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In my previous post, Depression 101: Am I Depressed or Sad?, I discussed some of the nuts and bolts of depression. I'd like to continue that basic discussion in this post, then finish up with a little more of a philosophical take on depression as it presents itself within the human experience.
Now, let's continue our talk about what depression is not:
A choice. Telling someone with clinical depression that they "just need to think positive" is like telling someone with type 1 diabetes to "just make your pancreas produce more insulin." A person with clinical depression may have a brain that is simply not producing the chemicals that make them feel okay.
A weakness. Telling someone with clinical depression that they are weak is pointless because they already spend much of their time beating themselves down for everything they've done wrong.
An easy way out. A person with clinical depression works significantly harder to simply get out of bed and carry through with basic day-to-day tasks than someone who doesn't have depression. Have you ever carried a heavy backpack for an extended amount of time then taken it off and felt like you were light and springy? Folks who suffer from moderate to severe depression are unable to take the heaviness off at will.
Selfish. Most people with depression beat themselves up because they feel like they let down the people they love. And where there is suicide, there is likely depression. One of the common reasons that a person commits suicide is because they feel like they are a burden and that if they sacrifice their life, their loved ones will be happier.
So then, what is depression? Depression is:
Physical. Not being able to move because your body feels too heavy.
Pain. Depression can cause migraines and other body aches.
Grey. Everything blending together into one giant, hazy, grey fog where nothing stands out from anything else; so everything seems pointless, useless and hopeless. I'm not just talking figuratively here, people who suffer with even moderate depression may actually see less color in the world.
Loss. Losing someone that you loved so much and never feeling whole again.
Trauma. One common root of depression is trauma; whether you are a soldier returning from war, a refugee escaping from tyranny, or a child witnessing domestic violence, one of trauma's primary ways of manifesting is depression.
Self-blame and low self-esteem. People with clinical depression see themselves as the problem in a given situation and they feel like they don't deserve to get better.
Hopelessness. Many people with depression don't see anything beyond the one, deeply painful or numbing moment in which they are immersed.
Selective. Depression has a way of focusing a person's view on all the things that are wrong in their life and in the world. It draws their attention to all the mistakes they've made and will not let them see the many other hopeful things that may surround them.
Depression is really a lot of things: biological and chemical, cultural and sociological, genetic, and a way of thinking and feeling about the world. Did you know that depression was first recognized by the ancient Mesopotamians in the second millennium BC? The ancient Greeks as well as the ancient Romans wrote about depression. If there is just one thing you take away from this post, I hope it's that depression is inextricably a part of the human experience. There is a fair chance that that song you love so much or that piece of art that overwhelms you with emotion was created by someone struggling with depression. In fact, I would argue that so many of the things that we humans consider our crowning achievements were inspired by people who suffered from mental health issues. You can see depression in the art of Vincent Van Gogh and hear it in the music of Leonard Cohen and John Lennon. In the Bible, you can hear depression in the words of David, Jonah, Elijah and Job and see that God pays special attention to those with depression in Psalm 34:18, "The lord is near to those who have a broken heart." The Buddha, who has been called "the world's first great psychologist", also recognized depression; mindfulness, a practice that was taken directly from Buddhism, has been shown in scientific study after scientific study to help with depression, anxiety, and many other physical and psychological health issues.
The Old Guitarist, Picasso
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
Severe depression is one of the more difficult disorders to treat because people carry a weight that tells them that they don't deserve to feel better. If you have a loved one struggling with depression, don't try to convince them that they are a good person, instead show them in small ways that you love them and let them direct how they will feel better. It's very easy to add overwhelm to someone struggling with depression and add to the feeling that they are a burden because they are unable to do things that they know others want them to do. Often, a person with depression knows what may help them feel better but they can't seem to do it, adding a sense of helplessness and uselessness to their already painful views on themselves and the world around them. Clinical depression is best treated by a clinical professional, which sometimes includes medication management, but you can help your loved one by being patient with them and patient with yourself as you support them.