When you’re five, there isn’t a single word in your world that can explain why leaving your bed makes you so unhappy. And how was I or my Dad supposed to know that at seven, being told that you’ve done something minutely wrong will live in your head for the next 4 months straight? At the forgotten age of nine, I just assumed that happiness wasn’t a feeling that was meant to be felt often. At twelve, my parents finally started to worry about why I made so many best friends just to end up losing them all. When I finally found the word I was always looking for, I was already sixteen. After months of begging my parents to take me to a doctor, I’ll never forget the odd sense of comfort that washed over me when she finally confirmed what I always knew but could never say out loud. It’s funny how terrifying it seems to live your truth until you’re shoved right into it, only to realize that it was the oxygen you had been gasping for this whole time.
I’ve been meaning to write about my depression for as long as I can remember because I knew it would be just as cathartic as hearing it for the first time. Not only for myself, but also for the countless people I know who are pushing through it themselves. I think that if we begin having these conversations about real people who are facing demons that are familiar to many of us, we can give each other the strength to get out of bed each day to fight them. You can see from the title that I’ve accepted the unfortunate truth that sometimes it just doesn’t go away, no matter how good life gets or how many healthy habits you cultivate. But I’ve also realized that it’s okay, that maybe it’s even a good thing if you let it be. So my goal here is to give you* the tools I’ve found that have kept me alive, and the comfort of simply knowing that I know how you feel.
*Whether you’re just going through a rough patch, experience seasonal/situational depression, or have chronic depression, this advice is for you. Remember that there is no emotion too small or too big to be valid.
How I’ve Learned to Cope With My Depression
1. Acknowledge it. Then own it. Then wear it like your favorite pair of shoes.
I thought I might as well put the hardest one first, because I hate it when people beat around the bush. But I also know how unreasonable that advice sounds. How can you take something that feels so heavy and ugly and turn it into a piece of yourself that you’re proud to wear? It begins with accepting it as it comes. Everyone’s depression looks a little bit different when they look in the mirror, and that image can even change from day to day. You can go days or weeks barely noticing it on yourself, simply to wake up one random morning feeling enclosed in a coat of black. However it appears to you when you look at yourself each morning, learn to give it your full attention. Admire the heaviness of it, how it permeates through everything else you’re feeling. How complex your brain must be to feel such depth and emptiness simultaneously. I know it feels almost illegal to try to find the silver lining in a mental illness, but it’s actually the easiest way to move forward from it. Think of how your depression has made you so quietly intuitive of yourself and your surroundings. Appreciate how it pushes you to seek experiences that help you forget. Observe how bright the sunny days are able to be when you’ve seen the other end of the spectrum. Through doing this I realized that the best parts of my personality, like my emotional capacity or how deeply I care about others, were born as direct results of going through my depression. This isn’t to glorify a mental illness or make light of it, but simply to show you that there is definite good in the journey you’ve lived through that you deserve to be proud of. Resilient, kind, and thoughtful are the adjectives I am proud to call myself that are byproducts of what I’ve been through. Once you find yours, write them down and read them each time you feel like forgetting. The more you think about them, the more you’ll find.
2. Talk about it as much as you can. When you hit your limit, talk about it even more.
We are often told that therapy is the ultimate solution to managing your depression. After 2 years of weekly sessions followed by 3 years of none, I can both confirm and deny that statement. Therapy is a privilege that I believe everyone should have access to and consider using, regardless of a mental illness. I like to think of it as a filing cabinet for your thoughts, a place where you can be free to empty out the mess inside your brain without judgement. Or you can think of it as inviting someone into the home that is your head and allowing them to help you with your Spring cleaning. Sometimes the help comes in the form of talking it out with you and other times it’s simply sitting there in silence with you. Whichever you need, I encourage everyone to try out therapy if it is accessible to them. What I disagree with, however, is that it is the end-all-be-all solution to depression management. What truly works the best is the one thing everyone is scared most of — talking about it with the people you love. For some reason, depression has a way of making you feel so isolated that you don’t even think to bring it up to those you trust most. I know that heavy feeling of rocks in your throat whenever you try to find the words to explain how you feel. Sometimes it’s because we know that nobody will ever understand exactly how we feel, but the reality is that everyone feels that way sometimes. It’s something we can’t be afraid of if we want to build fulfilling relationships in our life. Eliminate that fear by thinking of how you would react if one of your friends came to you with their depression. Wouldn’t you just want them to feel safe and unjudged and give them a place to rest their burdens for a second? That is exactly how they feel about you, too. Trust others to give you the same treatment you would give them, and realize that your depression is only a burden to you and not anyone else around you. As humans we are built to express ourselves, and although the first twenty conversations may leave you in shambles, one day they’ll leave you feeling weightless. Talking my depression out with my friends allowed both of us to understand why I acted the way I did. Forcing myself to put my emotions into words gave me the exposure therapy I needed to stop fearing my depression and instead take control of it. By talking about our depression, we are not only pioneering a culture of acceptance, we are also consciously sorting through it ourselves. Your goal is to be comfortable enough with yourself and your emotions that you can identify exactly what is wrong and release it through communication. What you think will be the most uncomfortable part will turn out to be exactly the medicine you needed all along, and you’ll strengthen your relationships at the same time.
