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There’s been a tremendous amount of discussion surrounding depression and mental illness — particularly during tragedies like mass shootings and suicide. The discussion has led to discussing as people struggle to understand why and how it affects other people in the ways that it does. And for the 350 million people worldwide with the condition, it can be just as hard to articulate to others its effects as it is for those not struggling to understand it.

Depression has made me feel like my mind has completely rebelled against me. It can take your will, manifest as physical pain. It takes up great amounts of my mind at times to focus on the simplest tasks like work or cooking. Many people who experience depression can also experience anxiety. Mine is quite acute.

This anxiety can have triggers that can be easily identified and triggers that may never be identified. One of mine is strange men. There are some things I believe most and perhaps even all people struggling with depression can relate to.

  • The emotional frustration and pain that comes when someone suggests you can “snap out of it.” Or when someone tells you how happy you should be because you have so much to be happy for.

The hard truth is, depression is not the sort of thing you can just wake up and be over one morning — and suggesting such may be sending an unsupportive message. It blinds you to the good things because it becomes the only thing in time. These types of comments can lead to feelings of being ungrateful, unloved,  and even helpless. The idea you should be able to just shake this off led me to not seek the help I so desperately needed.

According to John F. Greden, M.D., who is the executive director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center, says “These phrases often stem from a lack of understanding of mental illness. When loved ones don’t understand what’s happening, their responses are ‘suck it up’,  and ‘stop feeling sorry for yourself’,  It’s not understood that these are underlying illnesses and chemical abnormalities, so what they’ll do is use these phrases. … These comments are probably one of the worst irritations.”

I’d add “You should be happy because you have..” is just as unhelpful and comes from the same position of lack of understanding.

  • People constantly confusing depression with sadness.

It’s a common misconception that depression is just a result of being overly sad. But as David Kaplan, Ph.D., who is the chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association, stresses, the two are not one and the same.

“People throw around the word ‘depressed’ a lot. Depression is a clinical term — and a lot of times when people say they’re depressed, they really mean sad. The words that we use are very powerful and it’s important to make that distinction.”

If it was merely sadness then simply doing things they enjoy, like surfing for me, would end the sadness. Depression may give you a respite but as soon as things slow down it comes roaring back. Often it returns with a vengeance. It’s not a slump and recognizing it early could save you a much darker time ahead. If your sadness can’t be shaken and doing the things you love bring only momentary joy you probably aren’t just sad.

  • There is no such thing as a little victory.

For those who deal with chronic depression, there are no little victories because every accomplishment is a big victory. It should be treated as such to be honest every baby step I’ve made has been a huge deal. I get one step closer to freedom with every little step. But there’s a huge victory in every win I can’t even explain it now, I guess faith is required of me here.

“While every day, routine motions come naturally to most people, for someone who is depressed, they are much harder feats,” explains Jonathan Rottenberg, Ph.D., and associate professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. “Almost any activity or task becomes a painful ordeal, even things as simple as taking a shower or getting dressed, going shopping, phone calls, dealing with people.”

I guess he explained it here sort of. It takes so much to do some things others take for granted. For me it’s people, especially strangers, or men, and very much strange men. The amount of energy I have to expend to interact is incredible. I usually withdraw or simply avoid it all together. Each baby step for me means less wasted energy to do what you might feel is so easy and natural.

Lack of energy means more than your run-of-the-mill afternoon slump.

Dr. Greden explains. “It makes it really difficult to go to work, to concentrate, to laugh, to keep your focus on assignments, when you’re hurting in this way,” he says.

  • There are physical symptoms — and they’re just as taxing as the emotional ones.

“At one point, everyone considered depression to be a mood state, and that’s a huge misconception,” Dr. Greden says. “Depression, for most people, actually involves major physical symptoms. And as a result, people don’t consider themselves depressed and they think something else is wrong.”

When someone experiences depression, physical ailments you already have can be made worse, Dr. Greden explains. Other physical symptoms include restlessness, indigestion, nausea, headaches, and joint and muscle fatigue. “These physical symptoms as well as the mood symptoms affect their routine life patterns,” he notes. “They’re all tied together.”

When I have to meet new people I become physically ill. When it’s a new person and a male I sometimes get violently ill. I shake when in crowds, tremors enough so you’d think something else might be wrong. The urge to run and escape the pain is often to much to bear.

I experienced this in a airport while attempting to make myself go see someone. I wanted to go but my body wouldn’t cooperate. I found a million excuses why the airport held me in security but the real reason was my erratic behavior. The tremors, the physical ticks, my high anxiety and my mental and physical distress were on full display. That is why they detained me, I seemed like a terrorist ready to blow up a plane probably. Though I kept telling myself calm and cool you can do this. My own body betrayed me.

