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7 Things I've Learned About Living With Depression

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I struggled with my mental health long before I ever chose it as a career, many of us have.

The first time was at the age of 12. I remember being too scared to go to school. I remember being sick each morning from the anxiety. I remember being told even people with cancer could smile and be positive. I remember the shame.

Eighteen years and two notable depressive episodes later, here we are. Things weren’t always bad, but when they were, I never told anyone or got help. The problems went away on their own eventually and despite the impact on my life, that was good enough for me.

The last few years I think I subconsciously believed working in mental health somehow protected me from ever becoming unwell again. Obviously ridiculous now I think about it. But I wasn’t thinking about it.

These are some things I learnt from spending six months struggling with my mental health.

1. It is so confusing.

Despite having both professional and personal knowledge of depression, this time, I felt utterly lost. It crept up on me so quietly, I barely even noticed. Looking back, however, I can recognize the warning signs: Reacting emotionally to things I wouldn’t usually, losing my appetite, not wanting to get out of bed.

There were times where I felt unable to put into words how I was feeling and even though I know the difference between depression and anxiety, I couldn’t tell whether I was feeling one, the other or both.

2. It can feel like you’re making it up.

The moments where I felt relatively “normal” were the times my mind started to question whether what I was feeling was real. And what really added fuel to this fire was the fact often when speaking to mental health professionals, I felt OK. This led to me wondering if it was all fabricated, or worse still, that it was real, but other people thought I was lying.

Through obsessively Googling how I felt, I managed to find others who felt similar to this. Worryingly, there is such a thing as lying about depression (usually for the purpose of financial gain or avoiding criminal responsibility). But if you have to ask the question “Am I depressed or making it up?” the likelihood is you are depressed.

3. You can be depressed about being depressed.

As if it’s not enough to become disconnected from everything around you, to have the joy and color stripped from your life, you then become trapped in a cycle of feeling hopeless about the very fact you are depressed. I constantly felt I shouldn’t be depressed, it didn’t matter how much I tried to reason with myself, I felt it was my fault and I hadn’t done enough to help myself.

Depression tells us so many lies, amongst them is the falsehood you will feel this way forever. In those moments, it feels impossible to believe anything will ever be different. People can tell you it will pass, you can tell yourself that — depression doesn’t care. But it does pass, and it will.

4. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is hard.

When I started CBT sessions, I thought because my job involves helping others practice CBT, I should be able to do it no problem. And I thought my therapist had this expectation of me too.

It just felt like it wasn’t working for me, I was challenging my thoughts daily, but I still believed them so strongly. I couldn’t let go of the expectation I had that I should be better at this process. The very fact I wasn’t getting better fed into the belief I was terrible at my job because I couldn’t “do” CBT. One week, I discussed the thought, “I am rubbish at CBT,” and the therapist asked me to rate myself on my CBT abilities, adding she had never considered giving someone a grade before. Everything just felt like a test, a test of my character and of my intelligence.

It can be so easy (sometimes) to tell someone what they need to do, but actually doing it yourself feels like trying to unravel an intricately tangled wire. When your head is full of so much confusion, when your body lacks the will to move, when you feel emotions attached to your thoughts so deeply — it’s so hard.

I don’t think CBT holds all the answers and it didn’t work for me in the way I thought it would. Medication proved to be much more effective, or perhaps it was just the passing of time like before. But it did help me to learn some things about myself. For most people, it seems to be about trying different things until you stumble upon something that works. And for some people, CBT will definitely be that thing.

5. Self-compassion is a bitch.

“You wouldn’t speak to a friend like that so why would you speak to yourself in such a horrible way?”

Because I don’t like myself.

Trying to be nice to yourself whilst simultaneously hating yourself is a conundrum I still can’t solve. It seems to be so common for people to put themselves down, to berate themselves for things they do or don’t do. And I’m not sure if this a personality trait or a product of depression, but either way, it felt impossible. The therapist I worked with said being nice to myself was the key to recovery.

“But I just don’t know how,” I said to her. There isn’t a simple answer I have found, but I learnt by being more aware of how I was speaking to myself, I could catch myself and at least try to give myself the credit I deserved (or not, right?).

6. Letting go can be difficult.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say I like feeling low, I think that’s probably incredibly offensive to anyone struggling with depression, but sometimes it felt like I wanted to feel that way. And the confusing feeling of wanting to be depressed further feeds the depressive mind.

“I feel like I want to feel this way, wow I must be an awful person, what kind of person wants to be depressed?”

When you’re in it, it can become all you really know. At times, the pain is so deep and all-consuming, but you become familiar with it.

So, coming out of it feels strange. For me, there were times where I felt like I was clinging on to the sadness, begging it not to leave me. I was scared to enjoy life again. When things are going well, you can become afraid they will get worse again, so it’s almost like you don’t want to take that risk. You want to stay in the familiarity and comfort of something you have grown accustomed to.

7. Recovery is certainly not linear.

Things got bad, then they got worse, then it all got a bit better and then so much worse again.

In my mind, I imagined there would suddenly be a day where I would have some sort of epiphany; I would be flooded with feelings again, good ones. I would turn a corner and be ecstatically happy.

But of course, I knew I wasn’t supposed to get better in a certain way, except I didn’t really know that. I completely put pressure on myself to recover the way I thought it “should” happen.

The day I started noticing things changing was the day I sat on a swing in the park. I started feeling more connected to the world around me. Then, I realized I was actually quite liking this, and it wasn’t a sudden rush of happiness like I thought it would be, it was barely there. But it was there.

In the same way depression creeps up on you, it can leave ever so subtly. Cracks of light start to appear in the darkness. Gradually, the bad days become less and less frequent, the suicidal thoughts happen rarely or not at all, the enjoyment comes back.

Now what?

I wish I knew. Mostly, I feel back to my old self, although sometimes I’m not really sure who that is anymore. I can’t remember which feelings were lingering before I started feeling depressed and what might be the depression still hanging around. At the back of my mind, there is always the sense life has no meaning, at least not one I can really find and hold onto. There is always the feeling of inadequacy and a general dislike for myself. There is always the fact I feel lost and unsure about the future. I still wake up with a sense of dread some days. I still feel scared. But is that depression or is that just being human? Maybe a human with some issues?

I can’t work out if depression ever goes away completely or if it lays dormant under the surface, waiting to be reawakened.

Unfortunately, there is no romantic ending where I head off into the sunset, ready to live my happy life. It’s very uninspiring. The point is, now I can distract myself from the negativity, I can function, I can find pleasure in things, I can appreciate all I have around me and the people I love.

And that is enough.

Unsplash image by Jake Melara

Originally published: June 2, 2021
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