If you’re the person they’re confiding in: This is something I wish many people in my life knew so I hope it helps those of you who are trying to be better friends and people. If you have a friend who you know is going through depression or who you suspect may be experiencing it, I urge you to be patient. This isn’t something that will go away after a few deep heart-to-hearts or even a friendly intervention. Be thoughtful when your friend is exhibiting a behavior you don’t like and talk it through with them until you find the root of the problem, rather than “cutting out your toxic friend”. There is a difference between a bad friend and someone who is hurting and doesn’t know how to cope, and the only way to find out is to talk to them. We all need to be more cognizant of what our friends are going through and give them the time, space, and support they need to get out of it. I encourage you to create an environment or a dialogue which makes your friend group a safe place to discuss matters of the mind. It is always better to face the conversation that you think might be embarrassing or emasculating than to get a call that you’ll never have the chance to do it again. Remember above all that depression isn’t always tears or a sad face, sometimes it’s your friend who is holding it together all too perfectly.
3. They are right: you are not your depression.
There is a voice to depression. It’s words are like annoying mosquitos that you can’t seem to get rid of no matter how hard you try. They float aimlessly in your head, acting like a thick fog that doesn’t let you see if a thought is yours or your depression’s. To clear this haze and put an end to that voice, you must first realize that it isn’t yours. I know we all hear that “you are not your depression”, but cliches are often overused because they’re true. Learn to view your negative thoughts as entities that are allowed to come and go as they please. Beneath those feelings, we still feel a deep sense of loyalty to ourselves that never goes away. This is why you feel so betrayed when depression creeps it’s way in, because you’re left wondering “why did I do this to myself, to my life?”. It’s easy to believe that the emotions that depression causes you to feel are your own doing, but this just isn’t true. Once you can release yourself from being at fault, that feeling of betrayal will begin to fade. This is when you’ll be able to repair your relationship with yourself. Once I was able to sit alone with myself and detach from the thoughts that weren’t mine, I felt like I could finally see clearly enough to process my own true feelings. I realized that all the anger I had against my depression was because I loved myself enough to feel that protective over my happiness. No matter how small the amount of love may be, all you need is to find it within yourself to begin the healing process. But I didn’t just discover it and wake up the next day feeling confident. It took years of constant effort and daily reminders to separate my own inner voice from my depression’s. Although I still acknowledge my depression, I’ve managed to grow that tiny shred of love into an absolutely shatterproof appreciation for all that I am. I didn’t wait for life to get better to find reasons to be confident in myself, I built that confidence first and then made my life amazing because of it. Learning to listen to only my own voice made me fall in love with myself and become my own best friend. On the days that I feel down, I work hard to give myself extra love and care the way I would to any other best friend of mine. Whether that’s a workout or setting aside time to meditate, work to identify at least 5 things that you can personally categorize as “self care”. Keep that list in your back pocket and cycle through it whenever you feel it’s necessary. Managing your depression begins when you make the effort to give yourself the love and support we all crave so deeply.
These are some of the tools I’ve used to transform my life. I’m sharing them with you because I know they work and because we need to normalize these conversations about mental health. Everyone has seen the pits and the peaks of life at some point or another; make sure you’re willing to talk about both with those you care about. If my words resonated with you at all, I encourage you to share this post with your friends and maybe even add your own helpful advice. You never know who might need it.