  • Things that used to be fun aren’t quite as enjoyable.

Depression can impact even the smallest pleasures in life. Hanging out with friends, fun activities like surfing and even intimacy with romantic partners all seem less exciting than they were before, Dr. Greden says. “Depression makes your life dramatically different.”

This lack of interest, coupled with the physical symptoms, are all major red flags when it comes to identifying the condition. If the condition prolongs into time periods beyond what might be considered normal you might be dealing with depression.

It’s important they get help and the sooner the better. The longer depression has a hold of you the harder it will be to come back from it. To help someone who may be experiencing this downturn, Dr. Greden suggests approaching him or her with an open mind and continuous support, which includes offering to help find treatment.

  • The difficulty for the depressed person that comes with communicating your own emotions.

When you’re experiencing depression, it can be challenging to put into words what’s going on in your mind. You know not everyone around you feels the same way. It’s made especially harder because there’s a stigma around mental illness. Depression will make you feel isolated and the stigma in society about seeing a “shrink” or being confined to a Psychiatric ward for treatment is intense,

Personally for me when I admitted myself once and once I was force admitted afterward work made me get a notice saying I was clear to return to work. In reality they wanted assurance I wouldn’t become violent. I wasn’t admitted for hurting others, I was admitted for hurting myself. That doesn’t matter because society sees mental illness in a very negative light.

The news plays a big part in this. The lopsided reporting of those with mental illness, and the rush to judge bad people as mentally ill. Ask this of yourself. What was the last terrible thing caused by a person you remember in the news? Now think about the rush to pin some form of mental illness on that person. It’s treated like mental illness caused the event rather than the fact the person was just a bad person. Sandy Hook wasn’t a result of Asperger’s. It was the result of a bad kid who had been spoiled and never taught right from wrong. But that doesn’t sell sensationalism and headlines.

Only 25 percent of adults who experience mental health issues feel that people are sympathetic toward people struggling with mental illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Depression is a negative view of self, of the world and of the future,” Dr. Greden explains. “Everything is sort of being seen through dark-colored glasses. … It’s pretty common, when people are depressed, for them to think that no one understands them — and that’s a really tough place to be.”

It’s a lonely place to be. Even with all the love and support I had from Sarah, my son, TJ, family. I felt alone, misunderstood and scared. I felt no one understands me and I can’t even explain it if I tried. To some degree I still have these feelings today, though they are less than they were. I know people are trying to understand me at least and that helps.

  • Depression is not one-size-fits-all.

Each person experiences depression in his or her own way and because of this, experts recommend practicing empathy with loved ones who may be struggling. “Symptoms differ, causes differ, treatments differ,” Dr. Greden explains. “Jobs, relationships, families — everything gets changed by this illness.”

I’ve learned the journey is different for each person. The cause, the affect and the treatments vary. For some people, medication is crucial to beating this illness. For others like me, long term psychotherapy might be the answer. Most often it’s a combination of medication the proper therapy and plenty of love. Whatever works should be tried. I’m not suggesting that my path is best for anyone but me because it’s not. But I am suggesting that everyone has a path to healing. The single most important thing is to keep seeking answers. Don’t give up because you can beat this.

“There are ways to help others break through the throes of depression,” Dr. Greden says. In his book he explains many including shedding any thoughts that could be perpetuating a stigma about mental health. He suggests this will be the single biggest advance in treating those with mental illnesses if as a society we could destigmatize the illness and examine it as a fellow human who is hurting in ways we are lucky to not understand.

Dr. Greden says,  “We need so much more openness, transparency and understanding that it’s OK to talk about depression as an illness,” he explains further. “It’s not a weakness. It’s not a moral shortcoming. It’s not something people brought on themselves. And understanding that is a pretty powerful beginning to helping a loved one with depression.”

For me understanding I didn’t do this to myself. It’s not about the god I pray to, not about anything I could control and most of all it doesn’t make me any less of a good person. I still can’t explain my mind to those who haven’t lived inside it but I can say the friends I have now and the support I’ve received tell me it’s ok to admit I hurt, I am sick and ask for help.

It’s my sincerest wish everyone struggling finds this same place. It’s ok to ask for help and it’s not your fault, it’s not. You’re just sick and you can get better. The road maybe long and mine seems to have no end. At least for now it does. But I know there is an end and all I need to do is keep making baby steps and celebrating each like it was the end of the journey. Why? Because it is the beginning of the end of the journey and that’s worth the celebration.

~Michelle