’m trapped, the more I find myself paradoxically growing depressed about my depression. I can’t help but think that, while I’ve survived the darkness so far, all of these helpless moments keep adding up. I’m losing more and more of my life to survival rather than to actually living.

When someone experiences loss, it is believed they go through seven stages of grief. The first few include shock and denial, pain and guilt and anger and bargaining. While the model was created to describe the death of a loved one, the more I’m plagued by my depression, the more I believe the stages also apply to my mental illness.

For me, shock and denial comes in the form of denying my depression altogether. If I tell myself not to be depressed, to keep going through the motions of a day and to avoid all of my thoughts entirely, I’ll eventually earn a worthwhile life. Except the depression always catches up with me, and the negative beliefs about myself and my capabilities which I’ve avoided flood me all at once. This is the intolerable pain of the pain and guilt stage. I find myself having an excruciating breakdown in which the thought of surviving feels unbearable. I always make it through, but the depression wins in reminding me I can’t easily escape the self-hatred or self-disappointment which has made its home inside of me.

Once I accept the reality of the depression, I alternate between feeling guilty for withdrawing from my relationships due to the never-ending exhaustion, and feeling angry at myself for not just “getting over'”the depression or “thinking positive.” While I know no one chooses the battles they are forced to fight, and I wouldn’t wish these demons on anyone, during my anger and bargaining stage, I can’t help but question: why me? Why do I have to be the one to keep fighting? Why can’t I just be tired?

Finally, I find myself grappling with the depression and reflection stage of grief — the stage in which I am currently struggling. In this stage, I’m fully aware of the destruction my depression has caused, including the isolation and exhaustion I continue to face. I find myself depressed by my depression because I am aware of all it has taken from me. I have lost friendships with beautiful people because I simply didn’t have the energy to be around them. I’ve cancelled plans or stopped responding to text messages because I couldn’t handle the thought of a conversation or, worse, the fear the more time people spent with me, the more they would begin to see me for the terrible person I often believe myself to be.

Even when I’ve forced myself to go out and make new memories despite the depression, I find myself remembering the reality of my thoughts — “I would find this moment magical if I wasn’t feeling so numb” — instead of the beauty of the moment. My depression has even robbed me of the memories I should be able to enjoy because the sadness underneath is too strong to forget.

With all of these stages of grief and the different emotions wrapped up in each one, I honestly sometimes feel even more tired considering the roller coaster of thoughts I’ve already gone through, and all the thoughts and emotions left to come. I also know I am not done facing the stages I’ve already experienced. The stages are not linear. I oscillate between them depending on my level of energy, my motivation and the strength of my depression.

Still, what keeps me going are the flickers of hope and motivation I experience between the stages, as they are signs I’m beginning to experience the positive stages of grief as well. The names of the positive stages of grief in psychology are the upward turn, reconstruction and working through and acceptance and hope. But I like to think of these stages in terms of all they have to offer. They are a promise for peace within myself, when I can focus on books or hobbies instead of on the darkness of my thoughts. They are a pledge that eventually focusing on my breath will be enough to stand up to any darkness I inflict upon myself.

With the strength of my depression and all it has taken away, I have to believe that continuing to trust the process and confronting the depression will eventually give me back more than just the ability to survive, but also the ability to embrace adventures, to laugh and to live.

Unsplash image by Anton Darius