Your Depression Does Not Define You
When she asked how I was, my first thought was “depressed.”
This is all I could think to say after a moment of awkward silence. Immediately my brain chided me. “You’re not fine. You’re depressed.”
It had been a day since I went to therapy for the first time, and it was the first time a name had been put on my symptoms out loud. I have depression.
Depression had been a constant in my life for years before I finally went to get help. In those years, I questioned many times whether or not I was facing depression, but every time I brought it up it was shot down.
“You’re just going through a hard time right now.”
“Everyone feels sad sometimes.”
“You can get through this on your own.”
“If you get it diagnosed, it will be on your record forever. It could ruin future career opportunities.”
Though I know these comments were motivated by love and concern, I felt trapped. It taught me that mental health was something I shouldn’t discuss with others.
I needed to be strong enough to get through it on my own.
It made other people uncomfortable to talk about mental health problems.
I finally went to get help, therefore I am weak.
My friend didn’t say anything for a minute as all of this went through my head. Finally, she boldly opened a conversation that would change my life.
“You don’t look fine. Is there anything I could do to help?”
I was ready to blurt the automatic response to that question but stopped myself. She had mentioned her own mental health battles in the past. Maybe she could help if I told her about what I was going through.
So I did. I told her about what it was like and what I was going through. She listened until I was finished, then told me of her similar experience and how she has dealt with it. I learned that day that I have been thinking about mental health wrong my whole life.
You Don’t Need to Feel Guilty About Your Mental Health
“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.” — Glenn Close
During this conversation, I realized that I felt a lot of guilt over my depression. I grew up in a strong, Christian family, and I love and believe in Jesus Christ and His teachings. Yet it didn’t matter how much I prayed and searched for answers, my depression did not go away.
I felt guilt over it often. After all, I was taught that “men are that they might have joy.” Why then, could I not feel joy even though I was trying so hard to be faithful?
On top of that, I felt that I had a good life in general. I had a family that loves me, a good school, dreams about my future, and awesome friends. I had no right to feel the way I did, and that merely added to my guilt.
You might have a similar experience if you’ve dealt with mental health concerns. In her book, Living With Depression, Dr. Deborah Serani said depression decreases your reasoning and problem-solving functions.
“This is why a person can feel unrealistically negative about himself, feel guilty or responsible for things that he might not truly believe if the depression wasn’t active.”
When you feel guilty over your depression, you are merely giving it more power over you and worsening the symptoms. Dr. Gregory L. Jantz comments on guilt in his book Healing Depression for Life. He describes two types of guilt- self-correcting and self-loathing. The latter, self-loathing guilt, is what is Dr. Serani touches on above. Dr. Jantz expounds on the thought further.
“[Self-loathing guilt] may also be prompted by a particular incident, but rather than encouraging introspection and self-improvement, it results in a generalized feeling of unworthiness. That’s not something we know how to correct, so it lingers and grows until it stops being about something we may have done and becomes a statement on who we are: worthless.”
It may not just be guilt over your depression. Regardless of the original cause, if it is an excuse for tearing yourself down instead of empowerment to build yourself up, it needs adjusting. In her book Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes, Therese Borchard describes a visualization technique that might help discern and respond to these feelings:
“She told me to imagine myself driving a car along the highway. Whenever I get one of those guilty thoughts, my car is out of alignment…it’s dragging right. So I pull over and assess the problem. I check to see if I need to make any adjustments. If I stole something, I should give it back. If I wronged someone, I need to make amends. Then I merge back on to the highway.
Each time my car wants to rear off the main drive, I should ask myself, Is there something I need to do? If not, I need to get my car back on the road.”
People Won’t Always Understand What You’re Going Through, But You’re Not Alone
“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken.’” — C.S. Lewis
Even as I’ve become more comfortable discussing my mental health with others, I am still caught off-guard by some of the responses I’ve received.
“I never would’ve guessed you’re depressed, you’re so happy!”
“Can’t you just change your outlook? Depression is a choice.”
Though as a society we are making steps in the right direction in increasing public awareness of mental health, the truth is that you are still going to run into people that won’t understand what you’re going through. That being said, you are not as alone as you think you are.
The National Institute of Mental Health shows that mental illness is fairly common. They concluded that “nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (46.6 million in 2017).”
That means, in varying degrees, more than 40 million people understand personally what you are going through. They know the guilt, and they know the stigma. They also know how it feels to be misunderstood and misrepresented.
In a survey done in 2018 by faculty of the University of Tsukuba, they concluded that “General health literacy alone might not improve knowledge and beliefs about depression. An educational intervention or campaign to reduce stigma toward depression and improve knowledge about the treatment of depression is needed.”
We have done well at starting the conversation. Let’s keep it going.
Your Depression Does Not Define You
“ Depression is a set of symptoms. It is not what makes you ‘you,’ does not make you who you are. You are more than your depression, more than a set of symptoms.” — Susan J. Noonan
This was the most important lesson my friend helped me learn during that two-hour-long conversation about mental health. Depression seemed to consume my life. It took my energy, ruined relationships, and turned my life on its head more than once. Yet it does not make me who I am.
Yes, I get tired faster than most people. I have days that I don’t want to talk to anyone. The way I feel may influence the way I look at myself, but it doesn’t change who I am.
“Feelings are something you have; not something you are.”
― Shannon L. Alder
Changing your outlook on your depression will not make it go away. You will still have days where you feel like giving up. Don’t.
You are more than the symptoms you’re currently facing. I believe that you can get through it, and I hope that sharing some of my experiences with you today has helped you in some way.
Your depression does not define you.