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Why Happiness Isn't Always a Choice

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Recently after speaking at a lifestyle expo, a member of the audience asked if there was one message I would give to reduce the stigma around mental illness, what would it be?

Now I’m not known for thinking on my feet, but strangely the answer popped straight into my head: “I would like people to know, in their hearts and in their heads, that depression is not a choice.”

My quick answer was inspired by an “inspirational” post on Facebook I had commented on earlier that week. “Happiness is a choice. Every single day you make a choice,” the post said.

I disagree. And I said so. I even advised the author to think carefully about language use. (I’m sure the user was grateful for my advice not!) A number of responses followed mine. Some agreed with me, while others asserted happiness was definitely a choice.

I don’t want to be a voice of gloom, but I do know the thoughts that tortured me. I constantly berated myself for not being happy.

I should feel happy. I should feel grateful. I should look on the bright side. The list is endless. All of these thoughts implied I have a choice and left me carrying huge guilt because I couldn’t do any of these things.

Think of it like this:

If I had a broken leg, would I be telling myself I should be able to run and jump and hop and skip? No. I would know I couldn’t. Would I feel guilty? No. Is it likely anyone would tell me if only I changed my thoughts I would be able to jump, hop and skip? I doubt it. What about if I just “cheered up?” Could I run, skip and jump then? I don’t think so.

So, what’s the difference?

The difference is some people believe it’s a choice to be depressed. There are no blood tests to confirm it. There are no X-rays to confirm it. Although I’ve been told if my brain had been scanned while I was at my worst the image “would have lit up like a Christmas tree.” Strangely, this was reassuring to me. If I had scans to show the physical “proof,” it would have helped with the guilt. How sad.

I’m sure if the general population understood depression is not a choice, there would be less stigma. Perhaps empathy would replace impatience,  and understanding would replace cynicism. Education is the solution.

But there’s something that is a choice: Seeking professional help.

As hard as it is, it’s the only way to go. And, just like any other illness, the earlier we seek help, the earlier treatment can begin and the better the outcome is for everyone. Would you hesitate to seek professional help if you broke your leg? What a ridiculous question. Of course you wouldn’t. Would it be a sign of weakness? Another ridiculous question.

So be strong. Be proud. Ask for professional help. Be proud of yourself for doing so.

To those professionals who changed and saved my life, I thank you.

Follow this journey on Write Strong.

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Originally published: July 6, 2015
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