I wrote the first draft of this post in October of 2016 but have only recently felt brave enough to publish it. As vulnerable as it makes me feel, I think this topic is too important to not discuss on my blog.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” – J.K. Rowling,
Blogging with Depression
I’ve always been afraid of blogging when I’m not feeling 100%. According to a recent mental health assessment, I am currently “mildly depressed”. This means I have good days and less good days; I’m functional on the outside but have some troublesome thoughts and feelings on the inside.
I suspect I’ve slid back and forth along the depression spectrum for the past two years, ever since I hit the lowest of lows I’ve ever experienced in July 2014. And it’s been hard for me to maintain this blog not only because I’ve had to scrape for content at times (because I’m not traveling) but also because I’ve been so afraid of writing when I’m not feeling good.
But I have always used this blog as a space to be honest with myself and the world. If I filter myself too much, I lose that, and I think you guys stick around because you appreciate my openness.
I want to be able to write when I’m not feeling 100% but it makes me feel vulnerable and insecure.
Even though I don’t want to, I feel a lot of shame around my illness. I try to talk about it openly with friends to counteract the stigma, to normalize the issue. Just like any other ailment, we might discuss casually, like my tailbone pain or my last dermatologist appointment. I have found a lot of understanding amongst friends, mostly from people who have struggled with depression themselves.
I have also found a lot of blaming. People who think I need to “let it go” or “suck it up” or “stop playing the victim”. Also people who think it’s my own fault because I don’t want to be happy or I’m not trying hard enough to be happy.
What Depression Is and Why Shaming Makes Everything Worse
I have a really confusing relationship with my depression that I imagine is quite common in other depressives: it’s so hard to differentiate which of my thoughts are healthy/normal and which are a result of depression. This means sometimes I don’t trust myself, and it’s a really, really painful feeling. At the very least, a person wants to be able to trust that his or her own thoughts represent his or her own reality. But for me, I am constantly trying to discern when my thoughts and feelings are “justified” and when they aren’t.
People telling me, or insinuating, that I’m complaining too much, I’m not confident enough, I’m not having enough fun or not smiling enough, I’m letting little things get to me…This just feeds my self-doubt. Was the thing I complained about justified or is that my depression talking? Am I not smiling because I’m too depressed or because actually this situation is just shitty?
So now a word on depression being the fault of the depressed. I, too, used to believe that in spite of everything, humans will always have full control over one thing: how they feel. I’ve even written a blog post about it. I did genuinely believe it then, but depression has opened my eyes to the complexity of mental illness.
First of all, let’s be clear about what depression is exactly: it’s not just “feeling sad” but also the absence of feeling, plus some other stuff like hopelessness, loneliness, and guilt; irritability, sleep problems, feeling heavy…
Depression is not something you can think away. It’s not “all in your head”; it’s the result of a complex web of factors spanning from nature to nurture – from your genetics to your environment and everything in between.
I’m not absolving every depressive of his responsibility to work on his thoughts for example through cognitive behavioral therapy. Negative thoughts definitely play a role, I don’t deny that. But it’s so much more complicated.
It can feel really easy from the outside to see someone who suffers from depression and judge or blame them. “She’s too focused on the negative things. If she just cheers up, she’ll stop being so depressed.” “It’s his own fault he’s not happier. He just has to want to be happy and then he will be.”
Trust me, people with depression don’t want to be depressed. Many of us are working hard every day to manage our depression, not sitting idly by and wallowing.
Most importantly, depression is not our fault.
How to Support Friends Who Struggle with Depression
Going back to what depression is and how it feels: I am not my depression, but I also, for the sake of my sanity, can’t continue to distrust all of my thoughts and write them off as “my depression talking”. It’s not fair to myself and it would drive me mad. So I have to at once own my illness as a part of me (because these thoughts are mine) AND separate myself from my illness as something I can work to manage and hopefully rid myself of. I know that’s confusing…Does it make sense?
Because of this convoluted relationship I (and probably others) have with depression, I can be pretty sensitive to how other people relate to me and depression. Like I said, I want to be able to be open about it and normalize the conversation. Here are some tips on how to handle it if the topic comes up with me or someone else:
- Don’t try to convince me how awesome I am and that I shouldn’t feel the way I do. I know I’m awesome, and I’m working on my mental health. Feeling the way I do isn’t a good or bad thing, it’s just a thing. Telling me otherwise is shaming.
- Don’t pity me. I definitely don’t want you to feel bad for me. That just makes me feel like I’M supposed to feel bad for me too.
- Don’t make a big deal out of it. This feeds the cycle of me worrying about my mental health, which then affects my mental health, which then makes me worry about it, etc.
- Don’t treat me differently because I told you I struggle with depression sometimes. I’m still me, guys.
Things you can say:
“Take your time, no one is rushing you to feel better.”
“I’ll come with you if you need support – even if it’s just to the supermarket.”
“Call me anytime.”
“This must be really hard”
“This is not your fault.”
“Depression is normal, a lot of people have it. But that really sucks.”
Here are three more articles on what to say to someone with depression:
- 5 Things to Do (And Not Do) to Support Someone with Depression
- 21 Things To Say To Someone Struggling With Depression
- 7 Of The Most Helpful Things You Can Say To Someone With Depression
I feel grateful to have this unique opportunity to discuss this important topic with an audience (small as my audience may be 😉 and I hope it makes us all feel a little less weird about depression.